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On a recent July night at predominantly gay Laguna restaurant Woody's at the Beach, former Orange County Democratic Party chief Jim Toledano sat at an outside table and sipped a chardonnay. A few feet away at the bar stood dozens of assorted young men, apparently warming up to dance at the nearby Boom Boom Room. Only occasional bursts of laughter sliced through the incessant buzz of boisterous all-male conversation. Minutes earlier, teenagers had driven by on PCH, screaming an obscene anti-gay epithet. Yet on this warm, breezy evening, Toledano was simultaneously peaceful and exuberant.
It might have seemed odd to spot Toledano at Woody's. He's a husband of almost 28 years, the father of two grown children, a respected Irvine attorney and an OCN political commentator.
He casually reached into his back pocket, took out a sheet of paper, unfolded it and smiled. It was a clipping of an October 1998 piece by OC Weekly's Commie Girl, Rebecca Schoenkopf. The story's headline: "The Straight Guy at the Gay Pool Party." The party was a fund-raiser for the Eleanor Roosevelt Gay & Lesbian Democratic Club. According to Schoenkopf, a gay friend at the party told her that the 55-year-old Toledano "is just about the sexiest older man I've ever seen. . . . Who is he?" Schoenkopf observed, "Leave it to my friend to lust after the straight guy at a big gay party."
The column startled Toledano—but not for reasons you might expect. "I showed it to my wife, and we had a good laugh. I showed my son, Michael, and he laughed, too. But I really felt terrible about it. I didn't know what to do. It was a lie. There I was with this lie that you guys have published, and what in the hell am I going to do? I wanted to tell Rebecca that I thought her friend was cute, too," says Toledano. "It bothered me. . . . Most people are outed, but I had been inned."
Closeted homosexual public figures throughout the country (but particularly in Orange County) do just about anything—sham marriages and tough anti-gay talk included—to keep their carnal interest in same-sex relations hidden. The political landscape is littered with such scoundrels. But Toledano, one of the county's most prominent Democrats and a consistent pro-gay advocate, is taking a different route. He is outing himself. After years of struggling to understand and accept his sexuality, he says, he can no longer live a lie. "At the time of the [Commie Girl] article, I was in the process of figuring out that I am gay."
Rewind to June 1998. The Orange County AIDS Walk at UC Irvine had just ended and Toledano stood alone and stared at the AIDS Quilt, a collection of sewn panels commemorating the lives of persons who died from the disease. For most people, the sight is unforgettable if distinctly sobering. For Toledano, the quilt was especially heart-wrenching. He felt his life was passing him by. He felt the urge to share his secret.
Walking nearby was Toledano-family friend Bob Burrud, a dog trainer by profession and founder of one of the county's AIDS groups, Pets Are Wonderful Support (PAWS). Toledano approached Burrud, who was with several friends, and asked if they could talk privately. Once by themselves, Toledano opened the conversation by saying, "Bob, I am gay."
"It was a pretty emotional moment," says Burrud, who is also friends with Toledano's wife, Peggy. "There were tears the minute he began. . . . It wasn't about deciding the right thing to do, about whether to come out or not. He knew that. It was just scary for him knowing what he needed to do to go on with his life. Here was a strong guy whose public persona was as a family man and as a public figure in conservative Orange County. Coming out for me was difficult enough at 17; I can't imagine going through much of your life with a wife and family and then decide, 'This is who I am.' But he wanted the secret out."
Since then, Toledano has contacted numerous friends and associates to tell them the news. He starts most of his coming-out conversations with, "Guess what?" He says he can't recall a single negative reaction. Even his 20-year-old son (who did not respond to requests for an interview) reportedly said, "Hey, he's my dad. That's all that counts."
"You don't plan on this kind of thing in your life, so it is basically a shock, but everyone who knows has been wonderful, and I am astonished with how comfortable I have been. I'm so much more open, much more alive," says Toledano, who shrugged his shoulders when asked if he has future political ambitions. "It's been great. I am very, very happy now."
Costa Mesa City Council member Libby Cowan, an open lesbian and longtime Toledano friend, agreed. "I think he's handled it very well," says Cowan. "It's always a very personal thing to come out, but he has turned to a lot of people. He's doing it right—on his own terms and in his own time. Toledano's been very thoughtful and very aware in this process."