Near the end of her life, Donald Borho’s grandmother told him he looked like a soldier. It was symbolic: As a gay man, the Ossining resident and owner of Briarcliff Manor’s popular gift shop Wondrous Things relied on inner strength and courage in coming to terms with his sexuality and finding fulfillment. He suspects she knew he was gay, though she passed away before he was “really out there,” as he puts it.
Borho wants to share his story, disturbed by today’s prevalence of bullying and suicides of teens, wrestling as he did with his sexuality. He’s counseled children of family friends and feels that even though people today are generally more accepting of homosexuality, “If I can help make it easier for young people, you can talk to me, and I’ll just listen,” he says with conviction. “By talking, it gets it out.”
A safe haven is critical. “Being gay, we’re always checking around, seeing what’s going on, looking at faces, looking at the reaction a person is giving us,” he explains. “We have another sense that straight people might not have because of that safety net we put over ourselves.”
Borho wishes the government would be more progressive and pass laws in keeping with cultural norms. “It’s like the Constitution says: We’re all created equal, so then we all need to be treated equal regardless of relationships or sexual proclivities,” he comments. Regarding the hot-button issue of gender-specific public restrooms, he thinks a federal law would remove any stigma. “I don’t understand why we have to have separate bathrooms. You go into a bathroom and there’s a stall… if you’re a man or woman, does it really matter?”
Despite any misgivings, Borho savors the contentment he’s found as a gay man and wants to impart the wisdom of his experience. There’s a seriousness and ease in manner as he shares his story. Life “feels normal, regular, as it should be now,” he says. But, it wasn’t always that way.
Raised in a traditional home, a white farmhouse with a porch in Briarcliff Manor, Borho is the fifth boy in a family of six (sister Jane, now his business partner, is six years younger). Mom Elizabeth was a stay-at-home mother, and his father, Robert, owned Briarcliff Bus Company, as well as a parking lot at Scarborough train station that remain in the family. The Borhos have been a fixture in town since Donald’s paternal grandparents settled there in 1917.
“Tell your parents how you felt growing up and let them understand.”
Borho’s four rough and tumble, athletic older brothers and friends were always playing sports in the backyard. Not Donald. He recalls that at age 3 or 4 he frequently put on a brother’s oversize T-shirt, to wear like a dress. Yet he didn’t feel left out or out of place. He had trucks, built a tree house, and “loved to dress up the Barbies” because he enjoyed making them look pretty. “That’s probably why I’m in the business I’m in,” he says, referring to his shop.
Teachers, not peers, engaged him in elementary school. In middle school, “things went bad for me,” he says, pausing thoughtfully. “I felt like I didn’t fit in. I was friendly with the other boys who didn’t have friends, the nerdy kids.”
Borho’s mother compounded the situation. “I never told my mother anything that went on. She was very tough on me because I wasn’t boy enough,” he says. She pushed him to play Little League baseball and, in eighth grade, football. After getting picked on and injured, “I was so embarrassed,” he says quietly. “I told her it wasn’t for me.”
Early on in high school, Borho was bullied, often skipping school; his brothers’ friends were bodyguards. Again, he did not confide in his parents. “I would never, ever tell them,” he maintains. “Because I had to stick up for myself. I had to be a boy, had to be a man.”
Borho was a junior or senior in high school when he realized he was gay. “I thought I’d get over it in puberty, but I didn’t.” He had a few friends and a platonic girlfriend. His parents insisted he attend college. Miserable, he left after one semester and worked for his father and at his brother’s deli before landing a job running the gift shop at the former upscale Tarrytown department store, John Charles.
Borho flourished. “I was always pretty good at anything visual,” he says. “I love art, I love to make a room look pretty. I like furniture, decorating, having nice clothes.” Feeling he’d found his place, he bought his own store, Wondrous Things, in Croton-on-Hudson in 1989. The Briarcliff location opened in 2003; the Croton one closed in 2008.
Borho had stopped hiding his sexuality by the time he bought Wondrous Things. He had been “found out,” in his words, two years before, shortly after he had begun a relationship with a young man he met online. His father unexpectedly stopped by at 6:30 one snowy morning to find Donald and his boyfriend pushing the boyfriend’s car out of the driveway.
Shortly afterward, Borho’s father invited him for a drink at home before going to dinner. In a loving gesture, he talked to him about safe sex in the era of AIDS. “It wasn’t directly: ‘You’re gay, and we know it,’” remembers Borho, “it was more of dancing around the issue but somebody wanting to say something that neither one of us could.”
It broke the ice; Borho soon brought his boyfriend to meet his family, just as his siblings had done. No one discussed Borho’s sexuality; acceptance emanated from actions, not words. Since then, he has talked about it with, and remains close to, all his siblings.
Sister Jane’s first inkling that her brother was gay was when her now-husband suggested it. Confirmation was such a non-event that she can’t quite remember asking her brother. “It was really nothing,” she says. “It didn’t surprise us, but it didn’t matter,” she emphasizes. “Never made a bit of difference.”
The gentle acknowledgment meant the world to Borho. “My parents were very old-fashioned, Depression-era,” he reflects. “I knew my parents loved me, but they didn’t say it. You knew it by the scratch on the head or the pat on the back.” His mother once asked why he never actually told them he was gay. When he shared his fears about their potential response, his teary-eyed mother told Borho that they loved all of their children equally. “We always knew you were different from your brothers,” Borho remembers her saying. “We want you to have a happy life and wouldn’t want you to feel that you’re not as important as your brothers and sister.”
Today, Borho advises struggling teens that they’ll find compassion. “Tell your parents how you felt growing up and let them understand.” he says. His hope is that others will find the same peace he has found in a time and culture that is more receptive. “It’s important for young people, especially, and for me. I don’t want to lie anymore,” he shares. “If I’m not telling people who I am, then I’m not really telling the truth.”
Liz Susman Karp is a freelance writer who lives with her husband and sons in Briarcliff Manor.