Daughter leaves for school and I am thrown back 25 years to a conversation I had with a university friend.
During my last couple of years at university I had the good fortune to obtain a part-time on-campus job that had some awesome side benefits. One of which was being able to do my homework or knit on the job - I was giving out change for the arcade machines in what was called the games room and unlocking the ping pong room on an as needed basis.
This job also allowed me to befriend a few of the people who staffed the 24 hour student life centre. This centre provided a myriad of services including the cheapest and most delicious coffee on campus. These friends and I would often hang out in the new smoking room which was added midway during my undergraduate days - before that you could smoke anywhere in the building (think wide open space with many couches/comfy chairs and tables...then think hazy smoke settling over it during late night study sessions).
Me and this new friend, S., had developed a friendship that had gotten to the point of comfortable familiarity...we were on the level of personal joking but not many confidences had yet been shared. I had actually been aware of S. during nearly my whole time at university since she was quite distinctive in appearance and worked at the student life centre so was in a high profile position for most students that frequented the centre.
One day S. and I were alone in the smoking room. The smoking room in itself had become like a private members club. All of us that were regular users were very friendly with each other and any new face was greeted warmly and tentative welcoming chit chat was proferred.
S. announced that she had something to share with me. I was puzzled momentarily but then I knew what she was about to say. I was uncomfortable. I didn't want her to announce her 'news'. Part of me was uncomfortable because I had had a similar announcement given to me in very different circumstances a couple of years prior and it basically ended that friendship. I didn't want my friendship to end with S. and I thought that by her making this announcement that there could only be that kind of outcome...an ending.
S. took a deep breath and proceeded to tell me, with some fits and starts, that she was a lesbian. The thing is, this information was no surprise to me or to anyone else that knew her. Even in the late 80s some of us were hip to this kind of thing and dear S. was, well, quite butch. In an era of big hair and neon colours, S. dressed in mens tshirts, boys jeans, and kept her hair cropped very very short. After her 'announcement' I waited for what I thought was coming next - which my only previous experience of someone coming out had led me to expect. It didn't happen. She didn't say "I'm a lesbian and I'm attracted to you, what do you say?" In my relief at the lack of this addendum I said something I probably shouldn't have. I don't think I said "No sh*t sherlock." but it was something just as trite and didn't acknowledge the deeply personal nature of what she had entrusted me with. I will never forget how hurt she looked when I said that I had suspected this was the case. At the time I was perplexed that she was so unaware of how others perceived her strongly 'butch' nature. Now with my middle-aged hindsight I wish I could go back and just hug her for the difficult road she was on in a completely homophobic 1980s world.
Our friendship continued into the next couple of years and I even had dinner with her and her girlfriend a few times at their apartment. Interestingly enough, hers was the second last 'announcement' of homosexuality I was to receive in my life. The last was my sister and with her I know I said something similar. After a lifetime of knowing someone as close as a sibling you should not be surprised by this kind of information. If you are then you might not be paying enough attention. And like my experience with S., I wish I could go back and just hug my sister instead of treating it so glibly.
In a country that now legally acknowledges the equality of people with any sexual orientation I can recognize the heroic acts of my two university friends and my sister: they were pioneers willing to come out amidst challenges I can only surmise.