Carole Benowitz was on vacation in the tropics when her nature tour guide said something startling.
“We’re not sure why this tortoise, named George, won’t mate with any of the female tortoises,” the tour guide said.
To Benowitz, the answer was obvious: “I feel like George is a homosexual tortoise,” she said in front of the crowd, her husband urging her to refrain.
Wherever she goes, Benowitz is always making the LGBT community more visible — for animals but more importantly, for people.
Benowitz, 78, is the president of Palm Beach County’s chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). She has long been an ally to the South Florida LGBT community as the chapter’s president and the state coordinator for Florida with two community service awards under her belt.
“If you can educate one person, you can change the world,” she said.
PFLAG is a support group that meets twice a month at Compass, the LGBT community center of the Palm Beaches. It’s designed to guide family members and loved ones on their journey toward acceptance through education, projects, and storytelling.
She was jolted into the activist community around 1986, when her son, Neil, unexpectedly ended his relationship with his fiance. Benowitz speculateduntil she put the pieces together: her son was gay.
“Neil ... he thought that if he told us, we would stop loving him,” Benowitz said, which was when she started attending PFLAG meetings with her husband. “I had to educate myself and get rid of the blame.”
She said that having been in other families’ shoes before, she can better facilitate meetings and support them with empathy.
But Benowitz’s LGBT activism stretches back to the early ‘90s — when she advocated for fair treatment of lesbians in the Jewish community.
According toa sociologist at York University, “many gay and lesbian Jews feel a sense of alienation from the Jewish community and develop an ambivalent or conflicted relationship about their Jewish identity.”
She eventually joined the national organization Women’s League for Conservative Judaism and tried to diminish that culture. She drafted a resolution in her early days of the organization that called for acceptance and better treatment of lesbians within the organization — which passed.
“At that time, parents [of Jewish lesbians] wouldn’t even say the word ‘lesbian,’” she said. “Now, lesbians can become rabbis.”
Since the ‘90s, she hasn’t stopped. Most recently, Compasswith the 2018 Michael Brown Memorial Faces of the Community Award for her work with PFLAG. But since PFLAG is an entirely volunteer-based organization that’s restricted to tabling and meetings, Benowitz has often made an impact using her own time and money.
Her efforts outside PFLAG include trying to ban conversion therapy and trying to find safe homes for LGBT kids turned away from their families.
She’s helped kids from coast-to-coast, and recalled one instance where her and her ties across the country helped one boy find a home in San Francisco after he “escaped” conversion therapy in Las Vegas.
“They could be kicked out, physically harmed, and left without money … some even live in their cars ...” she said. “They need to know there’s support out there.”
Whether it’s kids or other PFLAG chapters, Benowitz is known for helping however and whenever she can.
“She pours everything that she has into everything that she does,” said Jeff Oliverio, president of Broward County’s PFLAG. He said they’re a small organization that doesn’t have a lottery of people to choose from, but “Carole is that person.”
Over the years, she has seen attitudes and behaviors become more “accepting” at PFLAG meetings. There’s been an increase in grandparents becoming more supportive, she said, as well as more open discussions on non-conforming children.
Benowitz continues to expand PFLAG, both across the U.S. and the world. Her recent projects include working to start chapters in Venezuela, Puerto Rico, and Mexico.
At the local level, she’s working to launch a scholarship for LGBT high school seniors in Palm Beach County and is constantly boasting her organization everywhere from grocery stores to airports because, “you never know who needs it,” she said.
“I educate every day of my life, if I can ...” she said. “It’s a better world, now.”