The Straight Ally: Daniel Tepfer's Journey to Full-Time Advocate Began with a Life-Changing Admission and an Ingrained Tendency to Serve
Biggar, Alison, Aging Today
Retired Air Force Colonel Daniel Tepfer has gotten used to people coming out of the closet. First it was his college-age daughter who exited while attending Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. Then Tepfer says he and his wife, Nancy, had a similar experience, opening up about their daughter to friends, co-workers, neighbors and people in the community. In his full-time volunteer gig with PFLAG (Parents, Families, & Friends of Lesbians and Gays), he has found that this gradual "coming out" is a common occurrence among families with LGBT kids.
PFLAG is a national nonprofit with more than 200,000 members and supporters (about 60% straight allies and 40% gay chapter members), and more than 250 affiliates. Functioning in a grassroots manner, it relies heavily on its volunteer force.
Tepfer, 68, was first approached by a PFLAG volunteer while at an AIDS walk held where he lives in Dayton. He had started talking with a man (also ex-Air Force) at the walk, and in order to chat with him, hoisted one end of the man's PFLAG Dayton banner. Initially Tepfer balked when another PFLAG volunteer asked him to join, telling her he didn't "need" the organization. But then something happened to change his mind.
After he retired from military service, Tepfer worked at General Electric Aviation in Cincinnati. At an afternoon staff meeting, his boss mentioned having tickets to an Elton John concert, which elicited a homophobic aside from a friend at the end of the table. Tepfer stewed all weekend, and on Monday found a way to speak to his friend without confronting him directly: "I've got a problem," he said, "I've got a gay child, and someone at the other end of the table made some derogatory remarks- I want to know who said it." His friend admitted to the offense, but they remained close, and the man got the message.
Change Comes with Baby Steps
Working for PFLAG is like this for Tepfer. He's not an in-your-face proselytizer, but more of a steady force for change. Things happen in small steps and tend to have a big impact. He first started attending PFLAG in October 1998, the month that Matthew Shepard was murdered. This wasn't long after the AIDS walk, but soon Tepfer was so involved he had developed a scholarship program for PFLAG Dayton, modeled after similar programs around the country. Through this scholarship, the organization donates $2,000 to one LGBT college student and one straight ally each year.
When Tepfer complained about PFLAG's local webpage, they suggested he redesign it, which he did (and still maintains, while his wife writes the newsletter). "The joke at PFLAG is if you show up for three meetings, you're on the board," he says, having now served as state coordinator for Ohio for six years, and on the PFLAG national board for the past five.
He's also regional director for the Great Lakes Region. Some weeks he says he doesn't do much- other times, like in June, become crazy as he gives presentations, attends marches and gay pride parades, and lectures at college classes.
Tepfer is modest about how many minds he may have changed in Ohio, but he admits that "over the past 10 years people have become more respectful, more accepting,, because we put a face on the gay community. You've got to have a reason to be involved in what you're doing," he adds. "As we pre-Baby Boomers get to retirement age, we find we've got a lot of time on our hands. I can't figure out how anyone can stay home."
Don't Ask Don't Tell
"My wife and I have always been liberal, even before our daughter came out," he says, which may explain the ease with which this ex-military man has segued into such advocacy work, some of which has had a nationwide impact.
In 2008, when PFLAG realized Tepfer was retired military, he was asked to speak for five minutes on Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT) at an event on the National Mall for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. …