Briggs Initiative

From bullied student to executive director, Bill Briggs explains why the Metro DC PFLAG mission is close to his heart

If Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays of the Metropolitan Washington, D.C., Area seems like a mouthful, don’t fret. The folks affiliated with this area chapter have reduced it to the far more efficient Metro DC PFLAG. They’ve also apparently increased efficiencies in these lean times by hiring Bill Briggs as executive director. As Briggs recalls, when his predecessor, Lindy Perry-Garnette, resigned to take a position closer to her family, there was some consideration of doing away with staff and letting the chapter exist on a volunteer-only basis. But that was then.

Bill Briggs
Bill Briggs
(Photo by Todd Franson)

Today, Allen Keiswetter, chapter president from 2005 to 2009, could hardly be happier with the job Briggs has done for the past year and a half.

”He’s been magnificent,” Keiswetter says of Briggs’s performance. ”It’s been a difficult time with the downturn and all of that. He’s coped with it. He has reshaped PFLAG. … He’s cut expenses, but increased the activities.”

One of those activities, though not new, is Metro DC PFLAG’s annual gala. This year will be the 29-year-old chapter’s 14th such event and will feature Alison Arngrim, who played Nellie Oleson on Little House on the Prairie, and gay comic Scott Nevins. Local NBC News anchor and LGBT ally Wendy Rieger will serve as emcee.

”This year it’s going to be a small, intimate event, with 350 people honoring our support-group leaders who have really made a difference in the lives of many families,” says Briggs, adding that special honors will also go to servicemembers affected by ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and to Flowers on 14th.

As for the aforementioned differences made by support-group leaders, as well as other PFLAG volunteers and staff, they are immeasurable.

”I really am excited to go to work,” Briggs says of the chapter’s mission promote the equality and well-being of LGBT people and their families and friends through support, education and advocacy. ”We got a call from a 14-year-old Muslim kid a couple weeks ago who really was struggling with coming out and called PFLAG for help. We’re dealing with a grandparent in his late 70s on how to come out to his wife, his kids and his grandkids.”

It’s all in a day’s work for the Metro DC PFLAG staff and volunteers. And true to the group’s nature, they do have a way of leaning on family and friends, getting all involved to help society move past homophobia. Briggs is no different, drafting his own family to the cause.

”My Grandma Jule, who is 90 – the one my mother feared the most about me coming out – will be at the gala,” says the 37-year-old Briggs. ”It’s her second time. She’s completely fine with me being gay. She’ll be there in full force – looking for a boyfriend.”

As Metro DC PFLAG continues its work, chances are that ever more families will be there to support their LGBT members.

METRO WEEKLY: How did you come to Metro DC PFLAG? You served on the board before you were executive director, right?

BILL BRIGGS: Yes. It was a volunteer position. I’d left a job, so I was unemployed and doing a lot of volunteer work. And the executive director [Lindy Perry-Garnette] came to a board meeting and said, ”I’ve accepted a new position. It’s closer to my family. I’m going to be resigning.”

I would say about 90 percent of the board said, ”Lindy, this is a really great idea. We really don’t have a lot of money. Maybe what we should do is just close down now.”

MW: To become volunteer-only?

BRIGGS: Yes, become a volunteer organization. There would be no paid staff or anything. I was a big bubble of ”No!” Everyone turned and looked at me like, ”What are you talking about?” ”Look, I’m unemployed. I care about PFLAG just as much as you guys do. Give me a chance to try to make this fly.” They thought I was crazy.

I just figured with my dedication and commitment and belief in PFLAG that I could try to make this run. And my connections at NOVAM were going to be able to help me turn it around. I had a great friend – still a great friend – David Hoover, who was board vice president. He said, ”If anybody could turn this place around, it would be you, Bill.” He came on as my mentor and met with me weekly, gave me ideas, helped push me through. He got off the board in June, but he’s still a great friend and a great advocate.

MW: The only board member I’m really familiar with is Allen Keiswetter, who served as president in recent years. What was his reaction?

BRIGGS: Supportive. He was not on the board at the time but PFLAG is his baby. The great thing was that he came to the gala we had last year and said, ”Bill, you’re doing phenomenal work.” And in January of this year, when David Hoover had his annual after-Christmas fundraising party for PFLAG, Allen came. I got up and told people what we’d been doing the past couple months, where we were going. At the end, Allen said he’d like to say a few words. I got a little nervous. He said, ”My hat’s off to you, Bill and Julie [Hawkins],” the board president, ”for the work that you guys are doing. I’m highly impressed and I thank you both.” To us, that was a sign we were on the right path. All along, we were waiting for his blessing, a green light, and Allen says that. Wow.

