Editor’s note: This story was part of a special section called Coming Out, which Wednesday Journal published last week. Sunday was National Coming Out Day.
Soon after she graduated from high school, Cecilia Hardacker started drinking. Heavily. There was the pressure of being in nursing school, the youngest in her class. And there was the worry that something about her feelings for girls was different from what was expected in Omaha, Neb.
“It was early,” says Hardacker, 49, who with her partner Tonya Hart owns Two Fish Art Glass in Forest Park. “I always had a few very, very best girlfriends and, in adolescence, it became a more intense feeling without any understanding of what that was until much, much later.”
As a kid, Hardacker was a tomboy. In high school, she was an athlete: basketball, softball, track. She tried to fit in, she says, dating the same boy for three years in high school. “I think I broke the poor guy’s heart,” Hardacker says of how she left him their senior year.
“In my circle of friends, I was the only one who stayed a virgin until 25. … I wasn’t sure what was going on. I knew I needed to wait.”
When she figured out she’s gay, she told a fellow nurse, who was a drinking buddy and a mentor. “I do remember her saying, ‘Oh, you’ve had problems. It’ll pass,’ ” Hardacker recalled. “She kind of dismissed it. Ultimately she said, ‘I wouldn’t care either way.’ “
Not long after that, Hardacker, at 22, sought out a recovery program and quit drinking. It was during support group meetings that she began to feel comfortable.
“I’ve been sober for probably as many years as I’ve been out,” says Hardacker, sober since 1982. “It wasn’t until I got some of the chemicals out of my system that it started to feel more like acceptance from other people. As I started telling people little by little down the road, it got better and better and better.”
She told her mates in recovery. They accepted her, supported her, and just wanted her to be happy. She told her brother Willie. His reaction: “I figured.”
She didn’t tell her mother. “Mom’s conservative and emotional. At the time, it just was not a priority. But she made it a priority,” Hardacker recalls.
Her mom was getting ready for a trip to England. A worrier, she always expected the worst. So she sat her daughter down for a talk before she left on the trip and told her, in case she died in a plane crash, all her papers were in order. Then her mother began to ask a question:
“When you were a little girl, you never liked lace.”
“It itches,” Hardacker said. She knew what her mother was trying to get at, but she didn’t want to jump ahead and spoil the moment. Mom had to go first.
She did. Hardacker’s mother asked if she was a lesbian.
“I said, ‘Yeah, Mom, I am. I thought you already knew that.’ Then she said, ‘I thought so,’ and started crying: ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
“I said, ‘I didn’t want this reaction.’ “
Her mother asked if she was happy and whether she had a girlfriend.
Hardacker said she was happy and that she had lots of friends, but no girlfriend.
Almost 10 years later, Hardacker, who had quit nursing when she became sober, went to Illinois State University to do graduate work in art. There she met the woman she’s been with since.
Tonya Hart has had many boyfriends, but only one girlfriend.
Before meeting her partner, the 41-year-old co-owner of Two Fish Art Glass had only been with men. Lots of them, she says.
“I was romantically very active with a lot of men and boys until the point I met Cecilia,” says Hart, describing herself as a prolific dater from junior high to grad school. “Cecilia’s actually my only girlfriend.”
When she met Hardacker at Illinois State, she had a boyfriend. But something caught her eye. “I was so intrigued by just the way she looked,” Hart says, recalling Hardacker with red hair. “She challenged me about my sexuality and that intrigued me. … Most of all, I would say her personality touched my heart. I was really very curious, excited. I just fell in love with her.”
A few weeks later, right before Thanksgiving, that made for awkward conversation with her mother. Hart told her mom she was going to bring someone home for the holiday: a girl. A friend? her mother asked.
” ‘No, Mom, not a friend. My girlfriend,’ ” Hart recalls saying. “She said, ‘Oh.’ “
Her mother then asked, “Do you think you’re a lesbian because of the AIDS crisis?”
“She had misconceptions,” Hart recalls. But in time – about a year – Hart’s mother became comfortable with the news and the girlfriend.
The first person Hart told wasn’t her mom. It was her best friend, a guy named Stan, who at the time was working on a dairy farm in Maine. Hart was working nights as a cocktail waitress at the VFW hall in Normal. He had morning hours. It took her a while to get him on the phone.
“I’ve got something to tell you,” she said. “No, I’ve got something to tell you,” he said. Hart went first: “I think I’m gay.” His turn: “Oh, I think I’m gay, too.”
That’s kind of how coming out went for Hart. Several of her former boyfriends also came out. Her friends in art school, all supportive, also understood, she says. Then there was that last boyfriend.
“Not so happy,” Hart recalls. “He didn’t really think it was true. Like I couldn’t choose a woman over him.”
She and Hardacker have been together for 17 years. In 1999, they opened Two Fish Art Glass in Oak Park. In 2003, they moved the shop to Forest Park. At Two Fish, they’re open.
“Everyone who comes in here knows that we’re gay. Whether we tell them or not, they just kind of know,” Hardacker says.
In their decade of openness as business owners, their gayness had meant only one flash point. Hart recalls that when Two Fish was in Oak Park, a customer came in one morning ranting about the Episcopal church naming a gay bishop.
“My reaction to him was, ‘I’m really sorry, but if we’re going to continue to have any kind of customer-merchant relationship, you’ve got to be quiet, you’ve got to stop what you’re saying,’ ” Hart recalls. He didn’t. Hart raised her voice and threw him out.
But that has been the exception.
“Being a business owner and out in this area is, I think, nothing but attractive to people,” Hardacker said.