uestions kept building on top of one another.

When Carol Phipps learned that her son, Frankie, was transgender, her first instinct was to be supportive of his transition. But behind her support, she was overwhelmed by the concerns that she had for him.

Her initial research revealed the frightening issues transgender people deal with — bullying, rejection by their families, homelessness, suicide.

“I wanted to help him with the journey. I thought he was quite brave in realizing who he was and who he wanted to fully become, who he felt he was inside,” Phipps said. “There are a lot of things that come your way, so being able to talk to other people who know about what it’s like would help.”

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She found the reinforcement she needed among friends and family of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities. Now, she’s part of a local group providing help to other parents experiencing the same thing.

PFLAG, a national organization aiming to support, educate and advocate about LGBT issues, has formed a chapter in Greenwood. The hope is to offer assistance to people who want to help their loved ones as they come out or transition but don’t know exactly how.

“Sometimes, people need to hear that there are others going through the same thing as them,” said Laura Mueller, a board member of the Greenwood PFLAG chapter. “We’re trying to provide a more focused education for people who have questions about where to look, what to read, because it can be overwhelming.”

PFLAG started in the early 1970s in New York City. Founder Jeanne Manford was marching with her gay son in the city’s Liberation Day parade, and dozens of gay and lesbian people approached her and asked her to talk to their parents about homosexual issues.

The name originally was Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, but as its mission broadened, the name was changed to be more inclusive.

The group now has more than 200,000 members and 350 affiliates around the country.

The Greenwood chapter formed in early 2014.

Supportive minority

Mueller was one of the founders. Growing up in Greenwood, her family had always instilled the importance of tolerance and acceptance of all people, regardless of race, religion or sexuality.“I found that we seemed to be a minority at times. It seemed that there were a lot of people who felt a strong discomfort or distaste for other people, and I didn’t like the feeling of being the minority,” she said.The Indianapolis resident had been searching for a group to help advocate for gay rights and help support communities of people who felt disenfranchised in central Indiana. Working with friends of a similar mindset, she helped formally start a PFLAG organization in Johnson County. After months of laying the foundation for the group, the Greenwood chapter started its first official year last October.

PFLAG gathers every month at Risen Lord Lutheran Church in Bargersville to discuss a range of issues. Each session has about 10 people in attendance, coming from all over Johnson County.

An atmosphere of positivity is maintained within the group. Leaders focus on backing not just gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues but also the parents or family members themselves, regardless of where they are on their journey of acceptance, Mueller said.

“We try not to ever say, ‘How could you ever feel that way? What do you mean you don’t get it?’” she said. “If we want them to be nonjudgmental to their family member, we need to be nonjudgmental to them.”

Phipps has been a member of the Greenwood PFLAG group since December. Before then, she was involved in the Indianapolis chapter.

Her friends from Prince of Peace United Church of Christ, where she is a member, suggested she attend a meeting. Prince of Peace has been open and welcoming to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, and church leaders knew that Phipps was an ardent supporter of those communities.

“The more you can talk and hear other people’s stories, the more insight I’ve had to be supportive of my son,” she said. “And I wanted to truly help other people.”

‘Needed to learn about it’

Frankie Phipps came out to his mother as transgender in high school. Though he had been born a biological female, he had always felt that he was male.Transgender issues were just emerging into the national consciousness. Chaz Bono, the transgender child of Sonny Bono, was a featured competitor on “Dancing with the Stars” during that time.But Carol Phipps realized she knew next to nothing about what it really meant to be transgender.

“I needed to really learn about it, and read everything I could about it,” she said. “But I also wanted to talk to some parents who had been through their children transitioning.”

Through her research, she contacted the Indianapolis branch of PFLAG. She was put in touch with a woman in the group whose own child was transgender. That connection led to other parents who had gone through the exact experience that Carol Phipps was.

“It really helped hearing other people’s experiences,” she said. “In a couple of cases, the youth had successfully transitioned, so I heard about their stories. One of the mothers I talked with had a son who was the exact same age as my son.”

After four years, Carol Phipps has gone from the one looking for help to the one assisting others who come and have questions. She has become a leader with Greenwood PFLAG, aiming to provide the same depth of experience that proved so vital to her.

“They helped me figure out how to be the best parent possible for my son. I wanted to help other parents who might be earlier in that journey and needing that same help,” she said.

Reaching out

PFLAG meetings vary by the month. Some sessions feature local specialists and speakers discussing LGBTQ issues such as correct usage of pronouns to use with transgender people and societal issues facing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth.Representatives from area churches, such as Resurrection Lutheran Church, Risen Lord Lutheran Church and Prince of Peace United Church of Christ, also take part to help emphasize their support for LGBTQ people.Other times, members gather simply to support one another. People share their feelings and their experiences, fostering discussions and questions among attendees.

One of the largest challenges for Frankie and Carol Phipps was how to tell their family. The support of aunts, uncles, cousins and Frankie Phipps’ grandmother were all important to both of them.

Carol Phipps spoke to other parents about how they approached that announcement, particularly speaking with grandparents and other family members.

Luckily, it proved not to be an issue. The entire family, even its oldest members, have been behind Frankie, Carol Phipps said.

“My mother, Frankie’s grandmother, has been so supportive. That generation was one we were most scared about,” she said. “But she was awesome. She helped me learn pronouns, and after a weekend, we were both doing pretty good.”

Often, parents will come for the first time and listen, silently gaining comfort with the group, Mueller said.

“That hardest first step can be even coming in the first place,” she said. “Those are the people we’re really trying to reach.”

Pushing openness

In a changing society, acceptance of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people is increasing. According to 2013 Pew Research, more than 92 percent of LGBT people feel that society is more welcoming than it was in 2003.Groups such as PFLAG can help push that openness further. The Greenwood group has been active at events such as Pride Fest in Indianapolis and has worked with leaders at Franklin College and the University of Indianapolis to let students know about their work.“When my son was transitioning, people weren’t talking about it. It was hush-hush. People were supportive, but they didn’t know a lot about it,” Carol Phipps said. “I don’t think we’re far apart on things now.”

Frankie Phipps’ transition has been a success. The 22-year-old graduated from Indiana University in May and is working as a behavioral youth counselor in Nashville.

“I would hope we can help other youth to have that same trajectory, and move along on their journey,” Carol Phipps said.

If you go

What: PFLAG Greenwood, a group of support, education and advocacy for parents and friends of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Who: The group is open to all.

Monthly support meetings: 6:30 p.m. every first Monday of the month

Location: Risen Lord Lutheran Church, 3758 W. Whiteland Road, Bargersville

Upcoming dates: Oct. 5, Nov. 2, Dec. 7

Information: pflaggreenwood.org, facebook.com/PFLAGGreenwood

Author photo
Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at rtrares@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2727.