'The Thought of My Son Being Gay Frightened Me. I Found It Hard to Love Him'

An Israeli professor describes his difficult path toward coming to terms with his gay son, the dancer-choreographer Ido Tadmor

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Ido Tadmor with his parents in 1977.
Ido Tadmor with his parents in 1977.
Yeshayahu Tadmor
Yeshayahu Tadmor

I was not an ideal father – to put it mildly. I knew that from the start. Even if I denied it, and even if I had attacks of good fatherhood for limited periods, I did not carry out my functions as a father properly. I was too strict a parent, too demanding, but that’s not where I sinned. The sin was that I didn’t know the right way to express my faith in my children and their abilities, or to express appreciation – simply, directly, happily – for their achievements. Even though I loved them very much, I apparently didn’t know how to convey to them in a sufficient and convincing manner the feeling that my love for them was total, unconditional, not contingent.

I didn’t neglect them, heaven forbid. On the contrary, I was very mindful when it came to family life and diligently upheld family traditions on Shabbat and holidays. I made kiddush on Shabbat eve, we went on many outings across the country, we vacationed in nature reserves, slept in tents and on weekends headed to the beach. But the truth is that in all this, I behaved with more than a touch of military obsessiveness. This often riled the children, in fact they had a tendency to refer to “those plans of Dad’s,” “Dad’s forced compulsory trips,” “the beach madness.”

I was never a tyrant – crass, violent or threatening. But there was something in me that was reminiscent of a commander’s mannerisms: a certain degree of paternalism, machoism, arrogance, fanaticism concerning my way of doing things; and impatience and disdain for whoever deviated from my format. Today I recognize and am aware of this, but deep down I knew it then, too. I wasn’t able to differentiate between types of authority, and I brought some of my army behavior into the house. Not in terms of explicit actions, but definitely in the style.

All my life I was devoted to work in the extreme. In practice, under all the fine words and ideals, I was a typical “careerist.” I worked long hours, I held meetings and conversations relating to work late into the evening – and at home, too, I went on dealing with matters related to work. It was clear that the family had to adjust itself to my career.

In the period when our children, Yifat and Ido, were young and still at home, it was Neta, my wife, who managed the house. I held an educational post in the Israel Defense Forces, and because I was often also busy in the evening with meetings, which I could have skipped, I was absent from part of family life, whether it was putting the children to bed or going to parents meetings at school. What that means is that I wasn’t there for my children. Today I regret that.

Some of my mistakes as a young father were due to inexperience and immaturity. One characteristic type of flawed behavior was my changeability. Unlike our fathers, who carefully maintained a distance from their children in order to engender reverence and respect on their part – I was already part of a generation that sought closeness and removal of most barriers. However, that ambition generated confusion within me and, as a consequence and far worse, confusion in my children.

Ido Tadmor.Credit: Ashkan Image

At times I behaved with them like a friend, open and mischievous: I played kids’ games that involved running wild, rolling around in the sand, pillow fights. But there were times when I switched to the opposite pole – exuding distance and authoritarianism – often accompanied by a tone of ridicule and, worse, cynicism. My children suffered greatly from this. For the most part, I was actually aware of my alienating attitude, but I lacked the inner strength to overcome it. Nor, at that time, did I have the presence of mind to show remorse and ask for forgiveness.

‘Slow and agonizing’

Many readers undoubtedly know who Ido is: Ido Tadmor, the outstanding choreographer and dancer, known worldwide for his virtuosity as a performer and for his daring, original creative works, winner of numberless prizes, who today is the Presidential Fellow in Dance at Chapman University in California and also artistic adviser of the Israeli Ballet. His works, particularly the early ones, give expression to homosexual motifs and angry protest at the hostile attitude of many in Israel at the time toward the LGBT community.

I love Ido very much and I am proud of him. Not for being gay. Today I know a great deal about homosexuality, but on the personal level – it remains foreign to me. I cannot feel it, I have never felt it, not even in my imagination or a dream.

