Olivia: It would be great if you could just tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do as president of the Jersey Shore Chapter of PFLAG?
William: So, um, I’m a gay male, and I’m married and I have two children an 8 year old, almost 8 in three days, and a 5 year old. And, so, I’m from Jersey for most of my life, I did live out of the state for a few jaunts here and there, but I’m from Jersey and I come from a family who disowned me for being gay, and, so I really had a lot of struggles when I was a teenager to becoming accepting of myself and then the loss of my family, but, at some point I kind of just, my perspective changed and I decided to build my family for those who are in my heart and not just in my blood and from there on I really felt, I’ve always had this passion to want to help others so, um, my father is a fundamental baptist pastor, so I grew up in a church where we did a lot of things for others and it was kind of like my passion as a young kid to want to help others and so I have, the way I came to PFLAG is a very unique story. So I hadn’t spoken, like, I still see my parents at, you know, family functions for my, you know, nieces or nephews, a wedding, a birthday, what have you, and, so once we adopted our first child, I decided that I needed to speak to my parents because I needed to learn, like, what am I going to teach my child about these people? Because they are going to see them. They are going to see their cousins calling them nana and pop, and so I was really trying to find a way to kind of balance that. So I sat down, I got my parents to meet me at a restaurant in Howell, at a diner, and we sat down for the first time in 20 plus years to talk and we start talking about, you know, what are their feelings now after all these years and things like that and my question to was are you, like 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, and they said, well, my mother said “well we do treat you that way”. And my father said, no I know what he wants to know, he wants to know if he is welcome in our home. And I said are we welcome in your home and he said “no”. And, uh, my mother said you know we have been praying for years that god would give us a sign that this would be ok. And, all of a sudden, a woman came over to the table, and she said “I’m sorry for butting in, but I can’t help but have overheard what you are talking about. And, she said, “Have you ever heard of PFLAG?” And my parents never had, but I did, and I had always, you know, going to gay pride you see PFLAG marching and you see all these parents marching that are proud of their children I always felt like um, so torn that I would have wanted that, and I didn’t have it, and she said that her name was Abby and she was the president of PFLAG Jersey Shore. And, so, she spoke briefly and left her card and then she left. And, so, after that meeting I called her and I thanked her for coming over to the table and she said about what PFLAG was for and I’d always known about it, But I really thought it was just for parents so she asked us to come to one of the meetings, and I did, and it wasn’t just for parents its for people that are LGBTQ, it’s for trans individuals, all different people, and, so I started going and my son was about six months old at the time, and I’ve been there ever since, so almost eight years, and I uh, I joined the board in doing community outreach, fundraising, and later when Abby decided to step down as the president I was voted into my current position.
Olivia: And so um, what do you like, as far as your day-to-day, like what do you do as president of the Jersey shore chapter of PFLAG?
William: So, our core mission is support, education, and advocacy, right, so our main stay is to really support people. And we do that through a couple of ways. One is we host support meetings on a monthly basis. So, we have three meetings on a monthly basis, we have one in Toms River that is for, it’s a general meeting, it’s for all people. We also host simultaneously a youth meeting for teens, and then we host another meeting in Shrewsberry for people specifically trans-gender and trans-families, and, um, so we host those support meetings, that’s our mainstay, We have a hotline that people can call so we receive phone calls day and night and those calls can range from, I’ve gotten calls from a teenager who said that they are going to come out to their parents, but they believe they are going to get kicked out, and they have no place to live. I’ve gotten calls from parents who have said my child just told me they were trans and I don’t know what to do. And we get those phone calls. We also have a support email, so I get a lot of emails from people, I got one today from a woman who said that her child is trans and she wants to support her child, but she doesn’t know how to do that, and is looking for help, and so we do that, and then on the education piece, we go out and we meet with organizations and we talk to them about inclusive practices, so we’ve done trainings for hospitals, we’ve done trainings for New Jersey Natural Gas employees, we recently did ten trainings for all the ocean county social services employees, we’re working to do one for ocean county family planning, we’re connected with the Ocean Health Initiative who has ten different medical facilities across the counties, so we do that as well on the education piece. And then on the advocacy piece, we really get involved with our local, state, and federal level, on advocating for legislation that is gonna benefit the community. On a day to day basis, it’s emails, it’s phone calls, it’s web meetings, I have ten people on the board, we meet every month so we do that as well and we have a strategic plan on how we can increase our support to the community and how we’re gonna do that, so we really focus on what are the needs of the community, and then what can we do to help that need.
