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Photography by Todd Franson
“I certainly didn’t take this job for any notions about limelight or attention on me. As a person, I’m more of a private human being.”
David Tseng sits in his office, behind him a windowsill filled with colorful souvenirs from cities across the country — places he has visited over the past eighteen months while serving as Executive Director of PFLAG National, which celebrates its 30th Anniversary next Thursday with a holiday party at the Grand Hyatt.
“But I relish the chance to be part of something that’s bigger than me,” he continues. “And about the equality we can see down the pike. That really does energize me.”
After having worked in the Clinton Administration for years, and as a lawyer before that, PFLAG has opened up a new life road for Tseng — a road that has brought him directly into the fight for GLBT civil rights. It’s clearly a place he relishes being. A man who chooses his each and every word deliberately, with a quiet, studied eloquence, Tseng is clearly energized by his organization’s commitment to helping emotionally support families with gay children, by what he calls the once “impossible dream” of same sex marriage, and, perhaps most importantly, by the creation of safe schools for gay and lesbian children.
“Safety for children is at the cutting edge of GLBT civil rights,” says the 44-year-old Tseng. “It’s safety for young people who are like us, who are now walking the same journey we walked. I can’t imagine going back. I cannot go back. I will not go back. And I am lucky that I don’t have to go back. That is what every GLBT person should remember. If we aren’t willing to go back, why should they have to suffer the same fate that we endured?
“And that’s why PFLAG parents will risk social disapprobation by standing up in PTA meetings, by handing out leaflets at National Education Association gatherings, by manning booths at conferences. Because we recognize our duty to stand up for these kids.”
METRO WEEKLY: What brought you to PFLAG?
DAVID TSENG: After I left the Clinton White House, I wanted to work in the area of public policy. PFLAG was searching for an executive director and I applied because as an openly gay man, PFLAG is an organization that touches me deeply. It’s a group of people that works toward true equality. And the message resonates because it’s not only about gay people, but their families and their friends as well.
MW: Do you remember how you felt the day they called and told you that you’d been selected over eighty applicants?
TSENG: I was elated. We have so few opportunities to help make a difference, to work for a living in a movement toward equality. I felt that this was an important chance for me to make my contribution to our civil rights movement.
MW: Certainly under the Clinton White House we had it a little easier than with the current administration. Were you concerned about the challenges you’d face?
TSENG: I think anyone who aspires to participate in our movement must understand the challenges, even as we make progress. In the Clinton White House, we certainly made significant strides toward equality, and it is daunting to look at the difference with the current administration and the cloud under which we operate. We have to be very sober about the issues before us and continually vigilant about the progress we intend to make.
MW: Fortunately, the current administration hasn’t seemed to thwart our progress. If anything, we’ve come even further in the past three years than in the previous eight.
TSENG: I think once you have a taste of equality, it’s hard to go back to a place where you’re a second-class citizen. One of the magnificent benefits of working in the movement is that you do have that opportunity each and every day to look to the future. What would that be like? It’s the same thing with the marriage conversation. I’m 44-years-old and for people of my generation, marriage was just not an option growing up. And so to have this conversation about marriage now gives us a window of what it might be like to one day have our relationships recognized as equal. It’s a very powerful message to individuals.
MW: When did you first realize you were gay?
TSENG: When I was a teenager. I came out to my family and friends when I was in college. And my family had our own journey of understanding and acceptance. My parents eventually came to understand that my orientation is the way I was created. My parents have been very loving and very supportive of me, of my partner, and my journey.
MW: You grew up in San Francisco, a fairly liberal area with regard to gays. There are kids growing up today in areas where it’s impossible to be out, despite the current glut of media visibility.
TSENG: In some ways the exposure to mainstream media is a two-edged sword. On the one hand it does help educate the American public. And yet, on the other hand, I think there are those who think discrimination or hatred is no longer a problem. People can sometimes be complacent because of the very public successes of our movement. They pose the question rhetorically: “How could there be discrimination when we see openly gay politicians, celebrities, television shows that include openly gay characters?”
MW: I think that’s especially true in larger cities like Washington.
