Why compile a list like this? There are arguments for and against the importance of a specifically queer and / or specifically Australian literature for younger readers but my own agenda was less ambitious. In 2015 I accidentally discovered that it was possible for LGBQ and LGBQ-friendly writers and reviewers to be completely unaware of a 30 year tradition in Australian children’s literature of writing about characters who identify or are identified as gay male, lesbian, bisexual or questioning and I decided I wanted to know exactly how many books had been forgotten.
I can now say with certainty that the years between 1985 and 2015 saw the publication of at least 86 Australian children’s and young adult contemporary realist novels containing 321 characters explicitly identified as LGBQ, plus at least 48 more novels in other genres, with older protagonists or with less explicit LGBQ content. That adds up to at least 134 Australian novels for or about kids dealing in some way with LGBQ experience – and I haven’t looked at the related categories of picture books, short story anthologies, memoirs and non-fiction titles, which would expand the Australian total.
On one hand, these statistics indicate that Australian children’s literature still has a long way to go before it can be described as representing LGBQ characters fairly, let alone creatively. While the overall figures for Australian children’s publishing are harder to establish than you might imagine, Catriona Mills tells us that in 2015 the database AustLit contained 2798 young adult novels by Australian authors. Excluding the three novels on this list that are definitely aimed at a primary school audience – Meredith Badger’s Girl V the World – Things I Don’t Know, Morris Gleitzman’s Two Weeks with the Queen and Helen Manos’s Snapshots – leaves 131 novels that could be described as young adult, which is about 5% of Mills’ total. Current Australian research indicates that between 7 and 11% of young people are attracted to others of their own sex or questioning their sexual preference. (Smith et al., 2009) Given that only 5% of Australian young adult fiction contains any LGBQ characters and that all of those novels contain an equal or greater number of characters identified as heterosexual, it’s clear that far fewer than 7% of all the characters in young adult fiction published between 1985 and 2015 were LGBQ, a percentage that would become exponentially smaller if it were possible to establish a statistical profile of Australian children’s fiction as a whole.
On the other hand, within the limitations of twentieth and early twenty first century children’s publishing, 134 books is a relatively impressive total, which bears comparison with the 187 American titles listed by Michael Cart and Christine Jenkins in their 35-year survey The Heart has its Reasons: Young Adult Literature with Gay / Lesbian / Queer Content, 1969 – 2004, especially given that the American publishing industry is estimated at ten times the size of the Australian publishing industry. (Although I should add that 70 of the American books have LGBQ main characters, compared to 56 main characters in the Australian kids’ books – 35 of the contemporary realist novels, 9 sf or fantasy novels, 9 young adult characters in adult novels and 3 characters who fit other people’s definitions of LGBQ, though not mine – and that the American main characters tend to be the sole protagonist, while the Australian novels often have multiple main characters.)
Some of the 86 contemporary realist novels that I look at here are groundbreaking in themselves – I’d nominate Hot Hits: the Remix, Killing Darcy, Things I Don’t Know and my own What Are Ya? – and together they form an archive from which conclusions about the representation of LGBQ characters can be drawn. I enjoyed reading them and I hope one effect of this list will be to let future writers, critics and reviewers take pride in what Australian writers for children and young adults have already achieved, as well as helping them to build on that achievement. Compiling the list certainly gave me lots of opportunities to meditate on what has and hasn’t been accomplished in the thirty years between 1985 and 2015. I’ll be considering some of those questions, both here and in the companion piece on my website, The Lesbian? No, Thanks, but if your main interest is in the hard data or in reading the books for yourself, feel free to cut to the chase.
If you want to see an alphabetical list of the 86 titles, click here. If you want to see a breakdown of the kinds of LGBQ characters represented in Australian children’s literature, click here. If you want a chronological list, click here and for my annotations on individual titles, click here. And if you’d like to follow me on the journey that brought me to this point, just keep reading.
Although before I go on, I need to thank everyone who contributed to the making of this list. Marjorie Lobban and the late Anne Clyde did the pioneering work in their annotated booklist Out of the Closet and Into the Classroom: Homosexuality in Books for Young People, first published in 1992 and expanded in 1996. Other titles on the list came from books or articles by Michael Cart and Christine Jenkins, Michael Hurley and David Rhodes and from online sources like Christine Jenkins’s booklist, the booklist compiled by William E. Elderton for the Community of Women and Men in Church and Society of the Methodist Church of New Zealand, the 2007 entry “Oz GLBT YA books (updated)” from Justine Larbalestier’s blog and the tumblr blog #AusQueerYA, supplemented by my own reading over the last 30 years. (See the bibliography for further details.) Kerry Ross, the academic outreach librarian at the University of Wollongong, organised a literature survey of the relevant books and journal articles in academic libraries. Emily Gale forwarded a version of my list to the Facebook group #LoveOzYa, who added some extra titles, and Kerry White filled in some important gaps through her work on the database The Source. Joanne Horniman, Julia Lawrinson, Martine Murray, David Rhodes and Chris Wheat answered questions about individual novels or their body of work and Bernie Monagle sent me a file of Hot Hits: the Remix when I couldn’t find a copy of his novel anywhere else. Robyn Sheahan-Bright gave cogent advice on how to deal with publishing statistics. Mark Macleod was, as always, a great sounding board and my girlfriend Ika Willis discussed all the individual books and the overview with me, exhaustively and entertainingly. Big thanks to all of you – and to everyone else who has helped to keep the tradition of writing LGBQ in Australian kids’ books alive and kicking.
THERE AND BACK AGAIN
And now for the quest narrative.
It all starts because I’m procrastigoogling – Benjamin Law’s term for those times when there’s something you simultaneously do and don’t want to write, so you nick off and play on the internet but keep yourself in the zone by making it vaguely relevant to whatever you’re supposed to be working on. In this case, I do and don’t want to write about my career as a publicly gay children’s writer and as part of my procrastigoogling, I find myself reading two reviews of Australian young adult novels with gay main characters published in 2015 – Danielle Binks’s “We Read to Know We Are Not Alone: Examining the Lack of LGBTQI Characters in Young Adult Fiction”, reviewing both Erin Gough’s The Flywheel and Eli Glasman’s The Boy’s Own Manual to Being a Proper Jew and Diana Hodge’s “Gay? Jewish? Neither? A manual to help you challenge the rules”, reviewing Glasman’s novel on its own.
Neither Binks nor Hodge identifies herself as LGBTQI within the review but they both come across as queer-friendly, although their support for queer rights and queer culture has led them to opposite conclusions. Binks believes there should be more Australian children’s books with LGBTQI characters. (“It’s not good enough to shrug-shoulders over the lack of LGBTQI representation, or to simply assume that it’s due to authors not wanting to write these characters and their stories.”) Hodge, conversely, believes there have already been too many young adult novels that focus on the characters’ sexual preference. (“Glasman has avoided the trap of producing a novel about teenage sexuality; he has written a story about an interesting, intelligent and loving young man who happens to be Jewish and gay … Australian writing for young adults has moved on as has our thinking about what it means to be gay.”) And both of them implicitly dissociate themselves from the children’s and young adult books with LGBQ characters published in Australia before 2015 – Binks by talking exclusively about the need for new books to be written; Hodge by comparing Eli Glasman to American young adult fiction writers John Donovan and Julie Anne Peters, rather than placing his book in the context created by previous Australian young adult novels with LGBQ main characters.
As a way of preparing myself to write about being a publicly gay Australian children’s writer, this is a downer. I know all of my eleven novels with LGBQ characters are out of print but I hadn’t realised that they and other novels by my contemporaries in the 1980s and 1990s had already been dismissed and / or forgotten. So is LGBQ representation before 2015 really as minimal as Binks believes or as outdated as Hodge believes? In order to check my memory against the facts, I decide to compile a quick list. Along the way I also decide I’d better read or reread all the novels I’m listing and I skim a six-page literature review of academic books and journal articles that discuss (or at least mention in passing) Australian kids’ books with LGBQ characters, which means the whole process ends up taking nine months from start to finish and involves reading over a hundred books and annotating 75 of them – so, not such a quick list, after all.