Henry: So, there are obviously 350 chapters of PFLAG across the world, so, how does your individual chapter communicate and work with this multilateral organization?
William: So, our headquarters is in Washington, and they are really, they do two things: one is that they support the network, and so they also then are advocating at the federal level for legislation as well. We communicate with them through a variety of means. We have a regional coordinator, she lives in Pennsylvania, and she covers New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. We have a monthly meeting, mine’s tonight at 7:30, and so we meet on a monthly basis with all the chapters in that region, we discuss what the chapters are doing, what we’re seeing coming to our meetings, and then we can use that information to revise our approach. So we do it through that, we also get information from the national organization on a weekly basis through our emails, and the national organization also hosts a bi-annual convention, so we went this past year to Kansas City, and so we went out there for four days for a convention.
Olivia: Another really quick question, I know there are 2 other chapters in New Jersey?
William: Yes, there’s three. One just opened up.
Olivia: Yea, so do you ever host any events or do anything with the other New Jersey chapters, or do you mostly stick to your own area?
William: So, when I joined PFLAG they were very much kind of isolated in their own chapters, and that’s something that I’ve been working to try to change, because I believe that collaboration is the key to be able to approach and support a community, right? I can’t meet everybody’s needs, but if I collaborate with other people who are, then we can kind of bounce off each other. So we are working towards getting a way to meet with the New Jersey chapters, so PFLAG Jersey Shore is the largest of the New Jersey Chapters, and we’re one of the largest chapters in the network, we do a lot of different things, so there are some chapters that are very small, and so my hope is to be able to get to a point where we can have a meeting either in-person or online frequently with the New Jersey chapters. Right now my connection with them is really on that monthly call.
Henry: So then moving from the national, to the state-wide, to eventually just your chapter, you obviously have a very unique take on what the LGBTQ+ community looks like in New Jersey, as you’re president of the Jersey Shore chapter, so how have you found that New Jersey or the Jersey Shore specifically has impacted your work, and what are the similarities or the differentiating factors between New Jersey’s LGBTQ+ community and out-of-state communities?
William: I think that one of the things is that New Jersey is very diverse, has a very diverse community, right? So, there’s a lot of intersectionality in the issues that people are dealing with. That’s something that we may deal with a lot more than a chapter that’s out in North Dakota. That’s something that we also look at again when we’re dealing with people that come to us, it’s really important for us to have those resources and connections to other community services. If I have somebody who comes to my chapter who is gay but who’s also Muslim, right and so I might need to see how I can connect them with somebody in the Muslim faith because that is something that’s going to drive how their approach is to sexuality, or to their gender identity, so I think that that’s very unique here in New Jersey. The other thing is that we have a lot of other providers in the state of different services, so that’s something else that you might not see in more rural areas, and that’s something that I’m seeing more that we’re connecting with other providers, to try to see how we can collaborate as well. You know that the state recently passed a law that requires LGBTQ+ curriculum in the school system, so that’s something that I went and met with the New Jersey Board of Education, they gathered all different providers of services to the queer community, and we met and came up with a whole list of different issues that may come out of this, how we’re going to approach those issues, how we’re going to support the students and their families, so there’s all those pieces that you see here in New Jersey are very unique in comparison to other states or places that don’t have those.
Olivia: Speaking on the new law, what is one thing that you would like to see in an LGBTQ+ curriculum, or one piece of history, one event, something like that.
William: I think that, learning a lot about Stonewall I think is really important, understanding how that was a pivotal moment in queer history where people decided we would no longer be stuck in the shadows. I think that’s really important for young people to learn because, when I was young and I knew that I was different, I really felt alone, like I was the only person that felt this way. I think it’s really important for younger children to hear these stories and to learn about it just like they learn about Martin Luther King and all those other really important pieces of our history, because it teaches children that they’re not alone, right? It teaches them that they’re not the only person like this and so there inside feeling like this, and then they go to school and hear this, I think that would be really helpful. I would like to see to where it’s just another piece of schoolwork, and it’s not this big thing out there that everybody’s focusing on, because when you place such intense views on it, or there’s such focus, it can almost make someone go “wow, this is something different”, when really it's not different, it's just another piece of who we are as humans.
