The Time I Lesbianfiltrated My Mother’s Straight Book Club

My mom and I sat at the bar of a seafood restaurant in a large shopping complex in my hometown. I had recently come out to her. Well, I never really came out to her explicitly so much as just passively implied it on Instagram and let her piece together clues. She had called me one day a few months before and said “So, when were you going to tell me about your girlfriend?” I chuckled nervously, sitting on the edge of my small bed in Chicago, and said “Her name is Brandi, and she lives in New York.” In a later, in-person conversation, she asked “Why did it take so long for you to tell me you’re gay,” and I froze.

But on this evening in the loud seafood restaurant, we were a few drinks in and both more comfortable talking about queerness. “You know,” my mom said after another glass of wine, “most of the members of my book club were pretty surprised that you’re a lesbian.”

I looked at her, confused and a little amused. “I don’t remember coming out to your book club.”

“Well, it came up that you were dating a girl one day, so we talked about it.”

Though they’ve only been together for about half my life, I think of my mom’s book club as something that has always existed. Growing up, book club nights meant that the other children of members would come over to play. When the meetings were at our house, we’d sometimes spy on the adults. They drank a lot of wine, ate, gossiped, eventually discussed the book. It wasn’t until I got older and started reading the same books as them that I became more curious about the meetings. My first forays into “adult” literature were all book club books: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, The God Of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, White Teeth by Zadie Smith, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.

When I was 16, I worked as a Staging Location Director for the 2008 Obama campaign, which was a fancy title for a supervolunteer who ran a small staging area for other volunteers out of their home. Shortly after converting my family’s dining room into a mini-office for campaign volunteers, I asked my mom if I could pitch her book club for new volunteers.

This was, on my part, a bit of a stunt. I was always giving my mom a hard time for having conservative friends, and she was always insisting they weren’t all conservative. I wanted to put her 12-member book club to the test to see who I could get to volunteer for Obama’s campaign. I walked into the dining room at the beginning of their meeting and gave my five-minute speech. Everyone nodded politely and smiled. I was secretly hoping someone would push back. With political ambitions of my own at the time, I loved to debate anyone and everyone and had become known for it (a very cool and not at all nerdy thing to be known for in high school!). In the end, three of them — including my mom — agreed to canvass the following weekend.

This year, my mom realized that of the more than 100 books that have been selected by her book club, none of the novels have featured a gay protagonist. They have read a few memoirs by queer writers, like Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris, which is also the first memoir I ever read by a queer writer. But none of the dozens and dozens of novels they’ve read have centered an LGBTQ protagonist. I wasn’t surprised by this fact. After all, I had read a lot of the same books as them, and I remember reading very few books with gay characters in general throughout my youth. The ones I did read tended to leave an impression. I was hungry for queer representation in books, but it’s hard to feed a hunger that you don’t even know exists. I recently found my copy of Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher that I read for the first time in high school. In it, I had marked every page that said the word “gay.” It’s not even a book about being gay! I just found the word inexplicably significant… for some reason. If I hadn’t been in complete denial of my sexuality, I could have sought out books about actual gay people. But I mostly just read what my mom’s book club read: books about straight people.

So this summer, my mom announced that her book club pick for the year was The Year of the Needy Girls, a book with two lesbian protagonists that’s also written by a queer woman (who happens to be my first writing teacher ever). She also invited me to the book club meeting, and I eagerly agreed, ready to gaysplain some lesbian stuff to these straight white ladies in Virginia.

On the day of the actual meeting, some of my confidence dwindled. I suddenly wasn’t sure exactly what was expected of me in this meeting, and it had been a long time since I was the only gay person in a room. I didn’t have Brandi as back-up; she was back in New York. But I had also agreed to cook dinner for the evening, because cooking centers me, giving my brain something else to focus on.

I was recreating one of the meals from the book: veal picatta and risotto. One of the protagonists makes this elaborate dinner for her partner as a means to distract herself from what’s really going on in her life and avoid having a serious conversation. I know all about using cooking to distract from serious conversations, having once spent over four hours making a lobster bisque instead of coming out to my mom. Hence the passive Instagram route. For book club, I made chicken picatta — a little less polarizing than veal — and risotto. They’re both time-consuming, laborious dishes that are nonetheless not too difficult. It’s exactly what I needed. I pressed the raw chicken breasts between wax paper and pounded them flat with a rubber mallet. My mom came downstairs and asked if I was ready to be the “token gay person” for the evening with a laugh. I wished there was more chicken to hammer.

