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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

PFLAG Works to Keep Families Together

Published in the February 2008 issue of The Business Monthly

by Steve Charing

Most businesses target their marketing strategies towards families. Myriad services and products are offered the consumer with the family in mind. From restaurants to tax services, appliances to health care, the effects of these goods and services on families are keys to success.

Families that remain intact better serve the general economy. Strong families are the engines that make the economy run. A fractured family, whether it is caused by domestic conflict, economic uncertainty, substance abuse or poor health, will reduce the likelihood that goods and services, other than essentials, will be sought.

At the Columbia/Howard County chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) - an all-volunteer organization - the overall mission is to keep families together through support, education and advocacy. But even in a progressive area such as Howard County, there is family discord stemming from homophobia.

Dealing With Cries for Help
Over the years, PFLAG chapter chair Colette Roberts, who is the point of contact for most inquiries, has taken countless phone calls - many during the middle of the night - from parents who have difficulty in dealing with the discovery that their child is gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered (GLBT). In addition, there have been frantic, emotional and sometimes desperate calls from teenagers who found that not only were their parents not accepting of this new information, they also were hostile.

Using her 12-plus years of experience in dealing with such cries for help, Roberts - a recipient of Howard County's 2007 Human Relations Commission award - attempts to diffuse the emotional trauma that triggered the call. In most instances, the parents are invited to a PFLAG support meeting. There they can meet other parents who initially had experienced consternation and have ultimately found acceptance of their child's sexual orientation.

Other situations can be more critical. Because some parents actually have evicted their children, Roberts has worked with community services and individuals to seek placement for these children until stability was restored within the family. In cases where the crisis appeared to be acute, referrals were made to social service agencies such as the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center.

A large number of parents have attended PFLAG meetings over the years and have learned that they are not alone. They have been comforted by others who have traveled the same journey. The parents come to the realization that it is OK if their child is gay - that their love is unconditional. The same love and respect they have for their straight children also applies to their GLBT sons and daughters.

Legal and Social Disadvantages
PFLAG's interest in keeping families together extends to GLBT couples. Today's families are no longer exclusively in the "Ozzie and Harriet" model. There are various types of family arrangements that contribute to the economy: single-parent families, blended families, extended families, foster families and adoptive families are examples.

There are also same-sex couples that are linked by love and commitment as well as economic ties. According to Susan Leviton, founder of the Baltimore-based Advocates for Children and Youth, there are more than 15,000 same-sex couples in the state of Maryland and between one-quarter and one-third are raising children. But in Maryland there is no marriage equality under the law.

Lacking the more than 1,100 benefits, rights and responsibilities that are afforded heterosexual couples, not only are same-sex partners denied legal protections, but the children who are being raised are also at a major disadvantage. Aside from the social consequences from families being relegated to unequal and second-class status, the economic impact must be considered.

Stable Families Contribute Economically
Corporations have seen the economic benefits of stable families, regardless of their composition. The Human Rights Campaign, a nonpartisan GLBT civil rights organization, reports that, of the 500 companies which compose the Fortune 500, nearly 90% have anti-discrimination policies in effect with respect to sexual orientation, 30% prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and more than 50% provide domestic partner health insurance benefits to their employees.

Moreover, the higher a company ranks on Fortune magazine's list of the most successful businesses, the more likely it is to provide comprehensive protections and benefits to GLBT employees.

Howard County government, the Howard County Public School System, the Columbia Association and Howard Community College are among the public and private institutions that recognize the contributions stable families bring to the community and have offered domestic partnership benefits.

"Employees are far more productive when they don't have to sit and worry at work about how they are going to cope financially with a partner's illness," said Dan McCarthy, co-chair of PFLAG - Columbia/Howard County's Advocacy Committee, who has performed research on the issue. "It makes good business sense to allow the employees to concentrate on their jobs and perform at the desired levels. Plus it allows companies to compete with others in recruiting and retaining highly qualified employees." He added, "All this at a relatively nominal cost."

PFLAG - Columbia/Howard County, through its advocacy work, was instrumental in gaining these benefits. It is another way the chapter strives to keep families together, and it's good for business, too.

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