Geraldo outed me on national television

Coming out to my family was only the beginning of the process of dismantling the closet I had spent years building

Published June 3, 2023 4:00PM (EDT)

Jim Berg (author) in front of the Supreme Court on the weekend of the March, 1987 (Photo courtesy of the author)
Jim Berg (author) in front of the Supreme Court on the weekend of the March, 1987 (Photo courtesy of the author)

Just before Christmas in 1987, Geraldo Rivera outed me on national television. I'm sure it wasn't malicious, even though he has a history of shock journalism. He didn't even know my name. During a primetime special, he showed a video clip of me and my boyfriend kissing on the National Mall, taken during the National March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights.

I think about this often during Pride Month, even though it happened more than 30 years and several boyfriends ago. The broadcast caused a scandal in my family because I wasn't out to them. In fact, they knew very little about my life. I had kept them at arm's length for years because I was afraid. There are many stories — too many stories — about LGBTQ people being ostracized by their families when they come out. I didn't know how to come out to my parents, so I put it off.

Then, in late December 1987, my sister Betsy called me. She said she had seen me on TV kissing another guy.

"So are you gay?" she asked.

"Modern Love" was a live special in which Geraldo purported to show how AIDS had changed contemporary society. The U.S. Surgeon General's report on AIDS was a year old by then. Twenty million copies of Koop's report had been distributed. Where C. Everette Koop had tried to inform the public, Geraldo Rivera was intent on scaring them.

He introduced his special with these words: "'My love is like a red red rose' wrote the poet but that was long before a modern-day thorn appeared and added a new dimension to love. The dimension of fear. The new thorn of course, is AIDS. Love, relationships, romance and sex will never be the same." As if sex and death hadn't been linked in Western culture for centuries. As if women worldwide hadn't had reason to fear sex. What was new was that men were dying, particularly gay men. The overall death toll was nearing 100,000.

It was an open secret: If you didn't tell people, they could (and usually would) pretend they didn't know you were gay.

For a segment on the gay community, Geraldo ran footage of the march that had taken place that fall. At the time, I was 23 years old and living in Minneapolis. I had been working for a small, gay and lesbian service organization (it was only "gay and lesbian" then) and had attended the march with my boyfriend, Terry. My brother-in-law, whom I had never met in person, was watching the broadcast in California and recognized me from family photos. He told my sister when she got home that night. Betsy didn't believe him, so he showed her the recording.

Terry and I were able to catch the show the night she called. We were both shocked to see ourselves. The clip of us was used during the opening credits, the body of the story and the closing credits. There we were, arm in arm, and yes, we were kissing. It was a short, affectionate peck. It wasn't like we were making out in front of the cameras. But if you thought you saw your little brother at the beginning, you had two more chances to confirm that yes, that was your little brother. Watching it myself, I thought about being at the demonstration on the Mall and seeing the scaffolding with television cameras. They had to have been at least a football field away. I never considered they might focus on us, much less that the images would be broadcast on national television. I mean, that's the stuff of paranoia and nightmares.

Thanks to Geraldo's special, my own nightmare scenario had arrived. Coming out to my large Catholic family was only the beginning of the process of dismantling the closet I had spent years building. In the days before social media, you could be out in your personal circle, and you could almost manage the number of people who knew or the situations in which you were out or closeted. It was an open secret: If you didn't tell people, they could (and usually would) pretend they didn't know you were gay. Sure, there might be some whispers, but it would be among a small group of people. Not the whole world. The closet as a Western construct existed (and still exists) on a spectrum from you're out all the time to you're not even out to yourself. Everywhere on that spectrum, the closet exists as a set of internal and external constraints put on LGBTQ people. For some of us, it keeps us safe, for some it is a mental prison. For me, it is a continual process of undoing its effects.

"If you don't tell Mom, I will," Betsy said. She says now she wouldn't have, but I didn't know that then.

For about 15 minutes I cried and screamed into a pillow. Terry tried to comfort me but he didn't know what to do or say. I knew my parents would find out someday, and they would disown me, I was sure of it.

True to expectations, Dad said, "Then you're no son of mine," and hung up.

Mom answered the phone and got my dad to pick up the other line. I don't remember what I said, probably that there was this show and did she see it. No, she didn't. Why, what's this about? I must have said my roommate is really my boyfriend, and we were on television kissing. Silence. I imagined her sitting at the kitchen table, tight-lipped. It's a look I inherited.

"Are you telling us you're a gay?"


True to expectations, Dad said, "Then you're no son of mine," and hung up. The immediacy of his response suggested he had thought about this day.

Mom stayed on the line long enough to say, "I could have gone my whole life without hearing that."

