In 1972, Jeanne Manford—a schoolteacher, activist and founder of PFLAG—marched alongside her gay son in New York’s Christopher Street Liberation Day march, the precursor to today’s Pride parade. Before a cheering crowd, she proudly held a sign that read: Parents of Gays: Unite in Support for Our Children. Known as the mother who inspired a movement of parents, families and allies to advocate for their LGBTQ+ loved ones, Manford is hailed by the LGBTQ+ community for being the mom who made it OK to love your LGBTQ+ kid.
Across the U.S., thousands of moms have picked up the torch of support that Manford ignited half a century ago, including Gresham Smith’s Brandi Amos. In 2021, Brandi marched alongside her son, James, and their Gresham Smith colleagues in the Nashville Pride Parade—a first for both Brandi and James—proudly waving two different Pride flags before the crowd; one in support of James who identifies as transgender, and the other in support of her son, Russ, who identifies as gay.
We recently asked Brandi if she would share her story of being the mom of two sons who identify as LGBTQ+. Here are some highlights of our conversation.
What was your experience of Russ and James coming out to you?
Brandi Amos: Russ, who is now 32, came out to me and my husband at the time when he was 13 years old. I remember how he was shaking when he came into our room at around 11 o’clock at night. He told us he was really nervous and that he wanted to let us know he was gay. Russ said he’d waited until 11 o’clock so we’d let him stay at home one more night. All the stories he’d read on the internet about coming out to your parents had led him to believe we’d kick him out of the house. But we both supported him, although I think it was harder for his dad at the time, and made sure he had the counseling he needed to help him deal with the range of emotions he was feeling.
It was a different experience with James, who is now 25. When he was a little kid he was always a tomboy. At first, it was a natural progression for him to identify as a lesbian, but then he continued to struggle with body dysphoria, which is feelings of discomfort that can occur in people whose gender identity differs from their assigned sex at birth. When James finally came out as transgender to me, I’d been expecting it because I’d seen him struggling for a while.
Sadly, there’s been family division over James coming out as trans—more so than Russ coming out as gay. And I’ve seen more biases and attitudes toward James than I did with Russ. For example, several family members refuse to call James by his new name and say they will only address him by his birth name. James has told them that the door will always be open if they change their minds, but that he can’t continue to have them in his life because he needs all the positivity he can get. And I support him 100%.
Brothers James and Russ Amos.
What would you say to parents who don’t support their children who identify as LGBTQ+?
Brandi: I’d say set aside your fear or disappointment and just love your kid. So many parents can’t get over their personal expectations of their child. But I don’t understand how a mother could even put what they’d hoped and dreamed ahead of how their child is struggling. It’s such a burden for them to come out and own who they are. Parents shouldn’t be a part of that burden.
Ultimately, I think parents who are not accepting of their LGBTQ+ children need to refocus. If they’re disappointed because they think it means they won’t be able to walk their son or their daughter down the aisle, they can still do that. If they’re afraid their child won’t be able to have children, they can do that, too. Those barriers are gone. I think the only fear that exists is a parent’s fear of changing their expectations of what they wanted for their child.
“Set aside your fear or disappointment and just love your kid.”
What is your message to LGBTQ+ kids who have been rejected by their parents?
Brandi: If your parents don’t support you, then find the support and help you need. Organizations like GLSEN and PrideCounseling.com are good resources. As part of Gresham Smith’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging program, our LGBTQ+ Employee Resource Network offers support to LGBTQ+ members of staff as well as their family members and allies.
I was very involved with my kids when they were in high school, and they had friends whose parents didn’t accept them. I’ve found that kids who are trans in particular, and who have been rejected by their parents, will quickly build their own external families and support systems. But even within that community, they need to be careful and find good, true support. Kids without that support often end up on the streets, turning to drugs and alcohol, cutting or even taking their life. And that’s simply not the way. There is support out there for you.
Nashville Pride 2021. James and Gresham Smith’s LGBTQ+ Employee Resource Network chair Brandon Salas hold a frame that signifies all the colors of the Pride rainbow.
James also works at Gresham Smith. What was his
co-workers’ reaction when he came out to them?
Brandi: After James broke the news of his transition to his team, he took a few days off to give everyone time to acclimate. When he returned, he was super nervous. But he was flooded with emails and instant messages of support from almost everyone in IT. He heard words of support from co-workers he was sure would shun him—co-workers who had stories of family members coming out as well. It was such a wonderful surprise. I also received notes of support from those folks. We learned that while he was away, his team practiced using his new name and the “he/him” pronouns so they’d be ready when he came back.
“… his team practiced using his new name and the ‘he/him’ pronouns so they’d be ready when he came back.”
What have you learned from your kids?
Brandi: With Russ, I learned that I had to confront some of my own biases. I always thought I was pretty open and accepting. But when he told us he was gay, and as he was going through school, it made me step back and reevaluate myself. Although I realized there was work I still needed to do, I always loved, accepted and supported him.
With James, it was a different lesson. I’ve learned from him that I will choose my kids over anybody else. And I’ve had to make a lot of tough choices, including leaving my church because they were not accepting. As a Christian, I was raised to follow the Scripture that says to love one another above all else. So, it’s been hard for me to understand how certain churches still don’t accept those who identify as LGBTQ+. Isn’t the church meant to be a place of grace where all people are welcome and loved?
Back at Gresham Smith’s booth following the 2021 Nashville Pride Parade. Pictured left to right: Amber Henson, Brandon Salas, Beth Hiltonen, Brandi Amos, James Amos, Ben Nicholas, R.J. Tazelaar, April Tazelaar and Alicia Fligg.
What moments stand out to you as the mom of two sons who identify as LGBTQ+?
Brandi: There have been many memorable moments with Russ and James over the years simply because I was lucky enough to raise two amazing kids. One of those moments was marching with James in last year’s Nashville Pride Parade behind the Gresham Smith banner. I’ve been with the firm for 24 years now, and the fact that I could do that with my son and with the support of the firm made me prouder than ever to work at Gresham Smith.
Another special moment occurred along the parade route. As I was handing out little trans flags and rainbow flags to the crowd, a woman reached out and asked me if she could have “one of each” because she had two kids who identified as “one of each.” As I handed her the flags, I told her that I also had “one of each” and we started to cry. Although our conversation only lasted a few seconds, it was a shared moment that I will never forget.
What does it mean to you to be an LGBTQ+ Ally?
Brandi: To me, it means supporting and accepting LGBTQ+ people and advocating for equality, which includes supporting policies and laws that help protect LGBTQ+ people from discrimination. I think in many ways we’re still catching up in America because so many other countries have more progressive laws, policies and insurance that support the LGBTQ+ community. But we are making strides.
I also think that being an ally means speaking up and educating others—letting them know if their words are not acceptable, which may give others the courage to speak up, too.
Of course, I’m just one mother’s voice, but I believe that a mother’s voice can be powerful. It has the power to advocate for her kids. It has the power to either accept or reject a son or a daughter when they find the courage to say: “I’m gay.” It has the power to hurt or heal when a child says they don’t feel comfortable in their own body and it seems the rest of the world doesn’t understand. My choice is to use that power to love, accept and heal, and to be an ally to my kids as well as others who identify as LGBTQ+.