MW: Is he sort of the chapter’s patriarch?

BRIGGS: There are several matriarchs, but I would say he’s the patriarch. There are several board members who started the organization and who still watch out for us. Allen’s wife, Gerda, is also starting one of our new PFLAG groups.

MW: That would be a new chapter, or a new part of your chapter?

BRIGGS: Part of our chapter, which oversees groups in Maryland, D.C. and Virginia. When I took over in January [2010], we had five. Right now, we have 11. If all goes as planned, starting in June we will have 14. With people coming out earlier and earlier, with the political climate not as friendly, we really want to find our niche, increase our niche.

MW: When you say ”not as friendly,” are you referring to the new Congress?

BRIGGS: Congress, yes. I would also say [Del. Bob] Marshall (R) down in Prince William County, [Va.]. The one who wanted to block gay people from serving in the [Virginia] National Guard. With people coming out earlier and earlier, our helpline getting stronger and stronger with calls, we really felt like there was more of a need. We also are finding that young people don’t have as many resources for support in the suburbs as they do here in the District.

MW: Such as the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League (SMYAL)?

BRIGGS: We always refer young people to SMYAL. We think SMYAL is doing a great job. We love SMYAL. However, the majority that come to our support groups are in Maryland and Virginia. To their parents and to them, going into ”the big city” is a big step. The parents don’t always feel comfortable sending them to D.C. So parents have come to PFLAG and said, ”Please help me. I want to have a youth group.” So we now have three official PFLAG youth groups. We have one, very active, in Fairfax County. We have one in Loudon County, and we’re staring a third in Arlington County.

MW: When I look at your chapter’s Capital Pride booth or contingent, it does seem mostly white.

BRIGGS: Correct.

MW: With D.C. being a majority-black city, I wonder about that disconnect. Is there any outreach effort there?

BRIGGS: Several years ago, PFLAG really tried to outreach to the African-American community in D.C., and it really didn’t fly.

But I’m really excited to report that we are partnering with SMYAL to start our first-ever PFLAG group within SMYAL, where the majority of youth are inner-city youth from D.C. That will be kicking off in May. We have two trained facilitators ready to go. This will be bringing in parents, too, once a month at SMYAL. The young people will be downstairs, the adult group upstairs. SMYAL will promote it through their listserv and also through their own youth.

We also have the first-ever – within our chapter – all Spanish-speaking PFLAG group. We just kicked that off two months ago with La Clinica del Pueblo. It’s going to be advertised through ”Mpodérate!” A couple of their leaders are going to help facilitate the meetings, currently taking place in their community room. If it continues to grow, as we hope it will, it’s going to go right around the corner to All Souls Church. Our chapter also has a PFLAG group at Gallaudet University for the deaf community.

MW: You’re really working with a lot of other groups.

BRIGGS: One thing I felt was important for PFLAG was to build a quilt together. So I went to people in the community that have skills I did not have. That includes La Clinica, who already had a very active GLBT Latino group. So we met with them, had focus groups with them. We’re really trying to work with them to get more parents onboard to better accept their GLBT kids.

Another thing that’s pretty cool about our chapter is we have one of the first and only PFLAG groups at a retirement community. It’s up at Riderwood [Retirement Community] in Montgomery County. One of our chapter founders, Paulette Goodman – who is also one of the founders of PFLAG national – loved the chapter and was still very active with the chapter when she moved to the retirement community, and she decided to continue to have her support-group meetings. A good number of parents who went to her support groups still go to her Riderwood meetings. There’s also a good amount of grandparents who go to Riderwood that want to support their GLBT grandsons or granddaughters.

MW: Considering PFLAG’s mission, what sort of relationship do you have with your own family?

BRIGGS: I have a unique, special relationship with my family. I have a younger sister, and our parents loved us unconditionally. I felt very fortunate that when I came out to my parents – which was a week before I turned 16, in 1989 – they quickly learned how to adapt by going through PFLAG.

MW: Would you have described them at the time as liberal? Conservative? Progressive or traditional?

BRIGGS: They were pretty progressive in that they had some gay friends. They were friends with a gay male couple over 25 years. They came to our house for parties. One of them drove me in his Cadillac to my big formal in eighth grade. They really loved their gay friends, saw them as supportive, fun friends. My parents also had African-American friends, interracial friends. Everybody felt really comfortable at the Briggs household.

MW: Where did you grow up?

