Jim Batty thought he was out for a nice dinner with his wife, Sheila, when the world as he knew it changed forever.
It was the fall of 1992 and they had a table by the window at Caffe Bellissimo on Kirkwood Highway. They hadn't gotten far in their meal when Sheila took a sledgehammer and hit him in the gut.
Well, not exactly. But the four words she said had a similar impact, he says now.
"Your son is gay."
This was their Jim she was talking about? Their only child? The one who would carry the Batty name to the next generation and present his parents with grandchildren?
No, that couldn't be true. They had dreams for their son and nothing about that word -- "gay" -- had ever been on the radar screen.
Jim couldn't control what happened next. He started to cry. And he couldn't stop.
"We left our table," Sheila said.
Looking back, Jim says his reaction was purely selfish. All he thought about then, he says, were the things he wanted and the way this news about his namesake made him feel.
They never considered rejecting their son. But Sheila says they both had to deal with powerful feelings. She was most concerned about her son's safety. Would he be able to get a job or find a place to live? Would somebody beat him up?
"It was a death and a rebirth," Sheila said. "And when push comes to shove, you want your children to be happy and be themselves. This is your only child and the way we are, we want the best for him."
Just as he is.
Now, almost 20 years later, few can believe Jim Batty ever had such struggles. He has devoted himself to changing the future for his son and all those who are gay, lesbian, transgendered or bisexual. For the past 17 years, he has presided over Delaware's chapter of PFLAG -- Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians & Gays, an organization with 350 chapters nationwide -- and encountered many others who are either struggling with the news that a loved one is gay or want to support them.
"Many show up mad at the world, mad at God, mad at everybody," he said. "Why did you do this to me? And that's part of what you go through. Some don't get past that, but many do. ... We're not going to shove anything down your throat. But it helps to have a place where you know you can express that out loud."
Sheila helped get the chapter established, attended meetings for a while and still serves as education chair. But, she says, Jim has been the engine of the group since it started in 1993. He steers each monthly meeting, organizes speakers and special events and maintains an e-mail list to distribute news in the state and nationally.
For his tireless work on behalf of members of the gay community and their loved ones, Batty is among The News Journal's 25 Who Matter, a biweekly series that explores the stories of people who have made a significant difference in the community.
"Jim is the glue that holds this group together," said Anne Gross, an adjunct music professor at the University of Delaware who has a gay son and volunteers with PFLAG. "Rehoboth has tried to start a group, Dover has tried to start a group -- but it needs somebody who is so tenacious, a person who won't let it die."
A person like Jim Batty.
'Not all gays are like that'
Jim and Sheila Batty are Wilmington natives. He went to P.S. du Pont High School; she went to Ursuline and Padua. They were in the Class of 1960. One night, they both happened to be at the Anvil Inn on U.S. 1, just over the Pennsylvania line, when disaster struck. Jim was in the right place at the right time.
"She flushed her car keys down the toilet," he says. "And that's how we met."
He didn't find the keys, but he did find a wife. They were married in 1967.
Their son was born two years later, and Jim soon devoted himself to helping with his son's activities at St. Elizabeth Catholic School -- leading a Webelos Scout group and serving as treasurer of the school's athletic association.
It was -- and is -- a close family. But neither he nor Sheila knew of young Jim's struggle until Oct. 11, 1992, when the three of them were at a family member's wedding reception. A relative started making disparaging remarks about gays she had seen in a parade on TV. And the next thing they knew, young Jim -- a student at the University of New Hampshire then -- got up and left the table.
"I was in an awkward position," said young Jim, now 40 and living in Boston. "When people go to weddings -- especially weddings -- it's definitely great for a couple and it can be a great source of hope for those who are there. I just felt that hope wasn't there for me and maybe I felt a little resentment. I didn't feel I could speak out and I didn't feel I wanted to be there. Not saying anything meant I condoned it, and I couldn't. So I just excused myself."
He didn't start to understand his sexual orientation until he was in college, he said, and he had not told anyone he was gay until his mother sought him out that night in the hallway of The Terrace Restaurant. He was crying.
"I asked him what was wrong," she said. "And he said, 'not all gays are like that.' "
She asked him if he was gay, and he said yes. And a few weeks later -- after talking it over with a volunteer at AIDS Delaware -- she told Jim.
They threw themselves into finding answers, she said, calling anyone they thought could help. They learned about a small and dwindling chapter of PFLAG. The chapter had one event every year -- a potluck dinner -- in Milford, and the Battys decided to go. There, they met Judith Armstrong, who was thinking about launching a New Castle County chapter, and in April 1993, the state's official chapter was born at the Unitarian Universalist Church that Armstrong attended in Newark. Armstrong soon passed the reins to Jim and Sheila Batty
"It started as a support group, and I couldn't do that as well as the Battys," said Armstrong, whose interest was kindled when she learned some of her neighbors and colleagues were gay. "I'm single, I have no kids, I'm straight. They were more simpatico."
