There’s a dent now in the heart of Jacksonville, a depression left by something precious that touched the city and is gone. Maybe you don’t feel it, but if you had a chance to know Scott Saraga, you probably do.
Saraga grew up in a sheltered world inside Jacksonville’s conservative Jewish community and inside the world of 1960s suburban Arlington. He attended Bolles and Wolfson High School, and grew up in a large close-knit family. They did well. For more than 30 years, Leonard and Frieda Saraga owned Saraga’s Western Wear, the place where Jacksonville bought its blue jeans.
The real journey for the Saraga family began when Scott came out 30 years ago, while in his 20s. It wasn’t easy to be an out gay man in the late 1980s in such a proudly conservative, Southern Baptist-dominated and highly appearance-conscious city. But Scott battled through his own coming out, and then he reached out to help others do the same. If there is one quality that defined him, that’s it. Whatever challenges he faced, demons he thought or knowledge he gained on his way to being, he sought to be useful to others.
When he learned about the support group Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, he asked his mother father to start a local chapter. They did so in 1992, with Frieda taking the lead, even as the family received death threats and hate calls. They did it because Scott said other people struggling to come out and their families and friends would find it easier with the support PFLAG could offer to them.
In a conference room at the Haydon Burns Library Downtown, Scott also started a small coming-out group. He advertised it with a blurb in the magazine Out and About. Jerry Rosenberg, one of the founders of the Metro nightclub and a big supporter of the Jacksonville Pride Parade and other causes, sought out Scott’s group when he was going through his own journey to accept his sexual identify. Rosenberg didn’t know until he went one Tuesday that his closest childhood friend was the group’s facilitator. He says that lots of weeks it would just be the two of them, but they went every week and they talked.
“I thought I was the only person in the world who felt the way I did,” says Rosenberg. Asked what Scott meant to Jacksonville's gay community, Rosenberg responds, “Scott meant everything. Just everything.”
The youth organization JASMYN also got its start in that tiny library conference room. One Tuesday, 19-year-old Ernie Selorio Jr. joined Rosenberg and Saraga. He’d moved here with his family from Washington, D.C. and missed the gay youth support group he attended there. He was distraught, almost suicidal and felt very alone in his adopted home. Scott and Jerry encouraged Selorio to start a group for youth in Jacksonville. That night, Selorio decided upon the name Jacksonville Area Sexual Minority Youth Network, and Scott gave Selorio his mother’s phone number. She was organizing PFLAG, he told him, and would know what he should do.
“Scott was the first gay man I met in Jacksonville, and he was very much a mentor and a motivator to me,” Selorio says.
During their conversations, Rosenberg and Saraga would talk about how difficult it was to come out in Jacksonville, Selorio says. But they often told Selorio they were still here, they had made it — and he would, too. To his mother, Scott gave both technical and emotional support. Frieda Saraga was honored by One Jax in 2013 as a “bridge builder” and “Silver Humanitarian.” She says she lost her best friend when Scott died on April 18.
Aside from his struggles with his sexual identity, Scott suffered greatly to understand and control mental illness. He was hospitalized more than 50 times as his doctors tried medication after medication to try to regulate the symptoms of his bipolar disorder. That was hard enough. He kept the bulima and anorexa he’d began inflicting on his body at 15 years of age a secret until some of the damage was irreversible and his always-trim body turned more skeletal. Complications from anorexia killed him.
At Scott’s funeral at Evergreen Cemetery, his remains were lowered into the ground in a plain wooden casket — dust to dust. Family members threw shovels full of dirt onto the coffin. The clods of dirt hitting the wooden casket made a hollow sound. That hit my heart like a drum. It was the sound of emptiness and absence. Scott is gone. I wish he could have given himself the same loving kindness he gave others, and that I counted on from him as a friend. The kindness Scott showed others is rare. Why couldn’t he give that to himself?
But I see Scott now mostly in terms of his strength. He suffered and he still gave.
Scott’s sister Sharon and her wife, Louanne Walters, are planning a documentary film on gay men and eating disorders to honor Scott’s memory. For information, see a preview of the documentary on the My Video Voice web page: http://bit.ly/1k9KnOM.