So no one told you life was gonna be this GAY

Lil O'Brien

August 20, 2020

Lil’s memoir “Not Like I’d Kiss A Girl” has sprung all over social media earlier this year, winning the hearts with something so familiar to many but so underrepresented in the media world - the queer coming out story. Our new team member Kayla went to Lil’s book launch event, got her book signed & came back super excited: "Let’s interview her!” so here we are… you are in for some top-notch storytelling!

Oh oh also you have to check out Lil’s website - it might be the best website we’ve seen… (Lil says view it on desktop to get the full lesbian impact).

So you’ve written a book and released it into the world. Now what? You joked with me on Instagram about a possible TV series for it; is that something you’re pursuing or that you’d like to pursue? Or maybe a graphic novel version of your memoir?

It still feels quite surreal that this thing I was plodding away on over many years is now complete – sometimes I miss it. Carrying my laptop everywhere with me, tapping away in cafes and in bars, in snatched moments. I always get a bit antsy when I wrap up a creative project. I get all “What am I doing with my life! I’m wasting it away!” I always go into a slump.

It’s also still weird to think that this story about myself was shown to someone who thought ‘That’s interesting’, and then it became a book and people I don’t even know are reading it. I still feel like I haven’t fully processed that. What was just mine now belongs to other people too, and they are bringing their own experiences to it, and their own readings of it. There is a part of creating anything that involves giving it away… maybe that’s what leaves me feeling a bit empty.

As for the TV series… being a TV writer has long been my dream job, except it never seemed feasible to pursue, for me. I totally would have loved to write for Shortland Street for a bit of fun! I watched it every day from a teenager right up to when I left for the States at 30. I even started writing a Shortland Street fan fiction once; I was obsessed with Dr Sarah Potts – well, with Amanda Billings who plays her (Amanda – call me). To be honest I’m not sure how I’d go with doing a creative project that required full time collaboration. I need a lot of alone time. In my early twenties I worked as an advertising creative in a partnership (the traditional model being copywriter + art director who work together to come up with ideas and then execute them), and it was super exhausting to be tied to one person day in, day out. But those years also hammered good discipline and a certain self-confidence into me, because I disliked it so much but still managed to achieve in it. So I learned about my boundaries and overcoming anxieties about not being good enough. It was an anxious time for me, though. With pure writing I know that if I sit down for long enough I will come up with a pretty good to excellent solution to most things. But I never had that certainty in advertising; I never knew if I’d be able to crack a good idea. That was unsettling as I like to be able to trust in myself.

As far as a graphic novel – yes! I’ve always wanted to create a graphic novel and am seriously considering it for the next book. I have absolutely no drawing skills but I would enjoy the challenge of writing in that format, where you have to consider words versus images, and the sparsity of language you need to have. Being a copywriter has taught me how to write for different mediums and to be adaptive, and I love the challenge of trying to write in different formats. Just don’t ask me to write poetry or short stories. I’m too wordy, as evidenced by this answer.

Lil in a big arm chair with a glass of wine, her book and cats flocking around, just before the book launch
Lil in a big arm chair with a glass of wine, her book and cats flocking around, just before the book launch

On RNZ: Standing Room Only, you said “Coming out is not a one-time thing” which is so true! Can you talk about the difference in confidence and emotions that you’ve experienced with the most recent time / situation you had to come out VS when you were first starting to?

Hmm, I’m trying to think of the most recent time I had to come out. The thing is, when you’ve been out as long as I have, and everyone from your dentist to your hairdresser to your friends’ parents (and also all the strangers who read your life story) knows that you’re gay, who you’re most frequently coming out to becomes mostly people who don’t mean anything to you. Like, random people you meet at a conference when you slip in a female pronoun, or your Uber driver when you’re travelling with your partner and they ask you what you’re doing in town… this creates its own set of considerations that can be quite different to the considerations you had when you were first coming out, right? Because back then, the first people you’re coming out to are the ones who matter the MOST. Your parents, or your siblings, or your friends. People whose opinions you really care about, and for me that included a fear of not being accepted, or being downright rejected. Now, when I consider whether I can be bothered coming out to that Uber driver, or a retail assistant when I’m looking for a gift for my girlfriend, or if I meet a friend of a friend at drinks who is asking me about myself, I’m thinking about things like: “Can I be bothered answering follow-up questions?” Or in some circumstances, “Is this going to put me in any possible danger – what if this driver is homophobic and they’re dropping me home and now they know where I live?” Or “Am I prepared to come out if it might mean that the woman helping me to fit a bra might suddenly get a bit weird at being asked to look at the body of a woman who is attracted to women?” Or even, “Am I in the mood to give a stranger a piece of personal information about myself right now?” That giving of a pronoun that identifies you as not straight and the anticipating of their response, the processing of their response (or non-response), and then the re-settling down to your baseline is just one of the ways that queer people have to expend energy in a way that straight people do not.