Guests started trickling into the kitchen, greeted with flutes of prosecco by my mother, just as I started to stir the risotto. Making risotto requires endless stirring, and I was happy to hover over the stove, adding warm broth gradually, stirring, stirring, and stirring more while everyone flitted around me, chatting, occasionally interrupting my stirring groove to ask about New York. The two most conservative members had conflicts and couldn’t attend, and I was simultaneously relieved and disappointed. I wanted to rock the boat of this book club, but I also had no idea where to begin.

As everyone sat down in the dining room for salad, I stayed in the kitchen and pan-fried the thin chicken breasts in a thick mixture of butter, oil, onions, and capers. I thought back to my volunteer pitch years before, how certain I had been about what I believed in. But back then, I hadn’t been certain about who I was. There were questions and doubts that I had with no way to articulate or fully understand them. My mom and her close friends—many of whom were in the book club—were my role models, but I knew on some level that I wasn’t like them.

The chicken was crispy and smelled delicious, and it was time to get this meeting started. We ate and drank wine and talked about lots of things that weren’t the book. Then, the discussion began. It went better than I anticipated though was far from perfect, which has been pretty much the summary of my entire coming-out process with my family.

My mom opened with her realization that they had never read a novel with a queer protagonist, and most of the group was surprised. I didn’t point out that they’ve never realized it before now because they’ve never had to think about it, never been confronted with what it feels like to be underrepresented by mainstream. But I did talk a little bit about LGBTQ representation in literature and how Young Adult in some ways is at the forefront. They listened, asked questions. I did indeed feel like the token gay person in the room, which was simultaneously exhausting and powerful. They looked to me to fill in certain blanks when it came to language, and I seized control of the conversation.

I only hit a real roadblock when I tried to push back against some of the women who were trying to say that it was refreshing to see these two characters living such “normal” lives. Their supposition was that this lesbian couple at the center of the novel looked like “any other couple.” In other words, because the characters fit their heteronormative ideas about relationships and society, they were safe and familiar. I tried to reframe their ways of thinking, using the word “heteronormative” for what I’m sure is the first time in any of their book club meetings over the past decade. But I could tell I wasn’t quite getting through to them, and I remembered what my mom had said in the seafood restaurant. These women, even the most liberal among them, were still most comfortable with queerness that didn’t challenge too many norms. They wanted gay couples to seem familiar to them.

Perhaps too much red wine made it more difficult for me to get through to them, to penetrate their narrow views of what queerness is and can be. I didn’t feel like a complete failure in my mission to rock the book club boat, but I knew I could have and should have done more. I plan to go back, to encourage my mom to keep picking books that bring something different to the table than all their usual picks. Because a part of me just keeps wondering what it would have meant for me if they had picked books with better LGBTQ representation years earlier.

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Miami. She is currently a fiction editor at TriQuarterly. Her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Catapult, and The Offing. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 274 articles for us.

15 Comments

  1. I am late to this (and loved it), but I need to share that my mom is in a book club that has lasted at least 15 years, with the mother of my first girlfriend, who pointed out to me that out of about six book club members, three of the have lesbian daughters. She asked her mom if they ever talk about this, and apprently it somehow has never come up?

    They did read some Sarah Waters though! The Night Watchman – might be a good one to recommend to other parental book clubs. Since the protagonists are queer women, and it is about their relationship, which is a little less heteronormative, but also more about other things and it’s a very carefully constructed book, in a way that would be fun for a book club. There’d be a lot to talk about.

    They also read an enormous biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay which I tried to read and then gave up and skimmed for the gay parts. That one I would not recommend.

  2. My mom has been in a book club for 12+ years and I’ve been in it for most of that time since moving back to my hometown after grad school. David Sedaris was also a choice for our book club. The people are definitely on the more liberal side, and at my suggestion we read Fun Home a year or so ago. I was a little worried, especially about the sex scene, but it seemed that everyone enjoyed the book, even my best friend’s mom who was upset when her daughter dated a girl in high school, but has been totally fine with me having a wife.

  3. This was beautiful and really meant a lot to me to read. Especially this part- “Because a part of me just keeps wondering what it would have meant for me if they had picked books with better LGBTQ representation years earlier.” Its such a unique kind of pain that most straight people generally just don’t understand.

    Thank you.

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