A few months into the project, I’m beginning to see how this substantial body of books has managed to pass under the critical radar. In 2015 there’s no single source of accurate information about Australian kids’ books with LGBQ characters that reviewers, writers or readers could consult. I’m pulling together data that’s scattered across a range of forums – print culture, both academic and general, the blogosphere, databases, Facebook and tumblr. What’s more, only two of the books published before 2000 are still in print – Two Weeks with the Queen and Killing Darcy: I have to order the rest of the earlier titles from university library collections all round Australia. Given that neither the information nor the novels themselves are readily available, I’m no longer surprised that even the LGBQ-friendly gatekeepers of Australian children’s literature know nothing about its LGBQ history.
On the other hand, I am still surprised that the gatekeepers don’t seem to know what they don’t know. For example, the tumblr blog #AusQueerYA, which is the most comprehensive survey of Australian kids’ books with LGBTQ characters on the internet in 2015, starts with the unnecessary apology, “There’s not a huge amount of it out there, comparatively”, indicating that its author hasn’t in fact compared the American and Australian statistics. I’m also puzzled by Diana Hodge’s claim that the first Australian kids’ books with LGBQ characters are humourless, undercharacterised problem novels that portray homosexuality as a “torturous burden” – until I read a bunch of American survey books and academic articles, which routinely characterise the first American kids’ books with LGBQ characters in precisely this way, at which point I realise Hodge is simply replicating American memes that don’t, in fact, apply to the Australian situation.
At this point I start to suspect that one reason for the pessimistic view of Australian kids’ books with LGBQ characters is that the cultural cringe is still in operation, causing Australian commentators to assume that Australian achievements will inevitably be inferior to their overseas counterparts. As a corollary, Australian readers in general tend to forget our literary past, a process that has been documented recently in Geordie Williamson’s The Burning Library: Our Great Novelists Lost and Found, described by its publisher as “inspired by Miles Franklin’s claim that a nation that fails to acknowledge its literary treasures is ‘neither preserved nor developed, but only defaced’.”
As I read on, I also come to the conclusion that the number of Australian kids’ books with LGBQ characters has been underestimated because they don’t automatically group together and form themselves into an easily identifiable sub-genre. I’m reading thrillers, romances and award-winning literary fiction. I’m reading books where the LGBQ characters are a minor part of the writers’ overall world-building and books where the LGBQ characters take centre stage. I’m reading books that see same-sex attraction as biologically determined and books that see it as socially constructed. Only 4 of the 86 novels on this list focus exclusively on the question of sexual preference, with no other narrative arcs or themes – Sue Hines’s Out of the Shadows, Bernie Monagle’s Hot Hits: the Remix, Kate Walker’s Peter and Eli Glasman’s The Boy’s Own Manual to Being a Proper Jew. For better or worse, books with LGBQ characters function as a pervasive presence within Australian children’s literature, rather than as a niche market.
Contemplating this body of work, I finally identify the object of my quest. I’ve been asking myself, “How can I write the history of a subgenre that I basically started?”, but now, confronted by this degree of social amnesia, I’m asking, “How can I not?” I’m certainly not prepared to stand back and witness the erasure of everyone who wrote kids’ books with LGBQ characters in Australia during the 1980s and 1990s, not least because accepting my own erasure would involve breaking a promise that’s been central to my existence. In Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s words,
I think many adults (and I am among them) are trying, in our work, to keep faith with vividly remembered promises made to ourselves in childhood: promises to make invisible possibilities and desires visible; to make the tacit things explicit; to smuggle queer representation in where it must be smuggled and, with the relative freedom of adulthood, to challenge queer-eradicating impulses frontally where they are to be so challenged.
The pay-off for taking on this project is that because I’m the one doing the work, I can do it my way – and I already know what I want to do. I want to put together a list that lets me examine what Janice Radway calls the “cultural network of capillary action by which a society talks to itself about its conditions of existence” – or, in other words, I want to be able to compare the books on the list and come to some tentative conclusions when I’ve finished. As a result, I want to bypass the historical and sf / fantasy novels with LGBQ characters that have appeared on other Australian lists, because it’s too hard to compare books about the present with books about the past and the future. Instead, I want to create an archive of contemporary realist novels that has the potential to counter the current amnesia about the 1980s and 1990s and shape the first thirty years of Australian kids’ books with LGBQ characters into a unified entity.
Armed with my new wish list, I return to my reading with renewed enthusiasm. And the first result of all that work is – ta-da!
PLAYING BY THE RULES
That’s the list I ended up with, following the rules I laid down for myself, and this is the section where I explain how those rules work and define a few terms. First and foremost, I want to borrow some words from B. J. Epstein, who says in Are the Kids All Right? The Representation of LGBTQ Characters in Children’s and Young Adult Lit:
I recognise that terminology is a slippery area, with terms seeming acceptable one day and offensive the next. With that in mind, I apologise in advance for any terms that might offend; I have done my best to use the generally accepted terms of today and I certainly have only the best intentions in using those words or phrases, but I realise that in a month, a year, a decade from now, the terms might already be outdated and considered to be in bad taste. (p 6)
Getting more specific, I’ve used the term LGBQ, rather than LGBTQIA+ or the other versions of that acronym current in 2015, because I’m focusing on sexual orientation here, not on the related but separate category of gender identity. The main aim of this list is to bring together all the realist contemporary Australian children’s and young adult fiction in which one or more of the characters identifies themselves or is identified by the author as lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer or questioning – in other words, as people who are involved, prepared to be involved or considering the possibility of becoming involved in sexual relationships with people of the same sex. There’s one intersex character on my list – Alex in Alyssa Brugman’s Alex as Well – but that’s because Alex identifies as female and is attracted to girls, not because she’s intersex. Conversely, Finn, the trans main character of Hazel Edwards and Ryan Kennedy’s f2m: the boy within, doesn’t talk about being attracted to girls until the process of transitioning has begun: one of the narrative functions of Finn’s lesbian friend is to make it clear that Finn isn’t lesbian.
In focusing on the LGBQ characters in kids’ books, I may look as if I’m endorsing the idea that there are a limited number of immutably fixed sexual orientations, so I want to say at the outset that I don’t believe in the sexual status quo, any more than I believe that children’s and young adult fiction is inherently more important than adult literature. I’m writing about children’s and young adult fiction because I used to work as a writer and reviewer of kids’ books and I’m confining myself to lesbian, gay male, bisexual and questioning characters because, as far as I’m aware, the other alternatives hadn’t infiltrated Australian children’s and young adult fiction during the time span covered by this list. The range of sexual options allowable in fiction tends to lag behind people’s actual practice. While it’s true that in 2015 people as different as Miley Cyrus and the Rainbow League in the Australian country town where I live were defining themselves as pansexual, genderfluid and so on, the only sign of these new vocabularies that I came across while I was compiling this list was the word genderflex, used in Fiona Wood’s Wildlife to describe David Bowie.
My definition of Australian children’s and young adult fiction is similarly pragmatic. All these books are by Australian writers and / or first published in Australia on their publishers’ children’s or young adult fiction lists and all their main characters are or could be at school. I haven’t looked at novels about university undergraduates (like Hoa Pham’s Wave) or novels that deal with the childhood and/or young adult experiences of LGBQ protagonists but were published as adult novels (like Alasdair Duncan’s Sushi Central) and often continue on into the characters’ adult life (like Kerryn Higgs’s All That False Instruction). Nor have I looked at LGBQ memoirs (like Tim Conigrave’s Holding the Man), short stories (including the anthology I edited, Hide and Seek: Stories about Being Young and Gay/Lesbian, a companion volume to Mark Macleod’s Ready or Not: Stories of Young Adult Sexuality) or picture books (but if you’re interested, you can check out Gay-themed Picture Books for Children at http://booksforkidsingayfamilies.blogspot.com.au). Because I’m focusing on contemporary realist novels, I haven’t included historical novels for younger readers, whether they’re set in Australia or in other countries, and I also excluded Australian kids’ books with LGBQ characters that are set in the future or in fantasy worlds, along with Justine Larbalestier’s and Scott Westerfeld’s genre-bending novels Liar and Afterworlds, both of which are set in New York and have American main characters. (For a list of all these titles, click here.)
