“I decided to build my family for those who are in my heart and not just in my blood.”
During these trying times, it is our pleasure to provide everyone with positive stories and role models to relax those of us that are experiencing less than happy times. In an attempt to provide such relief, the Untold Story interviewed William Placek, who can be considered a positive role model whether or not you identify with the LGBTQ+ community. Mr. Placek plays many roles within his daily life, including husband, father, health care worker, and president of the Jersey Shore Chapter of PFLAG. Many may not have heard that acronym before, but PFLAG stands for Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. Their aim as an organization is “support, education, and advocacy” for juveniles who identify within the LGBTQ+ community and their parents to foster an environment of pride and gratitude for one’s sexual orientation.
However, like many who have come out as LGBTQ+, Placek did not always accept himself the way he does now. In his interview with us, Placek opened up about his past struggles with his identity. When coming out to his parents as a teenager, they disowned him and refused him a place in their home. “I come from a family who disowned me for being gay,” Placek said, “so I had a lot of struggles when I was a teenager to becoming accepting of myself.” After not speaking to his parents for eighteen years, Placek decided to sit down and have a conversation with them. Speaking on this conversation, Placek said, “I don’t need them to accept me, I need them to treat me with dignity and respect, and that is what I asked for.” After his parents said they refuse to allow him into their home during this sit-down conversation, Abby, the former president of PFLAG Jersey Shore, interrupted them to introduce herself, put her card on their table, and explained the mission of PFLAG. “After that meeting, I called her and thanked her for coming over to the table.” That interaction was Placek’s introduction to PFLAG, a random conversation interruption in an incredibly vulnerable moment. Placek got involved with PFLAG Jersey Shore and, after Abby stepped down, Placek became president.
Placek’s full-time job at present, working with those with severe physical, intellectual, and developmental disabilities, emphasizes what serves to be the most important lesson from the interview held: the horrible power of “otherness,” or social isolation. Speaking on his work with the disabled, Placek said, “We work on facilitating relationships, helping people understand that they’re not alone, and we’re doing the same thing when we’re working with the queer community. A lot of times, people are isolated; there’s a lot of social isolation in the queer community”. It’s important to note as well that Placek truly practices what he preaches. One of the most powerful parts of the interview was when he spoke about taking his children to Pride, saying, “it’s essential for my sons to see that there are all different types of people in the world and that we respect and love them.” He goes on to say, about taking his children to his work, “I bring my children there when we have parties at work because I want them to learn that the people I serve are just like them.” Placek recognizes the isolation of “otherness,” and works towards helping all feel included, one community member at a time.
Placek also recognizes the importance of multilateral inclusivity work. The PFLAG national organization is working on the federal level. Placek, however, works on the local level and emphasizes the importance of the local community. “We really focus on what are the needs of the community, and then what can we do to help that need,” Placek said. On recognizing the importance of queer communities, Placek said: “I think a unique part of the queer community is that no matter where I am if I find out someone else is gay, there is an immediate connection. There is a level of support that you automatically have to somebody just because you share that unique piece of your lives”. In a world that seems to be increasingly nationalized, increasingly focused on the federal level, and increasingly focused on macro data, Placek emphasized the role of local community and connection.
Finally, as someone who experienced what often becomes the isolation of the coming out process, and as someone who works with many of those coming out or coping with a family member’s coming out, Placek had sound advice for queer teenagers. “The younger generation is just learning about history and my generation. You guys have such powerful voices, you have this power behind you, that I don’t think other generations have, and I think you are willing to stand up and speak out”. Overall, Placek emphasizes the role of community and the importance of total inclusion. This concept not only applies to queer, straight, trans, and cis, but also the micro folds within the community. Speaking on the younger generation of queer activists, Placek says, “We can work together, and through this work, we are passing the baton to you guys as well.” We all hope to see this passing of the baton, this continuation of community, as successful.
For more information about William Placek and his work at PFLAG Jersey Shore, we have posted a transcript of the interview. Feel free to read it.