When Lela Chesson’s son came out in the late 1990s, her protective instincts kicked in – and not just for her family member.
“Looking back, I can remember feeling a love for every single LGBT person when our son told us he was gay. It was like every gay child in the world was mine. I wanted to do something.”
But at that time, “nobody talked about homosexuality,” says Chesson, 74, whose son was in his 20s at the time. “I was worried about the rejection from the community...I was afraid of when he got a job. It was just the fear that he would be rejected by society. So I wanted to get into the fight for equality.
“…You just want to protect the children and let them have the rights that everybody else has.”
She joined the Triangle area chapter of PFLAG, which used to mean Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. The national organization, which now goes just by PFLAG, supports families, allies and people who are LGBTQ.
Then Chesson began holding informal support meetings in the living room of her Rocky Mount home. Sometimes 20 would show. Eventually the group moved out of her living room to the public library, and later the fellowship building of the local Unitarian Universalist church.
They sponsored events with prominent North Carolinians, including Mitchell Gold, co-founder of Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams, a nationally recognized furniture manufacturer headquartered in Taylorsville. He spoke to the group about what it’s like to grow up gay in the South.
“That was, to our knowledge, the first time an openly gay person spoke in our area,” Chesson says.
Another speaker was Jimmy Creech, a former United Methodist pastor who was defrocked in 1999 for performing same-sex marriages.
Talks drew in lots of nonmembers and helped the group grow its support base. But it was still “a hush-hush time in our lives,” recalls Chesson.
She says she didn’t list meeting locations in the local paper because some parents feared violence or other reprisals against their children. When the PFLAG-Rocky Mount chapter formed in 2007, Chesson became its first president.
Today, Chesson says her son, now 48, has a great job and support base. He also recently married his partner. “The world has changed,” she says. “There is much more support, much more understanding.”
“You just feel for the safety of the transgender child now, and the lack of understanding not only with sexual orientation now, but gender identity.”
“Transgender is a word that involves a lot and is very complex. We want to understand. That’s why we’re having programs now.”