Nancy Keene, one of the founders of PFLAG Denver and its first president, was 89 years old when she died peacefully on March 24, 2018, with her gay son and lesbian daughter at her side.
Born on December 13, 1928, Nancy Lou Umbenhaur was only three when she lost her mother to pneumonia. She grew up in the Chicago area, then attended college at William Woods in Fulton, MO, and she graduated from Baker University in Baldwin, KS, with a degree in Christian education. Her first job was as an educational secretary at the First United Methodist Church in Pittsburg, KS. In 1957 she married Richard Keene; they had a son Mark and a daughter Meredith, and moved to the Denver area in 1964. The family lived 18 years in Littleton, where Nancy was active in her church, Friends of the Library, and League of Women Voters.
Mark came out to his mother in the late seventies. When Nancy saw the newspaper ad about the first meeting for parents of gays, she decided she and Meredith should attend. Meredith balked but Nancy insisted, saying “We have to support your brother.” So they were both present at the very first meeting of the Denver chapter, in February 1980. When Meredith came out to her mother a short time later, she was almost disappointed that Nancy accepted the news with a ho-hum attitude (Meredith expected drama).
Nancy was elected president of the fledgling organization, known at that time as Parents and Friends of Gays or PFG, and served in that capacity for 12 years. Monthly meetings were inaugurated, and Nancy would start every meeting by cheerleading, “Gimme a P, gimme an F, gimme a G,” with such enthusiasm that it made everyone happy to be there.
In an organization blessed with countless loving and supportive parents, Nancy was in a class by herself. From the beginning she didn’t want to just sit on the sidelines, in that heterosexual comfort zone, she wanted to get to know gay men and lesbian women. Mark introduced her to the gay bar scene, and soon she was going to gay bars regularly, dancing disco with the guys and urging them to come to PFG meetings. Nancy made every gay man she met there feel loved and appreciated, and she did the same with all lesbian women.
Tim Wilson has observed, “…the thing that really set Nancy apart was her unwavering demonstration of UNCONDITIONAL LOVE. Nancy reached out to the LGBTQ community in a way that was extraordinary in the 1980s. She went TO the community, while also attracting LGBTQ community members to come to and support PFLAG.”
By 1985 the AIDS epidemic was upon us, and Nancy felt compelled to provide comfort and solace to the many men who were dying of AIDS. She was one of the four founders of PFLAG Denver’s AIDS Family Support Group, which offered support to families suddenly challenged with an AIDS diagnosis. For 18 years she attended virtually every monthly meeting of this group, and she was a beloved presence. She also attended many, many services for men who had died of AIDS.
Over the years Nancy did her share of education and advocacy too. She was even arrested during a Soulforce protest at a National Episcopal Convention held in Denver.
Nancy joined MCCR in the early 1980’s when it was located on Evans and Bannock and remained a faithful member until her death.
Nancy went to innumerable drag shows and LGBTQ fundraising events, to Imperial Court coronations, to gay rodeos, to the Gay Games in San Francisco in 1983 and in Vancouver in 1990. She attended nearly all concerts of the various LGBT choral groups, nearly every Pride Parade and AIDS Walk.
Carol White remembers, “Whenever the PFLAG contingent would walk by in a gay pride parade, there would be cheering and tears from folks along the way, and Nancy taught some of our other parents how to respond to that reaction by walking over to people and hugging them instead of just waving and smiling. She became known as the ‘Mother Teresa of Capitol Hill.’”
Sadly, in her last years, Nancy suffered from macular degeneration and dementia, and a series of falls and fractures weakened her frail body. Throughout she remained beautiful, with her ready smile and lovely white hair, and gamely carried on.