Wisconsin’s PFLAG chapters thrive amid adversity

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The Madison chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays was told that its members could march in a May 14 parade in Stoughton – but only if they removed the words “lesbian” and “gay” from their banner.

Karen Baker, PFLAG Madison chapter president, said the board organizing Stoughton’s annual Syttende Mai parade was concerned there would be something inappropriate or outwardly political on the group’s float that might cause kids along the parade route to ask questions. So members of the PFLAG chapter used a bright rainbow patch to cover the words “lesbian” and “gay” on the sign they carried.

But the Madison PFLAG group was able to turn the situation into a positive experience. The group invited a newly-formed Gay Straight Alliance from Stoughton High School to march with them, and the negotiating that had to be done ahead of the parade was a good lesson for the youth. It introduced them to the art of working with people who can’t deal with their openness.

Despite – or perhaps even as a result of – such challenges, the PFLAG organization is growing in the state. Wisconsin is home to 14 chapters, including three that have formed since 2008.

“Things definitely are more difficult in a smaller town,” says Joanne Vogt, founder and president of the three-year-old PFLAG Sauk Chapter. “I know people with a family member who is gay and they never, ever talk about it.”

Vogt went on a Pride march about 10 years ago and met other involved parents. She also talked to her gay son about what she could do to improve the situation for young people in her town facing the kind of harassment he endured in high school.

News about the Sauk chapter is getting around. Recently, a new family showed up at some meetings, including a mother, grandmother and the grandmother’s sister.  In all, they have five gay children.

“It was so wonderful to have them come,” Vogt says. “They told us their stories, they cried, we cried with them.”

“By far, the biggest thing we see with the people who come to the PFLAG meetings, and the people who just show up for the first time, looking for answers, is their need for someplace to turn,” says Joe Wiedenmeier, president of the PFLAG chapter in Oshkosh. “They have a child, somebody close in the family, who has just come out to them, and they’re looking for support and information.”

Wiedenmeier got the Oshkosh PFLAG chapter going just over three years ago, after working through an existing group at his church called SOFA – Students of Oshkosh For Acceptance. Several members of that group realized they not only needed to provide places for the kids to go, but also that there were plenty of parents who needed support, too.

Wiedenmeier has worked to connect with other organizations in the Fox Valley, including suicide prevention and counseling groups, other youth groups, the GSAs and larger PFLAG chapters.

“We try to be a resource for someone who walks through the door,” he says.  Whether it’s a question of a family accepting their son or daughter’s sexuality or dealing with bullying at school, the PFLAG group knows how important it is to address whatever issues are brought to them.”

Wiedenmeier’s son, age 29, who is out and living in San Francisco, started a GSA at North High School in Oshkosh. It was one of the first GSAs in northeastern Wisconsin. Once he left, though, the GSA group died out, Wiedenmeier says.

“That was part of the impetus for SOFA, which got us into PFLAG. In the last year, both high schools in Oshkosh now have GSAs back in them,” he says. “The biggest thing we’ve done is just to get the word out about PFLAG. We’ve done things with the university and worked to re-form the PFLAG chapter in Appleton.”

Laura Goetz was instrumental in getting the PFLAG chapter started where she lives, in Stevens Point.

“I was involved with PFLAG a little bit several years ago, when we lived in Iowa,” she says. After the family moved to Wisconsin, “I just took it for granted there were things like that in other cities, but in Stevens Point, there was no organized advocacy group.”

Goetz is busy with outreach, including showings of the documentary “Out in the Silence.” She hopes an upcoming screening at the library in Wausau will encourage people in that area to organize.

The Stevens Point chapter, like the one in Sauk County, is a small group, with 5-10 members attending every month.

“Sometimes there are more,” Goetz says, “but then we have people who come in and out, new people who need support for a meeting or two, then come back for a while.” She says UW-Stevens Point GSA and the local GSA are fairly active, with 70-100 people attending a recent movie screening.

Goetz and her husband have gone beyond the PFLAG chapter to work directly in local schools, doing “safe school” training.

“We work with staff on harassment – that’s where my passion lies right now,” she says. “Schools are a firestorm, they can be such horrendous places. It doesn’t have to be like that.”

Goetz went into the Wisconsin Rapids school district this past spring and conducted two in-service trainings for staff, addressing harassment and LGBT issues.

Goetz takes a fairly broad perspective of the challenges faced by PFLAG chapters. Although aware of the Stoughton incident and the situation in West Bend – where students recently won the right to have their GSA group be an official school club after filing a lawsuit in federal court – she remains optimistic.

“I think for me it’s just really being conscious about equality,” she says. “For me, I think this is definitely our place in time, that we can make a statement for equality, similar to the equal rights movement of the ’60s and ’70s. This is our time.”

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