So, the considerations between coming out at the beginning and now are different. I’m not worried about approval any more, but coming out is still something that involves a giving of something to someone else in a way that isn’t done unthinkingly. Not for me anyway.

In terms of my own emotional state when coming out, back when I was 19 and had come out to myself and started coming out to my friends, I felt so full of power and confidence in myself, I LOVED coming out to people. I was obsessed with noting their reactions. And my sexuality was so important to me, having recently discovered it, that I wanted big reactions and people to be really interested in it.

I’m still interested in people’s reactions, but I’m more settled in myself about it and I don’t need to have a discussion about it every time now. Maybe this is the difference between being queer in 2004 and in 2020 too. I felt like a novelty back then.

Photo from Lil’s favourite event of the NYC calendar, the Dyke March. back in 2016/17. People are holding posters that say “Gay as fuuuuck” and “we’re here we’re queer buy me a beer”
Photo from Lil’s favourite event of the NYC calendar, the Dyke March. back in 2016/17. People are holding posters that say “Gay as fuuuuck” and “we’re here we’re queer buy me a beer”

If I google your name, there are many many interviews and stories shared about your book. What has been challenging for you in this whole process? What has been your favourite thing about it?

At one point just before the book was due to come out, I was thinking, “I guess I should be feeling anxious about all the people who are about to read some pretty intimate stuff about me”. Or that I should be nervous about doing media interviews, and about whether people would like the book, and so on. But to be honest, the challenge of me publishing this book despite being begged not to by a member of my family, as well as knowing that publishing the book would sever remaining ties with my parents and create a new divide between myself and my sister has completely overwhelmed that. It has been one of the biggest emotional challenges of my life and I’m feeling a lot of grief right now.

My favourite thing about this process has been receiving messages from people telling me how much the book meant to them, how much they related to it, how I had articulated feelings about the queer experience that they’d never seen articulated before, things like that. A good friend of mine texted me about an hour before I was heading out to the launch party to say: “My mum heard you on the radio and she just rang me to apologise for how horribly she treated me for all these years since I came out.” That really really got to me. I always wanted this book to make a positive difference. I’ve also loved seeing how some people have gotten really, really into the book. Like, Demi and Daniel, who are two young people who work at Unity Books Auckland, telling me they’d been texting each other, “What chapter are you on?!” “I’m on this chapter, what bit are you up to?” as they were reading. To think that it could be not just a good read to someone but also a book that means something special to someone, that really warms me.

Oh, and being on the shelf next to Jacinda Ardern’s book in Whitcoulls, or Roxane Gay’s book in places like Unity. That feels incredible and weird. I want to grab the nearest stranger, shake them and say, “Look! That’s my book! I wrote that!”

What are some of your values & mission in life?

This is a difficult question to answer so I’m going to come at it as what sends me into ranting monologues. What comes to mind are two things: the first being the everyday sexism that I see my female friends having to navigate in their careers. Many of the women I’m closest to are in tech or advertising, and sometimes I have to ask them to stop telling me a story because it enrages me so much and I hate feeling so helpless to do anything beyond wanting to go puncture their antagonist’s car tyres. From smaller (but not small) things like not being listened to, someone else taking credit for your ideas, to all the ways women have to pander to men’s egos in a professional environment so as not to create a detrimental effect against themselves. The other day when the woman I’m dating had a man tell her she ‘shouldn’t stretch like that because of the amount of boobage’ in a meeting (she was wearing a white high-neck t-shirt, not that it matters), and I was sputtering with rage about what to do about it and she very calmly said, “Lil, I only have a certain amount of credits to use. And I’d rather not use those credits on something that is essentially a micro-aggression, that only affects me, and is low impact. I would rather use my credits pushing back against something higher impact, or something that’s affecting someone with less credits to spend – like a younger, more junior woman at work.” That KILLS me. I hate how much extra work women have to do just so they can be allowed to do their job. And that is simply one example. As a freelancer who mostly works from home, I’m spared a lot of this. But I’ve seen it myself, coming from advertising where I was frequently the only or one of the only women in the creative department. When I left my last agency, for the leaving card they put my head on a naked porn star’s body, because “You’re a lesbian, you like women” or something?? They also gave me a candy bra and a cheap necklace with a heart on it as my farewell gift. All the men who had left had gotten an iPod.

