FARGO – Michael Erickson struggled with his sexuality for years until finally, at the age of 27, he took his own life. He went into his garage and started the engine of his car on a winter day in 1975.
To ease the pain, Michael’s parents, Arlene and Lloyd Erickson, had to do something.
“When Michael died, I had this feeling it could not end here. Not in this utter silence,” Arlene told The Forum in 1988.
Over time, Arlene and Lloyd sought out others with gay relatives, and they helped found the Fargo-Moorhead chapter of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) in the mid-1980s. At a time when homosexuality was not widely accepted, the couple visited churches and college classrooms to talk about their son and their experience.
The occasion for remembering this couple who took an early public stand for gay rights comes this week with the death of 88-year-old Arlene. She died Monday from an aneurysm, and her husband Lloyd, a former chief engineer at KXJB-TV, died in 2009 from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Former Fargo Mayor Jon Lindgren believes they were the first local couple to speak publicly about a gay son or daughter.
“That was a really courageous and controversial thing to do,” said Lindgren, who was also a PFLAG member.
He said other parents of gay children would call Arlene and Lloyd seeking support when there was nowhere else to turn. The Ericksons “were not militant or angry or whatever. They were just sympathetic and listeners,” Lindgren said. “They were just kind of golden people.”
‘A lot of guilt’ It was 1964 when Arlene and Lloyd first learned that Michael was gay. He was 17 and about to graduate from high school. The couple struggled with the revelation and questioned themselves as parents, thinking they were somehow to blame for his homosexuality.
“Oh, we really fought with that,” Lloyd told The Forum in 1988. “We took on a lot of guilt because, at the time, there was an idea that an aggressive mother and a passive father could cause it.”
Arlene and Lloyd looked to their religious community for help, to no avail. They took Michael to a psychologist, not to change him but to help him live a happy life.
That, too, didn’t work for Michael.
“He was a gay man who felt he could not live in this world with all the prejudice,” said his sister, 65-year-old Mary Tron.
The Ericksons came to see their son and his sexuality as a gift from God, but church officials were less accepting. “A lot of their battle actually was with the churches, particularly with the Lutheran church,” Tron said.
‘Her personal fight’ Arlene and Lloyd met in Fergus Falls, Minn., and were married for 66 years. They’re survived by five children as well as several grandchildren and great- grandchildren.
PFLAG was the couple’s passion, and their contribution was so valued that the local chapter created the Lloyd and Arlene Erickson Courageous Parent Award.
“It was so fitting that we named the awards after them because they really were wonderful examples,” said Sharon Nelson, who along with her husband, Allan, won the honor in 1996.
That year, the Nelson family, including their lesbian daughter and her partner, were featured on a billboard at Main Avenue and 11th Street in Fargo as part of PFLAG’s “Love Makes a Family” campaign.
Even then, the family received hate mail for appearing on the billboard, Nelson said.
“We locked our doors and pulled our drapes because we just didn’t know what could happen,” said Nelson, 73. “It wasn’t a healthy community climate.”
By 1996, the local PFLAG chapter had more than 100 members. The group met often, and the members became close. “I think they saved each other from heartbreak,” Tron said.
Though eventually, the group became dormant and remains so today. Around the country, hundreds of other chapters are still active.
Arlene lived to see 37 states, including Minnesota, recognize same-sex marriage – a fact that made her proud as an advocate for gay people and their families, said her granddaughter, 40-year-old Sarah Tron.
“It was her personal fight,” Sarah Tron said. “It was something she held near and dear.”
A visitation for Arlene is set for 5 to 7 p.m. today at Boulger Funeral Home, followed by a prayer service. Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at First Lutheran Church, with a burial at Sunset Memorial Gardens.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Archie Ingersoll at (701) 451-5734