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Sunday, February 3, 2013
A couple of years ago, Tegan Edelstein , then 15, informed her mom and dad, Carolyn and Eugene Edelstein , that she was a lesbian.
“I was sort of shocked and stunned at first,” Carolyn Edelstein told me. Questions swirled through her mind, such as: At that young age, how could Tegan know what her sexual orientation was?
“It took me a few months to accept it,” Carolyn Edelstein said. “Once I did accept it, I decided to support her. That was the very best way to deal with it.”
Unluckily for the Roanoke couple, there was no local chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays at the time. An earlier PFLAG chapter, established in the early 1990s, disbanded eight years ago. That’s about to change.
The Edelsteins and some others are involved in re-establishing PFLAG here in Roanoke. About 25 people showed up at the first organizational meeting Jan. 10. The next one is Feb. 21, and it’s open to anyone who’s interested.
The first meeting included some familiar faces in Roanoke’s gay community, such as the Rev. Joe Cobb. He’s pastor of Metropolitan Community Church of the Blue Ridge in southeast Roanoke, which has many lesbians and gays in its congregation.
There were newer faces, too, such as Shelley Ionescu of Roanoke County. She has a 17-year-old transgender daughter, who was born a son and came out last year.
“It was a hard thing for me to comes to terms with, with my child being transgender, rather than being gay,” said Ionescu, an occupational therapist who works with students in public schools. “At first I thought, ‘Gosh, why can’t you just be gay?’
“I tried to find a PFLAG chapter in Roanoke and I couldn’t find one,” she said. It left her feeling quite alone while she served, with little support, as “a sort of a clearinghouse for my family and friends who had questions.”
Such children — and their parents — face myriad issues. The kids are more likely to be bullied in school. Their suicide rate is much higher. In some cases, their own parents reject them.
An offshoot of gay rights group Roanoke Pride Inc. called DESTINY was established for young people a little more than a year ago. The acronym stands for Diversity, Education and Support To INspire Youth. The 15-member group meets twice monthly, said Leslie Graye Miller , president of Roanoke Pride.
But some of those members still are in the closet, guarding secrets from their families, and PFLAG is the kind of organization that could help them come out, she said.
Cobb, the pastor of Metropolitan Community Church, said PFLAG has four chief purposes: education, advocacy, outreach and support. An overarching goal is to help others “to understand and be more welcoming of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people in their lives.”
According to the national organization, there are 11 PFLAG chapters now in Virginia: Alexandria, Winchester, Norfolk, Charlottesville, Richmond, Keysville, Floyd, Abingdon, the New River Valley, Martinsville and Danville.
Roanoke’s original chapter formed in the early 1990s after Mary Boenke , a retired psychotherapist, moved to the Roanoke Valley with her husband. Shortly before that, their college student daughter had revealed to them that she was a lesbian.
In those days, Boenke was helping organize workshops on a variety of topics at Hollins University. So she pitched the university administrators on a workshop for parents and friends of lesbians and gays, and they agreed.
“There were six brave people in the workshop, here in the middle of the Bible Belt,” the Vinton woman recalled. It became the launch of Roanoke’s founding PFLAG chapter. Boenke went on to become a regional PFLAG coordinator for Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware and Maryland.
Over the next decade or so, the local group grew. Its monthly meetings at the Unitarian Universalist Church on Grandin Road eventually numbered 30 to 35 regular attendees. But in 2005 the chapter withered after the sudden death of a key member.
By then, Boenke said, the Metropolitan Community Church was well established, and society had made important strides in accepting gay people.
Toward the end, “when we did get new parents, at least they didn’t come in crying,” Boenke told me. “They were aware of the fact that gays are among us, and their child was not a freak.”
But there still are parents out there, like Ionescu and the Edelsteins, who have struggled to come to grips with learning about their children’s sexual orientation. Some take it much harder than others.
“These parents who disown their own children because of their sexuality, I think that’s just absurd. They’re still your children,” Edelstein told me.
“How does that child help their parents understand what they’re going through? And their friends and family?” Ionescu asked.
“This will help save some lives,” she added. “This is something that’s really important for Roanoke.”
Dan Casey’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday.
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