TSENG: Our community members have tended historically to gather in urban centers. We gather in places where we feel safe, where we can find equal opportunity in employment and where we can be more rather than less honest about who we are. And yet, the people and the families we leave behind continue to face issues regarding stereotypes, prejudice, bias. That’s why an organization like PFLAG is so critical.
One of the mantras at PFLAG is “When the child comes out, the parent goes in the closet,” because the parents often have so few resources or support systems to help them. Often they cannot speak with the person in their church congregation, or a co-worker, or even a neighbor about these issues.
MW: That’s so true. I remember when I first came out, my mother was terrified that her friends might find out. She asked me to keep it between us. That was easy for me since I was here, she was in Ohio. She’s since come around and informed her friends, but I know it caused her a lot of stress back then not to feel as though she could discuss it with anyone.
TSENG: The compass of family is a powerful magnet — and yet our families are sometimes asked to choose between their child and their community, their child and their religion, their child and their friends. Not because of anything that the parent has done or the child has done, but because of the discrimination that we in our families face.
MW: Which is clearly where a group like PFLAG comes into play. It’s your job to help bridge the acceptance between the person coming out and his or her family. You’re one of the most important organizations in our fight for equality, precisely because you involve both gays and straights — and most importantly, family members.
TSENG: After thirty years, we see our place in the quest for equality as growing. Precisely because we start with the family. We see the family as the hub. In so many ways it’s how we define ourselves. And the entire journey of coming out puts the family on that precipice.
You know what it’s like, as a young gay man, to come to your family with the news, wanting acceptance, wanting their love. It is hard and challenging to see your parents struggle with these issues. And from that first living room in New York City, where moms and dads gathered in 1973, now to have over five hundred communities in the country and over 250,000 members speaks to the importance of working with families in our movement. So many of our folks are deeply rooted in their communities — presidents of Kiwanis, veterans who fought for this country in Korea and Vietnam, PTA presidents. They are able to help carry the message for us into their communities, speaking from a place of love, selflessness and a conviction that we are going to win the battle for equality eventually.
MW: All despite the persistent efforts of the extreme right, who continue to assert that we’re one of the primary threats to America‘s moral fabric.
TSENG: I think that one of the reasons why the right is so shrill and strident now is because they know they are losing. They know that millions of Americans realize our issues have to do with more fundamental elements of fairness, like can this person visit his loved one in a hospital emergency room? Can this mother fight for custody for her child? Some conservatives would paint us as being ultra liberal in marginalized pockets of metropolitan areas when we’re [actually] everywhere.
I like to tell people that I belive I was raised right, as were so many of us who are GLBT persons. Our parents taught us right from wrong, to obey the law, to be generous to charities, to be patriotic. What could be more American or upholding of family values than the way in which so many of us were brought up? And yet, the extreme right would pose as the pro-family arbiters of morality. I think increasingly, we as advocates for equality need to take back that rhetoric. How dare they judge us? How dare they judge our families and us? When in fact we are moral people.
MW: Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the majority of families have at least one gay person. Change comes from that inside, from within, it starts on the human level. So there’s a human element to PFLAG serving as its strength.
TSENG: We don’t know how powerful we actually are. Once we harness the magnitude of support we have from parents, family members and friends, we open up tremendous possibilities of understanding. Our challenge is to reach out effectively to those individuals who can help us magnify our message of equality. An organization like PFLAG straddles the community and families in a way that exponentially creates impact. We are Democrats and Republicans, we come from virtually every major religious denomination, every socioeconomic level. So it’s not about the differences. It really is about what we share in common, this unconditional love for the people in our lives. What an incredible message for public and elected officials to understand. Not that we don’t have hurdles right now. Arch-conservatives are well-organized and well-funded, and in a position to distort the terms of this public debate. You hear the rhetoric that blurs the line between church and state, that has us wanting a special agenda, that has us threatening heterosexual messages in this country. And all of the above continue to be without merit. We need to do a better job of getting the message of truth out to the general public.
MW: What is PFLAG national’s main function?