Finally, I want to say something about the various limit cases that I was presented with. Sexuality isn’t a clear-cut matter and, unlike psychologists or sociologists, novelists aren’t obliged to develop a shared vocabulary, so there were times when I had to figure out whether a particular character did or didn’t match my definition of LGBQ. The easy part was deciding that writers and characters didn’t necessarily have to use the L-word, G-word, B-word or Q-word, in order to get their meaning across. In real life, kids are more likely to say “I like girls / boys” or “I’m like that / not like that” than “I am currently questioning my sexual identity with a bias towards bisexuality”, so I felt fine about describing the main characters of Beyond Evie and Mr Enigmatic as questioning and the main character of May Day Mine as bisexual, even though they don’t use those precise terms themselves.
On the other hand, while an adult reader of Helen Manos’s Snapshots would quickly realise that the main character’s mother has taken her to stay with a gay male couple, one of whom is dying of AIDS, the nearest Manos comes to making this explicit is when she describes Angelo’s funeral, saying:
Simon read a poem and talked about the friendship and love he and Angelo had for each other … The man from the Chinese restaurant, who wore a red ribbon on his jacket, cried and talked about other friends who had died like Angelo. (pp 62 – 63)
I don’t think Manos gives enough detail to convey either gayness or AIDS to anyone who isn’t already aware of them and, given that the novel was directed towards junior or primary school readers, I excluded it on the basis that it doesn’t identify its LGBQ characters in terms that its intended audience could be expected to understand. Similarly, in Laurene Kelly’s Still Waving, when Julie and her brother go to live with their aunt Jean after a family tragedy, Jean listens to the publicly lesbian singer k.d. lang and their father says, “Hope that sister of your mother’s doesn’t send you queer” (Loc 3505), but since Julie doesn’t ask and Jean doesn’t tell her niece and nephew anything about her sexual preference, I didn’t feel I could draw any definite conclusions.
After that, however, things got more complex, which meant I had to establish some ground rules. Since this list is a personal project, not an academic one, I settled for using the same method as I do in the rest of my life, where I leave it up to other people to define themselves. My first set of limit cases consists of novels in which the main characters experience some form of same-sex attraction but explicitly reject the idea that they’re gay. A lot of people read Eleanor Spence’s A Candle for St Antony as a novel about homosexuality – and fair enough, given that one of its Australian male main characters asks the other to stay in Europe with him because “Here, we can be together as much as we want, without people noticing or saying stupid things, when all along the truth is so simple … I love you.” (p 119) But since the same boy adds, after a homophobic attack by their classmates, “It was never the way you thought. It never would be”, I don’t think I’m entitled to override him and insist that he’s really gay and as a result, I can’t describe A Candle for St Antony as a novel about being LGBQ.
At the same time, I’d describe my response to Spence’s novel as a judgement call, rather than an inflexible rule or an ideological categorisation. For instance, while I came to a similar conclusion about Sarah Walker’s Camphor Laurel, in which two young women are as close as Spence’s young men and as clear that they aren’t gay, I think the context and implications of Camphor Laurel are very different. Walker had already published a novel with an overtly lesbian narrator, The Year of Freaking Out, and to my mind, the existence of that novel makes it clear that in Camphor Laurel she’s aiming to extend the spectrum of desire to include the romantic friendship between Melissa and Julietta, rather than aiming to narrow the spectrum by denying the possibility of homosexuality, as Spence does.
In another pair of books, the narrators are defined as lesbian but their girlfriends aren’t. Joanne Horniman establishes early in About a Girl that her narrator Anna is specifically attracted to heterosexual women and Kate Welshman’s narrator in Posse comes to realise that “I have to stop treating Marina as though she’s a lesbian when she might not be, when she’s really too young to be sure of what she’s doing.” (p 257) Horniman hints that Anna’s girlfriend Flynn will return to her previous boyfriend, while Welshman suggests at the end of Posse that Marina may have already found her next girlfriend – “Lately she’s been walking arm-in-arm with a pretty little dark-haired gymnast called Sian L’Estrange” (p 277) – but since neither writer makes an unambiguous statement about Flynn or Marina, I can’t describe either of them as explicitly lesbian, bisexual or questioning. Similarly, in Julia Lawrinson’s Obsession the lesbian main character, Charlie, has a school friend called Milka, who (a) guesses that Charlie is in love with another girl before Charlie herself realises it, (b) displays a silent understanding of everything Charlie then goes through and (c) holds hands with another girl all night at the end of term party but (d) never tells Charlie explicitly that they’re in the same situation. If I met somebody like Milka, I certainly wouldn’t assume she was straight but from the information Lawrinson gives me, I can’t assume she’s LGBQ either.
While I didn’t have enough information about Milka, Flynn or Marina to draw any definite conclusions, there was one character about whom the writer gave me too much information. In Rebecca Lim’s Afterlight, Carter Kelly is described as a young man with “the made-up, haunted eyes of a showgirl” and “a pronounced Adam’s apple [and] the beginnings of a five o’clock shadow” (p 188). The first person narrator calls him a “trannie” (p 193) and the men who murder him call him “the queer” (p 206): since I couldn’t work out whether Lim intended me to read Carter as transvestite, transsexual or a gay man who works as a drag artist, I couldn’t place him on the list. Nor have I included Adnan, the cousin of the main character in Amra Pajalic’s The Good Daughter, who has sex with her gay friend Brian, then backs off and ostentatiously dates a girl, for the sake of his reputation. Adnan is one of those characters you love to hate and I’d love to describe him as gay, because he’d hate it, but as a general principle, I don’t believe in outing people who have chosen to be closeted in real life, so I can’t out Adnan either.
Last on my list of limit cases come three books in which characters become targets of homophobic abuse, even though they aren’t identified as homosexual – Pina Grieco-Tiso’s Sticks and Stones, Nette Hilton’s Square Pegs and Irini Savvides’ Sky Legs. In all three cases, the homophobes are responding to something they see as non-normative. The main character’s history teacher in Sticks and Stones sits a boy on his knee to demonstrate a point; Hilton’s Stephen has camp mannerisms that are the subject of an ongoing debate within the novel; and Savvides’ main character Eleni refuses to be ashamed of her “big fat black moustache” (p 101), which gives her secondary protagonist Pete the courage to wear a dress to school. On the other hand, Stephen tells his friend Denny that he’s attracted to girls and can’t understand why they always treat him like a sister; Pete says explicitly,
I’m not gay … Maybe it’d be easier if I was. But the truth is, I like dressing up and the make-up’s okay. And I like girls. Go figure. (p 167)
and Grieco-Tiso never tells us whether the history teacher is gay and imprudent or just imprudent. As a result, I read all these novels as demonstrating that homophobia can be used to control non-conformist heterosexuality or non-conformism in general, just as much as it’s used to control homosexuality.
The result of all this term-defining, culling and general nit-picking is that the 86 novels on the alphabetical list have some basic similarities – although, having said that, I need to add that those similarities can be pretty basic. Some novels, like Peter or The Boy’s Own Manual to Being a Proper Jew, debate the topic of sexual preference on almost every page: others, like Writing Clementine or The Slightly True Story of Cedar B. Hartley, make only passing references to the sexual preference of minor characters. Sometimes the main character is LGBQ; sometimes the LGBQ character is a relative or friend of the main character; sometimes there’s just an LGBQ neighbour or work mate. In order to give a sense of the variety of experience represented in these novels, I need to remix my initial list and expand it into a list of LGBQ characters.
