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The Times, They Have Changed

Published Mar 1, 2010

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Twenty or twenty-five years ago, the typical PFLAG parent walked in the door (in the physical door, that is), having just received shocking and grievous news.  Often a parent learned that his or her (usually adult) child was both gay, and terminally ill.  The parent had to cope with both pieces of news at once, and even had difficulty deciding which was worse.  As one old PFLAG hand shared with me, it generally took about a year for a parent to begin to come to terms.  Once the anti-depressants kicked in, things went a little better, but not much.

Having a (physical) shoulder to cry on was imperative.  PFLAG provided a place where people would pour out their hearts, cry, tell their secrets, and listen and figure out how to cope, together.  Some people, even at the time, felt that the support group model didn't necessarily work for everyone - for instance, some folks of color, or men - but, by and large, it was the best PFLAG, and many other groups, could offer.  And it worked, on the whole, well.  PFLAG, and other face-to-face support groups, grew and flourished.  The black belt PFLAG-ers were there to lend their wisdom, their insights, their experience, and their shoulders.

Today the contrast could not be plainer.  Many support communities exist only on the internet, via Yahoo or Facebook groups, elists, bulletin boards, forums, and other places where people can post and offer feedback.  People are far-flung and often have problems that would be unique in their physical town or city; the internet is vital to them and gives them a meeting place that never existed before.  With our local chapter, we communicate only by way of emails; good-bye to the mimeographed newsletters of days gone by.  Although I occasionally receive telephone calls for support, the vast majority of initial inquiries I receive for PFLAG are via email.  I frequently will maintain an email correspondence for months, even years in a few cases, with someone I've never even met. 

It seems curious to me, being caught with one foot in the computer age and the other in that mimeograph, that a person would find his or her need for support to be fulfilled primarily, or even exclusively, online.  Yet the writing is on the wall (or the monitor).  Group participation of all kinds is diminishing, as people find it easier, safer, and somehow cleaner to reach out from the comfort of their homes, by way of their screens and keyboards.

Is it possible that we could move to a model of solely online support?  Could we dispense with the church basement, the coffee, the irritating travel on a work or school night, the chance that we might encounter somebody who is really, really different from us and who might disagree with us, or make us uncomfortable in some way?  Who wants to drag themselves out there on a Tuesday night, when it's so much easier to sit there in your p.j's?

I guess the answer to this will depend on how you feel about the likelihood that internet "support" will be, in fact, supportive.  Online anonymity is wonderful, except that it isn't a great idea to trust people you know only from there (or at least this is what we keep reminding our children!).  Everyone does not necessarily have the ability to accurately convey thoughts and feelings via the written word.  Careful, critical reading (so as to give constructive, caring feedback) is another trait that not everyone shares.  Frequently, I find myself  misunderstood when I communicate online; it's especially disappointing when I know there's little chance I'll ever meet the person in the flesh to clear up any misconceptions or to re-introduce myself.

I also wonder how many people really log off their email at night and give out that little mental sigh, the "aaah" that says, now I've been understood, now I've been with others of my kind.  Although the internet is spectacular at delivering information, it's still awfully weak when it comes to feelings, emotions, all that tough stuff that newbie parents grapple with so desperately at times.  It's difficult and darn awkward to share a laugh with a bunch of disembodied keyboards - while we do it effortlessly at our meetings.  (I hope it's not surprising that we do laugh, a lot, at our chapter meetings.)  And the day I meet a computer that can hug as well as a PFLAG mom, well...

Will F2F groups - like PFLAG, like the groups associated with the Pride Center - eventually dwindle and fade away, along with those of us who remember using slide rules?  While the internet and the ability to communicate efficiently and anonymously are important and necessary, I just don't see us, as human beings, having evolved past the need for human contact, warmth and camaraderie.  What makes it all real for me are my encounters with the moms, dads, brothers, sisters, and loved ones gay AND straight who walk in the door on Tuesday nights.  And just like the Velveteen Rabbit found out... it's better to be real.

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Jane Ferrall lives in Guilford, CT, where she and her husband of 20 years, Bill, enjoy their family of four children. Among her other interests and volunteer work, Jane was a founding member and is the moderator of the Greater New Haven/Shoreline chapter of PFLAG.

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