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OAK PARK – There are those in the LGBT community who spend their lives working tirelessly behind the scenes that make the small steps and big strides possible. Perpetual volunteer Tom Zerafa of Oak Park is one such man. And at 62 years of age one thing that is interesting is not that he puts much thought into his birthdays, but instead puts his focus on a 40 year milestone – the anniversary of his coming out.
Each year he celebrates his coming out anniversary with a party to raise money for LGBT charities. This particular day has had such a profound effect on his life, and he feels that sharing it with others is not only a joy, but a responsibility. “Coming out is so important. The worst thing is to stay in a perpetual closet and hate yourself,” he said.
Zerafa was raised in a Catholic home, and spent most of his career as a teacher and as a music minister at the Archdiocese of Detroit. His parents learned of his sexuality when he was 22-years-old. He’d been sick and in bed when they traveled to Michigan from their home in Florida. His mother came into his bedroom, but his father remained in the living room and took the opportunity to look at the books and magazines on Zerafa’s bookshelf.
“I got a letter a couple of weeks later,” he said. “My mother was nice about it. She said she hoped that I was feeling better, and that my father had been ‘confused’ by the literature he saw in my apartment.” Zerafa said that while they struggled with it at first, they were never mean or judgmental with him and have long since been comfortable with who he is.
With his parents in Florida, Zerafa took the family values he grew up with and applied them to the dynamics of his chosen family. “When I found ‘the family’ finally, I came out of a strong ethnic background, and you pull your own weight when you’re a member of the family. Everybody’s got responsibility. You pay your dues. That’s what being part of a family is. I grew up with that ethic,” he said. “And when I came out and found my other family, it was time to start paying my dues. I wasn’t going to sit around and be a bar fly or be the little sexpot, I had time for that later.”
Zerafa got involved with many organizations and projects over the years, including Triangle Foundation. He has also been involved in dozens of other organizations and projects. Early on, he was part of the Wayne State Gay and Lesbian Liberation Front from 1973-1986. In the 80s he was also part of Dignity Detroit Area Gay and Lesbian Council. He was a volunteer for Triangle, and among other things is currently on the Board of Michigan Coalition for Human Rights; is the Regional Coordinator for Move On.org, and is involved in the Affirmations Faith Task Force.
“My life is not about me. It’s about service and I intend to do just that until my last breath. My bags are packed whenever God is ready to take me. I have no regrets in my life, just work to do,” he said.
The lesson of the last 40 years is one he’s not quite been able to impart to others as well as he’d like.
“In many cases we’ve gone forward, that we have organizations now that fit every need and breed in our community, but we’re not doing any outreach to our allies. I belong to three peace action groups. I belong to the Sierra Club. I belong to several other organizations that are talking about international rights. We aren’t doing any work with these groups. More often than not, I find that I’m the lone gay face and gay voice in some of these organizations. If we don’t start building these bridges now, how do we expect people to support us when we’re trying to gain even basic civil rights in this state? These are people that will support us, but we’ve got to meet them half way.
“I’ve been told by people I’m wasting my time. No I’m not. I’m building bridges.”
His advice to young people faced with coming out is simple and strong. “Stay focused. Find something you have passion to do. Make sure your passion isn’t just about you. Make sure your passion helps someone else, don’t hold it back. Life is too short. Share your passion. Not just with one individual. The community needs your gifts. And don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do something. That’s so important. I know a lot of young people are very repressed.”
Zerafa is currently volunteering with the One Royal Oak Campaign, heading up their faith-community outreach. He is also taking culinary classes in hopes of one day starting up a soup kitchen in the Oak Park or Ferndale area.