Like many Utah parents with gay children, Kathy Godwin wasn’t sure where to turn when her younger son came out to her six years ago as a high school senior — until she and her husband Bill discovered their local Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays chapter.
Six years later, she is now leading the Northern Utah chapter, helping other parents who were once in her position, trying to cope with a child’s coming out.
“I try to tell parents that they [your children] are leading,” Godwin explains. “You have to let them lead you a bit, which isn’t always easy as a parent, but you do have to sort of do that.”
Long before Godwin learned to follow her son’s lead when it came to his sexual orientation, she knew a little about what being different felt like as a member of “probably one of the sole Democratic families in Orange County,” where she grew up and lived, for the most part, until 1990, when she and her husband Bill received an offer to purchase G & S Sales Incorporated, a Utah business specializing in plumbing and irrigation equipment. Although she had never been to the state, Godwin (who lived in Memphis, Tenn. at the time) was familiar with the culture, having had a friend who attended BYU and was a practicing Mormon.
“We wanted to get west,” she said of the move.
After coming to Utah, Godwin became involved first with the University of Utah’s Tanner Dance Program, where she is currently a board member. In fact, she says her involvement with Northern Utah’s PFLAG chapter was slight for several years because the board’s meetings conflicted with PFLAG’s. However, she recalls “going to many activities in the community that were LGBT related” such as panel discussions, so that she could learn more about her son’s orientation.
Eventually, the dance program’s meeting schedules changed and Godwin was able to devote more time to PFLAG. In September of last year, the organization’s outgoing president asked her if she would be interested in running for the position. Godwin said yes, ran unopposed for the seat, and came to office just as demonstrations against Proposition 8 exploded across the nation and throughout Utah.
“Our November meeting was right after the election. That was a very well-attended meeting, because parents felt [concerned] as to what was going on and how it affected their families,” remembers Godwin.
As the group’s new president, Godwin jumped headlong into the surge of gay rights activism in Salt Lake City. Already familiar with Equality Utah’s director Mike Thompson, she joined efforts to lobby for the group’s Common Ground Initiative (the five bills targeted towards getting more rights for gay people in Utah this legislative session), and joined other gay rights leaders for a “town hall”-style meeting in mid-December. In addition, she has participated in Equality Utah’s citizen lobbyist training, and is actively looking for families of gay children who would like to testify before the Utah legislature in support of any of Equality Utah’s bills.
As the 2009 legislative session prepares to open, Godwin says she is also trying to do all she can not only to support local gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, but their families.
“One of my biggest goals is to try to reengage families who may or may not be active members in PFLAG and try and find out what they’re looking for,” she says. Godwin says she does this by putting out information on the group through a variety of channels, and responding to parents who contact her as promptly as possible — she aims for a maximum of 24 hours. She will also meet with parents “if they want to see that there are other parents out there” facing the same circumstances.
“What happens is when you have a family member who comes out, you want someone else to talk to, to help you parent,” she explains.
Although not a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Godwin says that she also refers parents to more Mormon-focused groups for parents of gay children, such as Affirmation or Family Fellowship.
“This is a unique community. It has a very strong religious community that I am not personally a part of but I have to be very sensitive to,” she says.
Overall, she wants parents of gay children to know that things can turn out alright. In the years since her son’s coming out, Godwin says she feels they have grown closer.
“It’s just part of growing in your relationship with your children as adults,” she says. “As a family he has taught us how to open our minds to a community of people we are really enjoying, that otherwise we might not have met. [As a family], I think we’re all pretty strong and continue to be strong.”
For more information about Northern Utah PFLAG contact Kathy Godwin at firstname.lastname@example.org. PFLAG’s Web site can be found at pflag.org.