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Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (P-FLAG) was born when Jeanne Manford, a New York school teacher, expressed her outrage at her gay son's mistreatment by local police in a published letter to the New York Post in 1972. The public response to her statement, "I have a homosexual son, and I love him," was so great that she held the first support group meeting for parents of gay children in March 1973 at the Metropolitan Duane Methodist Church in Greenwich Village. By 1976, when the Los Angeles chapter was started by Adele Starr, numerous groups had formed around the country.

The first national meeting was held in 1979 to coincide with the first March on Washington for Gay Rights, and Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays was officially founded in 1981 with its headquarters in Denver, Colorado and was incorporated in 1982. In 1989, it moved to Washington, D.C. In the 1990s, it added "families" to the organizational name. In 1997, there were fifteen regions, each headed by a regional director, over four hundred affiliate chapters, and 70,000 individual members worldwide.

P-FLAG's three-part mission includes support, education, and advocacy. Its peer group meetings help what P-FLAGers call "new" parents through their often negative reactions to and distress about the news that a child is gay, lesbian, or bisexual. P-FLAG also offers support to individuals whose spouses, parents, or other family members have "come out" to them. Parents and other family members also benefit from and provide educational resources which aid in the process of acceptance. Publications, fact sheets, readings lists, cassettes, conferences, seminars, and speakers bureaus form the backbone of the educational arm of P-FLAG's mission.

Advocacy often entails applying educational campaigns to points of political leverage including voting blocks and public bodies. For example, many P-FLAG chapters have become highly involved in supporting anti-discrimination initiatives and in combating anti-gay ballot initiatives. P-FLAG chapters also often march in local and national gay pride parades. On the national level, P-FLAG organized a multimedia public education program called "Project Open Mind." P-FLAG's national president Nancy McDonald joined other activists in a meeting with President Bill Clinton to urge him to support programs for gay youth and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act designed to ban anti-gay bias in the workplace. P-FLAG collaborates with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the Human Rights Campaign to push a common agenda.

McDonald credits Executive Director Sandra Gillis with the surge of membership from 1993 to 1997. In this time, the number of affiliate chapters almost doubled.