The other thing I get very fired up about is representation of queer women in media. Like, the way we are killed at a disproportionate rate on-screen (often to further the arc of a straight male character). Or about the power of queer fandoms. Or about how in so many shows and movies, women’s kissing or sex scenes are interrupted by a man, or may literally have a man sneakily watching, even to this day. Or how a queer love scene will be intercut with a love scene between a heterosexual couple. Women’s pleasure is still so rarely centred and cherished. In the second episode of Wynonna Earp this season, there was a love scene between a canon f/f couple that ran for over a minute, uninterrupted. And I was watching, with the low level anxiety I always feel during these scenes, just waiting for it to be cut, or interrupted for dramatic effect, but the camera stayed on them, in various scenes. My cheeks were burning with guilty pleasure, it was almost too much. I’d never experienced a scene like that before, one that lingered and allowed the full effect of emotion to be conveyed, and was relatively graphic (we often get a lot of kissing of palms and stroking of backs in lesbian sex scenes, and that’s it).

I went off on a tangent there, ahem. So there you go, you can see what I’m passionate about.

The Haunted “Whorented” House that Lil describes living in during second year at Otago (chapter 5 of her book)
The Haunted “Whorented” House that Lil describes living in during second year at Otago (chapter 5 of her book)

For someone who doesn’t know much about writing a memoir, or more specifically writing a ‘coming out’ memoir – how would you describe it? Do you have any advice out there for young LGBTQIA+ writers?

You can’t sit down to write 100,000 words about something if you’re not passionate about it. You certainly can’t make that thing a memoir without being prepared for an emotional rollercoaster, and some very painful rummaging around in memories and old feelings. But for me, now that they are on the page and recorded in some way, I feel more free to move on from them. I can share them with other people if I need to, now, without needing to revisit them again myself through retelling them. Writing down some of the hard stuff I faced around my coming out has given me the permission to move on. Now I’m working on processing stuff that has happened SINCE the memoir (which ends when I’m 26 and I’m now 36, so I have plenty of other shit, ha).

With all that said, writing about my life is something I’ve always found greatly rewarding. It’s a way of giving your experiences the reverence they deserve by revisiting them.

I think of writing a memoir as gathering and sorting through all these gems that represent your life’s experiences, from anecdotes to small observances, like how intimate it is to tuck someone’s tag back into the neck of their t-shirt. You hold each one up to the light, looking for the meaning of it, the impact, and you question how it will relate to the other gems, and its reason for needing to be in the book. How it can help to create something cohesive and greater than the sum of its parts. As I was doing that, I found myself questioning the truth in each one. Was there anything colouring my memory of that experience, like emotion around it? Was I telling the truth of something the best I could, or was I tailoring it because perhaps I didn’t like how I’d behaved or I wanted it to be different? Memory is always flawed and memoir always contains an element of fiction because by revisiting a memory we change it – at a synaptic level, they say. We change it more by writing about it and we change it more when we add our tone of voice and so on. That said, the moment you start letting yourself off the hook or tweaking the story, I think the reader can tell. And if the reader isn’t rooting for you, you’ll lose them. One of the best pieces of feedback I got from my beta reader was “Don’t let present you judge the past you”. I initially had a few asides, like “So embarrassing”, “What a wanker” etc, which was trying to mitigate something, tell the reader ‘Oh I don’t think like that now’ or implying I knew what they were going to be thinking when they read it. But you can’t actually control how someone will read something, and you have to realise that the most embarrassing stuff in a memoir will be the things you write about yourself.

Apart from the importance of writing with a searing honesty, you can only write a memoir from a place of love, and write about all the characters with love, even the ones who hurt you. So, I think of my memoir as a love story.

My advice for young LGBTQIA+ writers is to just do it. The biggest thing holding any of us back is self-doubt and fear: that you’re not good enough, haven’t lived enough, don’t know enough. That other people have had it worse off, so who are you to write about what you’ve struggled with. That we’ve ‘moved past’ coming out stories, or that we should just be writing a story that HAPPENS to have queer people in it, rather than a ‘queer story’. Bullshit. We need coming out stories and stories about people who have been out for ages and about queer relationships and queer friendships, and about queer people living in a straight world and all of it. More more more, we need it all. People in any minority are told things that imply a scarcity, like how there can only be one trans story in a year, or one coming out memoir, or that, “This story about a group of queer friends is too similar to this other book that came out that had a queer person in it, we can’t do it again”. These are false narratives that are a part of a system that prioritises the telling of some stories over others (white, hetero, male, cis etc) because it benefits the people who hold power to keep it that way. Think of how many crime TV shows feature an oddball straight white man with a savant-life aptitude for catching criminals. It’s the same thing again and again! They found room for those stories, so there is room for a plethora of LGBTQIA+ stories. We have so many stories to be told.

