The News Tribune
Woodbridge, N.J. –Thursday, April 12, 1973
She says it matter-of-factly, the way another mother might tell you her son is an engineer. “My son is a homosexual.” And Mrs. Lenore Acanfora of Bricktown has completely accepted the fact. Homosexuals should be treated in the same category as everyone else,” she says. “They’re God’s children, too. I love my son and I’m proud of him. And I’m glad he has the courage to be what he is.” Before she learned that her own son “Joe” was gay though, Mrs. Acanfora “had the same negative feelings everyone has. But when Joe came out of the closet, I had to come out of the kitchen, so to speak. I had to look at the situation more carefully.” A careful look, some visits to the library, a session with the family doctor and, most important, several long talks with Joe about who and what and why he was, and Mrs. Acanfora “realized how ignorant I was and many people are on the topic, and how wrong most of our ideas are about homosexual people. “We’re all only passing through in this world, and if we can’t pass through in our own way, in our own style of life, it isn’t worthwhile.”
“When Joe came out of the closet, I came out of the kitchen”
by Jim Gallagher, News Tribune Staff Writer
Until Joe came right out and told her he was gay, Mrs. Acanfora never even considered the possibility. A bright and pleasant youngster, Joe “did the things all kids do” -- baseball, fishing, gymnastics, Cub Scouts --and some things only very special kids do -- valedictorian of his high school graduating class, a Dean’s List student at Penn State University.
The family photo album bears witness to the fact that he attended his high school prom with a very attractive young lady, and, if one can believe the glossy commentaries in instamatic color, Joe was a happy, friendly teenager -- just another kid next door.
Although he had had intimations of his homosexuality as early as age 10, it was only after he went away to college that he began to act out his inner feelings. It was another two or three years before he was able to tell his parents, after he had become an active member of the Homophiles of Penn State and was preparing to do battle with the state of Pennsylvania for certification as a junior high school earth and space science teacher.
Seeking to educate other collegians about homosexuality, HOPS had filed suit against Penn State after the university refused to charter it. Joe, who was student teaching at the time, was treasurer of the group and the ensuing publicity resulted in his being dismissed from his position and denied permanent certification.
He decided to fight for his career, and the time had come to bear his soul to his parents. He wrote them a letter, told them about himself, and brought them up to date on his certification problems.
Long before this, though, his mother had sensed an inner struggle raging within her son, and was worried about him. “We always had love and respect from Joe,” she says, ‘but for a while he was in a crazy mood. He wasn’t himself. He was very unhappy, and didn’t speak out like he had always spoken to us.
“Once I asked him what it was. Was it drugs, school, did some girl break your heart? And then, out of the clear blue, I said: ‘Are you a homosexual?’ I don’t know why. Maybe something was stored up over the years.
“When I mentioned the word, he put his head down. I could see the hurt in his eyes. He did’t say yes or no, but from his reaction I new I had hit a sore spot. I felt terrible. I thought to myself, ‘How cruel, how wicked could you be?’
“I went into the kitchen for a while, then came back and told Joe that, whatever it was that was bothering him, he should remember I’d be here when he wanted to talk about it.”
Mrs. Acanfora informed her husband of what had occurred, but “he thought I was making a big thing out of nothing.” I though it might be my own imagination also, so after a while I pushed it aside. After all, there was nothing obvious. Maybe he’s just growing up, I thought. Besides, I was more worried about drugs.”
When she read Joe’s letter, she stopped worrying about drugs. “I read it more than once, to make sure of what I saw. I kept prancing back and forth, thinking.
“I told myself, ‘OK, he’s a homosexual. What does that really mean?’ I only had a vague idea. But I was afraid for him. I thought what everybody else thought, that he was sick. Like any other mother, I was afraid he’d be harmed by it.
“A million thoughts go through your mind at a time like that. Was it my fault? What did I do? Did I love him too much? Did I hate him too much? I was at home alone -- my husband was at work -- and I had that old feeling a woman has. A man is never there when you need him.”
Mrs. Acanfora can laugh about it now. “You just can’t call up a neighbor and say, ‘I just found out my son is a homosexual.’ But had to talk to someone. I called my doctor, and started to cry. She said kids get brainwashed in college, that I shouldn’t get upset until I see Joe and talk to him face to face.
“That was enough to stop me for crying. And I haven’t cried since over it. I’m not ashamed of it.”
How did she tell her husband. “I waited until he got home, and gave him a chance to eat supper first. And he ate damn slow, too. He wanted to sit and talk about the railroad where he works, and at that point, who wanted to hear that? I couldn’t wait till he got his food down.
