COLUMBIA — When Linda Hayes worked as a night emergency room nurse in Honolulu, she had a recurring patient with vague symptoms. The young man, who was gay, would come in night after night, eventually only when Hayes was working, to get treated for his symptoms and to talk about his family.
“He had come out to his family, and his family had totally rejected him,” said Hayes, 54, who now lives in Columbia. She suspected that he came in mostly to talk and to create a support network because his family wasn’t there for him.
“I would go home in the morning and into my 3-year-old’s bedroom and look at my son and think, ‘My God, what could this child do that we would completely reject him?’” Hayes said.
Years later, when Hayes’ son Nicholas was in high school, he came out as gay to his parents.
“I knew when Nicholas came out the thing he would remember was our first reaction, because that’s what that young man had always talked about,” she said.
Hayes and her husband eventually became members of the Columbia chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), a group that works to educate, advocate for and support the health and well-being of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, their families and their friends. The group will participate in the annual Mid-Mo PrideFest on Saturday at Stephens Lake Park.
PFLAG members see their role at PrideFest as supporting people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender who may not have the support of their own families.
Dorothy Angell, 84, helped organize Columbia’s PFLAG chapter a decade ago with Kathleen Edwards.
“We felt there was a really real need for a chapter in Columbia,” Angell said.
Angell’s own family experience fit with the organization’s focus on education and acceptance.
“Since I had a daughter who was lesbian, I was interested in finding out more about people of different sexual orientations,” she said.
“I knew enough about the subject to know it was something she was born with. I always accepted her and loved her as she was.”
The organization offers resources such as written publications and a support group to those who attend meetings.
Some parents, Angell has seen, come to PFLAG meetings feeling distressed about their children.
“We help them to understand it’s a normal thing, meaning your sexual orientation is something you’re born with,” Angell said.
“Hearing about our relationships with our children helps.”
For Sharon Hanson, 65, attending meetings has helped her discuss issues relating to equal rights more comfortably, even with those who disagree.
“It’s made me more of an ‘out’ advocate,” she said. “It’s made me more intelligent in how people respond, in recognizing the different stages of understanding.”
During Thursday’s meeting, the group watched “The Asphalt Gospel,” a documentary for which several of their members had given interviews. The documentary follows six people who walked from Arizona to Washington, D.C., to promote tolerance and acceptance of lesbian and gay people to Christian churches. The walkers faced protesters along the way, something Hayes said PrideFest hasn’t had to deal with in recent years.
“We always plan for that, but I’ve been surprised every year that we don’t have protesters,” said Hayes, who is on the Mid-Mo PrideFest Planning Committee.
Last year, around 950 people turned out for Mid-Mo PrideFest, up from 400 people five years ago. This year, there’s been talk of breaking 1,000.
“We would hope to, but with the price of gas, I’m not overly confident,” Hayes said.