1. LGBQ secondary character/s
NB: Alyssa Brugman’s Alex as Well, Rebecca Burton’s Beyond Evie, Christopher Currie’s Clancy of the Undertow, Joanne Horniman’s About a Girl and Sand Monkeys and Julia Lawrinson’s Obsession have no LGBQ secondary characters.
Meredith Badger: Girl V the World – Things I Don’t Know Hardie Grant Egmont, 2012. (Lesbian parents of main character’s school friend.)
Maria Boyd: Will Random House, 2006. (Gay male classmate of main character.)
Charlotte Calder: Settling Storms Pan, 2000. (Gay 17 y.o. boy who killed himself a few years earlier; gay theatrical agent and his partner; young gay male soapie star.)
Margaret Clark: Care Factor Zero Random House, 1997. (Lesbian couple, acquaintances of the main character.)
Margaret Clark: No Standing Zone Random House, 1999. (Gay father of the main character’s best friend.)
Kate Constable: Always Mackenzie Allen & Unwin, 2008. (Main character’s girlfriend; lesbian friend of main character’s mother.)
Michelle Cooper: The Rage of Sheep Random House, 2007. (Gay male teacher; his boyfriend.)
Verity Croker: May Day Mine Harmony Ink Press, 2015. (Main character’s girlfriend.)
Nick Earls: 48 Shades of Brown Penguin 1999. (Main character’s lesbian aunt; her girlfriend.)
Hazel Edwards and Ryan Kennedy: f2m: the boy within Ford Street, 2012. (Main character’s lesbian friend; her one-night stand; main character’s therapist.)
Susanna van Essen: The Tiger Project Pan, 2003 (Lesbian neighbour; lesbian best friend.)
Susanna van Essen: A Trick of the Light Pan, 2004. (Main character’s gay fathers.)
Archimede Fusillo: The Last of the Braves Penguin, 2009. (Main character’s boyfriend; Caravaggio; Caravaggio’s boyfriend.)
Scot Gardner: White Ute Dreaming Pan 2002. (Main character’s gay male best friend.)
Scot Gardner: The Other Madonna Pan, 2003. (Lesbian sister and her girlfriend; gay male best friend; 3 other gay men mentioned in passing.)
Eli Glasman: The Boy’s Own Manual to Being a Proper Jew Sleepers, 2015. (Main character’s boyfriend; a gay rabbi.)
Morris Gleitzman: Two Weeks with the Queen Pan, 1990. (Gay male acquaintance; his boyfriend.)
Kate Gordon: Writing Clementine Allen & Unwin, 2014. (Two gay male friends of the main character.)
Erin Gough: The Flywheel Hardie Grant Egmont, 2015. (Main character’s girlfriend.)
Nicole Hayes: One True Thing Random House, 2015. (Main character’s lesbian best friend; the friend’s girlfriend; questioning schoolfriend.)
Sue Hines: Out of the Shadows Random House, 1998. (Lesbian main character’s girlfriend; heterosexual main character’s mother; her girlfriend; a gay male friend of the mother’s friend.)
Sue Hines: The Plunketts Random House, 2000. (Main character’s uncle and his boyfriend.)
Joanne Horniman: A Charm of Powerful Trouble Allen & Unwin, 2002. (Main character’s girlfriend; the girlfriend’s previous girlfriend; the mother’s first boyfriend and his boyfriend.)
Joanne Horniman: My Candlelight Novel Allen & Unwin, 2008. (Main character’s girlfriend; her girlfriend’s previous girlfriend; her girlfriend’s gay male friend; her sister’s gay male workmate.)
Catherine Johns: Me Mum’s a Queer Epona Press, 1994. (Main character’s lesbian mother; her mother’s girlfriend; her bisexual school friend; adult lesbian she befriends; a lesbian friend of her mother’s; frequent references to her mother’s lesbian community.)
Mo Johnson: Boofheads Walker, 2008. (Main character’s friend’s brother; the brother’s boyfriend; the friend’s uncle.)
Melissa Keil: Life in Outer Space Hardie Grant Egmont, 2013. (Main character’s gay male best friend; the friend’s boyfriend.)
Will Kostakis: The First Third Penguin, 2013. (Main character’s gay brother; his gay male best friend; the best friend’s boyfriend.)
Margo Lanagan: Touching Earth Lightly Allen & Unwin, 1996. (Gay couple, one of whom is now dead, friends of main character’s mother.)
Julia Lawrinson: Suburban Freak Show Lothian 2006. (Two lesbian house mates of the main character.)
Julia Lawrinson: Losing It Penguin, 2012. (Adult lesbian to whom the main character is attracted.)
Melissa Lucashenko: Killing Darcy UQP, 1998. (Main character’s ex-boyfriend; male customer who makes a pass at him at work.)
Melissa Lucashenko: Hard Yards UQP, 1999. (Two gay men in corner shop; gay male colleague.)
Melissa Lucashenko: Too Flash Jukurrpa Books, 2002. (Main character’s gay male friend.)
Caroline Macdonald: Secret Lives Omnibus, 1993. (Girl next door, fancied by the main character.)
Doug Macleod: Tumble Turn Penguin, 2003. (Main character’s gay uncle; his uncle’s dead boyfriend.)
Ian MacNeill: Red and Silver Mieli Press, 1992. (Main character’s boyfriend; the boyfriend’s ex-boyfriend; a gay male teacher; a gay male friend of the main character’s friend’s mother.)
Melina Marchetta: The Piper’s Son Penguin, 2010. (Bisexual workmate of the main character; his potential boyfriend.)
John Marsden: Checkers Pan, 1996. (Main character’s gay male friend.)
David Metzenthen: Jarvis 24 Penguin, 2009. (Main character’s gay male workmate; two lesbian friends of the workmate.)
Bernie Monagle Hot Hits: The Remix Lothian, 2003. (Lesbian hockey coach of one main character; another lesbian on the team; lesbian coach of an opposing team; 2 lesbians in a bar, one of whom has a one-night stand with another main character; gay men kissing in a cinema; an online group for young gay men.)
Merrilee Moss: Thriller and Me Silver Gum, 1994. (Main character’s gay father; his boyfriend.)
Martine Murray: The Slightly True Story of Cedar B. Hartley (Who Planned to Live an Unusual Life) Allen & Unwin, 2002. (Gay male couple, neighbours of the main character.)
Bron Nicholls: Mullaway Penguin, 1986. (Main character’s gay brother; his boyfriend, whom the main character fancies; his male boss, who sexually harasses him; the main character’s gay male ex-teacher and his boyfriend.)
Amra Pajalic: The Good Daughter Text, 2009. (Main character’s gay male school friend.)
Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli: Love You Two Random House, 2011. (Main character’s bisexual uncle; his ex-boyfriend; main character’s friends’ lesbian mothers; a lesbian friend and three gay male friends of her uncle’s. There are also mentions of gays and lesbians at two parties, a single woman who is planning to have a baby with a gay male friend and “the woman who took to her bed after her husband hanged himself in the shed. His dreams disintegrated with his daughter’s divorce and her living in sin with a man half her age; with his son daring to arrive for a family wedding with his male partner.” (p 263))
Jenny Pausacker: What Are Ya? Angus and Robertson 1987. (Main character’s first girlfriend and second girlfriend; her first girlfriend’s previous girlfriend; a group for young lesbians.)
Jenny Pausacker: Mr Enigmatic Reed, 1995. (Main character’s gay best friend; the best friend’s gay mentor and first boyfriend; a guest appearance by the lesbian main character from What Are Ya? and her girlfriend.)
Jenny Pausacker: Getting Somewhere Reed, 1997. (Lesbian couple, old friends of the main character’s mother.)
Jenny Pausacker: How to Tell Your Parents that You’re Straight Random House, 1998. (Earlier version published under the name Jaye Francis as Love or Money Greenhouse, 1990.) (Main character’s lesbian friend; her girlfriend.)