TSENG: Our primary job is to support our chapters throughout the country with information, publications, and training. Our field coordinators travel periodically to our chapters and our regions to work with families on the ground. The issues for PFLAG Seattle may be different for the issues for PFLAG Casper, Wyoming. It’s our job to tailor the resources we provide for each chapter. We also work at the national level with our colleague organizations like HRC and NGLTF to educate public officials and to advocate for strong protections when it comes to equality for our community.
MW: Do you help to forge new chapters or do you wait for a need to arise organically in a community?
TSENG: Historically the need has arisen naturally from communities. But we also identify communities that have need of a PFLAG resource. For example, in Newark, New Jersey, a young African-America lesbian was murdered. And when we tried to work with the community, we realized there was no PFLAG chapter in Newark, which is a largely African American and Latino working class city. So as a consequence, we have affirmatively gone to Newark, and are working on developing a parent and family resource with community activists.
MW: How do you decide what’s right for a particular community?
TSENG: We work hard to be respectful of the particular needs of the community and not to dictate what we believe is the correct cookie-cutter way for a chapter to organize and support families. There are endless variations on the challenges that communities face, sometimes compounded by different cultures, different religions, being in different places in the country. So it really is a case by case approach to chapter building and support.
MW: Are there any particular regions of the country where it’s been difficult to forge a chapter?
TSENG: There continue to be certain areas of the country that are underserved by PFLAG. We need to do a better job in the Rocky Mountain states and in the South identifying communities that have a need for PFLAG chapters. We do work toward reaching out to communities in ways that transcend the specific geographic boundaries. Two of our national efforts organize the work we do in faith communities as well as with families of color. And these are both national efforts that help provide resources even to people who live in underserved areas.
It is telling that our next national conference will be in Salt Lake City. We feel that it is important that we underscore our support for our Mormon families as they work toward understanding in Utah.
MW: Talk about a tough crowd.
TSENG: And yet, we’re going to be there in October, three weeks before the presidential election. We think it’s an important statement that families around the country will gather in this place to emphasize our family values. We have two Mormons on our national board and a number of leaders in PFLAG who are active in their religions. Again, it echoes the fact that we share the same values and traditions, as do other American families. The right attempts — unsuccessfully — to box us in. When in fact we are squarely in the mainstream of this country by virtue of our love for our families.
MW: It occurs to me that your group traverses a wide age range. Somebody can come out when they’re forty and still have a parent that needs to come to a place of acceptance. You also have to deal with more and more teenagers who are coming out.
TSENG: The phenomena of young men and women coming out at an earlier age really speaks to the relevance of PFLAG. Because where twenty years ago men and women would come out when they were in college or when they were living independently from their families, now families are faced with the challenges of the teenage years. What guidelines, if any, are available at schools for teachers, coaches, guidance counselors? We’re working this year on our relationships with national educational organizations, with tremendous support from the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association. We cannot think twice when it comes to our responsibility for the safety of our youth.
It is striking when you think about the issue. Regardless of what you think about homosexuality, no reasonable person in America can condone having a child get beat up in school. And that’s what PFLAG parents advocate — not for more computers, not for a smaller student-teacher ratio, but the fact that our children should be safe from harm when they’re in school.
For so many of us, life has been about proving ourselves, overachieving and working to be that much better because we did feel self-conscious. With good reason. Because we were unsafe. Even in our own families. We know what it feels like to feel alone and isolated and less than equal.
But we move on — we’re adults, we get on with our lives and accept the sweetness and the vinegar of life. Still, we should also not forget what it was like so we can help those that come after us. We have a responsibility now as adults to stand up for today’s kids, to protect them and to make it better for them. However we come to this place in the movement, however we participate or contribute, we should all be revolutionaries.
PFLAG National’s 30th Anniversary and Holiday Party will be held next Thursday, December 11, from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, 1000 H Street NW. Honorees include Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Barbara Cook, Elise Frank (mother to Congressman Barney Frank) and Stephanie Haaser and Katherine Pecore. Tickets start at $50. Call 202-467-8180, ext. 222 or visit www.pflag.org.
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