I am very proud of Ido for being proud of what he is, for the fortitude he found within himself to cope with the question of his sexual identity and for having the courage to come out of the closet at a young age, in the early 1980s. And for serving as an example and a source of strength for many at a time when homophobia in Israel was widespread and cruel. I am also very proud of him for being a total artist who attains the highest levels of creativity and spirit.

But my love for Ido and the pride he stirs in me took shape over many years, in a slow, agonizing process; and despite the lovely closeness we’ve had in recent years, a bitter residue remains within him and within myself, something like the bare piece of wall that symbolizes “remembrance of the destruction” of the Temple that religiously observant people leave in their homes.

Ido was a very good high-school student. He majored in the sciences – mathematics, biology and chemistry – and intended to study veterinary medicine, and we saw his future in that. In his senior year he had a close, intimate friend, a girl who was a classical ballet dancer. Under her influence he was drawn to dance and attended classes with her. He excelled, and after three months received a scholarship to pursue dance professionally.

Within a short time he developed an absolute desire to devote himself to dancing. We were very surprised, and Neta and I had a hard time swallowing the change. At the time, I objected strongly to the direction Ido had chosen. Back then, I still labeled male ballet dancers in a way that ridiculed their profession, and part of that image included homosexuality, although I didn’t impute that to Ido himself.

Ido Tadmor on Purim, 1971.

Nevertheless, during a conversation in which Ido spoke to us about his plans to advance in the field of dance, I said to him, “You know that we want you to be a veterinarian, as you yourself also did until recently. But if you feel that dance is in your blood and you want to dedicate yourself to the art of dance, go for it, on one condition from my point of view: that you strive for and attain perfection in your art.”

I think now that those words, spoken solemnly and pompously, did not express my true feeling: In fact, I found it difficult to come to terms with the path he had chosen. What I said to him was like a pat educational declaration, marred by a patronizing approach and didacticism. I don’t know whether Ido sensed the falsity in my words, but he seized on them, took heart from them and even expressed gratitude and appreciation.

And the fact is that when I saw Ido’s devotion to dance and his total immersion in it, physically and mentally, I was thrilled. I discovered an Ido I hadn’t known, with the soul of an artist. I had very high regard and esteem for his tremendous devotion to the purpose to which he’d dedicated himself, and I can honestly say that I felt that way even before his successes – before he had proved his mettle for all to see. I tried to get close to him and to connect with his artistic world. He advanced at a dizzying pace, won awards, performed at venues in Israel and abroad, created powerful works, established a troupe, held important positions.

We, his parents, accompanied him devotedly and gave him our support. For us, each new work of his was like a birth; we attended every new show, we became part of the dance “circle,” we were regular figures at every event. We also went abroad to see especially important performances.

Missing the clue

Back to 1982. I was the principal of the Reali School in Haifa. Ido had completed his studies at the local Ironi Heh High School and had been drafted into the army’s Engineering Corps. He was stationed in a base for new recruits of the corps in Adurayim, in the Hebron Hills, a remote place where conditions were harsh. He suffered a lot there, and when he was able to call he begged and complained: “I can’t take it anymore! I can’t take it anymore!”

We felt for him, but we were also angry with him: How had he become so spoiled? Why couldn’t he overcome the difficulties and fulfill his duty as a soldier, as hundreds of thousands of IDF recruits had done and were doing? We would visit him on Shabbat. We sat with him under the broiling sun, in the naked, unshaded space in front of the base’s gate, we brought him all kinds of treats, but he was miserable, caught in the grip of terrible distress, and we grieved for him.

He said, “I’m not suitable for this, I’m different!” We completely missed the hint. Neta remembers that Ido also blurted out, “I’m bisexual,” but we didn’t take that word seriously. We attributed his distressed reaction to his pampered personality, and also blamed ourselves for it. In our eyes he was a smart boy, we’d always appreciated his gentleness, the way he shied away from displaying aggressiveness or macho poses – even though we also wished that he would take more interest in sports and to be more daring and tougher.