“I told him before dessert. How long can a woman keep her mouth shut? I told him about the letter, gave it to him to read. He was very quiet. We didn’t argue about it, but we did question each other about ever being gay. It was the logical question. I guess.
“But neither of us is. We have a good healthy sex life. What is it the statistics say? Twice a week is normal. Well, we’re normal. Not wild, but normal.”
‘As time went by, my husband’s main concern was for Joe’s future. He’s such a bright boy, and my hus~ band hoped all his schooling didn’t go to waste. And I wasn’t disgusted or angry. I was too concerned about what Joe was feeling.’’
The Acanforas visited their son on campus the following weekend, but they didn’t do much talking. “It seemed like he was feeling us out, and we were feeling him out, waiting to see who was going to make the first move. Nobody moved.”
However, when Joe came home for summer vacation, the family “really put the issue on the table,” as Mrs. Acanfora says. “Joe told us to enlighten our minds, get the latest books. He had read up on it and had accepted himself.
“I could tell that from his attitude. He was his old self again, He was much happier. And I’d rather have a happy, healthy homosexual son than one who was mentally disturbed because I forced him to live my life style.
“And when we finished talking, my husband shook Joe’s hand and said, ‘I loved you then and I love you now’.”
For her birthday, last Feb 2, Lenore Acanfora received a card from son Joe that read: “Thanks for being you and encouraging me to be me.”
Joe had ample reason to be thankful especially for the “me to be me” part. Many of his homosexual friends have been totally rejected by their families.
“Joe told us that some young homosexuals have even committed suicide because of the way their families reacted,” his mother recalls. “He said one boy threw himself out a dormitory window.
“People talk about homosexuals being sick, but I wouldn’t say so. Some may be emotionally disturbed because they can’t come right out and tell their families. They’re not sick, they’re oppressed.
“I’ve had boys over for the holidays who couldn’t go to their own homes anymore. They were wonderful boys, but they couldn’t even go to their own homes for Christmas. At first they were shocked that I would invite them into my home and talk with them.”
The Acanforas have done a lot more than passively accept Joe’s uniqueness. They stood by him in his fight for certification in Pennsylvania -- a fight he eventually won -- by writing letters to the State Education Commission.
They’ve appeared on television and radio talk shows, and as a result have received many letters from other homosexuals praising them for their courage and understanding. Most of the letters are sad -- from people cut off from those they care about, envious of the fact that the Acanforas are still a family. “How I wish you were my mother,” is the general theme.
Now Joe is engaged in another legal battle -- he wants to be certified in Maryland and has filed suit in Federal District Court. Hearings in the case are scheduled for today and tomorrow, and Mr. and Mrs. Acanfora will be by his side throughout the proceedings.
The case, which has attracted national attention and been the subject of an hour-long television special, has also received much attention in Bricktown. According to Mrs. Acanfora, neighbors who have known Joe since he was a child have written letters attesting to his character.
“Joe was always well respected in this neighborhood. He was never backwards, or one to be left out. He still sees his old friends, both male and female, and I haven’t had one person object to me about what Joe is doing.
“When Joe came home after the thing first hit the newspapers, nobody shied away from him. They came right up and spoke to him. One young woman in the neighborhood felt it was all such a waste, that he could have been a wonderful husband.”
Joe has two sisters who have accepted his homosexuality in the same spirit that his parents have. Lenore, a year younger than he and the mother of her own toddler son, is “proud he could stand up in public for what he believes in.” Eight-year-old Theresa was “embarrassed when my mother first told me -- that Joe was a man who loved men, not women -- but I don’t really think there’s anything different about him.”
The morning after that talk with her mother, Theresa woke Joe up with a big kiss and said, “I know about you and I love you anyway.”
Lenore is raising her son “as everybody else does,” but admits her husband is somewhat concerned. “I could accept it,” she said, when asked how she would react if her child should become a homosexual, but she admits her husband is “not that ready to accept it.”
“He gets excited when the child plays with dolls,” Mrs. Acanfora says, “or if he puts on cold cream or plays with nail polish. But he’s only a baby. Those are natural things for a kid to do.
“I told him that my son never played with dolls, so there’s no correspondence. He never went around with lipstick on, never wore nail polish. I read somewhere that some doctors think your sex habits are determined by the third week of pregnancy. There are lots of boys who hated their mothers and played baseball with their fathers that later become gay.
“I think of it this way. We’re all born with sex buds, just as we’re all born with taste buds. We all have our needs to satisfy. You can’t help who you fall in love with.”