Jenny Pausacker: It’s not over till you’re over it Random House, 1998. (Earlier version published under the name Jaye Francis as Heartbreak City Pan, 1991) (Main character’s gay male best friend; his boyfriend; their two lesbian friends.)
Jenny Pausacker: Down and Out: The Blake Mysteries 7 Hodder Headline, 1999. (Childhood best friend of the main character’s mother; his boyfriend.)
Jenny Pausacker: Truth or Dare: The Blake Mysteries 9 Hodder Headline, 1999. (Friend of the main character; his boyfriend; his teacher.)
Jenny Pausacker: Sundogs Hodder, 2001. (Main character’s gay male friend; her sister’s lesbian friend.)
Jenny Pausacker: Dancing on Knives Lothian, 2004. (Gay uncle of a friend of the main character; two of her female co-workers; their gay male friend.)
Jenny Pausacker, writing as Jaye Francis: First Impressions Greenhouse, 1988. (2 lesbian school friends of the main character.)
Jenny Pausacker, writing as Jaye Francis: Rebecca: Hot Pursuit 4 Penguin, 1991. (Main character’s mother; mother’s girlfriend; gay male neighbour of main character.)
Daniella Petkovic, Maria Kokoris and Monica Kalinowska: Livin’ Large Pan, 1994. (Main character’s gay male school friend; his boyfriend.)
Aimee Said: Little Sister Walker, 2011. (Main character’s sister; the sister’s girlfriend; an adult gay male couple who run a shop where the main character works; a lesbian school friend; “a couple of guys in year 11” who help start a gay-straight alliance.)
Tim Sinclair: Run Penguin, 2013. (Main character’s lesbian friend; her girlfriend.)
Ruth Starke: Coming Out Omnibus, 1996. (Main character’s boyfriend.)
G. J. Stroud: Measuring Up Scribe, 2009. (Main character’s gay brother; the brother’s boyfriend.)
Diana Sweeney: The Minnow Text, 2014. (Main character’s gay male best friend; his boyfriend.)
Tegan Thomas: Rose Loves Nick Australian Consolidated Publishing, 1991. (Boy fancied by the female main character who turns out to be gay.)
Kate Walker: Peter Omnibus, 1991. (Main character’s brother’s gay male friend.)
Sarah Walker : The Year of Freaking Out Pan, 1997. (Lesbian friend of main character’s bi/questioning girlfriend; main character’s friend; the friend’s girlfriend.)
Sarah Walker : Water Colours Hodder Headline, 2000. (Lesbian friend of female main character’s mother; her girlfriend.)
Kate Welshman: Posse Random House, 2009. (Main character’s lawyer stepmother “defended a guy who killed his gay lover in the bath and flushed his intestines down the toilet.” (p 210))
Chris Wheat: Loose Lips Hyland House, 1998. (Gay male couple, friends of gay male main character’s mother.)
Chris Wheat: Grinders Hyland House, 2001. (Main character’s gay male friend.)
Chris Wheat: Screw Loose Allen & Unwin, 2008. (Gay male main character’s boyfriend; lesbian main character’s girlfriend; 2 gay dogs.)
Nadia Wheatley: The Blooding Penguin, 1987. (Gay male bureaucrat who assists the main character; his boyfriend.)
Terry Whitebeach: Watersky Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1998. (Gay male friend of female main character; his boyfriend.)
Margaret Wild: Jinx Allen & Unwin, 2001. (Main character’s lesbian friend; the friend’s girlfriend.)
Lili Wilkinson: Pink Allen & Unwin, 2011. (Main character’s girlfriend; her gay male school friend; her lesbian school friend; the girlfriend of the lesbian school friend; a gay male acquaintance; a lesbian acquaintance; a café of semi-goth emo lesbians.)
Lili Wilkinson: Love-shy Allen & Unwin, 2012. (Main character’s father; his boyfriend; a gay male acquaintance at school; his boyfriend.)
Fiona Wood: Six Impossible Things Pan, 2010. (Main character’s gay father.)
Fiona Wood: Wildlife Pan, 2013. (Main character’s lesbian mothers.)
Fiona Wood: Cloudwish Pan Macmillan, 2015. (Main character’s best friend; minor character’s lesbian mothers.)
NB: I have noted the number of main characters in each book and the books with first person narrators.
1. Lesbian main characters
Chris Wheat: Screw Loose Allen & Unwin 2008. (as above.)
2. Gay male main characters
Chris Wheat: Screw Loose Allen & Unwin, 2008. (as above.)
3. Bisexual main characters
Verity Croker: May Day Mine Harmony Ink Press, 2015.
4. Questioning main characters
CRUNCHING THE NUMBERS
In the second version of my list, I’m aiming to create a composite picture of the way LGBQ characters were represented in Australian kids’ books between 1985 and 2015 – or, to requote Janice Radway, to eavesdrop on a society talking to itself about its conditions of existence. I’m interested in what was said, what remained unsaid and what people kept saying over and over again. I formed some subjective impressions while I was reading the books but I know from previous experience that subjective impressions can be wrong – for instance, when I started writing a doctorate on the school story, I was sure that at least half the novels in my sample would contain homoerotic relationships between schoolboys or schoolgirls but it turned out that I just remembered the homoerotic novels better. So, before I let myself generalise about the books on this list, I did some counting and came up with some statistics. (By the way, I’ve only counted the LGBQ characters whom the author has actually named: it’s hard to compare developed characters with undeveloped characters and naming seems like the first step in character development.)
Let’s start with the basics. This list contains 321 LGBQ characters from 86 novels by 64 writers. (Two novels were collaborations, one between two writers and the other between three writers.) Twelve of the 64 writers published more than one novel with LGBQ characters and 4 of them included LGBQ characters in all the novels they’d published up to 2015 – Michelle Cooper, Susanna van Essen, Melissa Lucashenko and Fiona Wood. The novels with the highest number of LGBQ characters were Bernie Monagle’s Hot Hits: the Remix and Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli’s Love You Two, each with eight LGBQ characters, and I wrote the highest number of books with LGBQ characters – 11 novels, containing a total of 34 LGBQ characters.
Of the 321 LGBQ characters in the books on this list, 235 are kids and 86 are adults, working on a fairly basic definition of kids as “people around the same age as the main character/s”. 35 of the 235 kids are main characters – 17 lesbians, 9 gay guys, 8 questioning characters (4 girls and 4 guys) and one bisexual – and another 17 kids are the girlfriends or boyfriends of LGBQ main characters. When I use the term “main character”, it may give the impression that the novel is all about that particular character, so I should add that only 20 of the LGBQ main characters are the sole protagonist or first person narrator of their novels. The other 15 are in novels with ensemble casts, sharing the foreground with between 2 and 4 other main characters.
The largest single category of LGBQ secondary characters consists of 55 LGBQ friends of the novels’ main characters – 32 guys and 23 girls. Of the 32 gay male friends, 22 are the friend of a female main character and 10 are the friend of a male main character. In addition, only 2 of the 6 novels containing a straight male main character with a gay male friend or friends are by male writers. The lesbian friends simultaneously endorse and reverse that pattern. Only 3 of them are the friends of a male main character but although there are more same-sex friendships between girls, all but 4 of the lesbian friends already have girlfriends, a writerly strategy which bypasses any anxiety that might be felt by the main characters or the readers about the possibility of sexual attraction within same-sex friendships.
Another important category of LGBQ secondary characters is family, which covers 39 characters related to the main characters – 6 lesbian couples, all of whom are raising kids together; 7 gay fathers, including 2 couples raising a kid together; 3 brothers; 2 sisters; 5 uncles, one of whom is an uncle by marriage, and an aunt, plus 11 family friends (3 gay male couples, 2 lesbian couples and 1 single lesbian). The other categories are smaller but still significant. There are 10 LGBQ characters in the workplace – 3 bosses, all gay guys; 5 co-workers, 2 lesbians and 3 gay males; a gay male customer and a gay male public servant. There are 5 neighbours – 2 lesbians, a single gay male and a gay male couple. There are 4 LGBQ teachers, all male: 2 of their students are straight girls and the other 2 are gay guys.