Yeshayahu, Ido, and Yifat Tadmor, on the daughter’s wedding day, in 1978. She too would wonder why her brother never shared his pain with her.

During our two years in the United States, starting when he was 15 (during which I served as a shaliah for the World Zionist Organization), he seemed to us to have matured and to be at his best. He was active in the Israel Scouts branch in Queens, hung out with girls, was very popular and generally esteemed. We interpreted his desperate cry, “I am different,” in terms of his hypersensitivity, his “artistic soul,” and we took his remark about being bisexual as an expression of defiance that stemmed from his distress. In our folly we didn’t associate it with a same-sex preference.

I will never forget the occasion when we learned explicitly and dramatically about Ido’s homosexuality. About two months after the start of basic training, when he came home one Shabbat, he collapsed psychologically. He slept nearly the entire time, didn’t eat and was anguished, even shattered. Around midday on Shabbat, we were all three of us in the living room, each sitting in a different corner, when he said, “I can’t go on, can’t go on!” And he repeated his cry: “I’m different, I’m different! Don’t you understand? I’m different!”

I saw his awful torment, but with shameful ignorance and with the toughness of a commanding officer and a principal, I responded irascibly, “What do you mean different? What kind of different? Everyone is different, every one of the soldiers at Adurayim is different. I’m different, too, what do you want? We all did basic training, Mom did basic training, too, so did Yifat, so did I, and basic training is hard. You have to steel yourself and strengthen yourself!”

Neta tried to calm things down and to persuade him of the same things, even if she did so with softer words, which were poles apart from mine. She went over and hugged him, but Ido burst out, shouting: “What don’t you understand? I’m gay!” Silence descended in the room. Neta and I froze in our places. I snapped out of it and mumbled in a panic, “What do you mean, gay? You’re gay? You’re not gay!” Neta said, “Ido, you’re talking nonsense, how do you know you’re gay?” And Ido, who along with the pain, looked as though he had liberated himself from the oppression of the terrible secret, said, and this time quietly and in a straightforward manner, “Mom, Dad, I’m gay. Take it in, I’m gay.”

The skies fell on me, my world fell apart – that’s what I told myself. The thought of my son being gay frightened and disgusted me. I was angry at him, I found it hard to love him. Still, from some hidden impulse within me, I got up, went over to him, Neta also got up, we approached him together, we hugged him and I stammered with emotion, “But we love you, and I want you to know that we will always love you!”

In contrast to my dramatic, patronizing tone, which I displayed pathetically, Neta spoke with great feeling, as a loving mother, in a way that evoked trust. She always loved him, unconditionally. Ido gradually calmed down somewhat, was thrilled at our response and was astonished to the point of incredulity at my attitude. He knew that his mother’s love was unreserved and unconditional, but the declaration of love from me took him by surprise, and even if he felt it wasn’t sincere, the very fact that it was uttered was meaningful: It asserted that without any stipulations he was our son for all time and that our house was his house, always. We wanted him to know that.

How did it come about that I uttered those words? The answer is clear and was clear to me even back then: obligation and responsibility. Love is a foundation in the family. And in education, too. However, there are situations, in the family and in education, in which love fades, is diminished, is sometimes repressed and disappears. Anger and resentment fester in its place. When that happens, if the parent, or the educator, wants to preserve the ties with the child, or the student – and by dint of their role are duty-bound to do so – they muster the feelings of obligation and responsibility that they have within them. And drawing on these tenets, which are largely rational and ethically grounded, the person in charge or the parent actualizes the expressions and the manifestations of the concern and the giving, as long as this is not less than what results from love. My inspiration for this way of thinking comes from Martin Buber’s 1925 essay “On Education,” which proposes that love, responsibility and dialogue are the three fundamentals of education.

Ido Tadmor with his parents in 2018 (left), and Neta an Ido in 1979, in San Francisco.

End of enlightenment

Many of us are apparently endowed with negative views of homosexuality; in any event, that is so among members of my generation. According to the scientific literature, the negative views are intensified because of the sense of threat we feel with respect to the undermining of the social order, and perhaps also because of the possibility that the potential for homosexuality exists in every person. Many are also disgusted and repulsed by the images we have of homosexual sexual contact. The result is that people develop homophobia, which is a combination of hatred of gays and revulsion from them.