This was exactly why I hadn't come out to my family. In my college years, I had gradually told friends, had sought out gay roommates, and had boyfriends. Terry was the first boyfriend I had lived with. I grew up in northern Wisconsin, about 150 miles from Minneapolis. Since I couldn't talk about this one foundational part of my identity, I didn't talk to any of them about anything much. At one holiday gathering, we were talking about music and someone asked me what I liked. My mind froze because I couldn't think of one band or singer that didn't sound too gay. Wham!? Uh no. Bronski Beat? Oh, hell no.

My sister, with the help of Geraldo, had broken down the closet door for me. With nothing more to lose, I made some other calls. My brother Bill was calm and reassuring on the phone. "It's not like it's a surprise." By the end of the night, I was exhausted, cried out. Terry consoled me, and I began to feel relieved that the conversations I had dreaded for so long were finally over. 

The next day, it seemed like five for, and two against, with my mom in the middle. Mom explained that my dad wouldn't allow me in their house, so I was no longer invited for Christmas. I told myself (and others) I could live with that—Dad and I never liked each other. He pushed me into traditional boy things, like sports, that I didn't want to do, and then he was disappointed when I hated them. I wouldn't miss him at all. Mom went along since, as she said, she had to live with him.

Over the next year, I talked to Mom on the phone a few times. I visited her once when Dad wasn't home. If I was going to a family event, they wouldn't attend. They made that clear to my siblings. So when gatherings happened in or near our hometown, I stayed away. Someone said I was "estranged" from my family during this period. That seemed too strong a word. Were we estranged or just distant? When I was in the closet, I had convinced myself that no one would be interested in anything I was doing, anyway, whether it was a relationship, a job, or graduate school. Some of my mom's (perhaps well-meaning) comments supported this impression. I told her in a letter when Terry and I broke up. She wrote back, "Maybe it's for the best." I felt the judgment in that—as if she could deal with me being gay in theory but didn't want to think about me being with another guy. It was best that I remained single. I didn't.

On or about my 25th birthday, I wrote my dad a letter asking if he was ever going to relent. It wasn't a pleading letter. The impression I meant to give was that I didn't care one way or the other. But I had spent a lot of time with my therapist talking about what she called my "family of origin issues." So I told him I wanted a final answer: "Did I have a father or not?" He called me when he got the letter. Before Caller ID, you could still be surprised when you answered the phone and heard the voice on the other end. He missed me, his youngest, and wanted to make up. Sort of. He made it clear he didn't want to hear about anything gay, and he certainly never wanted to meet my boyfriend.

A few years passed. I fell in love and moved in with Gary. Eventually, we were invited, together, to a holiday gathering hosted by another sister, Nancy. My parents were also invited. "If they don't want to come, they don't have to," she said. They did.

The four of us met in Nancy's dining room. Mom and Dad were polite to Gary and me, and then we all went into separate rooms. A truce, a bit of a thaw.

He made it clear he didn't want to hear about anything gay, and he certainly never wanted to meet my boyfriend.

I think of families in terms of houses. The bigger the family the more bedrooms. My parents had their room, each sibling had a room with their spouse and children, and there's a kitchen and living room where group activities happen. Gary and I left our room once in a while, for birthdays and holidays, but mostly we stayed in out of the common areas. Not in the closet anymore but still separate. If we invited people into our space—a clearly gay space—it didn't always go well. If I thought everyone had become open and accepting of All Things Gay, I saw the truth when Betsy brought her daughters to a Pride Day in Minneapolis. They didn't feel welcome or safe, and she let me know it.

For my part, it hurt that my parents didn't see Gary on par with my sisters' husbands or my brothers' wives. No, we weren't married. It wasn't legal, and we didn't really believe in marriage anyway. We didn't need the government to sanction our relationship, thank you. Not like that was going to happen in our lifetimes, I thought, particularly after the Defense of Marriage Act banned recognition of same-sex marriage in 1996. I wrote as much in a literary magazine I edited around then, offending one of my sisters. "What's wrong with mimicking heterosexual marriage?" she asked. Either I wasn't communicating well enough about my life and values, or they weren't ready to hear it. Had we moved away from being estranged only to remain distant?

Honesty takes practice. We didn't have that much time to practice being honest with one another.

This went on for a few years, and I thought things were going well enough. When we found out in the summer of 1997 that my dad had cancer, Gary and I drove from Minneapolis to my parents' home in Wisconsin. We had a pleasant visit outside on their patio. They were friendly, even kind. My dad died a few months later at 64, and I mourned the relationship we didn't have, that we would never achieve. Would he have become more accepting as he got older, mellowing with age, the way my mom seemed to? Would I have liked him? Would he have liked me?

