In between cooking honey chicken for Rosh Hashanah dinner and preparing the house to have her grandchildren over, Catherine Tuerk is more than happy to carve out some time to talk about gay pride.
In fact, Tuerk easily qualifies as one of the nation’s most determined, tenacious gay pride advocates — who is also a psychotherapist, essayist, Jewish mother, adoring grandmother of five and world traveler. Now 70, she’s just published her first book on a topic close to her heart: being mom to a gay son.
The Washington, D.C., activist has been dedicated to the cause since 1989, when her son came out in his final year in college. At the time, she knew nothing about what it meant to be gay, to come out, or to be the parent of a gay child. Despite always being aware that Joshua was “different,” even putting him through four years of psychoanalysis to try and change his gender-nonconforming interest in “girly things,” the news was not something Tuerk and her husband, Jon, were prepared to hear, or handle.
“We were devastated,” she recalls. “We went to bed and cried all night. We felt like it was over, like our son was dead.”
Following Jewish tradition, she says, she allowed herself a full year to grieve, mourning the life she believed Joshua would never have — loving relationships, marriage, children. “I grieved, and I read. I lived in a fog of discovery … searching to understand my new son and his world.”
Education, or “doing my homework,” enabled Tuerk to emerge from her state of grief and learn not only to accept her son, but to affirm him — an important distinction she makes throughout “Mom Knows: Reflections on Love, Gay Pride, and Taking Action,” a collection of her writings from the last two decades.
Tuerk will speak about her book at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav on Tuesday, Oct. 2, during her annual trip to San Francisco to visit her daughter, son-in-law and two granddaughters. Joshua and his partner are raising three children and live in Washington, D.C. Although he initially joined his mother on speaking engagements, today “I think my son feels I do enough for everyone in the family in terms of advocacy,” she says. “He’s busy being a father.”
Tuerk says her “greatest aspiration for the book is that people who have gay children will not have a moment of grief after they read it. There are a lot of parents who accept the fact they have a gay child, but in their heart is a place of sadness.”
Acknowledging that the book is partly about “my need to heal, to make amends to my gay son,” Tuerk has made it her mission to motivate parents of gay children to cross the line “between shame and pride” — moving away from denial, disappointment and tolerance, toward acceptance, affirmation and celebration.
For Tuerk, that progression was helped along by her voracious consumption of information about the gay world, which developed into her passion for gay advocacy. Within four years of her son coming out, she became president of the Metro DC chapter of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), a support, outreach and advocacy organization that works toward full LGBT inclusion.
She has written essays for newspapers and periodicals, participated in pride marches, organized appeals to politicians and religious leaders, co-founded a clinic for children with gender-variant behaviors, appeared on national TV shows and traveled to gay communities around the world, all part of what she sees as a lifelong process of “coming out” as the parent of a gay child.
“I come out to everyone. I want people to know that I’m fine with it. I find a way to tell everybody in the world I have a gay son.” Tuerk has come out in Prague, Mali, Barcelona, Tanzania and Nepal, and across the U.S. “We’ve had experiences we’d have never had otherwise,” she says.
Tuerk, who converted to Judaism in 1968 when Joshua was born, has embraced gay activism in the Jewish community as one of her causes. In the early years especially, “I was big in reaching out to synagogues and trying to help move us along in welcoming our gay Jewish children,” speaking to rabbis or leaders who could make a difference. In 1996, she helped develop a set of guidelines for synagogues, still in use, on how to be more welcoming to LGBT people.
Although today many synagogues make LGBT inclusion and outreach part of their mission, the changes have not come without conflict and heartache. In a 1994 essay in the book, Tuerk recalls confiding in a friend her plan to propose a PFLAG program at their synagogue. “Can’t you give up gay things for just one day a week?” her friend asked. “I was hurt,” Tuerk writes. “Would she expect me to join any organization that was racist, or anti-Semitic, and not try to change it?”
Tuerk was also involved in speaking out for civil rights and women’s rights. Activism is part of what drew her to Judaism, she says. “I love the openness of Judaism. It fits my personality, this idea of tikkun olam, healing the world. That’s the kind of person I am. Whenever I see injustice, I feel compelled to do something about it.”
Not long after her son came out and her worldview began to shift, “I had this epiphany,” Tuerk recalls. “There never was one thing wrong with my son. It was all about the world.”
Now, “I’m just going to be a part of making that different. When I die, I want to know that the world is a better place because I’ve done something, even it’s just one person at a time.”
“Mom Knows: Reflections on Love, Gay Pride, and Taking Action” by Catherine Tuerk (284 pages, self-published, $18)