In all the years prior to Ido’s confession, 37 years ago, I was certain that in regard to homosexuality I was liberal and progressive. As an educator, I taught my students to offer recognition to those who are different, to accept them socially, to treat them with dignity and empathy. Long before that, when I served as education officer of the forces in the Sinai, during the War of Attrition, I fiercely defended a homosexual officer in my unit who was hazed by buddies in his squad.

I followed the same course at the Reali School in Haifa. As a homeroom teacher and as principal, I supported publicly and unreservedly students who were in distress over the question of their sexual identity, and who suffered from ridicule and violence at the hands of their fellow students. But when I discovered that my son, my son whom I loved, was gay – I was shocked. I found out that my liberalism was lacking, perhaps false, that I was still infected by viruses of recoil. The enlightenment in which I took pride suddenly vanished.

A parallel process now got underway, which was agonizing and drawn out: learning about and becoming acquainted, ever more intensely, with Ido’s world, and undertaking inner self-work aimed mainly at strengthening my compassion. The process took many years. Throughout that period, Ido, even though he appreciated to some extent the change I had undergone, felt that I had not fully accepted his homosexuality – in a manner that bespeaks not only recognition and coming to terms, but also an empathetic embrace. In his heart, he harbored criticism, anger and bitterness toward me. It was only after a lengthy period, perhaps 20 years, that I acquired the ability to accommodate Ido’s sexuality, and as that gradually grew stronger, my love for him returned and became even more intense, and a wonderful closeness began to form between us. Yet even so, even when that closeness emerged, my shadows remained, and his wounds, too.

It’s difficult to grasp the awful suffering of a person who discovers in himself a homosexual tendency, his mental anguish, his anxiety, the doubts and the loneliness, when he has no one close to consult with and to receive succor and warmth from. In the countless conversations we had with Ido over the years, he told us that he had felt his homosexual tendency already at the age of 13. He also showed us a diary he’d kept at that time, containing entries attesting to that. Throughout the whole period of his adolescence he coped with immense suffering inflicted on him by his classmates and his friends in the Scouts, who mocked his “wimpy” character and “femininity”; some already then called him by insulting names like “girlie,” “faggot,” “homo.”

Ido also underwent a sexual attack that left him severely traumatized. He didn’t tell us a thing about it at the time, and we didn’t notice any unsettling symptoms in him. He lived with feelings of terrible loneliness and despair, his self-esteem suffered, he was prone to self-destructive behavior, longed for information and help.

We believed we were a family in which relations were open and based on trust and dialogue. I always said: We are a family that talks. We were certain that Ido’s life, including his loves and his internal conflicts, were an open book to us. We followed his development closely, and his progress at school and in society, and we were convinced that he was successful in all his endeavors. Yet this idyllic picture also turned out to be an illusion.

When we heard what he had endured, we suffered Ido’s suffering and suffered our own suffering. Day and night we looked for answers to questions: How did this happen to us? How could it be that we didn’t know anything about the awful things Ido experienced as an adolescent? How is that he didn’t reveal to us, his loving parents, a single iota about what he went through? We felt guilty for what we had inflicted on Ido in our insensitivity to his hardships and his distresses, and we looked for the sources of our base behavior as parents.

Ido Tadmor at 35.

One scene has stuck with me from all those endless nights: Neta and I are in bed, in the dark, faces toward the ceiling, and we are talking and talking into the space of the room, as though to God, examining and clarifying where we went wrong, and also blaming each other. Neta: “He’s gay because you were tough with him.” And I: “You spoiled him too much.” And so on and so forth. A cloud cast a pall over our marriage.

Trying the cure

Yifat, who is six years older than her brother, felt his pain, too, and joined us in some of the probing, painful conversations. She too wondered why Ido hadn’t told even her, his freethinking sister who was so very close to him, about his plight. Together we replayed family events and picked apart our personality traits endlessly. Where had we erred? What had we missed? How much had we repressed? We weren’t much wiser for all the effort.