Amid the grief there was relief. For the first time in my life, I didn't have to worry about, or even think about, his disapproval or his negativity. It was as if the censor on my shoulder had gone away. My relations with my mom and my siblings were easier, freer. And yet, I still felt they didn't want to know me, the real me. There were things I held very close, like my academic work that I thought would be "too gay" for them.

After the funeral, my brother-in-law, Chuck, my oldest sister's husband, tried to help break down my walls. He had been welcoming and compassionate back when I was a girly 17-year-old boy.

For the first time in my life, I didn't have to worry about, or even think about, his disapproval or his negativity. It was as if the censor on my shoulder had gone away.

"Everyone here cares about you," Chuck said. It was the simplest statement but it shook me. I had believed the opposite. I needed to reassess my family, see my brothers and sisters as individual people again. What was my role in the family now that I was an adult, and our father was gone? How could I support my mother and be a brother to them?

Gary and I decided to end our relationship in 2006, and I took a job in California. I met Koji in 2011. He lived in New York, and we started a long-distance relationship. Neither of us was that interested in marriage as a concept, but we recognized there might be practical benefits — some of the 100+ benefits married people get — particularly since he is Japanese and not a U.S. citizen. When the Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal in 2015, all of our ambivalence about it came into clear view. I moved to New York the next year, and we registered a domestic partnership soon after. The idea of something happening to one of us and the other not being allowed in the hospital room tipped the scales. Of course, the domestic partnership only mattered in New York City, so after cajoling from a friend, we decided to get married. We chose a date in April 2021 to have a ceremony in Palm Springs. I would need to tell my mom.

We had gotten a bit closer over the years. She visited me in California, loving the warmth and the sun. She met Koji there and liked him. Mom and I talked more about our lives, I asked questions about her growing up, and she asked about my work. We never talked about the Supreme Court rulings. I felt there were things she still didn't want to hear about. Twenty years later, some of those walls still stood.

She was the first person I told about us getting married. She was in assisted living by then and in a wheelchair. Her traveling days were over. So I knew there was no way she could attend. Still, she didn't take it well.

"Oh Jim, I wish you weren't saying that."

I took a second to clear my mind, push away my immediate defensive reaction, and asked her why.

"I don't know, I just … wish you weren't saying that."

Here we were, two guys in our 50s, recognized and honored by family and friends. My brothers and sisters welcomed me into a club I didn't know I wanted to be in.

It felt to me like a knee-jerk reaction. I had set my own aside, but she did not filter hers. She was OK with my relationship but marriage was a step further than she was prepared to go. Although she was Catholic, and she raised her kids that way, she never seemed particularly religious to me. Maybe I misunderstood. I had left the church years before, and I never really asked her about her own views. Like I never asked her views on gay marriage.

She called me back the same day. I let it go to voice mail. She left a message that I listened to immediately. She apologized. I waited until she called again the next day to talk to her.

"I should be happy for you," she said, "I am happy for you. I can't believe I would act that way to my own son."

"We've been through all of this before," I said, thinking back to the Geraldo episode. "I thought you were OK with it."

"I never had a problem with you being gay," she said. "That was all your dad."

I had to stop myself from laughing. Mom was revising history to make herself feel better, more tolerant and accepting. She was 85 at the time. I wasn't going to argue with her or try to make her remember things the way I remembered them. She had always played the middle between me and my dad. I told myself it didn't hurt me at all, but it did.

My mother died in January 2021 at age 86. Because of the pandemic, we delayed the funeral until August. Our wedding was also delayed that year from April to November. All of my siblings made it to the wedding, along with many of their children and grandchildren. Koji's family in Japan would have had to quarantine for 14 days in both directions, so they couldn't come.

The importance of marriage, or of a wedding, was obvious to me, for once. Here we were, two guys in our 50s, recognized and honored by family and friends. My brothers and sisters welcomed me into a club I didn't know I wanted to be in. It wasn't the Club of the Married, though — it was the Club of My Family.

It should have been obvious, but my brother-in-law made sure to remind me: "We all care about you." Of course, they had all along. It took me 25 years to realize how much.

It was the cruelty of the closet, amplified by my own fear, that had created and kept such a distance between my six siblings, their spouses and me. Finally, we had reached a point where we could all celebrate my happiness, my marriage and our whole family. As my brother Bill said, counting Koji as one of us, "Now we are fourteen."

By Jim Berg

Jim Berg is a writer, editor, and consultant. His academic work, published as James J. Berg, includes "The Isherwood Century" (U Wisconsin Press), edited with Chris Freeman, which won the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Studies in 2000. His most recent book is "Isherwood on Writing" (U Minnesota Press). He is a freelance developmental editor and consultant, working with writers on academic and nonacademic projects. Learn more at his website.


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Essay Family Geraldo Rivera Lgbtq Pride Tv