Parents of gays bond for support, advocacy at Beth Am

When Bernis Kretchmar first learned her son Michael was gay, she worried about his health. Because he is her only son, she worried about the continuity of the family name. She worried about what neighbors and friends would think.

Weddings of friends' children were, for a long time, painful symbols of her own dashed expectations.

"I hardly knew anyone who was gay," she says. "I had no experience. I was utterly sick and sad."

The 62-year-old Los Altos resident has come a long way since then.

She has marched proudly in San Francisco's annual gay pride parade alongside the group Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.

And on Friday, Oct. 16, during Shabbat services, she will stand with her head held high to share with her congregation, Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, the challenges and joys, of having a gay child.

She will do so as a founding member of Kulanu, Beth Am's year-old support and advocacy group for gays and lesbians, their families and friends.

The group, whose name is Hebrew for "all of us," has until now held small monthly meetings at the Reform synagogue. The October program, aimed at acquainting the community with the group's work and goals, is in a sense the group's own coming out.

Jerry Diamond, a Palo Alto resident and active member of Kulanu since its founding, is the father of a lesbian. He will be among those speaking at the service.

"I'd be really delighted if people walked away saying, `Hey those people are no different from us. They're accepted and welcomed, not as gays and lesbians, but simply as people,'" he says.

Diamond's daughter Lisa, in fact, will fly in from Orlando, Fla., to attend the program.

Her coming out of the closet did not surprise her parents. Nor was it particularly traumatic for them.

"It was quite easy to convince her she had our 100 percent support and love and her sexual orientation was her business, not ours," says Diamond, who is 64 and retired from the electronics industry.

One reason he and wife Linda joined Kulanu, he says, was to offer support to other parents of gays and lesbians, to "help them cope with what for some is a difficult situation."

Kretchmar experienced many difficult feelings after learning of her son's homosexuality.

Then, last year, at the urging of her daughter, she marched in the gay pride parade. It turned out to be a watershed. "I set out down the street and I can honestly say my feet didn't feel like they were on the ground," she says.

Rounding a corner, she spotted a familiar face in the crowd — Fran Rappaport, a fellow Beth Am congregant whose son is gay. Rappaport asked what Kretchmar was doing at the parade.

"I said to her, `I'm doing the same thing you're doing,'" Kretchmar recalls. "She said to me, `I never knew.' There were tears big time.

"I said `Fran, where is everyone else, all the people we know? Where are the people from Los Altos? She said, `Bernis, we're alone.'"

A few days later, the pair met and talked about starting a support group in a Jewish context. Together with another woman whose child had recently come out of the closet, they contacted Rabbi Richard Block.

"We wanted to come out and we wanted the rabbi and Beth Am to be a part of it," Kretchmar says. "We wanted the silence to be silence no longer.

"We made an appointment with the rabbi," she adds. "He had no idea why we were coming. When we presented the idea to him, he was very touched."

They advertised in the bulletin of the synagogue and got the ball rolling with a small meeting there.

"We met at the chapel," Kretchmar says. "It had a lot of meaning for me to be in front of a Torah."

Over the past year, parents, siblings and friends of gays and lesbians have attended meetings, along with parents who have come out to their children. Participants describe the gatherings as open and often humor-filled.

Michael Kretchmar has attended one meeting. "It was a really great experience because it was clear the people in the room wanted to be really supportive," says the 34-year-old San Francisco resident, who will speak at the Oct. 16 service.

A product manager at a personal finance software company, Michael Kretchmar imagines a day when people's sexual orientation will be no more relevant than their eye color or hairstyle.

"I think we're all playing a role in getting to that better place," he says.

This year, the group and its supporters marched together in the gay pride parade wearing special T-shirts with the Hebrew word "kulanu" printed on the back.

But while the group has so far leaned toward support and advocacy, participants eventually hope to make it a social outlet for Jewish gays and lesbians, as well. To that end, they hope to organize events with gay groups from places such as Stanford University and Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos.

"Our concern that our children have Jewish partners," Bernis Kretchmar says, "is the same as for any children."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.