The bottom line is, your story is valid and should be told. So write it.

Photo of Lil from the same NYC Dyke March, holding up a poster that reads “So no one told you life was gonna be this GAY”
Photo of Lil from the same NYC Dyke March, holding up a poster that reads “So no one told you life was gonna be this GAY”

How do you think about yourself when you are by yourself?

I think about all the things we’re told we shouldn’t think about or worry about: I compare myself to others, and I turn past conversations over in my head, and I think about how I would react to future hypothetical conversations. But, like in a positive way. I think about the things I did well, as well as how I could do better or how I want to be better. I think about conversations I had with people who are smarter than me, and what I learned from them and how I could be more like them.

I also like to think about the connections between people, and people’s personalities. I’m definitely the ‘Connector’ type: I was always the person when I was younger who liked to have parties and see how everyone got along. I like introducing people to other people they might like. I stay in contact with a lot of people.

You’ve written a bit and been interviewed about your privilege growing up, being a cishet white woman in a wealthy family - how did writing a book and being interviewed about it make you question or ponder about your privilege?

It was during my coming out when I first started actively thinking about the idea of privilege, and specifically about my own privilege. But it wasn’t until I was writing the book that I began to look more critically at the ways I had privilege growing up, and in my coming out, and also how these privileges had strongly influenced my way of looking at other people. It was tricky because I wanted to explore this in the book, but I also had to be careful to not make out like I had always been aware of it and behaved accordingly. The version of me in the book wasn’t so self-aware, although I had moments. I think the part of the book where I go to a coming out group while I’m at Otago Uni, and I judge all the other people in the group, but then come to realise that I was putting my own shit on them is a good example of that.

Now, I’m thinking about how I am a white, cis, able-bodied, straight-passing (sometimes), financially-stable person, and that my story is the one being told. I am a member of the LGBTQIA+ community who holds a lot of privilege, relatively. So every time I do an interview or write something and have the chance to have my voice heard, I’m thinking about the people who don’t. This is the first time in my life I’ve had a voice that can be heard in the public domain, and I’m feeling a sense of responsibility for what I say. I have to do the most with the voice I have to help others. I’m still figuring that out and to be honest, I don’t have a good answer. But I think I could be doing better.

Baby Lil at her Grandma's bach in Waikuku
Baby Lil at her Grandma's bach in Waikuku

We tend to assume a lot of things about people that we see online, especially people whose lives are laid bare whether through social media and other outlets. You obviously talked a lot in your book about some of the challenges you’ve had as a younger person, could you share some insights about the stuff you are going through now?

Publishing this book has been the best thing I’ve ever achieved, and one of the hardest things I’ve ever faced.

I talked above about how the greatest challenge of publishing this book has been the consequences for my relationship with my family. And that includes doing something you KNOW will hurt people, which in this case was to publish. It is horrible to hurt people. I’m also someone who already has big sensitivities around people being mad at me or having done or said something wrong – which can probably be traced back to my coming out. Being told I had betrayed my parents, and ‘how could you do this’, and then the years of tiptoeing around them, trying to be the perfect child and not ‘rocking the boat’. That made me hyper-sensitive to the feelings of others. So, publishing a memoir has really, really challenged me. It took a strength I wasn’t sure I had, and has brought up some old traumas.

There is a strange symmetry to what I’ve been going through since the book was published. 17 years ago = came out, lost parental relationship, blamed for everything, then what followed was years of avoidance and silencing about the topic. Now = book about coming out, lost parental relationship again and also sibling relationship, blamed for everything. And of course, through not talking about it, by ignoring what has happened, we’re back to the same toxic patterns. Figuring out that I can step away from it and not try to ‘fix it’ this time – that it is not my responsibility, is something I am still working through with therapy.

I think also, I was in denial about who would see this book and how much my parents would engage with it, and thought that maybe I would ‘get away’ with having just told them I’d written a book about my coming out and they wouldn’t engage. I would have bet you a big sum of money that my parents would stick their heads in the sand and never ever read the book, and avoid any media about it and therefore never know just how much I lay our family dynamic bare. But when all the coverage was coming out on the weekend after my launch, when I was in the Herald, and Stuff, and in The Spinoff and all over the radio, I was freaking out. I was still trying to control what got back to my family – begging my extended family not to mention it to mum and dad, asking people not to post about it when not using my author pseudonym (I changed my last name for publication). I got really mad when an interviewer took an inflammatory line from my book and published it in the newspaper, because I knew it would destroy my mother if she saw it. Spoiler: she did see it, and a family member did tell them about the media, and they did go and get a copy of the book… and everything I had hoped wouldn’t happen but deep down thought might happen, did happen.

