Coming Out!

Jim Toledano is a married father of two. Now the Democratic leader is ready for a new role: Gay activist

Coming out isn't always as easy as it has apparently been for Toledano. It is probable that more married men lead secret gay lives than is popularly imagined. One such fiftysomething South County man whom we'll call Tom (not his real name; he declined to be identified for this article) has been married for more than three decades. Unbeknownst to either his wife, his adult children or his co-workers, Tom considers himself homosexual (occasionally, he calls himself bisexual) and has been a "regular" at certain Southern California gay bars and beaches for many years. He says he and his wife have been physically and emotionally aloof for "as long as I can remember." Because he's bright and attractive enough, he has minimal trouble finding dates, even among men half his age. But Tom craves a gay relationship—without separating from his wife. When asked why he just doesn't formally come out of the closet and divorce, Tom recoiled testily.

"No way. I could never tell my wife. She would never understand. My family would never understand," he says, shaking his head slowly. "We were married in a far different era. Dealing with homosexuality is much easier these days for the younger generation. Just look around: it's more out in the open now. I think that's great, really. I wish it had been this easy when I was growing up. But you can't compare my situation. It's not the same. [Coming out] just isn't an option for me. It would either kill my wife, or she would kill me."

Hyperbole or not, Tom's apprehension about his wife's reaction is a real concern. For Toledano, that fear was without merit. In fact, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Toledano's coming out story is his wife, a quick-witted, incredibly articulate woman with a dry sense of humor and a delightful laugh.

Peggy and Jim met as student officers of the Graduate Assembly at UC Berkeley in 1969. A native of South Dakota, Peggy arrived in California via Denver already a liberal. Before she got together with Toledano, she had already married, divorced and had one daughter, Gwyn. Toledano, who was born in Manhattan and grew up in Washington, D.C., came west having been a leader of Youth for Goldwater. He also worked stints with the Young Republicans and the Republican National Committee. Toledano's father, Ralph, now 83, worked as an ultraconservative reporter for Newsweek and was chums with Richard Nixon. Growing up, Toledano met Nixon, Gerald Ford and scores of famous 1950s politicians at D.C. cocktail parties. The experiences, he says, "permanently inoculated me from thinking people in political power are invincible." Until Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign, Toledano had been a "glinty-eyed right-winger."

"The joke about Jim from back then was that he backed and backed and backed so far to the Right that he eventually came out on the Left," Peggy says.

Toledano says he "knew he wasn't" a conservative anymore when cheers at a Republican meeting greeted news of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination.

In 1971, the two Vietnam War protestors and UC Berkeley graduates married and moved to Orange County, where Toledano pursued his interests in law and politics. Peggy says he once proclaimed that he would someday be president. In 1979, their son was born. During Jim's three consecutive unsuccessful Democratic campaigns for the state Assembly between 1990 and 1994, their marriage appeared a model—at least to those on the outside. In truth, the relationship had been in shambles "since the fall of 1975," and "it never" really improved, according to Peggy. Nowadays, both acknowledge that the pair enjoyed little or no emotional and physical bond. She says it was "very clear" that there was "a great deal missing" in the marriage.

"I was cheating her to pretend," Toledano says.

In the early mid-1990s, Toledano started to quietly meet other men through online chat rooms. He says that through these "episodes," he "quickly became aware of the freedom, and I was able to be myself." He attended gay parties—sometimes with Peggy, other times not. From 1994 to 1996, he served as the elected chairman of the Orange County Democratic Central Committee and was involved in a messy (still not completely resolved) mini campaign-finance scandal in the party's attempts to defeat rabid anti-gay Congressman Robert K. Dornan.

One consequence of the party job was that Toledano came into greater contact with the county's informal gay leadership, people he would later rely on in the increasingly likely chance he would eventually come out.

At the time, there was speculation that Toledano might be gay despite the marriage. One person who met Toledano five years ago came away from the conversation saying, "He's the gayest straight man I've ever seen."

"I've been joking that there were 150,000 red flags I never really noticed during my life," Toledano says. "Peggy hates to dance; I love dancing and disco."

Although the Toledanos are fuzzy on details, Toledano says he first told Peggy he was gay in January 1998. They both, however, have no problem remembering her reaction: "Oh, my God, it isn't me. I'm not the one who's been doing something wrong all along."

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