For a long time, Bonnie Garneau struggled with her daughter's sexuality.
She was shocked when Nicole, the oldest of her three children, told her she was a lesbian. It was Nicole's last year at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and she had come home for the weekend. On Sunday night as she was getting ready to go, she had one hand on the doorknob and she told her mom. "I was one of those parents that had not a clue," Garneau said. "It never entered my mind that she was gay."
Nicole and Bonnie didn't talk about it for almost two years. Bonnie was afraid of how her sister's family would react. She questioned herself as a parent and "that meant I needed to look inside," Bonnie said.
Then she found out about PFLAG ( Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays ) , a support, education and advocacy group which was started in the 1970s and has more than 500 chapters nationwide.
Garneau worked up the nerve to attend a PFLAG meeting and, like a lot of first-time parents, burst into tears within minutes of her first meeting.
"It was hard in the beginning because I was so emotional," she remembers. "To meet somebody and talk to them was a big help to me in understanding my daughter's journey and the journey I was going through." Bonnie realized that all the dreams she had for her daughter were gone. She said she spent time grieving for her dreams, then she got over it and got to know the daughter in front of her and learned to "glory in her dreams because she's wonderful."
She picked up brochures, books and videos. She sent a letter to her sister and other family members and included literature for PFLAG. "Everything I needed I got at PFLAG," Bonnie said.
Nicole said it wasn't long before her mom had moved past the grieving and decided that she needed to take on a more active role. "She was going to PFLAG at first to get emotional support. Then she got over that and was like, "Let's get down to work.'"
Today, Garneau is a gentle 67-year-old woman with short gray hair and soft eyes. She laughed when she talked about her first job with PFLAG. She volunteered to create mailing labels for the group's newsletter and after a while became treasurer of her chapter in Hinsdale. Eventually, she became president of the chapter and then president of the northern Illinois council of PFLAG for a time.
"Every few years she'll be like, 'I'm in this organization because I have a lesbian kid. Can you just show up to this dinner?' to legitimate her as a parent but it's totally fun because she's like a celebrity. And I get to shine off of her star," Nicole said.
For Nicole, who works at Columbia College as a teacher and performance artist, having her mother take on such an active role in PFLAG has been rewarding and sometimes unsettling. "I had always marched in the pride parade but one year I marched with PFLAG," she said. "Oh my God! It's like five miles of solid adoration. People prostrate themselves before PFLAG. They run out of the parade to hug and kiss and cry. I found it to be unbelievably moving. Marching with them in the pride parade helped me to understand the pain that people in our community have with their families." Bonnie remembered people whispering, "I wish my mom was here" in Nicole's ear and her crying the entire parade route.
Last summer Bonnie retired from her job at an insurance company and, for the first time in her life, has nothing to do. "It's great. I love it," she said, laughing.
Now Bonnie is moving awayto the Illinois area of Bloomington-Normal, where her son and grandkids are.
She's starting a whole new chapter in her life. "I'm going to be lost, very lost, without all my PFLAG people," she said, noting that there's not a chapter in Bloomington-Normal…yet.
Peter Ji, the current president of PFLAG's Northern Illinois Council, wrote about Bonnie in a recent newsletter, saying she "never shied away from her story and she was open about her struggles and the long journey it took to where she is today. Her openness made her an effective and inspiring speaker and her story was relatable."
Bonnie said one of the first things she'll do when she gets to her new home is to check out how her new state representative and senator feel about civil unions.
Pretty soon, she said, she'll start looking for a new church and some new friends. And if there's no pride parade in Bloomington, she said, "I'll have to start my own."
"Many people get support and education from PFLAG and say, 'I don't need you anymore.' If everyone had that attitude there would never be anyone there to help the others along, to provide the education."