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A happy ending


Art and Loretta Zumbach are a comfortable couple, the sort of mellow middle-agers who finish each other's sentences--or try to, anyway--and laugh as they correct the corrections. It's the second marriage for both, a widow and widower who knew one another, and their families, long before they tied the knot in 1998. So putting their lives together wasn't so hard. The house they live in was his, she says, but "I've changed things a little bit." "A little bit, yes," he agrees. "Or a lot, one or the other," she adds. "Well, most of the stuff you see is Loretta's," Art admits.

Art's kind of serious, an engineer with IBM until he retired a couple of years ago, and he likes to finish a point. Loretta, a nurse at Duke, is more playful, punctuating his explanations with the missing details. But she can be just as serious at times. It's Art's patience, they both say, that's a key ingredient in their romance. And romance is what it is, no question. "Dana--Loretta's daughter--and I like to kid about how the two of them will just sit together holding hands," says Mark Zumbach, Art's oldest son.

So that's that? A charming story of two nice people who found each other in the wake of their losses? Well, yes, except that there's a bit of a gay twist to it. These two straight folks, who live on a tree-lined street in Cary, got together because each of them was the parent of a homosexual son, and they belonged to a group called P-FLAG--Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.

They joined the group long enough ago, in fact, that both still call it Parent-FLAG, the original shorthand before the name was changed from "Parents and Friends of ..." to include families. P-FLAG started with a single chapter in New York 27 years ago. It now claims 420 chapters nationwide, including 12 in North Carolina, with a total of 70,000 members and supporters.

Throughout the years, the chapters have stood up to the prejudices of Anita Bryant, the U.S. military, "Doctor" Laura Schlesinger, and everyone else who's against respect and equal rights for gays--or thinks parents and families of gay children should give them anything other than "unconditional love."

Art Zumbach came to the group with his first wife, Sally, after son Mark came out more than two decades ago. Sally, he says, was the one who took the lead. She was always "the advocate," he says, a Roman Catholic who took the church's teachings about human rights to heart at an early age and then, because the church was rigid on the subject of homosexuality, turned away from it later in life. When Mark came out, Art was a conservative Republican without the religious bent, an "Archie Bunker and proud of it."

Sally became the leader, or "facilitator," of the Raleigh-Durham/Triangle chapter of P-FLAG and remained active in it until her death, five years ago, from a heart condition linked to childhood rheumatic fever. Art went with her to some of the local meetings and, as his politics turned around, attended national conventions. That's where he first met Loretta.

Loretta had found the local P-FLAG chapter after her son, Lee, attempted suicide at age 17. In the hospital, Lee had come out to her, confirming what she'd known for years. "But you wait for them to share it," she says.

Since her first husband died in 1977, Loretta had been a single mom to Lee and Dana. Now she bonded with Sally and the other chapter leaders, going to the national meetings and, incidentally, meeting her future husband. Perhaps they'd met before, they say, but they remember being introduced when Loretta and Lee had dinner with Sally and Art at a meeting in San Francisco.

"Always" a liberal, Loretta says she accepted Lee's sexuality without questioning it. "The difficult thing," she recalls, "is when you know that life is going to be so much harder for them, that's where the heartbreak comes in." School, for instance, "was very difficult for Lee. Kids are not very nice to each other. Kids--especially if they're different--they can be cruel."

While Lee's life was hard in some respects, she says, he accepted himself for who he was. When Loretta asked her son whether he would choose to be straight if, somehow, there was a shot he could take to change his sexuality, he said no. "Then I wouldn't be me," he told her.

Even with his mother's support, Mark Zumbach says, it still wasn't easy for Lee to be himself in a hostile world. He died suddenly two years ago. Loretta talks about him fondly, preferring not to dwell on his death.

It was harder for Art to accept his son's homosexuality. For one thing, Art says, he's a decade older than Loretta--and Mark, now 42, was 12 years older than Lee. "I grew up in a different era," Art says, "with all the gay-stereotype issues, and there was a real lack of material on the subject. So Parent-FLAG was a tremendous help."

As Mark tells it, his dad was never angry, because it just wasn't in him to be mean-spirited about anything. But for a long time after Mark's coming-out, his father's way of telling Mark he loved him was to say: "How's everything? Grades OK? Need any money?"

"My mom and I used to joke that if there was trouble, Dad would go change the oil in the car," Mark says, laughing. "Or he'd pick up sticks. I remember sometimes coming home and saying to Mom, 'Dad's outside picking up sticks--what's the problem?' "

That side of Art is gone completely--or at least it's gone where issues of sexuality are concerned. He talks freely about what he thought then and what he thinks now. "I don't care who you are," he says. "When you find out you have a gay child, it's a surprise--and an adjustment."

Art's analytic mind quickly grasped that being gay was not optional, it was what you are. Like Loretta, it bothered him to think about the troubles Mark would face as an openly gay man. But, like both of the women in his life, when he accepted Mark's gayness, it led Art to a new political outlook of tolerance and respect for human rights.

"I consider myself very liberal now," he says. "Because I have a gay son, yeah, I turned around 180 degrees in my thinking."

Mark, who got death threats as a gay student at East Carolina University, dropped out and worked in retail jobs and restaurants before taking a post with the National AIDS Hotline that lasted a decade and got him involved in "the movement." When the AIDS issue faded from the headlines a few years ago, and information became more readily available online, the hotline's staff was downsized and Mark returned to school at N.C. State. He's finishing a degree in psychology while working as an administrator of the university's computer-science facilitiies.

He relishes talking about his stepmom and his new extended family, but when the talk turns to his dad, the pride in Mark's voice jumps up another notch. He's interested that his father, who used to be so taciturn, could be so at ease talking about family matters with a reporter. "That's new!" Mark says, adding, "he's really had a tremendous journey in his evolution."

And it's the journey that made this love story possible. Loretta was not looking for another husband, not after two decades as a single parent. But when Lee was still alive, and after Sally died, she telephoned Art one night to talk. He suggested they have dinner. "It was nice enough, we did it a couple of more times," he says. "We did share some common beliefs," she says. They both like the outdoors, for one thing. "It was kind of, why not?" he adds. "It made it why not, because we seemed to get along so well," she says, laughing.

But the vital thing, she adds: "I would never have been interested in anyone who did not accept my son--I mean, forget it."

Yes, Art agrees, that "seemed to smooth things out"--and make it possible for them to disagree, agreeably, about a few other matters. Like what? "Well, she has some mystical belief ... " he says with a chuckle. "In the hereafter," she explains. She's "spiritual, not religious," she says. And he is? They're both laughing, so the answer's hard to make out. An engineer? EndBlock

P-FLAG groups meet monthly in Raleigh and in Chapel Hill. For information, visit www.pflag. org or call 380-9325 (Raleigh) or 929-0192 (Chapel Hill).

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