Coming Out!

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

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."

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."

"I had always assumed that [our marriage troubles] were because of some flaw in my character," Peggy says. "I was actually relieved."

She says Toledano removed his wedding ring after the admission. She kept hers on for "another couple of weeks" until the realization that "Jim is not a person who turns back" sunk in.

No cussing? No lamp throwing? No gunfire?

"Some people would allow the stress of the moment to pour over into anger and vilification and recrimination and name calling. That's wrong," says Peggy, a Quaker. "This has been a very religious experience for me. It has forced me to test my faith and my belief that compassion should be part of our daily lives. I think it was much more traumatic for him because he thought I didn't suspect. My best friend in the world is a gay man (an artist who lives in Laguna Beach), and I knew enough that Jim wasn't going to be able to live comfortably unless he came out. Being gay is a biological fact. In essence, when one is gay, one cannot successfully carry out a fully committed heterosexual marriage, just as one who is heterosexual certainly couldn't carry out a gay marriage and make it work. It's just in the nature of the cells."

Calm, even strangely scientific words for a woman who has lost a husband. Has there been any frustration that she has spent 28 years with a man who now says he is gay?

"Yeah, I have felt that way occasionally," says Peggy. "But it takes a tremendous amount of energy to live my life, and I really don't have any to spare for that kind of issue. I have a kid. I have a house. I have a job. I have the yard. I have two dogs. I have the church. I go to school. [She has been working full-time as a legal secretary for Toledano during days and earning a legal assistant certificate at UCI night school.] I really don't have time but to concentrate on the present and do a really bang-up job there, which I think in the end is very orthodox Christianity."

Although it has been 20 months since Toledano came out to his wife, neither has yet to initiate formal divorce proceedings and Toledano, who is dating, still shares the couples' Costa Mesa home. He sleeps in a converted study. Though Toledano doesn't bring his dates home, some people might wonder why Peggy hasn't thrown him out of the house. "That wouldn't be civil, or compassionate or realistic," she says. "I've got my rules. I don't take care of him. I'm taking this one day at a time. I've worked out my independent ground, and we still enjoy being together . . . [but] it's not moving as fast as I'd like."

There have been opportunities for ugly fireworks, but nothing ignited. Earlier this year, for example, Peggy came face to face with Toledano's male date at a function for the Eleanor Roosevelt Gay & Lesbian Democratic Club, of which Peggy and Toledano are longtime members. She says she chatted briefly with the man, shook his hand and thought, "He's a quality guy." Wasn't she the least bit upset? "No," says Peggy, who has hired an attorney for the upcoming divorce. "I'm not losing anything I ever had."

Despite everything, Toledano sees his wife as special. "If there was some way of keeping Peggy, I'd do it. But life is choices, and the most wonderful thing is that she understands that," he says. "I respect her enormously. She is a wonderful, wonderful person, and I was incapable of focusing on her the way she deserved. . . . There's a part of me that says I should be more embarrassed, but I'm doing what I have to do."

In coming out as a gay man, Toledano has distinguished himself from other county-related political figures—conservatives such as Dornan confidant Brian Bennett and 1994 California Republican U.S. senate nominee Michael Huffington—who in recent years have independently revealed their homosexuality while painstakingly distancing themselves from the "gay community." Bennett, for example, still eagerly stands behind Dornan and his politics of hate and division. Huffington refuses to call himself "gay" because he doesn't identify with other gays. But rather than adopt a pompous gay-loathing style, Toledano has plunged into gay-community political activities. Earlier this year, he took charge of Orange County's campaign against the state Republican Party's latest electoral wedge issue: the anti-gay California Defense of Marriage Act initiative scheduled for the March 2000 ballot. The measure (also known as the Knight Initiative) would permit the state to deny recognition of same-sex marriages.

To some observers taking on what is sure to be a highly emotional battle against religious conservatives while coming out, dating and getting a divorce might seem too much to handle at once. Toledano reacts to such questions with characteristic cockiness. "I will help win this," he says. "I guarantee you."

At least one person shares Toledano's confidence in himself.

"He's not the type of person who is afraid to walk out on a vine over a 200-foot chasm and shout threats at the other side," Peggy says. "He's pretty good at it, actually."

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