Olivia: So on your website your mission statement includes “the fostering of safe places for LGBTQ+ teens and their families”, but this also includes events like the gay mens choir that you guys have. It’s just more of a lighthearted question but what is your favorite of these events and why?
William: So my favorite event is Pride in June. Pride has evolved over the years, too. I remember when I first went to pride, and to where it is now, there is such a warm feeling when you’re walking down, cause we march in the parade every year, and it’s just amazing to be able to walk down the street and have people cheering and the crowds are massive, and it’s just a great day of excitement and fun and showing that we’re here, you know? That this community, we are a family. A lot of times you hear people use that term as a bit of a joke like “oh they’re family” you know, but the reality is we are a family and we support one another, and I think it’s really unique to the queer community because, no matter where I am, if I find out someone else is gay, there is a connection there and there is a level of support that you automatically have to somebody just because you share that unique piece of your lives. Pride is just a beautiful day, I also take my children and I’ve had my children march with us every year in Pride. I think it’s really important for my sons to see that there are all different types of people in the world and that we respect and love them and so they march with me every year, they go to Pride, they look forward to it, they call it the “Rainbow Parade”, and I think that it’s important. It’s the same reason why, when I host events at my full-time job, I work with people with severe intellectual and developmental disability, people who cannot talk, people in wheelchairs, people with behaviors, medical issues, I bring my children there and we have parties at work as well because I want them to learn that they’re people, just like them.
Henry: And which Pride is it that you go to, is it Jersey Pride in Asbury or is there…
William: Yup. So we march in Jersey Pride in Asbury, but I do also personally go to New York with my family as well.
Olivia: So you were just talking about your full time job caring for people with physical and mental disabilities, and I also did a little bit of reading about you and how you have constantly been involved in nonprofit work and things like that so how does your work with those who are physically or mentally disabled transition to working with those who are struggling with being LGBTQ+ simply because it’s a different sort of, it’s not the same but it’s still a sort of barring from society that sort of puts a wall between you and the rest of the world and it’s a similar feeling so I was wondering how you bring elements of your full-time job to being president of PFLAG.
William: Well first of all they’re both vulnerable populations, so in the grand scheme of things they’re both minorities and our society has historically treated minorities very poorly and so that’s the first thing that they’re both a vulnerable population. Secondly, they’re both people in need. That’s what I feel is my life’s mission, is to help the people in need. I’ve worked in the field of intellectual developmental disabilities for nineteen years now, so I operate a school for adults with intellectual developmental disabilities, there’s seventy individuals who attend there every day. I have people who cannot speak, so our team gets together to find ways to help the person communicate their wants and their needs. 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. I think that that’s where there’s a bridge between the two and, ultimately its really about helping others and kind of facilitating what needs to be done to meet their needs whether its a person with intellectual developmental disabilities who lives with their elderly parent and their parent gets to a point where they can’t care for them anymore so we work to try to find them a group home or a place that they can live. If families need equipment or anything like that to support their child, then that’s what we kind of do there as well, the same thing with what I’m doing in PFLAG: I’m trying to help people and connect them with the resources they need to live more fulfilling lives, as well as meeting their basic needs, so working with people who may be homeless facilitating their connections with a provider who has places for people to live or things like that.
Henry: You touched on this briefly, but how have you found the intersectionality between the two communities? I know you obviously cannot have a first hand account, but, from your work, how is there intersectionality between the handicap community or the handicapable community and the LGBTQ+ community and when these two identities connect what kind of identity does that create?
William: That’s a very interesting question, one of the things that I have always found really challenging or difficult to understand is in the community where people with intellectual and developmental disabilities very often their sexuality is ignored, right? It’s a lot of people when they have someone who has a severe developmental disability, they don’t look at them as somebody who has sexual feelings, but they are still human. They still have a desire to want to connect with others. They still have sexual desires. That is a basic human drive, and I have worked with individuals who through helping them communicate or learning about them have identified that they have an attraction to individuals of the save sex. So, helping them understand that this is out there, I connected with ocean county family planning years ago and we started a relationship circle training at the school where I work to help people with disabilities learn how to develop healthy relationships with others, how to understand their sexuality and to understand how they can connect with others on an emotional and physical way so.
