By Richard L. Gaw
As the Supreme Court decision declaring a key section of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional on equal protection grounds became final on June 26, gay and lesbian couples in 12 states and the District of Columbia rejoiced. In one bold stroke, they were now about to gain the federal benefits that DOMA had denied them.
The highest court in the country had just given a major blessing to a movement that has rapidly gained momentum over the last ten years, and in the states where gay marriage is recognized, gay men and women went on record as saying that the landmark decision was just the tip of the equality iceberg. In nearby West Chester, in a state that has not yet given gay and lesbian couples the legal right to vote, Joe and Lynda Carcione celebrated the fact that their son Jason, who lives in Maryland with his husband Mark, would now be eligible for his husband's benefits.
To them, it was a major hurdle for equality, but closer to home, where they are the guiding forces behind the local chapter of Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians & Gays (PFLAG), they also knew that for many gay people and their loved ones, the struggle for acceptance is just beginning. For families from Oxford to Downingtown, a PFLAG meeting in West Chester is often the first step to another life.
"While or group is supportive in nature, there's some beauty in not being alone," said Joe, who began the Chester County chapter of PFLAG with Lynda in 2004. "Our parents come in and are going through that devastate time in their lives. You realize that you're not the only one dealing with this."
The Carcione's decision to begin a local PFLAG chapter -- one of 15 in Pennsylvania -- came out of the tremendous life change they had made in adjusting to their son Jason's homosexuality. In 1994, Jason was in the 10thgrade at Henderson High School. Normally a very engaging boy, his parents had noticed that their son had become withdrawn and his normally busy social life had dwindled away. He had begun to open up as a result of seeing a therapist, and one night, when Joe was in the bathroom brushing his teeth, Jason walked into the bathroom with him. He faced his father.
"He looked at me, and said, 'This is so hard for me,' Joe said. "Then he told me, 'Dad, I'm gay.'"
The Carciones spent the remainder of the evening talking on the floor of Joe and Lynda's bedroom. They cried. They shared. Joe and Lynda's first feeling was one of sadness, "because in a way, the dream you have imagined for your child has died," Lynda said. "There may not be grandchildren and a little house with a picket fence around it. I finally realized that I was grieving the loss of what I thought my child was going to be. I thought he'd be married and have 2.5 kids. I thought it may have just been a phase."
They told their oldest son Ryan, and then immediate members of their family. In time, Joe became the unofficial spokesman for gay rights at the Fortune 500 company he worked for. What was going on for the Carciones, they said, is the exact mirror image of what millions of families go through in the course of what they both call "a journey." Often, after a gay person has come out of the closet, he or she has moved on with his or her life, but for loved ones, the transition is often a much slower and painful one.
"By the time he came out to us, he'd dealt with all of the issues of guilt and fear and shame," Lynda said. "Gay people know who they've been for a long time, so when they tell you as their parents or family members, it's like you're catching up to them. We were the ones in the closet now. It was our turn now."
With chapters across the United States, the mission of PFLAG is to promote the health and well-being of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons, their families and friends through support, education, and advocacy. What drove the Carciones to become activists for gay rights and begin the local PFLAG chapter was inspired not only by Jason, but by what they were learning about themselves.
"One of the things that drove me to become an activist was that Jason knew he was gay from the time he was 13, and yet, I then realized that I had said things that had hurt my child," Joe said. "I'd make off-handed comments about gay people, and I was ashamed of myself. I needed to look at myself more closely. I learned that gay youth have some of the highest suicide rates of any demographic. It crystallized for me that I want for Jason the benefits that everyone else has, and that I would walk away from any relationship who did not embrace the need for this equality.”
As opposed to the in-your-face militancy of some gay causes, the Carciones refer to their role as PFLAG coordinators as cerebral activists. Throughout the year, they speak at panel discussions for safe schools, and at anti-bullying workshops.
"PFLAG is a grass roots organization, who approaches it from the standpoint of support and education," Joe said. "We do the little things, one person at a time. We put faces on the LGBT community. And it's not just Jason Carcione. It's Joe and Lynda Carcione."
The Carciones are beginning to see the societal shift in support of gay rights, not only in the media, but at PFLAG meetings. To illustrate, they invited the winner of a speech contest at Henderson High School to deliver his address to a PFLAG meeting of parents. The student, a straight gay male, duplicated the now famous speech given by 19-year-old Iowa resident Zach Wahls to the Iowa House of Representatives in 2011, professing the gratitude he has for his two lesbian parents.
"We thought that parents would enjoy seeing a young straight male speak on the topic," Lynda said. "The young male told us that he was dumbfounded that parents were still struggling, given that he doesn't see much homophobia among his age group."
Currently, 12 states in the nation have passed gay marriage laws. The elephant in the room, however, is that Pennsylvania is one of the remaining 38 states that has not passed such laws. Although Joe predicts that all states will pass legislation permitting gay marriage within five years, a recent incident in state legislature gave every indication that marriage equality in Pennsylvania is a long way from taking hold. Brian Sims, the first and only openly-gay member of the state legislature, has been a staunch advocate for gay rights, and recently declared that he plans to introduce a House bill to legalize same-sex marriage in the the state. Soon after the Supreme Court decision to render DOMA unconstitutional, Sims took the floor to applaud the decision, but was prevented from continuing by Rep. Daryl Metcalfe. In comments made to WHYY, Metcalfe said that Sims' comments "were just an open rebellion against God's law."
As the state battle for marriage equality rages on in Harrisburg, Washington, D.C. and across the nation, the Carciones continue the quiet act of support. In recent years, several families from southern Chester County have attended PFLAG meetings, including those from West Grove, Avondale and Kennett Square. From the chapter's beginning in 2004 to now, the numbers of families attending local PFLAG meetings has slightly decreased, giving rise to the notion that society is becoming more accepting of gays, lesbians and transgendered people.
Given the small strides made toward acceptance, could they ever see a day when grass roots organizations like PFLAG are no longer needed? "I think it will happen," Lynda said. "People are slowly becoming more accepting, and many who do not think there's much of an issue. I really feel it's a generation away. It's the kids of the Generation X. They are the ones who are changing and making it a different world. And to us, that's a wonderful place to be."
For more information about Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians & Gays, visit the national website at www.pflag.org. To find out more about the Chester County chapter of PFLAG, call 484-354-2448.