“I came out rather flippantly, in the heat of an argument,” says Kevin O’Brien.
“You know PFLAG’s excellent pamphlet, Read This Before Coming Out To Your Parents? Well, I broke approximately half of their suggestions in coming out to mine.”
Born in Toronto and raised in Oshawa, O’Brien, 22, had coloured his hair bright reddish-blond, and his father made a comment that he was “worried” that his son looked gay.
O’Brien shot back: “I knew I was gay long before I dyed my hair.”
He’s been more thoughtful since then. As a teenager, he joined an Oshawa gay youth group and was able to “get comfortable with being gay.”
So comfortable, in fact, he thought he’d try and do something about how his high school neglected to address gay students. Just as he was about to graduate, he wrote a letter to the principal and some teachers about the lack.
“Just about the silence around the whole issue of homosexuality. I didn’t think I had anything to lose.”
In fact, he had quite a lot to gain. His principal held a hate-crime lecture for the grade nine students, and some teachers changed class content.
After four years, he’s just graduated with a BA in philosophy at Queen’s University in Kingston.
For a while now, Queen’s has held an annual Queerorientation to add a little homo flavour to an otherwise macho beerfest.
O’Brien helped organize the annual event, that includes a coming out discussion group, a talk about the “history of queer Kingston,” meet and greets with homo organizations, and wine and cheese parties at local bars.
He’s most proud of bringing the Canadian Memorial AIDS quilt and Nova Scotia activist Janet Connors to Kingston.
“I heard stories about people that were sick at exam time,” he says, “and their housemates, their professors had no idea they were sick. I just started to think about the stress they went through, having to keep up their cover while being extremely sick.”
He had also heard about activist Connors, who began campaigning nationally when her husband, a hemophiliac, contracted the virus.
“Basically, I wanted to meet her,” O’Brien says, “so I asked her to come here.”
In partnership with the Kingston AIDS Project, O’Brien began a massive fundraising effort to bring the quilt. And in January 1998, the quilt attracted 1,300 visitors to the campus in three days.
“People were calling me from across the country, sharing their story of their brother or their partner that had died,” O’Brien says. “I had no idea it would have the emotional aspect that it did.”
After the display, O’Brien had a fallout with colleagues on student council. He had promised that surplus fundraising money would go back to the Kingston AIDS Project, but other councillors funnelled it into their alma mater society. O’Brien quit.
He spent the summer of ’99 updating the university’s employment equity database. But since then, other than writing letters to his MP, he’s pursued more personal goals, spending time with his partner of two years, Steve.
Steve is a Swiss citizen whose parents reside in England. After graduation in April, Steve left the country.
O’Brien is considering going to England, maybe some travel. He’d like to pursue philosophy at the graduate level. “I’d like to look at justice theory and examine human rights in an international context.”