'Conflict in the family'
Like their son, many in the gay community say it took years for them to accept their sexual orientation. For some, it takes even longer before they can tell anyone, if they ever do.
Parents need that same space, Sheila said.
"When your child comes out, you go in," she said.
Often, the struggle is a matter of religious faith. The question of homosexuality has driven a wedge between people and their churches. It has divided denominations. It has left many people on the outside of the church door. The teaching of the Catholic Church, as issued by the Vatican, is that homosexuals are "intrinsically disordered" and must remain celibate. Protestant Christian churches, too, have long taught that homosexuality is "an abomination." Some have steered people to "ex-gay ministries," programs that try to help people change their sexual orientation.
Justin Lee, founder of the North Carolina-based Gay Christian Network, has met many casualties of such conflict. GCN, which has more than 15,000 members in its online community, sponsors national conferences and offers resources for churches of all denominations.
"Many Christians grow up with the belief that being gay is something that's sinful and something that's chosen," said Lee, who grew up in a Southern Baptist home, spent his high school years trying not to be gay and -- was ostracized by the Christian community when he admitted it. "Often, parents -- trying to be faithful to God -- push their kids into ex-gay programs to help their kids become straight. When those programs don't work, it often creates real conflict in the family."
Lee said PFLAG does a great job of working with families who want to accept their child's sexual orientation. But many won't go and don't want to accept it.
That was the case for Sharon Zimmer, a counselor in Delaware schools, who told her son she didn't want to hear what he had to say. When he told her anyway, she told him she didn't want a gay son and she didn't speak to him for three months. It was even harder on her husband, she said.
Ten months later, she went to a PFLAG meeting at Westminster Presbyterian Church, where the chapter meets at 7 p.m. on the second Thursday of every month. She sat in the parking lot for half an hour, afraid she might see someone she knew. After that meeting, she didn't go back for a year. She didn't go to her third meeting for a year after that. But slowly, she came to believe that "the problem was totally mine, not his."
Attitudes have changed a lot since the 1970s, when Jeanne Manford saw her son on TV marching in a New York City gay pride parade. The next thing she saw was an anti-gay protester knocking her son down and others screaming at him. She marched with him after that, and PFLAG was born. Its motto: "Be careful who you hate. It could be someone you love."
About 40 percent of the organization's 200,000 members are lesbian or gay, said PFLAG spokeswoman Elizabeth Fregiato, often because PFLAG is the only welcoming place in their town.
Their presence helps, said one father who attended Delaware's June PFLAG meeting. He and his wife cried through the first PFLAG meeting they attended years ago in Indiana. He wondered what he had done wrong. He worried about having "a limp-wristed gay who will climb in and out of bed with every guy he meets" in the family.
But month after month, they met people who didn't fit the stereotypes or the extremes.
"We got to know our son by meeting these other people," he said.
That's one reason Herb Torterotot, a gay Teamster from New Castle, attends Delaware's PFLAG meetings. The divorced father of two started attending about five years ago, when he started to acknowledge his own sexual orientation. Now, he hopes to offer that same help to others.
The breakthrough for Jim Batty came in an unexpected way, several months after he learned about his son. Things were better by then. He was reading, his son was open about the issue and willing to answer any question, their relationship was solid. But Jim still couldn't say the word "gay" without crying. He didn't like any part of that.
"Knowing somebody is gay is one thing," Sheila said. "Seeing your son kiss a guy is another matter."
Then he and Sheila took a trip to Washington, D.C. They stayed at a hotel on Dupont Circle, not knowing it was a hub of D.C.'s gay community.
They ducked into a bar for a drink and slowly realized all of the other patrons -- who looked like ordinary businessmen and businesswomen -- were paired up by sex, two women here, two men there. Jim and Sheila were the only male-female couple. They were uncomfortable.
"We're finishing this beer and we're out of here," Jim told Sheila.
But just as they were about to leave, the piano player took a break and sat down at their table. He started chatting, they were disarmed, and they stayed late into the night.
"We had the best time of our life," Sheila said.
Jim says he doesn't advise others to go and do likewise. But, he said, it was a powerful encounter for him.
"We were with all these gay people -- and they were friendly, regular people," he said. "It was enlightening. ... And since then, we have met some of the most spectacular people."
The Battys' world changed forever when they got to know their son. Now, they often vacation with him and his partner, Daniel Avila. They visit their home in Boston and welcome them home to Wilmington. Their business -- The Travel Company -- has many gay clients.
And Jim Batty has become something of a gay activist, working for the welfare of his son and the generations to follow.