The questions we asked remained open. The hermetic insularity of adolescents toward their parents, and often toward other members of the household, in regard to critical matters, is a riddle. It’s true even of families where love and trust abide. I’ve read and read on the subject, and I know the scholarly opinions. At school, I always tried to get a girl or a boy in distress to share it with the adults who are close to them. To my deep regret, tragic events occurred on my watch, in which suppressed distress swelled and reached extremes of despair, even suicide. As for Ido, according to his accounts, he was on the brink of the possibility of taking his life. That’s not an empty notion. We know from scientific research that the suicide rate among people with a same-sex tendency is far higher than the rate among the population as a whole.

We knew little about the sources of homosexuality. In our great foolishness, I am ashamed to say, we urged Ido to seek psychological counsel. He refused, but in his distress and in order to placate us, he agreed to show up for a consultation. We got in touch with a psychiatrist, a close friend of ours, a well-known expert, smart and honest, and we went to him together. Ido went into his room and we stayed in the waiting room. When the short visit ended, the psychiatrist came out with Ido, both of them looking relaxed, and he said to us, “Listen, the only thing psychiatry can do, and I’ve begun it, is to reinforce Ido in his self-acceptance of homosexuality as a primary element of his identity and his being.”

To become acquainted with Ido’s world, I ceaselessly read a range of materials – scientific and literary – about homosexuality, and even sex manuals for gays. For a long time I couldn’t shake the image of Ido having sex with a man, and it caused me nightmares. I needed a very long time until, gradually, from observing Ido and his friends, I became capable of understanding homosexuality in its comprehensive, total, human sense, and I saw the great love, the courting, the gentleness and the softness that can manifest in relations between men.

In the meantime, Ido tested us, me especially, to see how sincere we were in what we said, how far we accepted his partner and how much that acceptance resembled the welcoming of a female partner. It was a lengthy journey. The first time he brought an intimate friend home, we watched obsessively to see if there was any physical contact between them and what form it took, what sort of looks they exchanged, what the whispers and dialogue were all about. Ido, for his part, wanted to be sure that we were open to everything, that we recognized his sexuality not only in declarations, that we affirmed and accepted his being gay naturally, as part of the life of the family.

The real test came when his friend stayed overnight. Ido, who was then 22 or 23, behaved spontaneously. We were gripped by tension. The next day, I said to Neta, “Ido and his friend probably slept well, but I didn’t sleep a wink.” That was long ago, and for years I have accepted him as he is, and been supportive.

Ido Tadmor with his husband, Shalev.

Not a secret

Back then, in the 1980s-90s, AIDS was as terrible a threat as the Black Plague. The disease, shrouded in myth and shadows, ravaged its victims in body and in mind. It struck fear into everyone. I recall the following scenario: As was our custom in the family, on Shabbat eve I make kiddush over the wine and, like my parents before me, take a sip from the cup and pass it to everyone else. When I learned that Ido was gay, I changed the custom, so that henceforth everyone had his own cup of wine. I must have come up with some lame excuse for doing that, I don’t remember, but it was certainly transparent. I was driven by the fear that one of us would be infected by Ido.

Thinking about that now embarrasses and appalls me.

Amid the cacophony of emotions that gripped us, shame dominated at first. For a certain period, albeit very short – a few weeks – we ostensibly hid from people close to us the fact that Ido was gay. Afterward, we discovered that they’d already known, most of them for a while. Eventually we came out of that closet, but there was nothing heroic about it. It was Ido who, with great courage and profound integrity, announced his homosexuality publicly.And we followed suit. Since then we haven’t hemmed and hawed about it.

Socially and publicly, over the years, we stood at Ido’s side and in defense of gays. We were interviewed on radio and television. In short order, we found ourselves being approached by parents who found themselves in shock at learning that their son was gay or their daughter a lesbian. We understand what those parents are going through, and from the intensity of the feelings and experiences we endured, we are capable of seeing clearly the whirlpool of emotions they are being swept into.

