I am a Hudson Valley Parent: Fran Divine

Standing up for her son's right to be

Fran Divine was raised in New York City and first came to New Paltz as an undergraduate student at SUNY New Paltz. She met the man who would become her husband, then started teaching art in Florida schools once the family relocated south and her boys were in school.

Her first ideas of activism had been fighting against the Vietnam War and for feminism.

Mama bear status
As a mother, Divine has taken protecting her children to all new levels of activism. Her drive to get involved with the cause for all LGBTQ friends and family, has been fueled by a sense of guilt that she could have done more, especially for her gay older son. She realizes there was only so much she could do raising him in 1980s and 1990s Florida, when the effects of Anita Bryant's 1970s crusades against gays were still working their ways through state politics.

"I hated to see him bullied. He'd be called names and those hurts last,"
she says. "I was always concerned for his safety."

An outlet for her efforts  
Years later, when he finally came out and introduced his mom to his first boyfriend, Divine says she was ecstatic to finally see her boy "fully happy in his own skin." She suddenly realized how important it was to let everyone in her orbit know what she knew, to normalize the situation as it should be, and has become in years since. The boyfriend's mother asked Fran if she'd ever thought of joining Parents & Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), started during the Stonewall Riots of 1969 when a mother joined her son in the marches that first brought LGBTQ rights to the nation's attention.

"At first I thought they were nothing but another support group," Divine says as she recalls the months it took her to locate a PFLAG group
in South Florida. "Over time I found it to be a means of sharing in my son's community. I realized that as soon as my son came out he became a second class citizen in our country. I learned how to meet politicians,
how to fight the battles."

The traveling activist
Divine eventually moved back north to the town where her beloved alma mater was after her sons had grown.

She attended a planning session for a proposed LGBTQ Center she'd heard about, and immediately got involved, opening up a group for friends and family of the region's LGBTQ community.

Four or five people showed up at our first meeting, without any advertising," Divine recalls. "Now we have a mailing list of over 125 names."

She's now on the LGBTQ Center board, and organizes its fundraising gala each year.

READ MORE: Awesome things to do in New Paltz

Safety and happiness for her sons
"It's been a wonderful experience," she says of her time working with those who still find it difficult to come out in support of their children. Divine knows the fears we all have for our kids' safety and well being, our wishes to see them happy. She also knows how hard it can be to face up against a world where there are still those who will not accept your child for who they are, who think they can choose to be someone different, can be "cured."

"I don't wake up each morning wondering whether I'm going to be heterosexual this day," she says with a smile.

Divine relates an anecdote about when she was first in PFLAG, and speaking before a school about LGBTQ rights and protections. Her son had asked if he could attend and speak. While talking, he broke into tears, recalling how he'd been bullied as a young student.

"As his mother, it was hugely emotional," she says. "But it was the same for everyone in that room, including those who had been fighting the protections."

READ MORE: What parents need to know about gender diversity

Room for change
I ask Fran Divine whether she finds things safer for LGBTQ students now.
She ponders, then speaks about the ways in which we can become complacent to things like name-calling, or the use of phrases that belittle some among us. She also speaks about reactionary changes on a national scale.

"When your child comes out, the parent must come out too," she says. "We must all come out for that person."

The LGBTQ Center in Kingston hosts a PFLAG meeting chaired by Fran Divine on the second Wednesday of every month from 7-9pm. Visit them online at LGBTQCenter.org or call 331-5300.

Paul Smart is a father who writes for a variety of publications in the Hudson Valley. He lives in Catskill.

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