BRIGGS: Gloucester Township, N.J. It’s a suburb of Philadelphia. Exit 3.

Bill Briggs
Bill Briggs
(Photo by Todd Franson)

When I came out, the hinges fell off the closet door. I came out loud and proud. ”Loud” would be key. I was dating someone at the time, slightly older and at one of the other high schools. When I came out, it was at a Catholic high school. I chose to go to the Catholic school when I was 15 because I was being beat up and harassed in the public school.

MW: How old were you when that began?

BRIGGS: The bullying began in second or third grade, and just continued.

MW: Since you weren’t yet out about being gay, why were you targeted – assuming there was any reason?

BRIGGS: Like in gym class, I wasn’t masculine enough. I wasn’t ”jock-ish” enough. I was pushed, almost locked in a locker. I was spit upon.

MW: Who did you turn to for support, and who gave it to you?

BRIGGS: I turned to my parents. I also had a really strong support system in Boy Scouts – an oxymoron, I know. But I would say that the people in my Scout troop, we were all misfits. There was overweight, there was whatever. We all got along really well. Boy Scouts was my outlet, my once-a-week, two-hour time to have fun. It was my once-a-month weekend to go on camping trips and get away from it all.

MW: Was your troop leader supportive, too?

BRIGGS: He didn’t know I was gay, initially, and he was great. He was really supportive of all of us. We all got along and we had fun.

MW: How old were you when you left scouting?

BRIGGS: I was kicked out of scouting. I was one of the youngest people in my troop to make eagle scout. I made it at 15. And the first point of Scout Law is to be trustworthy. I can remember the day before I made eagle scout. We were going to have this huge ceremony where they present it to you, they get up and talk about you. I remember crying, telling my parents I didn’t deserve it. I felt like because I was gay, I was not allowed to be an eagle scout. I didn’t tell them. But about four months later – it was right after I came out – the scoutmaster came to me and said, ”I need to talk to you. There are rumors in your school that you’re gay. Is that true?” I said yes. And he said, ”I’m sorry. You’re going to have to go.”

I was upset, but I did go. I thought, ”This really sucks,” but I understood where he was coming from. I also felt like as much as it hurt me – and it crushed me – I achieved the goal that I wanted. I got to eagle scout.

MW: You were in the Catholic school when you came out?

BRIGGS: Yes.

MW: Did it offer a much better environment than the public school?

BRIGGS: It was better in the sense that there was formality. It was better in the sense that if anyone was caught harassing anyone, beating someone up, that person got detention. And I liked order. I liked knowing that you had to wear the tie every day, so you weren’t harassed for what you were wearing. It got hellish after I came out, because I came out in full force. I still had the rest of sophomore year, junior year and senior year.

I remember explicitly – it will make my mother really upset when she remembers this – being really harassed by these six guys for being gay. I got called into the principal’s office. He was a Catholic priest and he sat me in the middle of a room and all around me were these six men.

MW: Not the bullies?

BRIGGS: No, their fathers. The priest said to me, ”I brought these guys’ fathers in and I want you to explain to them why their sons are beating you up.” I said, ”Well, they’re giving me a hard time.”

”But why? Go ahead, tell them who you are.”

”I’m a gay male.”

And he said, ”You’re going to have to toughen up. This is what gay men go through their entire lives.”

MW: This is what the priest told you?

BRIGGS: Yes, in front of the fathers. I think he was trying to scare me or embarrass me.

MW: There wasn’t some enlightened trick up his sleeve?

BRIGGS: It was not compassionate.

MW: He was just being a dick?

BRIGGS: Yeah. And he wouldn’t allow my own father to be there.

MW: You said your mother is going to get upset revisiting this. What was her reaction at the time?

BRIGGS: My parents were furious. My father called the principal and said, ”You need to guarantee my son’s protection. You need to make sure my son gets the education I’m paying you for.” The principal told him he didn’t know if he could do that, that I’d just have to ”toughen up.”

My father said, ”Don’t worry about it. My son is good friends with the founders of ACT UP and Queer Nation, and when I hang up I’m going to call them and then call the Philadelphia Inquirer and tell them to meet me on your front steps tomorrow.”

MW: How were you friends with the founders of ACT UP and Queer Nation?

BRIGGS: I wasn’t. He was just saying that. But sure enough, after that I was not harassed nearly as much.