Dozens of parents have drawn on us for help and have clung to our story, and perhaps even gained new and sensitive insight from us. In the eyes of many, we have become a model. Above all, we have strengthened a few couples who are our close friends and have children who are gay. We took part in one of the first Gay Pride Parades, in the early ‘80s. Together with another 10 or so parents we marched the entire route in the boisterous Tel Aviv event, carrying signs that said, “We love our children!”

During the initial, difficult periods, the whole family tried to learn to accept Ido as gay. I suppose that each of us was at a different place on the scale of understanding and acceptance. Despite the differences between us, we all made an effort to treat Ido straightforwardly, we displayed love for him, we accepted his friends and we were happy at every family encounter with him. Ido’s intimate friends were like members of the family in our house. Ido’s partner for the past decade, Shalev, is one of the family. And even so, Ido’s ongoing doubts – regarding the nature of our acceptance of him as a homosexual – remain in the background of the relationships between us and probably always will.

Decades ago, quite a few parents who discovered that a son was gay would spurn him. Ido cared with selfless devotion for a friend of his who had AIDS and was confined in a Jerusalem hospice, solitary and abandoned. The friend’s parents forsook him, and did not acknowledge him. They didn’t come to his funeral after he died of the disease. We ostensibly took their place there. We felt grief and pity for the sick man, but also for his parents, alongside our profound anger at them.

‘Walk humbly’

I’ve dwelt here on the changes I underwent, which in any event brought about a recalibration of traits and values. More compassion, I would say, which takes the form of greater attentiveness; more sensitivity and dignity toward people, a more complete fulfillment of the tenet, “Walk humbly.” I can say clearly that this change was wrought in me almost entirely thanks to Ido, through the journey I traveled with him, through the development in my attitude toward him and the transformation in our mutual relationship. I have focused here on the question of homosexuality, but it also constituted an incentive for a change in my approach to and behavior vis-a-vis all human beings, especially those who are different from me.

Four years ago, Ido was asked in an interview about his relations with his parents. Speaking about his ties with me, he said, “I learned a great deal from my father, but I think he learned more from me.” That remark may sound arrogant, but he said it in a tone of seriousness and respect, and that’s how I took it. Through Ido I learned about the inner resilience that can accrue to a person who clings tenaciously to his authentic identity. Above all, I learned, though his mediation, about myself.

Not long ago, when I spoke with Ido about the changes I had undergone in my attitude toward him, he said to me teasingly, “But that wouldn’t have happened to you if it hadn’t been for Mom.” I accept that; he’s absolutely right. Were it not for Neta, I would probably be stuck in a rut of being patronizing and arrogant. It was she who, without philosophizing and without tiresome verbal battering, unlike me, led the household and the acceptance of Ido in a spontaneous and natural way, and with the finely honed intuitions of a loving, caring, supportive and responsible mother. As such, she is the one who determined the approach the house would take toward him. For her, love and responsibility are one and the same.

My relations with Ido these days are lovely. There’s understanding and closeness between us, we discern similarities of character, we express mutual concern, love exists. We occasionally discuss the subject of the scars that were seared into him in the period when I learned about his being gay and was adjusting to it, in our conversations.

To conclude, I want to say that along with the recognition of my flaws as a father to my children, and my regrets about them, I think that the education I gave them, of course together with Neta, was, all in all, a good one. I see clearly my positive qualities and traits imprinted in them. And even if my children are grown and independent, opinionated and critical, as I wished them to be – they appreciate the wisdom that I have accumulated and accept a good deal of my advice, show basic respect for my authority as their father and, the main thing, show their love for me.

This article was adapted from Prof. Yeshayahu Tadmor’s new book (in Hebrew), “Education: What Is It for Me?.” In it, the author, 84, a former principal of the Reali School in Haifa, head of the Levinsky College of Education in Tel Aviv and chairman of the Spirit in Education Movement, describes the development of his educational identity and approach.

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