Friday, August 3, 2012

PFLAG Savannah Mom Shares her Powerful Story

Today we hear from PFLAG Savannah mom Phyllis Panhorst. Phyllis, who was described as “a key PFLAG Savannah figure” by chapter President Betsy Barber, serves as an advisor to the local LGBTQ youth group, Stand Out Youth (SOY).

Phyllis waves to the camera at
Savannah Pride 2011
Hi. My name is Phyllis Panhorst. I am the mother of two grown children. One day I got an email from the older of the two that said, “Mom, I’m genderqueer.”

Genderqueer? This was a word I had never even heard of. My “baby girl” said she did not relate to being female but she didn’t necessarily relate to being male, either. She said she didn’t want to transition but qualified it with the phrase, “at this time.” She said that anything was possible down the road, and she didn’t want anyone to be taken by surprise if she should someday make that decision.

I have to say, this threw me for a loop. I was confused. I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t understand. I felt like my own identity was somehow in question. I rapidly discovered how much I defined myself by being the mother of two children: a daughter and a son. If I was no longer the mother of a daughter, and yet she was not a son either, then who was I?

In the midst of my confusion, I remembered PFLAG. I had joined for a time when my children were very small to support my friends in the LGBTQ community. Now I needed support, someone to talk to, so I turned to our local PFLAG chapter in Savannah. I met some wonderful people there, including Betsy Barber and her husband, Ron La Conte. I also met an incredible man named Bob Dunn, who is the lead facilitator of a local LGBTQ youth support group, Stand Out Youth.

SOY participates in the National Equality
March on Washington!

Stand Out Youth (SOY) incorporated as a 501(c)3 organization in 2005. SOY’s mission is to foster support and promote understanding of issues facing lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning youth, ages 14-23. We seek to provide opportunities for these youth to envision a future for themselves as inspiring, engaged, and valued individuals and citizens. We also aim to provide a safe space for them to meet and get support, encouragement, and opportunities to discover the value of their individuality, the strength of their differences, and the reassurance of their similarity to all youth.

Listening to Bob talk about SOY sparked something in me. I asked him if he thought maybe there was a place for me at Stand Out Youth. I told him my only qualification was being a mother. He smiled and said, “My only qualification is being a father.” It was the beginning of an incredible journey, one that is still in progress.

A SOY facilitator poses with 2 of the
group's youth at Savannah Pride 2011
(L to R: Chris St. Clair, Darl Slentz
(facilitator), and Tevin Magee)
Once I met the young folks at SOY, I knew this was where I needed to be. Growing through one’s teen years into young adulthood is hard enough as it is. For an LGBTQ youth, I think it is even more difficult. There are so many additional challenges that have to be faced at home and in society! And a funny thing happened as I came to know these young folks—to talk and to listen, to cry and to laugh. The answer to my original question—who am I?—became clear. I am the mother of two wonderful children. It does not matter what their gender identification is nor their sexual orientation. What matters is that they are happy, healthy, intelligent, funny, loving, responsible adults, and I am blessed to be their mother. And now I am also blessed to be the surrogate mother to over 100 other youth of all different gender identifications, sexual orientations, ages, and ethnicities.

Just a few months ago, Betsy Barber and Ron La Conte were invited to attend President Obama’s LGBT Pride Reception at the White House. I was so very proud that my fellow PFLAG Savannah members were chosen to attend! Something that made this event especially memorable, however, is that Betsy and Ron offered to take greetings from Stand Out Youth to President Obama. We put together a video for Betsy and Ron to take along.  I still smile when I think of that video. I hope President Obama smiled when he saw it, too.

We at PFLAG National thank Phyllis for her inspiring work and dedication to both PFLAG Savannah and Stand Out Youth. We are so grateful that she has decided to share her incredible story. Because in the end, that is how we as PFLAGers connect with one another. By opening up and sharing our personal stories, we truly can change our neighbors’ hearts and minds.

Stand Out Youth holds weekly events every Wednesday night at 6:30 p.m. and every Friday night at 7:00 p.m. Wednesday night events and locations will be posted weekly on SOY’s website as these will change frequently. Friday nights will be SOY’s weekly discussion group at the FCN Building – 307 East Harris St. Savannah, GA. If you have further questions, call SOY’s info line at (912) 657-1966.

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