And the second largest category of all is the one I’ve labelled “Other”, which consists of the 47 LGBQ characters who don’t fit anywhere else. Some of them are one of a kind – a lesbian therapist, a gay rabbi, a lesbian hockey coach, a young gay guy in an online forum – and some have complicated descriptions like “previous girlfriend of main character’s mother’s girlfriend” or “main character’s mother’s first boyfriend and his boyfriend”, “main character’s friend’s gay uncle” or “gay male main character’s boyfriend’s ex-boyfriend” While there’s no single term that could accurately describe all of these relationships, I found myself thinking of the “others” as extended family or, at times, queer family.
One of my happiest LGBQ memories is of standing in the London rain, waiting for a Pride march to set off, and noticing a young Asian woman holding a small placard that said, “Some people are gay.” This data says the same thing to me and it makes me happy all over again. The 321 LGBQ characters conjured up by these 64 writers are just a beginning but as beginnings go, the overall tendency is towards diversity and comprehensiveness. Rather than reflecting the focus on white male middle class experience that Cart and Jenkins identify in their survey of LGBQ characters in American young adult fiction, Australian kids’ writers have been telling their readers, from 1985 onwards, that friends, family, neighbours, workmates and all sorts of other people can be LGBQ.
At the same time, there are some obvious biases and omissions, the most notable being the exclusion of bisexuality. The one novel with an arguably bisexual main character, Verity Croker’s May Day Mine, was published by an online press specialising in LGBTQ+ teen fiction and Catherine Johns’s Me Mum’s a Queer, in which one of the narrator’s friends identifies as bisexual, was self-published, making Melina Marchetta’s The Piper’s Son the only mainstream Australian kids’ book with an explicitly bisexual (and very minor) character. Paraphrasing her main character’s mother’s sex education program in Wildlife, Fiona Wood says “straight is normal, gay is normal, lesbian is normal, bisexual is normal” – but that’s one of the few times you’ll find the word “bisexual” in the books on this list. Even in Pink, a novel about a girl who’s in a lesbian relationship but also wants to go out with guys, Lili Wilkinson manages to avoid using the term, making her main character wonder whether she’s ”straight or gay, or gay with a twist of straight or what”, as if the English language didn’t already have a word for it.
Ironically, given Cart and Jenkins’s American findings, another group that’s conspicuous by its absence from Australian kids’ books is white middle class gay male main characters. The first Australian gay male main character is white and working class (Red and Silver), the second is Indigenous and working class (Killing Darcy) and the next three are in ensemble novels with multiple main characters, followed by an Italian-Australian working class guy (The Last of the Braves) and a middle class Jewish guy (The Boy’s Own Manual to Being a Proper Jew), none of whom tick all of Cart and Jenkins’s boxes. The coming out narrative focusing on one relatively privileged character’s struggle to establish their identity has been a template for American LGBQ kids’ books but in 2015, the only Australian novel about a male main character that came close to matching that description was Kate Walker’s Peter, whose main character is positioned as questioning, rather than gay.
While the number of publicly gay men who write American kids’ books has been increasing, their only Australian counterpart up until 2015 was the late Ian MacNeill, who self-published Red and Silver in 1992: the other novels by publicly gay Australian men dealing with teenage LGBQ experience appeared on their publishers’ adult fiction lists. (When I say “publicly gay”, I’m talking about writers who reference their own gayness in their author bios or related publicity: I’m not talking about whether people are openly gay in their private lives.) This imbalance may have come about because in Australia the onus is on men to prove their masculinity, rather than on women to prove their femininity, which means that gay men are more rigorously policed than lesbians. Or it may, more simply, be that the test case for young adult novels with an LGBQ protagonist and a publicly LGBQ writer was my novel What Are Ya?, which meant that from 1986 onwards publishers knew that a book with a lesbian main character could win / be shortlisted for awards and wouldn’t become an automatic target for hatemail: a reassurance that wasn’t available to potential writers and publishers of young adult novels by and about gay guys in 2015.
The Australian construction of gender has influenced other aspects of LGBQ characterisation. Fictional female characters are more comfortable with LGBQ issues than fictional male characters. Out of the 50 friendships between straight main characters and LGBQ secondary characters, 37 are with female main characters and only 13 with male main characters. Similarly, all of the 11 LGBQ family friends are explicitly identified as friends of the main character’s mother, rather than as the friends of the father or of both the parents. At the same time, all of the fictional lesbian mothers have daughters: Australian writers (or editors) clearly share the conventional discomfort about lesbian mothers bringing up sons, although 4 of the 6 fictional fathers have daughters. Some other LGBQ stereotypes are endorsed as well: for instance, 9 of the 12 lesbian relationships are ongoing, whereas only one of the 5 gay male relationships continues beyond the novel’s end.
One aspect of LGBQ life that’s very thoroughly represented in Australian kids’ books is homophobia. Because I didn’t realise in advance how central this concept was going to be, I didn’t take notes in the early stages of my reading on minor instances of anti-LGBQ language or attitudes and as a result I’ll be defining homophobia here as sustained verbal abuse, bullying, active violence or a culture where those things are always an imminent possibility and therefore don’t need to be regularly acted out. By that definition, 31 novels – that is, over a third of the list – include situations in which characters experience fairly extreme homophobia. Of those novels, 10 include strategies for dealing with homophobia and the remaining 21 novels position homophobia as a more or less inevitable result of being LGBQ.
Back in 1998 the American academic Kenneth Kidd was already commenting that “homophobia [had] replaced homosexuality as the designated social problem” in American kids’ books with LGBQ characters and his diagnosis seems to apply to Australian kids’ books as well. Only 11 of the 31 novels featuring homophobia were published between 1985 and 1999, while nearly twice as many were published between 2000 and 2015. What’s more, the levels of homophobic violence seem to be increasing. Alex As Well (2013) ends with
a boy I’d never seen before slammed me into the wall when I was on the stairwell … When he pushed me, I hit my head against the wall, and it hurt, but it won’t kill me. (p 222)
and The Flywheel (2015) begins with
In the past month, I’ve been slammed against lockers, I’ve had insults about me scrawled on school desks and I’ve been called too many names to remember. (p 3)
I’m not the only person to be concerned by this trend. Thomas Crisp says in Children’s Literature in Education (2009) that “Any book that seeks to educate readers about homophobia and intolerance by presenting a world in which homophobia and intolerance are “the norm” on some level ultimately reinforces these as inevitabilities.” I can see the relevance to LGBQ readers of novels that give them a chance to examine the main character’s homophobia (like The Blooding or Rose Loves Nick), rehearse strategies for deflecting and demolishing homophobia (like Run or Hard Yards) or position homophobia as uncool and unacceptable, whether it’s directed at themselves or at others who, as Bernie Monagle points out in Hot Hits: the Remix, may not even be LGBQ. But the increasing focus on the uncontrollable power of homophobia seems to be aimed at straight readers, soliciting their sympathy for LGBQ kids, at the expense of celebrating the “many new creative resistant beliefs emerging as young [LGBTQ] people reach out to other young people like themselves and tap into gay culture through the internet and media” referenced in the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society’s comprehensive 2010 report, Writing Themselves In 3.
There are other areas that I didn’t have time to go into – for instance, I’d love to read someone else’s account of the intersections between age, class, ethnicity, gender, race and same-sex desire in these novels – and I can’t, by definition, identify the areas of investigation that didn’t occur to me, although theoretically I know they exist. So the problem that I want to end on is that, although a surprising number of the Australian kids’ books published between 1985 and 2015 turned out to contain a surprising variety of LGBQ characters, I may be the only person who has read them as a unified body of work, which leaves me with the standard Philosophy 101 question, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it still make a sound?” – or, to put it another way, “Can Australian kids’ books with LGBQ characters still be considered numerous and varied, if no one apart from me has read all of them?”
