Jim Batty thought he was out for a nice dinner with his wife, Sheila, when the world as he knew it changed forever. It was the fall of 1992 and they had a table by the window at Caffe Bellissimo on Kirkwood Highway. They hadn’t gotten far in their meal when Sheila took a sledgehammer and hit him in the gut.
Well, not exactly. But the four words she said had a similar impact, he says now.
“Your son is gay.”
This was their Jim she was talking about? Their only child? The one who would carry the Batty name to the next generation and present his parents with grandchildren? No, that couldn’t be true. They had dreams for their son and nothing about that word — “gay” — had ever been on the radar screen.
Jim couldn’t control what happened next. He started to cry. And he couldn’t stop.
“We left our table,” Sheila said.
Looking back, Jim says his reaction was purely selfish. All he thought about then, he says, were the things he wanted and the way this news about his namesake made him feel. They never considered rejecting their son. But Sheila says they both had to deal with powerful feelings. She was most concerned about her son’s safety. Would he be able to get a job or find a place to live? Would somebody beat him up? Both of them grieved — the gut-wrenching kind of grief encountered after the death of a loved one. But this was the death of a dream — not the death of their son.
“It was a death and a rebirth,” Sheila said. “And when push comes to shove, you want your children to be happy and be themselves. This is your only child and the way we are, we want the best for him.”
Just as he is.
Now, almost 20 years later, few can believe Jim Batty ever had such struggles. He has devoted himself to changing the future for his son and all those who are gay, lesbian, transgendered or bisexual. For the past 17 years, he has presided over Delaware’s chapter of PFLAG — Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians & Gays, an organization with 350 chapters nationwide — and encountered many others who are either struggling with the news that a loved one is gay or want to support them.
Many show up mad at the world, mad at God, mad at everybody,” he said. “Why did you do this to me? And that’s part of what you go through. Some don’t get past that, but many do. … We’re not going to shove anything down your throat. But it helps to have a place where you know you can express that out loud.”
Sheila helped get the chapter established, attended meetings for a while and still serves as education chair. But, she says, Jim has been the engine of the group since it started in 1993. He steers each monthly meeting, organizes speakers and special events and maintains an e-mail list to distribute news in the state and nationally.
For his tireless work on behalf of members of the gay community and their loved ones, Batty is among The News Journal’s 25 Who Matter, a biweekly series that explores the stories of people who have made a significant difference in the community.
“Jim is the glue that holds this group together,” said Anne Gross, an adjunct music professor at the University of Delaware who has a gay son and volunteers with PFLAG. “Rehoboth has tried to start a group, Dover has tried to start a group — but it needs somebody who is so tenacious, a person who won’t let it die.”
A person like Jim Batty.