Flying the P-flag in Claremont again
by John Pixley
I like to say that Karen Vance is even more gay than I am.
I thought I was pretty much out of the closet, way out so to speak. I proudly strut my rainbow colors whenever I go out. I even wrote a column years ago saying I am gay.
But Karen has marched in more gay pride parades than I have attended as a spectator. I have never manned a booth at a gay pride festival, but she has manned several, including on one of the hottest days of the year. She has spoken on numerous panels regarding awareness and education of LGBT issues, whereas I can’t say I’ve participated on any.
Karen was instrumental in organizing the same-sex marriage contingent, involving many faith communities, in Claremont’s Fourth of July parade for some years until such marriages were declared legal. And she got me to join in, riding down the parade route (it’s surprisingly long) with a sign attached to my wheelchair, instead of just cheering from the side.
I have known Karen since long before she and her husband moved to the Hillcrest retirement community two years ago after living in Claremont for years. They actually moved there before retiring. Karen has just recently retired from teaching kindergarten in Pomona, but her husband still works in the human resources office at U.C. Riverside and likes to joke that he’s old at work (at least before he began working from home during the pandemic) and a youngster where he lives.
That’s right. Karen is happily married, has been for 40 years. But she and her husband have a son who is now living and working in Northern California and who is transgender and also gay. They came to be very supportive in his transitioning and coming-out process and are delighted that he has a partner who he lives with. Out of this experience, involving much patience, empathy and learning, Karen became quite an active and strong, even fierce, ally of and advocate for those in the transgender community.
Not only has Karen marched in parades, manned booths, spoken on panels and organized events. She has coordinated and prepared holiday meals for the transgender community. She has been involved in planning services commemorating those who were killed because they were transgender. She has served as an advocate for transgender persons, including the undocumented, in prison. In all of this, her husband has been quite supportive (and has done lots of leg work).
Like I say, Karen is more gay than I am, leaving me in the dust, at least in terms of being an activist.
Now Karen has been involved in setting up a P-FLAG chapter here in Claremont. That is, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. And actually, this won’t be the first Claremont P-FLAG chapter.
P-FLAG has been around for years, started by parents who wanted to be supportive of their gay and lesbian children and of parents who were trying to come to terms with having gay and lesbian children and how to be supportive of them. This was needed, difficult work in a society that wasn’t very supportive of gay men and lesbians and families with gay and lesbian members. Over time, friends and allies became involved, and so did lesbians and gay men themselves, as well as bisexual and, more recently, transgender and non-binary (they/them) people. In
P-FLAG, they all found a place where they could find support and be of support and where, supporting one another, they could speak out and educate and advocate (marching in gay pride parades, speaking on panels at schools, churches, etc.).
This all also happened here, with a Claremont
P-FLAG chapter. It met once a month, on Tuesday evening, in the round building behind the Claremont Methodist Church. As I understood it, the chapter was started by a woman—I think her name was Lois Seifort —who attended the church. For some years after her death, the chapter continued to be active, even helping to organize a gay pride festival, which went on each October for several years in Claremont (remarkably, the first was in Memorial Park!).
I know all this, because I attended the chapter meetings, starting in 1999 or 2000, shortly after I came out. I was very happy to discover this group here, especially as the nearest other chapter was in Pasadena. (It was not unlike being able to see independent and foreign films here at the Laemmle Cinema here instead of having to drive to Pasadena to see them.)
I was indeed very happy to learn about this group meeting here, where I was safely able to be who I was discovering myself to be. I was glad to have this place, where I felt supported and encouraged in this discovering who I now was. Through going to these meetings, I felt encouraged to come out to more and more people, including my siblings and eventually my parents. And it was great that I could be dropped off at the church and then head home in my wheelchair (this was long before my spinal surgery, back when I was able to be more independent and go further distances in my chair).
This encouragement came from seeing parents talk about how they loved and supported their gay and lesbian children. I felt encouraged when I heard some of these parents talk about speaking out and advocating for their gay and lesbian children. I was moved and encouraged when I saw these parents counsel other parents who came distraught to learn they had a gay or lesbian child (often, it was only one parent, with the other not knowing about or refusing to accept their child’s homosexuality).
The encouragement also came when I heard gay men and lesbians talk about their experiences. Sometimes, these were special speakers (one whom I particularly remember after all these years was a young man who went to Christian colleges and universities, offering support to gay students); most often, they, like me, were just taking part and finding support in the meetings.
I was perhaps most encouraged and moved – and envious!—when I saw very young gay folks —much younger than I was, including high school students, come to the meetings, often without one or both parents knowing. There were two boys in high school who often came, and they were clearly very much in love, and I will never forget the evening when a 13-year-old boy, in junior high school, came, clearly excited to be there, to be gay and about coming out to his mother.
But, even as I was excited and encouraged with all this, I saw that there were fewer and fewer people coming to meetings. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised when I went to one meeting, and only my friend Marty Carson, who always attended, was there, and she told me there would be no more meetings. But as I headed home, I was sad that I would no longer have this local, comfortable place for support.
I told myself later that groups like P-FLAG weren’t so needed when LGBTQ folks are more and more accepted, when same-sex marriage is the law of the land. But are things really okay when transgender women are regularly murdered and when non-binary children say they don’t feel they can be themselves or feel safe at home? And, particularly at this time of isolation and division, any community and support are welcome.
Therefore, I was happy when Karen told me about the new Claremont P-FLAG chapter and its first virtual meeting on January 19 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. For further information and registration, visit www.pflagclsremont.com.