BY ELLEN GILLETTE
Suzi James was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a mother bear and rainbow-colored cub when a woman stopped her. “Do you have a gay kid?” the woman asked.
When James said she did, the woman nodded. “I do too, but I don’t know who I can talk to about it.”
Something as simple as a T-shirt can spark conversations and make connections.
Although she knew her son, Ben, was gay, James waited for him to bring it up. She never fretted about it, but was concerned for his safety and happiness.
“He’d moved and didn’t know anyone,” James says. “So when he said he was going to a friend’s, I was glad. When he said it was his boyfriend, my first comment was, ‘Is he nice?’ You love your children however they come to you. Not everyone has that positive experience.”
James grew up on Signal Mountain outside Chattanooga, Tennessee.
“The man who developed the area was C.E. James,” she says. “We lived on James Boulevard. Everybody assumed we were related, but we weren’t.”
Both parents were musical and artistic.
“I thought everyone had folks dropping by each evening to sit on the front porch swing,” she recalls. “Such interesting clients of Daddy would visit. One man did handsprings down the driveway. Another took over mama’s kitchen and made food no one could eat.”
Her art dealer father, Doug, had an office in one of the cottages surrounding their 1910 home and for a short time, an art gallery in Chattanooga. Her mother was a social worker, then worked for the state.
“Mama got her master’s degree in 1958, which was unheard of,” James says. “My grandfather said, ‘Jackie, I don’t know what you’re doing there, but make sure you learn to type.’ ”
James and the other neighborhood children attended Miss Carrier’s preschool, including James’ imaginary friend.
“Henry Bell’s mother was a trapeze artist who brought him every day on a circus elephant,” she recalls.
And every afternoon, James would marry Henry wearing a baby blanket veil. Her father officiated.
“He just went along,” she recalls. “No one ever questioned me.”
When the family moved to Florida, James was sent to a boarding school near Orlando.
“I wouldn’t recommend it,” she says of that time.
She rejoined her family in Fort Pierce by her sophomore year, graduated from John Carroll High School and enrolled in Indian River State College’s dental assistant program.
Then she married the mailman.
“I was 19. He was older.”
After divorcing when their son was 2, James held several jobs before she was hired at Heathcote Botanical Gardens.
“I learned so much there,” she says. “I was hired to answer the phone, but thank God my grandmother taught me to type when I was 6. When the director left, I was thrown into all kinds of things, planning festivals and fundraising, managing volunteers.”
That experience led to a position with Treasure Coast Hospice. While working there, James also helped take care of her ailing father. In recent years, she helped a close friend through a difficult medical crisis, and then her mother.
“I talked to Mama on the phone and she was fine,” James, who was working for the nonprofit Haiti Partners at the time, recalls. “Twenty minutes later, she was not.”
Forty days after a diagnosis of glioblastoma, her mother was gone.
“It was so hard to see someone go from walking two miles a day to nothing, but she never lost her sense of humor,” she says.
“She said I’d learned to worm my way through the medical system and should become a patient advocate when I ‘grew up,’ ” James says smiling. “A friend says my family’s superpower is humor. Looking back, there were some terrible things, but we did laugh through them.”
When the nonprofit cut her hours, James saw an opening for a patient advocate in Vero Beach, exactly what her mother had suggested. Hired quickly, she was a go-between for patients and medical personnel, logging 12,000 steps a night. When an opportunity to work with the hospital’s foundation became available, she switched to days. She is now the donor liaison for Cleveland Clinic Indian River Hospital in Vero Beach.
James loves advocacy work at the hospital, but advocating for the LGBTQ community continues to be her passion.
“I ran into a woman whose stepson had gone to school with Ben,” she says. “When I asked how he was doing, she said, ‘We don’t talk to him. He’s gay now. We don’t believe in that.’ ”
James was so shocked, it stopped her in her tracks.
“How could a parent disown a child over that?”
The encounter motivated her to do more research and gain a better understanding.
She helped facilitate a support group with PFLAG, the nation’s largest organization that unites parents, families and allies with the LGBTQ community. She also is involved with Mama Bears, a group for mothers, and Free Mom Hugs.
“We basically stand somewhere at Pride events,” she explains. “People come to us who want to be hugged and loved on.”
Those seeking hugs are perhaps those who lack the love and support of their own families, friends or faith communities.
“Everything I’ve heard about God is that he loves everyone,” James says.
Or, as one of her shirts says:
“Be careful who you hate. It could be someone you love.”
SUZANNE BRADSHAW JAMES
Lives in: Fort Pierce
Occupation: Donor liaison for Cleveland Clinic Indian River Hospital, Vero Beach
Family: Son, Ben Baumker [Chicago] and sister, Merle Kincaid [Richmond]
Education: John Carroll High School, Class of 1985; some classes at Indian River State College
Hobby: Buying and selling vintage and unique items
Who inspires me: “I’m inspired by people who are creative, and maybe not one specific person.”
Something most people don’t know about me: “My father was an art dealer and became friends with Steve Martin. The first thing he sold was a Rembrandt sketch book to Johnny Cash.”