A new organization — PFLAG Niceville — made up of a cross-section of people is offering support to the area’s LGBTQ communities in Okaloosa and Walton Counties.
PFLAG’s inaugural meeting was held on Sunday, drawing more than 30 people from the two-county area.
“As I was sitting in that meeting and listening to people share their stories, I just felt such a power and such a love in that room; almost like this was really needful,” said David Simmons, a professor of Humanities and Film Studies at Northwest Florida State College, and PFLAG President.
“And the people that were there, some of them that were a little older said ‘boy, I wish we’d had something like this when I was growing up,’” Simmons said. “’We didn’t have any support system, and I sure wish there had been a place where I could go and feel that I was loved for who I am.’”
Future meetings are set for 6 p.m. on the second Sunday of each month at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Valparaiso. PFLAG, says Simmons, is the product of about six months of work by a 12-member team.
“Health care professionals, educators, clergy, parents of LGBTQ youth,” said Simmons. “We worked on planning and then we contacted the national PFLAG organization. Then we had to go through the State of Florida and the IRS to be able to set up this non-profit organization. But it was worth it.”
The original PFLAG — Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays — has its genesis in an early gay pride march in 1972, when Jeanne Manford marched in support of her gay son, who had been arrested while distributing flyers.
“And while she was doing that, some LGBTQ people ran up to her and asked her if she could start a support group because she was a supportive parent, and a lot of people in the parade didn’t have supportive parents,” said Simmons. “And then on March 11, 1973 they had the very first PFLAG meeting.”
“At the first meeting Jeanne held in 1973, about 20 people showed up,” said President Barack Obama, speaking to PFLAG in 2013. “But slowly, interest grew. Morty’s life was tragically cut short by AIDS, but the cause endured.”
Obama awarded Jeanne Manford the Presidential Citizens Medal in 2012, shortly before her death in early 2013.
“That’s the story of America; of ordinary citizens organizing, agitating and advocating for change,” said the President. “Of hope stronger than hate; of love more powerful of any insult or injury. Of Americans fighting to build for themselves and their families a nation in which no one is denied their basic rights.”
Although the Panhandle is a socially conservative part of the country, David Simmons says so far, there’s been nothing but positives since PFLAG Niceville kicked off — again pointing to Sunday’s meeting.
“To see the diversity of people that came; we had all ages – parents, LGBTQ people themselves,” said Simmons. “Everyone was positive, and from the rest of the community I haven’t heard any negative responses at all.”
Along with those identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning across the country, Simmons feels that there’s also a need for such support in the Florida panhandle, especially for youth. The numbers, he says, bear that out.
“Nationally we know that LGBTQ youth are eight times more likely to commit suicide, and 120 percent more likely to be homeless than their peers,” said Simmons. “And I think that’s especially true in areas where there’s a lot of homophobia.”
When it comes to providing services, PFLAG’s approach is threefold: two of them are peer-to-peer support through monthly meetings, and education.
“We might have a night where we talk about gender or sexuality; or if there are parents who have questions,” Simmons says. “And then the third is advocacy – trying to help make our local community a safer and more loving place for LGBTQ people.”
And, says PFLAG President David Simmons, there are ways that residents in Okaloosa and Walton Counties can pitch in and help out, beginning with standing up for the local LGBTQ community.
“Trying to reach out with love; trying to show compassion, trying to look for ways that you yourself can make the difference,” said Simmons. “I was just one person here in Niceville, and a few people got together and we thought, ‘what can we do to reach out?’ And then we started this organization.”