Coming Out to Esther, by Mark Leno by
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Mark Leno at a California minimum wage rally in 2016.

Esther Leno

Esther Leno

Had she been born into different circumstances, I have no doubt that my mother, Esther Leno, could have given Ruth Bader Ginsburg a good run at being the first Jewish woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. With an uncommon intellect, tireless energy and a heightened sense of social justice, her possibilities could have been endless with the benefit of a professional education. When she married in 1947, she enthusiastically embraced her expectations of motherhood and her dominion of the family home. Memories of my early years are bathed in loving attention. Being an only son definitely had its benefits.

To come out was to announce to the world that one was a mentally ill outlaw. No wonder this was challenging to my parents.

In 1969, I came out as an 18-year-old gay man—a Stonewall baby. Back then, being gay was still considered a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association and consensual relationships between two adults of the same gender were felonies in every state of this country. Laws prohibiting discrimination in housing and employment based on sexual orientation were yet decades away. Not surprisingly, coming out was a rather lonely and frightening experience. To do so was to announce to the world that one was a mentally ill outlaw. No wonder this was challenging to my parents.

And yet, my mother’s love never wavered. Though with no familiarity with the subject matter and no gay friends, through it all I remember her strong presence. Often awkward in her communications and her discomfort with the facts before her, Esther’s resolute support was constant. In many of my darkest hours and most vulnerable days, her message to me was always the same: “Love yourself as I love you. If you do, there will be absolutely nothing that you will not be able to accomplish or attain.” Powerful words and an empowering sentiment.

Mark Leno at SFPP, 2004

Mark at the San Francisco Pride Parade, 2004.

Mainstream acceptance of LGBTQ rights seemed unrealistic and same-sex marriage seemed like an impossible dream. Mentally ill and outlaw gay boys had no right to imagine they could ever march openly in a parade celebrating LGBTQ identity, let alone grow up to be state senators. And this one certainly did not. But so many decades later with the world a very different place, Esther’s clarity and vision allowed her to deliver just the right message to a young man so in need of validation.

Mark LenuMark Leno has served his constituents as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the California State Assembly, and the California State Senate. He recently announced his candidacy for mayor of San Francisco in the 2019 election.



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Characterizations: right on!


  1. Thank you for sharing this story. While you were a Stonewall baby, I was a baby during Stonewall. Things still felt awkward and dangerous coming out in the 1980s—especially with the AIDS epidemic in high gear at the time. Your courage two decades earlier made it that much better for me and for everyone since.

  2. Patricia says:

    Mark, would that we all have a mother such as yours! Thanks for this amazing and loving tribute to the power of acceptance.

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    What a wonderful mother you have! Gay or straight, her message of unconditional love and acceptance, of being the best you can be is one for all children. It is wonderful that she gave you the confidence to navigate through the world you grew up in. I have a transgender daughter living in the Bay Area, working in SF. I try to do the same for her. Your mother is a great role model for us all. Thank you for sharing this story with us.

  4. Mark says:

    What an inspiring story. It took real courage to come out in those days. I don’t know a single parent of that generation who didn’t think being gay was abnormal. Kudos to your mother for her acceptance and support.

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