Longtime Tucsonan Jean Baker, a psychologist whose experiences as the mother of two gay sons led her to become a staunch advocate for HIV/AIDS and gay and lesbian issues in Tucson, died Sunday at her home in Philadelphia from complications from Parkinson's disease.
Baker was 86 years old.
From 1970 and until she was in her early 80s, Baker worked as a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice with a focus on children and families.
After her youngest son, Gary, died from AIDS in 1989, just a few months after her husband Jack, died from lung cancer, Baker became a involved with Tucson AIDS Project, also known as TAP.
She volunteered for the organization as a way to honor her son and cope with his death, and served on the board of directors for six years. The organization later merged with other HIV/AIDS support organizations to become the Southern Arizona Aids Foundation, which Baker also supported.
Noel Matkin met Baker when the two volunteered for TAP.
"Jean was just a model of who all of us would like to believe we can and could be in terms of supporting and enriching endeavors that strengthen and support the LGBT community," Matkin said.
Scott Blades, executive director of the Tucson Interfaith HIV/AIDS Network, also met Baker through her work with TAP.
"It was clear that Jean was a leader in the HIV community. She was very concerned about educating people about HIV and wanting to support people living with HIV and helping others support them," Blades said.
For several years, Baker also served on the board of directors for Wingspan and was passionate about the youth services group.
"Gay children grow up feeling they won't be considered constructive members of society, and they begin to believe that maybe there is something wrong with them," Baker told the Star in a 1999 interview when she was awarded Wingspan's Godat Award for her advocacy work. "My own experiences have led to a deep understanding of what these kids go through, and I realize how much help these kids need growing up."
Baker served as a mother figure for many gay and lesbian youth whose own families rejected them after they came out, said Kent Burbank who served as the executive director of Wingspan from 2001 to 2007.
And, as a straight ally, Baker helped shed light on gay and lesbian issues in the community.
"When it was only gay and lesbian people standing up for gay and lesbian rights, we were ignored," Burbank said. "The tide shifted in the community when their loved ones, their straight allies started speaking up."
Baker often shared her experience about learning to accept that her two sons were gay with other parents and community members and taught parents struggling with their children coming out how to be supportive.
Her experience was the subject of a 1998 book she authored titled "Family Secrets: Gay Sons - A Mother's Story," which also details how her family coped with Gary's illness and death and offers suggestions about how parents and schools can support gay and lesbian children.
"Jean was one of those people who could help … parents to see how to go through that process and understanding and be that kind of support that a kid needs; how to be a parent in a supportive way to a child who was coming to terms with their own sexual orientation," Blades said. "She had such compassion for other parents who might be struggling through that issue."
Baker penned a second book titled "How Homophobia Hurts Children: Nurturing Diversity at Home, at School, and in the Community" that was published in 2002.
Baker's older son, Andy, who is the chief operating officer at the Philadelphia Zoo, said he was proud of his mother for all of her accomplishments, even those that preceded her advocacy work.
She was the first person in her family to earn a Ph.D during a time when few women reached that goal, all while raising her two sons, Andy Baker said. "I always just thought that as an incredible accomplishment," Andy Baker said.
And, as a strong-willed woman who didn't let anything stand in the way of her goals, it was no surprise to Andy Baker when his mom became a pioneering advocate for gay and lesbian rights.
Contact reporter Veronica Cruz at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 573-4224.