Guest Post from Emeritus Board Member Ken Manford
My name is Ken Manford and I am on the Emeritus board of Family Equality Council. We are entering a turbulent time in our country; one in which the past few years of huge strides in equality could be paused, or even rolled back in some areas of the country. Most disconcerting for me is the rhetoric of the political environment and how it is straining public opinion about our rights and the very existence of the LGBTQ community. As I take a deep breath and start to contemplate what this means for my family, I’m more thankful than ever for the work of Family Equality Council. I’m mostly thankful for the organization’s outreach to families in rural America that don’t have the benefits my family has had as a result of living in some large urban areas.
My husband Jeffrey Roach recently published a memoir titled PopDaddy about the journey of adopting our son Jackson in 2001; a time when it felt like we were fighting for our rights every day! I thought it would be fitting to pull out an excerpt from the book about one of my early speaking engagements on behalf of the Family Equality Council (which was called Family Pride at the time).
The feedback from the article in the Dallas Morning News was overwhelmingly positive. Ken came across as passionate and articulate and the picture of the three of us on that crazy sofa was just about the sweetest thing I had ever seen. Darren was a very talented photographer. Just as he promised, he had sent digital copies of the entire photo shoot and we had then sent them to everyone we knew. They all seemed to agree: We were definitely camera-ready as a family.
As a result, we had become the go-to family for any press opportunities that came to Family Pride [later renamed Family Equality Council]. Most of them had been phone interviews, but a couple of weeks ago they had called and asked Ken if he would be one of the speakers at the March for Equality in Austin.
“Why are you so nervous? You are a pro at these by now.”
“This one is different,” Ken said.
“Well, this one is just me. Out there on a stage in front of all of those people.”
“Jackson and I will be there.”
“Of course! The wife and kids are always in the background. I’m sure they’ll have some place they want us to stand and look supportive.”
“And you don’t mind?”
“Mind? Why do you think I worked so hard on my hair and Jackson’s outfit?”
Ken giggled. “I did wonder what that was all about.”
“Seriously, we will be very proud to stand up there with you.” I gave Ken’s shoulder a little squeeze. “You’ve got this.”
Ken let out a breath and most of the tension seemed to melt away from him. “Thanks. That makes me feel a lot better.”
I smiled at him. “You are going to be amazing.”
* * *
By the time we had marched up to the Capitol, Jackson was a Sweaty Betty and starting to get fussy. Still, he was holding up better than me. All the work I had put into my hair had been negated by the Austin humidity.
Someone met us at the edge of the stage and motioned for us to follow them. Just as I had predicted, there was a semi-circle of chairs for the friends and families of the three speakers.
Jackson, Ken, and I were directed to two of the chairs closest to the microphone. I was so happy to be off my feet that I almost didn’t care what a mess I must have looked. Almost.
“What’s the damage?” I whispered to Ken.
“You look great,” he said. He put his arm around the back of my chair and pulled me in close to him.
“Sweetheart, I love you, but it’s a thousand degrees out here.”
Ken laughed and let me go. “Here, give me Jackson until it’s my turn to talk. That will give you a chance to cool off a bit. He’s like a little oven.”
“No kidding.” With Jackson off my lap it was definitely cooler, but I was still wilting.
“Here, baby.” I looked up to see this giant of a man holding out a fan to me. “You look like you are about to melt.”
“You are a life saver,” I said, taking the fan.
He laughed and collapsed into the chair next to mine. “Is this your first time speaking at an outdoor event in Texas?”
“Can you tell?”
He threw his head back and laughed again. “A little. Don’t worry, you never get used to it. The good news is that if this thing gets boring you can always hide a yawn behind these as well.” He motioned to his fan and gave it a little flutter. “Watch and I’ll demonstrate.” In the midst of fanning he moved his hand forward, as if he was scratching his nose with it.
“Did you see that?” he asked.
“I didn’t see anything!”
“Exactly.” He stuck his hand out. “I’m Bill.”
I shook his hand. “I’m Jeffrey.”
“Yes I know,” he said. “You know you three are making a difference.” I cocked my eyebrow at him. “You are. You are giving people a different look at what it means to be gay.”
* * *
Ken walked up to the microphone and I held my breath and crossed my fingers.
“My name is Ken Manford. I am a gay parent and a proud member of Family Pride. My partner Jeffrey and I have been together for over ten years. A couple of years ago we decided that it was time to grow our family, so we began the process of adoption and within a year brought our beautiful son Jackson home from Guatemala.
“We are your typical family. We have careers, we love our son, participate in community events and enjoy spending time with our friends and neighbors.
“It is devastating that our country and our state and local officials continue to try and deny our family the rights that our friends, family, and neighbors enjoy. When I talk with people about the many risks our family faces because we do not have equal rights under the law of marriage, they tell me that they had no idea.
“That’s why it is important that each and every one of us speak up, stand up and demand that we are entitled to the same rights as our neighbors. We pay the same taxes and contribute equally to a country that does not afford us the rights of other citizens.
“Jeffrey, Jackson and I were recently featured in an article for the Dallas Morning News. While most of the feedback was positive there were people who commented on the legitimacy of gay parenting. It’s disheartening to see people try to turn gay adoption and marriage into a political issue. To try and own the word family.
“Let me be clear. Love makes a family. My partner of ten years and our son make a family. And our parents and our siblings have welcomed us with open arms.
“We will no longer be treated as second-class citizens, forced to file separate income taxes even though we share a home, bank accounts, and the responsibility of raising a child. Stand up with me and tell our legislators that our children are the future of this country and discriminatory laws jeopardize their futures.
“I believe it is in the best interest of this country to protect all families and ensure that our nation’s civil rights laws provide an environment that will discourage fear and bigotry.” The crowd cheered and Ken glanced over at me. I gave him a thumbs up and tried to get Jackson to do the same, but his ended up being more like a fist up.
“Thank you for being here with my family today.”
Ken finished his speech and came back to sit with me and Jackson, I leaned over and gave him a kiss.
“What was that for?” he whispered.
“For doing such a good job. And for pushing me to do this and the interviews.”
During Ken’s speech I had sat there on the stage with Jackson trying to stay focused and be supportive, but my mind was racing.
I had always felt like I wasn’t particularly good at being gay. I didn’t like going to bars. I always skipped gay pride if I could get away with it, and I never felt comfortable in my skin if we were in a big gaggle of gay boys. It brought out all of my worst insecurities.
Sitting there next to Bill, I realized that I was as guilty as some straight people when it came to stereotyping what it meant to be gay. If I was guilty of believing these kinds of stereotypes as a gay man, why wouldn’t people who never interacted with gay people believe them to be true as well?
“You really thought it was okay?” Ken whispered.
“Really. And you were right. Sometimes you have to lead by example. I think I finally get it, so whatever you need us to do. I’m ready.”