Hancock part of Safe Zone lecture series
“Pride mom” and gay rights activist Harriet Hancock shared her experiences with LGBT issues as a supportive parent as the third speaker in the Safe Zone Ally Project “Speak Out Loud” lecture series sponsored by the Student Health Services Wednesday night at Gambrell Hall. With the reassuring aura of any good-natured Southern grandmother and the feistiness of a mother grizzly, Hancock, a South Carolina native and USC alumna, shared her story of activism in the gay community in her lecture, “A Mother’s Commitment to Equality: Reflections from a Pioneer.”
Hancock’s involvement in LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) issues began in 1980, the year her son, Greg, first came out to her as gay.
“I threw my arms around him and said, ‘Is that all? I thought you got caught smoking pot!’” Hancock said. “I knew I had to react that way because he was so scared. My biggest fear was, ‘What’s going to happen to my son?’”
A year after readily accepting her son’s identity, Hancock heard a representative of a group of parents dedicated to supporting their gay children on the radio and was inspired to start Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) in Columbia. She said she was driven by the stories she had heard from others like her son whose parents hadn’t been nearly as accepting of their children’s sexual orientation.
“Greg’s friends would [come] home to me as a surrogate mother, and it broke my heart that their own families wouldn’t accept them for who they were,” Hancock said.
Not long after PFLAG was started, Hancock became involved in the fight against the epidemic then known as Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (now known as AIDS) that was sweeping the state. In 1985 she joined the board of directors for Palmetto AIDS Life Support Services (PALSS), an organization that offers free assistance to those diagnosed with or at risk for AIDS and support for their families.
“The national epidemic was largely ignored by the (former President Ronald) Reagan administration,” said Hancock, adding that they were “some of the darkest days this country had ever experienced.”
Four years after beginning her work with PALSS, Hancock also helped organize one of the first Columbia pride marches with the South Carolina Gay and Lesbian Pride Movement. In 1991 she and other members of the movement met with former Columbia Mayor Bob Coble to develop a comprehensive report of gay issues in South Carolina, and Coble issued a series of city ordinances preventing discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing and public access areas. Theses ordinances made Columbia one of the first cities in the South to develop such a nondiscrimination policy.
Even after these laws were passed, Hancock went on to serve on the directive and advisory boards of South Carolina Equality, Youth Empowered Against HIV/AIDS, Outloud and the Harriet Hancock Center Foundation. Despite the defeat of the 2006 amendment to approve same-sex unions in South Carolina, she is determined to see the day when homosexual South Carolinians will be able to legally marry. She believes parents have a great deal of power in defending their children’s rights.
“I think people were more willing to listen to us (PFLAG) parents talk about our children than they were to listen to our children talk about themselves,” Hancock said. “I can’t keep doing this for much longer, but I have a strong feeling that things will be moving much faster than we ever thought.”
First-year biology and psychology student Mason Branham, a certified Safe Zone Ally who attended the lecture, said he was reassured by Hancock’s acceptance of her son and her determination to defend gay rights.
“A lot of people say their parents don’t approve of who they are, so it’s good to hear that there are people who really love and support us,” Branham said. “[Hancock] had no experience, but she caused a revolution, and it makes every young person ask themselves, ‘What can I do to help?’”
The next “Speak Out Loud” lecture will take place April 4 in Russell House room 315 with a panel of graduate student Allies. There are two Ally training sessions left this semester on April 13 and 15. According to Safe Zone Ally Project Coordinator Drew Newton, the program has certified approximately 150 allies this year (already 50 more trainees than last year), and he hopes more will join the program as a result of the lecture series.