Emma Espiner on a coming-out memoir by her friend Lil O'Brien.
“You’re the only friend I can’t flirt with,” she said to me when we were planning her book launch.
It figures. I was raised by a coven of Lower Hutt lesbians in the 90s. It was to their collective consternation that I turned out straight as an arrow and often conservative, a rule follower in a community of rainbow rebels.
Lil told me she was a lesbian when we were 18. We were at Cobb & Co in Dunedin because this was the most grown up venue she could imagine for an important conversation. We were pretending to be adults, approximating our parents and American sitcoms. Lil thought that a serious conversation about one’s sexuality should be held over dinner at a proper restaurant rather than the UniCol cafeteria, where dinner was served at 5pm sharp and the speciality dishes were either mystery meat or deep fried broccoli. We ordered the house white instead of a Pink Panther.
My enduring memory of that night is my terrible decision to order the apricot chicken. It was syrupy but paradoxically dry and sat poorly in my gut, still churning from the bottles of Müller Thurgau at Gardies the night before - a wine varietal I had never seen before and haven’t seen since. I remember looking at Lil through bleary eyes, wondering what I should say. Congratulations? Good luck? For fuck’s sake, my mother would know the right thing to say, why isn’t she here?
Lil’s parents didn’t know what to say though. They kicked Lil out of their house when they found out she was a lesbian after eavesdropping on a phone conversation. It’s a bit much when you read it back now, in her memoir Not That I’d Kiss a Girl. Do people’s parents really leave them on the side of the road these days just for being gay? Unfortunately they do, and this sort of thing is deadly serious.
In the medical world we know that LGBTQI+ people experience more mental health issues and have a higher risk of suicide than other population groups. This is not because they are intrinsically more likely to be unwell but that they are more likely to be exposed to social stressors and stigma that in themselves predispose to developing mental illness. Whānau support and acceptance on the other hand is what we call a protective factor - like a shield. After she lost her relationship with her own parents, I wished we could adopt Lil so that she could share some of my shield.
The book had a long gestation. I don’t envy Lil the task of telling the truth and doing good with her story while having to live with her family and their responses to this. It was easy for me to tell her that she might save some lives and that she should just do it, because I don’t have to preserve a relationship with her family. It’s not easy having a writer in the whānau - people remember things differently and only one person is holding the pen.
During her ‘coming out’ period, Lil sought sexuality-appropriate pop culture references. There wasn’t much - The L Word was on television in the States, but available here only through illegal download through painfully slow dial-up internet connection so mostly Lil had to settle for subverting heterosexual stories. I remember her theory that doctor Sarah Potts on Shortland Street, for example, was definitely a bit gay. The necessity of this scraping of the barrel for cultural references is a big part of the reason this book is important. It’s serious and heartfelt and hard to read in parts, but it’s also hilarious and relatable. I’d buy it for my gay or straight friends, all the teenagers in my life and their parents, and I’ve got a copy set aside for my mum.
There’s nothing quite like seeing someone you love succeed. I’m an often absent friend and Lil has forgiven me for various disappointments including never being free for dinner and turning up to only one in every five parties. We’ve both become writers and ended up living around the corner from one another 18 years after we first met at UniCol, now vastly different people from the self-conscious and naive first year students we were, trying to out-drink the lads and hoping to blend into the relentlessly normie Otago university scene. I saw Lil at Wellington writers festival Verb late last year and thought, shit, this is where she was always meant to be.
Not That I’d Kiss a Girl by Lil O’Brien (Allen & Unwin, $36.99) is available in bookstores nationwide.
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