And to help answer that question, I’m going to remix my list again, putting the titles in chronological order, to give a sense of the way in which the tradition of writing LGBQ characters developed within Australian children’s literature.
(NB: the titles in bold are novels with LGBQ main characters.)
1985 – 1989
Jenny Pausacker, writing as Jaye Francis: First Impressions Greenhouse, 1988.
1990 – 1999
2000 – 2009
2010 – 2015
The astute and / or pedantic reader will have noticed that, although the first title on my third list was published in 1986, my timeline goes from 1985 to 2015. That’s because I want to start this chronological account with Frank Willmott’s 1985 novel Suffer Dogs, which describes the intersection of homophobia, racism, classism and sexism at an inner city school and ends with an exchange between two of the main characters – Tim, a teacher who recently walked out of his football club, saying, “I’m fed up with all this brutalising of kids and poofta-bashing”(p 143), and Eric, a young guy who recently drove a potential new friend away, saying, “Ya not going to bum me, you bloody poof”. (p 122)
“That’s good,” Tim stared back, “because if I was, it shouldn’t worry you.” (p 157)
I didn’t put Suffer Dogs on the list, because Tim and Willmott are focusing on the social function of homosexuality, not on whether particular individuals are “really” gay, but the novel strikes two notes that will keep on resonating through the 1980s and 1990s.
Firstly, homophobia, like classism and racism and sexism, is seen as a default setting for anyone who isn’t consciously working against it. By 2015 homophobia will have been outsourced to unsympathetic and often uncharacterized or undercharacterised minor characters, while straight main characters will be uniformly gay-friendly. For example, in Six Impossible Things (2010), Fiona Wood employs some unsympathetic homophobic minor characters to make sure we’re aware that her main character is angry at his dad because his dad is irresponsible, not because he is gay. In the 1980s, however, all the main characters have some degree of internalised homophobia: while the lesbian main character in my novel What Are Ya? has to deal with some name-calling when she comes out, she herself has already taken part in mocking a girl at her school who asked another girl to a film and turned up with a bunch of roses, “just like a big date in an old movie”.
Secondly, the 1980s writers see sexual preference as a spectrum, which means that everyone, straight kids included, has to figure out where they want to position themselves. Having accepted that her brother is gay, Bron Nicholls’s Mully thinks, “I know one thing – it wouldn’t faze me, now, if that’s the way I was” (p 203) and What Are Ya?, with its parallel stories about two girls questioning their sexuality and coming to opposite conclusions, makes explicit what is implied by Tim’s position statement in Suffer Dogs – that sexual preference is only an issue for individuals because it’s an issue within society as a whole.
Barb looked obstinate. “But things, outside things, are different for us. Truly, Leith. Me and Paul will always be treated differently from you and Swallow. It has to have an effect.” (p 145 – 6)
Most of the 28 novels published in the 1990s take a similar approach, presenting their LGBQ characters as individuals, rather as positive role models or tragic queers. Where Suffer Dogs, Mullaway, What Are Ya? and The Blooding were literary fiction by writers with a history of awards and shortlistings, the mood of the nineties is more light-hearted, including romances by me and Tegan Thomas and comedies by Nick Earls, Morris Gleitzman, Merrilee Moss, Ruth Starke and Chris Wheat. There are a few exceptions to the trend, most notably Kate Walker’s Peter and Sue Hines’s Out of the Shadows, both of which focus on homophobic bullying and position homosexuality as an option that their characters are right to dread: Hines’s main characters eventually come to terms with lesbianism but Peter ends by deferring his decision. (Interestingly, Peter and Out of the Shadows are the only Australian titles that appear in all 3 of the LGBQTI booklists by Lobban and Clyde, Day and Cart and Jenkins.)
At the turn of the century, a lot of the writers from 1980s and 1990s were still publishing books with LGBQ characters – Joanne Horniman, Melissa Lucasheko, me, Sarah Walker, Chris Wheat – and they’re supplemented by other writers working in a similar liberal humanist and / or gay rights tradition, as well as by other writers in the comic tradition of the 1990s. However, there are more novels about the dark side of same-sex desire – Settling Storms, Obsession, The Last of the Braves, Posse – and more novels that focus on homophobia, rather than on the positive aspects of coming out. And gradually, over the first 15 years of the new millennium, Australian YA novelists start to tell their readers that being gay isn’t a choice, because people are born gay. One result of this new science-based construction of homosexuality, presumably based on the work of Simon Le Vay, is that LGBQ kids and straight kids are no longer seen as being involved in a common enterprise of exploring and determining their sexual identities. Instead, kids who are born straight become the lucky majority with the power to victimise, tolerate or protect the unlucky minority who were born gay, while bisexuality and questioning become inadvertently radical positions, because the simple fact of their existence undermines the “born gay / born straight” dichotomy.
So does this potted history represent an unequivocal progress narrative? On a purely numerical level, the answer is yes, because the number of kids’ books with LGBQ characters has gone on increasing, from 4 in the 1980s to 28 in the 1990s, 31 between 2000 and 2009 and an impressive 23 books published between 2010 and 2015. On a literary level, however, the answer has to be no. The Australian tradition doesn’t, as Diana Hodge claimed, start from issue-based or problem novels and then move on to books with more literary merit: unlike America, Australia has, in fact, produced award-winning and shortlisted literary fiction with LGBQ characters in every decade so far.
The issue of LGBQ representation is harder to assess. I can’t myself describe the current tropes as progress, because to me they look like an obstacle course, in which kids are supposed to recognise without fuss or difficulty that they were born gay, come out early and easily, feel embarrassed by parental support and make no demands on their straight friends, while simultaneously coping with accelerating levels of homophobic abuse, bullying and violence. On the other hand, critics like Hodge are equally convinced that “Australian writing for young adults has moved on as has our thinking about what it means to be gay”, so maybe the question of progress or regress can’t be answered in general terms. Maybe I need to look at a specific case study.
Let me focus on the situation I know best: Australian young adult novels with lesbian main characters, by writers who identify themselves as lesbian in their biographical notes, directly or by implication. In 1987, I provided the lesbian main character in What Are Ya? with overlapping levels of support – two other lesbians at her school, a helpful teacher and the Young Lesbians group. Ten years later, Sarah Walker’s The Year of Freaking Out updated those support systems and added a developing sense of lesbian culture, within which her main character can talk with her friends about the lesbianism in Madonna’s Sex or the movie Basic Instinct and Walker herself can play with the standard tropes of lesbian fiction, like car crashes and flighty femmes. There were no lesbian main characters in 2007 and although the lesbian main characters of Kate Constable’s Always Mackenzie (2008) and Joanne Horniman’s My Candlelight Novel (2008) are among my personal favourites, Constable’s biographical note says she “lives in West Preston, Melbourne, with her husband and two daughters” and Horniman describes herself as someone who “has been a kitchenhand, waitress, editor, teacher and screen printer” and “now writes full-time in a shed overlooking Hanging Rock Creek near Lismore, northern New South Wales”. In 2015, however, the baton passed to Erin Gough and The Flywheel.
At first sight, The Flywheel looks like the reverse of progress. Almost 30 years after What Are Ya? was published, Gough’s lesbian main character has no sense of a wider community where LGBTQI issues are accepted, debated and celebrated. There’s no Mardi Gras on her TV; no LGBTQI books in the Glebe bookshops or the local library that her activist girlfriend is trying to save; no LGBTQI websites, Facebook groups, tumblrs or Twitter hashtags, where she can compare notes and tactics with kids all round the world who are facing homophobia; no other LGBTQI or even LGBTQI-friendly kids at her school; no LGBTQI customers at her family’s café, discussing gay marriage over a latte or asking whether they can leave a stack of LOTLs on the counter; and although her parents seem to be on the social justice spectrum, neither of them has any LGBTQI friends and her father doesn’t put a rainbow pride flag in the café window until after she comes out.