So, you can imagine all of that was very very mentally and emotionally exhausting and painful. I’d been holding the tension of this happening since I got told Allen & Unwin wanted to publish the book 7 months ago.

But! I always told myself that the consequences I would face from publishing the book would be worth it, no matter what, and they are. It’s worth my personal pain now if the book will help with someone else’s pain, or will help a young queer person feel understood in some way.

I noticed you have some real lesbian culture branding to this book launch; like the U-Haul sticker, the scissors, etc.. What is your favourite thing about lesbian culture specifically? What’s the gayest thing you own?

My favourite thing about lesbian culture is when straight people don’t get it. I love that we have things that are just for us. The nuances of jokes that make no sense to someone who isn’t queer. It’s like being a part of an exclusive club. It was actually quite funny, when I was choosing images for my author website, I told my designer (a gay man) that the theme was going to be “lesbian things”/”lesbian culture”. And gave him a couple of examples, and he went to find some other ones.

Lord, what he came back with!! A girl riding a bicycle through a field of flowers. A girl that was wearing a plaid shirt and boots but in a totally straight way, not in the correct lesbian way. A tree – because I’d told him that having lots of indoor plants was very lesbian. I didn’t realise that a gay man wouldn’t be able to know what things are lesbian. But, of course. I don’t understand gay male culture at a deep level, so why would he understand lesbian culture? It was funny, though.

If you WOULD like to better understand lesbian culture, follow lesbian.memezz, gay_girl_inc, hotmessbian on Instagram. Very funny. A lot of lesbian culture isn’t actually tangible things, it’s how we relate to each other and to straight people.

That said the gayest thing I own is… well, it’s more like how MANY gay things I own and the picture they add up to. Here are just a few.

Fast car… motorbike… Doc Martens… multiple white t-shirts I wear with the sleeves folded over twice… cat… dog… many indoor plants… chest full of sex toys… black Calvin Klein sports bra… all of the emails a girl I was dating or flirting with has ever sent me… denim shirt I wear buttoned to the top… leather laptop case… journals full of quote and memory things… electric drill and toolbox…. and to top it all off, a bookshelf that is very lesbian (by that I mean the sum of the books on it, but the bookshelf itself is also definitely a gay bookshelf).

“I never look cool on my motorbike, but this ONE time I managed not to do a thumbs up” - Lil looking very cool on her motorbike
“I never look cool on my motorbike, but this ONE time I managed not to do a thumbs up” - Lil looking very cool on her motorbike

Who are some LGBTQIA+ folks that you look up to and why do you look up to them? Could be people you know or folks you haven’t yet met.

Whoo boy. That is way too big a question so I’m going to keep it to people who are alive and who I have thought of in the last week, ha.

I have a lot of strong LGBTQIA+ people in my life who I look up to. My ex, Beth, a.k.a. Jess in the book, who has one of the most brilliant creative minds I’ve ever come across and never fails to surprise me with the way she thinks (leading with my ex, btw, is very lesbian). My posse of queer friends, who have shown me so much enthusiastic support throughout the publishing of the book, and always. Tanya Johnson, who recently told me she talked her way into a coding job in the 1990s because she ‘needed to eat’, but who DIDN’T EVEN KNOW HOW TO TURN ON THE COMPUTER on her first day – and is now a director at a start-up and the founder of NZ WomeNB in Tech.

From New Zealand, Anika Moa, because gosh isn’t it still a little astonishing every time she is SO GAY on TV and in all her interviews? That brings me great joy. Emily Writes (who is interviewing me at the VERB Writers Festival in Wellington in November), who seems to take so much shit from trolls and online dickheads, but keeps writing. Chloe Swarbrick, because I wish I could articulate myself half as well as her when I’m trying to argue for something I believe in.

Roxane Gay, who takes NO SHIT on Twitter and wrote one of my favourite books, Bad Feminist. I’ve really gotten into following Chella Man on Instagram, who is a trans NB deaf artist model activist etc. Hannah Gadsby, because the craft she has in structuring her comedy is superlative. Emily Andras, who gave us two of the most sexy, positive depictions of queer woman in recent television history (Lost Girl and Wynonna Earp). And my top ultra queer superhero, Heather Hogan, who has written about lesbian pop culture for Autostraddle and before that, AfterEllen (before it went TERFy) in a way that can make you feel seen, laugh out loud and burst into tears in the space of a paragraph, and who gave me one of the top 5 experiences of my life when she beta read by book for me and did more than anyone else in making it what it.

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