There’s a really awesome ending to this story. Four years ago, I went to my 15-year high school reunion. I did not want to go, but a couple people said, ”Bill, why don’t you just go? It will be fun. It’s an open bar, if anything.” [Laughs.] So I went. And off in a corner were those same guys who would not leave me alone in high school. One came over to me. He said, ”I owe you the biggest apology. I’m not the only one. My clown friends over there owe you an apology, too.” So he goes over and brings them back and says in front of his friends, ”I want you guys all to hear this. I want you to know that I put Bill through hell for those three years. I beat him up. I harassed him. And I’m sorry. As a father of two young girls, seeing the trauma that they go through every day, just for being young girls, when they come home and cry, I keep thinking of the hell I gave you, Bill. And I am sorry.”

All the other guys said they were sorry, too. They shook my hand. They were just genuine people at that point. Still, to this day, if I know I’m meeting someone in a high school my heart beats really fast because I feel like I’m going to get harassed or I’m going to get beat up.

MW: How did you end up in the D.C. area?

BRIGGS: I went to Western New England College for my bachelor’s in social work, then waited five years to go to Springfield [Mass.] College and get my master’s in social work. While I was going to grad school, I came down to D.C. for a long weekend and I met someone, Stephen, out at the clubs. We did the long-distance thing for a year and a half. Mitt Romney was elected governor of Massachusetts and there were a lot of cuts to social services, so I thought it was time for a change and I moved down here in June of 2003. After a year, Stephen and I moved in together, then only lasted another year. I toyed with the idea of going back to Boston or Jersey, but I feel like D.C. is a good fit for me. I was happy with the friends I was making, with my job at NOVAM, and so I stayed.

MW: Few kids grow up with dreams of becoming social workers. What did you want to be?

BRIGGS: Believe it or not, I wanted to be a funeral director. I worked at a funeral home for four years, starting when I was 15. It was the neighborhood funeral home. I absolutely loved it.

MW: That’s pretty heavy for a high school kid.

BRIGGS: Not for me. As much as I like clothes, I didn’t want to work at The Gap or Chess King. [Laughs.]

I was really interested in being a funeral director, so I called [the funeral home] and asked them if they ever hired high school kids. They said, ”Yeah, come on up. We need somebody to help do errands, filing, general stuff.” They started to add a bit more to my list of jobs. I remember when a call came in and they asked if I wanted to help go pick up the body, I said, “Sure.” I went with one of the funeral directors. It was the first time I’d seen somebody who had just died, like within an hour or two.

It really expanded my horizons. To annoy my mother, I once came home for lunch and parked the hearse in the driveway. I always had interesting stories to tell.

What I really liked was the social-worker part of it. I liked that you had three days to make a lasting impression, to empower that family to get through a really difficult time. It was our job to keep them calm and relaxed and to have that one-on-one with them. Also, the last impression they had of our loved ones was in our hands. I really liked that I was able to make a difference in their lives. The director did a lot of the hard work, but when the family showed up [at the funeral home] you were able to talk with them. Or, if my boss said, ”I need you to go to the family’s house and pick up the clothes of their deceased,” I might come back in 20 minutes. But there might be a time where it took two hours because the family would want to talk.

MW: Now the MSW makes perfect sense. But speaking of providing comfort to families, tell me about the aura of PFLAG. It’s as if at any Pride parade, the PFLAG contingent always elicits the most-emotional responses.

BRIGGS: First of all, if you’re marching with PFLAG, you’re a celebrity. I’d never felt that till I marched with PFLAG. People were crying. They were clapping. They were running out of the crowd to hug us, to share with us. I remember a woman last year just bawling next to us. She had a cell phone in her hand and threw it into one of the women’s hands and said, ”My mother is on the phone and I haven’t talked to her in five years. Can you please tell her that I love her and that I want her in my life?”

A good amount of the parents we work with, a good amount of the families, actually come out and march with us. I was so fortunate last year that my sister, her daughter – at the time a year-and-a-half old – and her son, 5, and her husband and our parents marched with us. They had these special T-shirts and signs made.

MW: What did those shirts and signs say?

BRIGGS: ”I love my gay Uncle Billy.”

The 14th Annual Metro DC PFLAG Honors Gala & Silent Auction is Saturday, April 16, at 6 p.m. at the Washington Plaza Hotel, 10 Thomas Circle NW. Tickets start at $200 and are available by calling 202-638-3852 or via the group’s website, pflagdc.org. Also marking the anniversary, comedian Scott Nevins performs Friday, April 15, at Freddie’s Beach Bar & Restaurant, 555 South 23 rd St., Arlington, 6:30-7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance, available by calling 703-685-0555, or $20 at the door, with half of proceeds benefiting Metro DC PFLAG.

Follow Will O'Bryan on Twitter @wobryan.

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