Harriet Hancock is sitting at her dining room table looking out at her back deck. The backyard is shrouded in trees, creating an idyllic, peaceful environment that surrounds her three-bedroom home in Irmo, South Carolina.
In many ways, it is idyllic, only it isn’t exactly home. Home is Columbia, South Carolina, a place where she grew up, left for a time and then eventually returned. It’s a place where her family roots can be traced back to the Revolutionary War and her ancestors donated large portions of land that would eventually come to be known as central parts of Columbia, the capitol of South Carolina and a cosmopolitan city surrounded by suburbs like Irmo and filled with a thriving LGBTQ community.
Hancock had much to do with how well the city and state’s LGBTQ community is thriving today. If you don’t know her, you should. She just celebrated her 86th birthday and she’s the original founder of South Carolina PFLAG, a fete she accomplished back in 1981 after her then 20-year-old son Greg came out to her.
That started her down a path which would take her from being a hair stylist to an attorney, new to the bar at the age of 51. Since then and along the way, she’s worked tirelessly for the LGBTQ Community. So much so that she became a legendary figure known and loved by many. She and other key LGBTQ and allied Columbia residents spearheaded the movement to establish and purchase a building that could serve as an LGBTQ Community Center. Her efforts led to other leaders and activists easily coming to the mutual conclusion the center should be named in her honor.
She agreed to speak with us recently, just two days before turning 86.
David Aaron Moore: You’re a native South Carolinian, aren’t you?
Harriet Hancock: Yes I am, I’m originally from South Carolina. I was born 1936. That was 86 years ago! I’m actually still 85, but I’ll be 86 in two days. But yes, I am a native. In fact, both sides of my family go back to the pre-revolution era here.
DAM: What prompted you to leave South Carolina, and then later return?
HH: I moved away from South Carolina when I married my husband and he graduated from USC in 1959. He went to USC with a major in engineering on the GI Bill. He had served during the Korean War. After he graduated we moved to New Jersey, where he worked for RCA, and then he worked for the federal government. After he passed away, we moved back here in 1978. My oldest daughter (Karen) was at the University of Maryland at the time getting ready to graduate, and my son Greg, who is gay, was a senior in high school and then I had my youngest one Jennifer. It was a tough time, but I’m so glad I came back because I had family here and I needed to be with my family so they could help me. Help me through that nightmare, you know, and so things got so much better. Sometimes it feels like I’ve lived two different lifetimes.
DAM: How did you respond when your son came out to you?
HH: How did I react? Well, you know, there was a time when my husband and I talked about the possibility Greg might be gay. It was when he had a girl that lives across the street, they were big buddies, and we knew that there was nothing there romantic at all. They were just good friends. I mean, her mother didn’t care if she came over and brought a sleeping bag on the weekends, and she and Greg would just watch TV all night down in my den in their sleeping bags, and we thought nothing of it. So we kind of wondered, and then I think he kind of got an inkling that we might be suspicious.
Then all of a sudden, he had all these really good looking girls he was bringing home and introducing them to us. And it was just a big cover up. He was scared to death about what would go down if we found out. But he did finally come out to me, after we were back in Columbia.
The way that he told me, it was just that there was, you know, a lot of emotion attached to it. He brought my sister with him, and I had a friend over and we were watching television, so they came in and they were just sitting in the dining room, waiting. And they didn’t look happy.
I was kind of like, how can I get my friend out of the house, because I knew they were sitting in the dining room, and she basically needed to go.
I told her “there’s something brewing here and I need to find out what it is.” So when I went into the dining room, they were sitting there at the table, and Greg said, ‘Mom, I have something to talk to you about. And I said, “Greg, I can’t sit down. I said, whatever it is, you have to tell me. I said, whatever it is, okay.” Then he said, “Okay,” and then he looked at me and my sister and said, “I cannot, I can’t tell her.” And she grabbed his hand and told him, “Yes, yes you can tell her. It’s gonna’ be okay.”
I looked at him and he had tears in his eyes and he just looked so frightened. I’ve never seen a look like that on anybody. “Mom, I’m gay,” he told me.
And I just said, “Is that what this is all about? I thought maybe you got caught smoking pot or you got arrested.” I had to tell him, that it was okay and that I loved him.
So then we just talked more, and then my sister, she went home and we just talked and talked. In fact, I think we probably stayed up all night long talking and, you know, just loving each other. I think me telling him that nothing in the world could ever make me not support him and love him no matter what was what made our relationship as mother and son so close and so, you know, successful.
DAM: How did Columbia end up with an LGBTQ Center that is bought and paid for? That’s amazing.
HH: Gary Price was a big part of that. He owned beauty schools, he was a hairdresser, he owned a florist’s shop and property around town. He was very generous. He was the one that when we were trying to find the money to buy the building, he stepped up. We couldn’t find anybody to lend us money and he said, “I’ll lend you the money. And, you know, just do what you need to.” I told him we just needed the money for the down payment, and we paid him back, but had it not been for him, we probably wouldn’t have a center because I didn’t know who else would have helped us out with the money.
DAM: What a selfless, kind thing to offer. Is he still in Columbia?
HH: No. He is no longer alive. He’s gone. I think it’s probably been four or five years ago. I think it’s been about five years ago, actually. In fact, I’m the only one out of the group that used to be. We all used to hang around together, and I’ll have you know all my old friends are dead. I’m telling you, it’s terrible [chuckles softly]. Of course, you know, I’m sad. But I’m still here, and I’m glad to be. But I sure do miss my old friends. I’ve got a lot of friends who are younger than me, practically everybody is (laughs), but I mean, they’re not exactly young. Just younger than me.
DAM: How did it come about that Columbia’s LGBTQ Center was named after you?
HH: Ed Madden and Bert Easter. I love those two. They’re like sons to me. But they suggested it and everyone agreed. I’ll tell you, it has been such an honor and I have loved every moment of my involvement with this community. It’s my community, it’s my family. I’m proud the center is named after me.
DAM: Do you have any concerns about the future of this country, and what words would you share with younger people in our community?
HH: About this country? Of course I do. There are so many reasons we have to be concerned about after we saw what happened with Trump in office. And in South Carolina, as a state, there are some crazy people in office. I mean it’s bad in North Carolina, but it’s nowhere as bad as South Carolina.
To young people in today’s community I would say learn about where your rights and abilities came from and the people who worked so hard for you to have the life you have today. But, more importantly, you know, don’t quit. Don’t just sit back and relax. There are people out there working and organizing to try and change everything we’ve accomplished. We can’t let that happen, which means young people in the [LGBTQ] community have got to vote, organize and fight to hold on to what they have and to make the future better.