Henry: Yeah, That’s great! Thank you. So, those who oppose the LGBTQ+ community often cite their primary grievance as the idea that it “destroys family values” and in your bio you talked about your love of family and your passion for keeping families together. How would you respond to one of these people who says being LGBTQ+ destroys family?
William: I would say then that they don’t really know about the LGBTQ community then because, first of all, as a parent, I worked really hard to become a parent. You know, I didn’t have a weekend date that ended up with an accident with somebody pregnant. I did research, I found an organization, I went through a year's worth of education, having my background checked, someone coming to my home to inspect it, and having to go to classes, all that and spending a lot of money to have a child, and I did it twice. I work to make sure that my children understand their background and about their birth parents. So, for one I would say that you are seeing a lot of people in the queer community becomoing parents, and you see the people that are doing it they are working very hard to do that and that is what the very essence of what family is right? Doing our damndest to make sure that it works that we are supporting our children, and providing them with the best that they can get. There are actually studies out there that are finding that children of queer parents are getting a better education and things like that. So, the other piece is, like I said before, I am connected to other queer people because of our sexuality and being in that community. We are family. So I would pose that the meaning of family, it’s so much tighter, I don’t know what the word is but we are a great family, and I feel like I have a better connection with this family then I have ever had in anything else
Henry: Yeah, that’s amazing, just as a concluding question we are both high school students and most of our readers are going to be high school students, one thing that a lot of people are experiencing is the coming out process, and you obviously told us your coming out story, but what advice to you have for parents who have kids that just recently came out to them?
William: So, what I would first say to parents is that what we do through our meetings, it’s really important for parents to try to understand their children to trust that if this is what their telling them then its the truth one of the things that a lot of the times you hear parents say is “are you sure”, and we kind of guide parents that that is really not the approach that you should ever take. If a child comes to you and tells you this then you need to believe them. You may not understand it, but you need to support your child, love your child, and let them know that they are loved, and ask questions! The first thing I say to parents is that if you go to your child and tell them “I’m having a difficult time understanding, can you help me?” That shows your child that you care enough, that you’ve looked into and that you want to sit down with them and learn about it, and so I think that is what is really important for parents to understand is believe your child, love your child, and try to support them, and through that get support for yourself as well. Especially when a child is trans. So, when a child is transgender you know, parents have to believe their child. If they have gotten to a point that they are telling a parent they are transgender, they have spent a lot of time and time and research to truly understand who they are. They didn’t just decide to tell you one day, they have really been thinking about this for a long time. It’s really challenging for parents, and often there is a mourning process because I have two sons right now and if one of my sons told me when they were 18 that they were trans, I have a lifetime of my son and so that is really challenging sometimes for parents to have them go and suddenly have a daughter, and so understanding that parents have to go through a transition as well, it’s not just the individual that’s trans, but we also help the parents know that they are still your child. They have always been your child, that did not change, now you are seeing your true child. That’s what we hope to help parents through. I think on your other list, on the list of questions that you had sent me, you asked about the younger generation that are coming up and doing this work, and I think that that is really important too. The younger generation just, I think, 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. You see this with the parkland shooters, the children who were in school when the shooter was there. The way that they are speaking out about gun control and their voices are so powerful, and my hope is to see the next generation coming out and working side by side with my generation, so that we can, kind of, work together and through that we are passing the baton to you guys as well.
POST INTERVIEW COMMENTS: I wanted to add something that I forgot to mention when Henry talked about the intersectionality of people with disabilities and the LGBTQ community. Around 2 years ago, I was contacted by someone working for the ARC, an organization serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, who explained he was starting a support group for LGBTQ clients with disabilities. I offered to provide technical support through my work with PFLAG and went to their meetings and provided training on running meetings, getting their message out to the community, and offered access to a variety of our brochures and resources. This was another way to recognize that LGBTQ people are found in all different groups of people as well as proving that individuals with disabilities have the desire to express their sexuality and gender identity just as much as those with typical development.
Lastly, when you asked about what I would say to parents of children coming out I would add that the parents should come to a PFLAG meeting and visit our website. There is immense power in connecting with other parents who have travelled the path new parents are now facing and this connection can provide the critical social support to help ease their fears and guide them in full support of their children.