IT was May 1979.
At 6.50am, I arrived at the top floor of the Marcus Clarke building in Broadway for my first day of the pre-apprentice commercial cookery course run by Sydney Technical College. It was Thursday, and I was a late enrolment. The administration had declined my enrolment first time round because I was too young, having just turned 15, but as luck would have it I rang to enrol for the next course and was offered a vacancy in the course that they initially refused me.
Feeling lost and a little frightened, suddenly from behind the 60L pots and the stainless steel colanders emerged a towering figure with a shock of hair to rival that of Leo Sayer.
“Hi, I’m Kym,” he said.
“You’re new. Would you like a tour of the place?”
Though intimidatingly tall, his soft yet forthright voice infused me with a sense of comfort that I wouldn’t be standing alone for the next three months without a clue about what I was supposed to do. Here was my mentor and a big brother to look after me. But there was something else I sensed about Kym. He was gay.
This was pretty clear because the week before, while watching the ABC’s Encounters program, my Dad pointed to the TV and declared to the family that the program’s host, a clean-cut, softly spoken middle-aged gentleman, was “one of them”.
“He’s a poof,” he said. He laughed. With that observation out of the way, we all returned our focus to the Encounters documentary, which was to become essential viewing in our household.
So Kym the protector was also Kym the “poof”. Having never befriended one before, I was on my guard as Kym took me into the cool room as part of the kitchen tour. Given the tendency for poofs to pounce on their prey with little notice, I figured, I scanned the cool room and settled on an enormous jar of glace cherries which could be called upon as a defensive weapon should my newly-befriended poof decide to pounce.
Of course, nothing happened.
He was nine years older than me and homosexuality was still illegal in NSW let alone statutory rape. Kym had just met the man he is still together with 36 years later, and tech college cool rooms aren’t really conducive to passionate sex (in my opinion).
One day after college Kym drove me home. Heading up Oxford St he pointed out all the bars that he frequented: Patches, The Midnight Shift, Capriccio’s, Palms, the Oxford and the Albury. Before me lay an entire sub-culture heretofore unknown to me, all hidden during daylight hours behind plain closed doors.
He then told me of a group he was part of, CAMP (Campaign Against Moral Persecution); and also told me of a protest march he participated in less than a year earlier, where he and many of the protesters dressed in drag, and of the violence he and his friends had suffered at the hands of the police.
I was captivated by his stories, all told with a touch of irony, humour and self-deprecation.
With our course over, I decided that I never wanted to work in a kitchen ever again. Slicing 20kg of onions for French onion soup had wiped the glamour from cooking at an industrial scale.
Kym invited me over to he and his boyfriend’s newly-acquired home, a charming little Victorian terrace in Annandale.
“Come and meet Vaughan, he’s in the kitchen cooking,” Kym said, as he led the way.
“Hello, I’m Vaughan,” as he held out his hand to shake. “Welcome to our home.” I shook his hand, said “thank you” and Kym continued the tour of the house.
There was something familiar about Vaughan, I wondered, and said as much to Kym.
“Oh yes,” Kym said.
“You may have seen him on television; he hosts the Encounters documentary on the ABC.”
My God, I thought, I can’t wait to tell Dad that I just had dinner at the home of that “poof” on television.
It was 10 years, often painful years, before I came out to my family and to Kym and Vaughan. HIV hit the news in the US just as I turned 17, and it wasn’t long before its devastating presence would be felt in Australia. It was hardly an ideal time to be making such an announcement.
Just like every coming out experience, you feel ashamed that you have lied for so long to those closest to you, but just like so many coming out stories, you quickly find that nobody cares about the lie, only that you will find happiness.
Every Mardi Gras, we herald the 78ers for their great contribution to winning us all the freedoms we enjoy today. I was not a part of that struggle. I was struggling with my own demons back then.
But now, as an MP, I’ve hopefully been making up for it.
Bruce Notley-Smith is the Coogee state Liberal MP and a part of the NSW Parliamentary LGBTI Cross Party Working Group. Twitter: @bnotleysmith