JCEF fund helps send kids of gay parents to college

Tamar Margolit didn't face the struggles one would expect of an only child of a gay father and a bisexual mother. Actually, growing up in liberal San Francisco, she had several friends who were also being raised in non-traditional families.

"I had it easier than some kids, like in the Midwest…It really wasn't that abnormal," the 23-year-old recalls.

A struggle did come years later, though, when Margolit decided she was dissatisfied with working as an auto mechanic, and instead wanted to go to college. The challenge was a financial one.

It made Margolit a prime candidate for the Ronald P. Wilmot Scholarship Fund, since 1999 a permanent grant of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Endowment Fund administered by the Bureau of Jewish Education. Jonathan Schwartz, who runs the BJE's Jewish Community Library, told her about the scholarship. Schwartz happens to be the partner of her father, Patrick Margolit, a U.C. Berkeley computer programmer.

Wilmot, a gay real estate magnate, established the fund specifically for the sons and daughters of queer parents before he succumbed to AIDS in 1997 at age 46. Though Wilmot, a Jew-by-choice and an active member of San Francisco Congregation Sha'ar Zahav, had no children, friends say he was very concerned that smart kids in alternative families have less access to higher education than their traditionally raised peers.

"My mom struggled, living paycheck to paycheck," says Margolit. "My dad's been able to save money [for my college fund], but he's not wealthy. It's definitely taken the burden off that I've gotten scholarships; otherwise he'd have gone into debt."

The BJE has been granting three to four scholarships a year to Bay Area children of gay and/or lesbian parents toward undergraduate, postgraduate or comparable degrees at universities, colleges and art schools.

Margolit, who lives in Oakland, was awarded $2,000 in 1999 and $4,000 more after reapplying last year. The U.C. Berkeley economics major is slated to graduate this summer, and has "a lot of ideas" about what she wants to do with her future. For the time being, she would like to work for a nonprofit or the city, taking classes in photography and other interests until she's ready for graduate school.

Although it is not required, many seeking a Wilmot scholarship write their applicant essays about the triumphs and challenges of growing up in households that look nothing like the Cleavers, according to Julia Levin, the BJE's financial aid coordinator.

For instance, last year an emigre from the former Soviet Union detailed how her father, a professor at Moscow University, was overwhelmed by his secret that he was a homosexual. He knew he needed to leave Russia but fell into deep bouts of depression because his family was being torn apart.

Another recipient wrote about serving as the sole caregiver of her father, who was debilitated by AIDS.

Like these scholarship honorees, Margolit feels her parents' sexual identities had an extraordinary role in shaping and informing who she is today.

"I have no bitterness about having gay parents, no regrets," she says. In fact, Margolit feels lucky.

"Having an alternative family broadened my mind and I'm a much better person because of it. I did have to grow up pretty fast and process the things going on in my family, but I'm proud of it."

In light of this, Levin says the BJE is primarily examining "the reasons applicants decided to pursue higher learning, their commitment to education and artistic endeavor, expressiveness, financial need and recommendations from other people."