Columbia City of Women Honoree
Harriet Daniels Hancock
Image courtesy of the State Newspaper Photograph Archive, Richland Library.
On September 24, 1989, more than twenty years after the Stonewall riots ignited a widespread movement for equal rights for gays and lesbians and ten years after the community’s first National March on Washington, Harriet Hancock assembled a group of gay rights activists in Columbia to begin planning the state's first Gay Pride March. Hancock found herself inspired by Jim Blanton’s criticism that current Pride gatherings, closed to both the public and the press, were allowing fear to hobble the movement. He told Hancock, “If you march down Main Street, I’ll be glad to join you.” The individuals that met that day formed the South Carolina Gay and Lesbian Pride Movement (GLPM), now known as SC Pride.
"I took my son’s trembling hand in my trembling hand. What a feeling of empowerment came over us. We were part of history!"
— Harriet Hancock, for Rainbow Radio
After 10 months of planning and fundraising, the group gathered at the corner of Main and Richland streets for the seven-block march to the State House grounds. They hoped at least 100 people would join; instead, the crowd numbered more than 2,000. The marchers, led by Hancock and her son, Greg, carried 1,000 pink balloons, printed with a design by Greg that represented the discrimination the community faced during the Holocaust and the Stonewall riots. Two hours of speeches followed on the State House steps. The demands they made that day included anonymous HIV counseling and testing, the right to foster and adopt, the expansion of HIV prevention education, equal opportunity employment and housing, legal recognition of domestic partnerships, and the repeal of South Carolina’s sodomy law. For Hancock, the rally was more than a public demonstration—it was the beginning of a conversation.
"Our kids aren’t broken, and they don’t need fixing. Society’s attitudes are broken, and they do need fixing."
— Harriet Hancock, June 23, 1990
Harriet Daniels was born in Columbia on September 25, 1936 to H. Adam and Elizabeth McCabe Daniels. She graduated from Columbia High School in 1954, the same month that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled “separate but equal" schools unconstitutional, and she recalled later that the segregation of schools, accommodations, and transportation during the 1940s and 1950s heightened her awareness of both white privilege and arbitrary biases faced by African Americans. This consciousness surely informed the “inclusive mind set” that fellow activist Bert Easter witnessed in Hancock. She married Marion Hancock after graduation, and they moved first to New Jersey and then Florida in 1961. Marion Hancock, a Korean War veteran, developed an addiction to alcohol, and died shortly after Harriet Hancock took her two children back to Columbia. She enrolled as an undergraduate at the University of South Carolina, taking classes alongside her son, Greg. When he came out to her in 1981, she found a call to action—creating a world that would accept her son.
Shortly thereafter, realizing that most of her sons’ friends—and their families—were struggling with life after coming out, Hancock started a local chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) and began hosting regular meetings at her home.
On May 5, 1984, The State published a letter to the editor by Hancock in response to comments made in an earlier article “Coping: Treating Homosexuality.” Her fiery response, titled “New Attitudes Needed Towards Homosexuals,” was an early call against forms of conversion therapy. Hancock dismissed some of the claims as “not valid” and “not scientific” and likely to “cause parents to blame themselves….it gives false hope that their gay child’s natural sexual orientation can be changed through religious counseling.” She instead suggested that “parents should educate themselves about homosexuality so that they can understand, accept and support their gay child with love and pride.”
That year, Hancock graduated magna cum laude from UofSC and was admitted to the school’s law program. In October 1984, Columbia’s PFLAG meeting focused on Hancock’s report from the national conference in Denver and offered “the latest information concerning AIDS.” Although South Carolina did not have the same magnitude of cases as major metropolitan cities, the stigmatism and fear was widespread. In 1985, Hancock and other allies began an unofficial emotional support group to help patients and their families, most of whom were not treated with dignity in hospitals. Later that year, the group organized as the Palmetto AIDS Life Support Services (PALSS), led by executive director Bill Edens, who was politically connected and recently diagnosed with HIV. Edens ran PALSS without pay from his apartment in Cornell Arms Apartments. Funding was scarce, and its work staffing a crisis hotline and serving as “buddies” to people with HIV was done entirely by volunteers. Hancock served as a buddy to several children who died of AIDS, including an abandoned eight-year-old boy that Edens was able to foster under an emergency order. Edens died in November 1993, having built PALSS into an organization that served 15,000 people a year.
As an attorney, Hancock took on LGBT rights through legal work and ad hoc groups, including a period working with the Columbia Community Relations Council on anti-discrimination measures. She received the 1991 Pro Bono Lawyer of the Year Award from the South Carolina Bar. In 1994, the SC Gay and Lesbian Pride Movement purchased 1108 Woodrow Street and turned it into a community space. Run entirely by volunteers since its creation, the center was renamed for Harriet Hancock in 2005. SC Pride is now in its 30th year. Festival attendance likely will draw more than the 80,000 who celebrated last year. But, as Hancock recalled in her National Coming Out Day speech in 1990:
In 1990, Harriet D. Hancock spoke on the steps of the South Carolina State House to more than 2,000 participants in the state’s first Pride March. Now called SC Pride, this event draws tens of thousands of people from across the state each year.
The first step is the most difficult—the rest will get easier—WE’VE ONLY JUST BEGUN.
Want to learn more about Harriet Hancock? Connect with a historian at Historic Columbia.
Interested in advancing the health, economic well-being, and rights of South Carolina's women, girls, and their families? Check out what's going on at WREN.