In the 1980s, the Australian novels with LGBQ characters took a stance on LGBQ issues that was more radical than the world around them but Gough’s novel is addressed to a world in which there already are LGBQ characters on mainstream TV, gay bookshops in the inner city and so on. I would have assumed she was exaggerating her main character’s isolation for effect, if my starting point for this whole project hadn’t been Danielle Bink’s article, in which she quotes Gough as saying, “I honestly can’t remember reading a single book with a gay person in it during my school years.” On one level, this could seem depressing but on another level, The Flywheel reminds me of the student described by Thomas Crisp and S.M. Knezek.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “You’ve got to understand. I’m betting almost everything available featuring gay characters in books for kids and teens is here – and they fit on these two tabletops. You’d need all the rooms in this building, and more, to fit the books that feature heterosexual kids and their families. They have a much better chance of finding themselves or what they’re interested in. It’s really great that you’re trying, but I just don’t see myself here.” (p 76)
Crisp and Knezek are as proud of their six-foot tables as Sarah Walker and her main character were grateful for Sex and Basic Instinct but the student, who comes from the next generation, won’t be satisfied with anything less than what’s available to all heterosexual kids. By extension, Erin Gough can be read as saying that LGBQ kids shouldn’t need to search for LGBQ culture, because they should be able to find it wherever they are. There are some disadvantages to having higher levels of expectation – paradoxically, I’d read lots of novels with gay characters by the time I left school in 1965, because I knew I had to go looking for them – but Gough and the student are raising the game, which definitely counts as a form of progress.
Another corollary of Crisp and Knezek’s story is that we need all the books with LGBQ characters we can get, so I’m going to end where I began, addressing the adult gatekeepers of children’s literature and saying, “Please, don’t be too quick to lay down the law.” Three well-intentioned but ultimately restrictive memes kept turning up in my background reading, from reviews and academic articles through to writers’ blogs. The first meme is the current method of praising a book by calling it the first / best / only one of its kind. This could be seen as pardonable exaggeration, a formula that’s simply meant to attract the attention of the book’s designated readers. However, if the accepted way to recommend the next Australian kids’ book with LGBQ characters is to negate or criticise the 86 books that preceded it, the ultimate losers are LGBQ and LGBQ-friendly readers, because we’re being dissuaded from reading more books than we’re being encouraged to read.
The second meme is the widespread insistence that we should have a moratorium on coming out stories. That idea was first put forward in the 1980s, after a spate of adult novels celebrating the Gay Liberation tactic of coming out, but I can’t see why so many people are so keen to apply the same principle to twenty first century kids’ books. Okay, it’s understandable that the adult reviewers of kids’ books sometimes get bored with books about coming out, first love and other young adult rites of passage: all occupations have their occupational hazards. But the fact is, each successive generation of LGBQ kids still has to make their own decisions about their sexual preference and then convey those decisions to the people around them, so it seems only fair that LGBQ kids in 2015 should be able to read coming out stories set in 2015.
The third and final meme that I identified was a tendency to hold writers responsible for readers’ access to novels with LGBQ characters. Danielle Binks says that “In order to offer our young readers more diversity we need to uncover why there aren’t enough of these stories being written right now” but, having uncovered 134 largely overlooked novels in the course of this project, I would say that the people who write for young readers aren’t the people who are failing to offer them more diversity. The books have, in fact, been there since the 1980s but access to them has been restricted by the school libraries that don’t stock books with LGBQ characters; the teachers who don’t set or recommend them; the parents who don’t complain about their absence; the publishers who don’t keep them in print; the academics who don’t write about them; the reviewers who pit them against each other, instead of making connections; and, of course, all the people who actively oppose and censor books with LGBQ content – although in Australia passive censorship is currently a more pervasive problem.
In his critique of the #weneeddiversebooks campaign, “Hacking Diversity: who are we to need diverse books?”, Shinen Wong calls for “a politics of representation that reframes the sites of power and influence”, saying:
It is not only that people from diverse backgrounds need to publish more (or that ‘we’ need to publish more of ‘their’ books), it is also that what has already been published needs to be related to as having already been published, and to thus make the rounds of more affirmative consolidation, invitation, profiling, marketing and distribution … The job of institutions, publishers, curators and consumers is not only to ‘give a voice’ to underrepresented people, it is also to seek out the diverse voices already speaking, the diverse writers already writing, to listen in good faith, even, and perhaps especially if, we do not like what we hear.
One of the reasons America has a coherent subgenre of novels with LGBQ main characters, while the LGBQ characters in Australian kids’ books are scattered across the literary landscape, is that America also has an extensive and active support system of concerned adults, which means that the entire burden of promoting, defending, overthrowing bans and fighting for the right of LGBQ books to exist doesn’t rest on the shoulders of individual authors. In order to get Australian kids’ books with LGBQ characters to their intended audience and elicit an even wider range of books from the next generation of Australian reader-writers, we need a support system of our own.
But that’s another story …
Instead, here’s my final remix, an annotated booklist giving individual accounts of the 75 novels that weren’t written by me. (I briefly considered annotating my own books but decided I haven’t reached that level of Zen detachment.) Some of the previous LGBTQ booklists were intended as educational resources or resources for bibliotherapy, so I want to make it clear from the start that I’m not trying to establish whether specific books on this list will be helpful to specific kids: in my experience, finding a book that works for you is as random and incalculable as finding another human who gets you. Nor have I tried to establish whether these books take the right line on LGBQ issues. Back in 1981, I was happy to denounce American writer John Donovan’s I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip (1969), the first kids’ book with an explicitly LGBQ character, but more than thirty years later, I’ve seen a lot of right lines come and go and I’m less keen to judge Donovan and more impressed by his initiative and courage. So these annotations aren’t meant to be moral or political assessments either; they’re my own personal take on the way these books work.
I’ve done my best to make my view of each book as clear as possible and to give reasons for everything I say, so you can get a sense of whether or not you agree with the way I see things and whether you’d be interested in tracking the book down and reading it for yourself. I quote from the writers a lot and avoid plot summaries wherever I can: knowing what a novel’s about isn’t the same as knowing what a novel’s like. While most of my annotations are fairly short, I spend more time on books that have more to say about LGBQ issues – and also on books that I found hard to figure out, like Lili Wilkinson’s still-baffling Pink.
Above all, my main aim in these annotations is to acknowledge that the books on this list are novels. Having talked about them as sociological and historical documents, I want to end by talking about their literary qualities – although I’m only looking at their LGBQ elements here, so I won’t always be commenting on the novel as a whole and I won’t necessarily be impressed by fine writing: it’s possible to write well, without writing well about being LGBQ, and vice versa. And last but not least, one of the things that got me through this unexpectedly long project was the lure of comparing my first impressions of each new novel with its reviews on Goodreads. I’m a lurker by temperament, rather than a joiner, so I never posted my own reviews, but you could see these annotations as my thank you letter to Team Goodreads – and to everyone else who’s written about these and other kids’ books with LGBQ characters.
Spoiler warning: Because I’m focusing on the LGBQ elements of these novels, I talk about things that often don’t emerge till late in the novel, so there are spoilers all over the place.
Meredith Badger: Girl V the World – Things I Don’t Know Hardie Grant Egmont, 2012.
Things I Don’t Know, the fourth book in Meredith Badger’s Girl V the World series, is told in the wry, excited voice of a young girl who’s letting the reader look over her shoulder at some of the rites of passage that take place during puberty. It’s a sub-genre that was popularised by Judy Blume in the States and Jacqueline Wilson in the UK, so at first sight this Australian version seems comfortably familiar, but it turns out to be a quietly subversive intervention. When her old friend Anya starts a kissing competition, Leni tries to resist but finds herself kissing her friend Adam, then deciding that “something about it didn’t seem right somehow.” (p 94) Her new friend Jo suggests that she might be feeling uncomfortable about kissing Adam because she likes girls, adding, “You can try on me, if you want. Just as an experiment.” (p 94) For Jo, who has two lesbian mothers, kissing a girl seems like the most sensible way to work out whether you prefer kissing girls: she herself doesn’t but afterwards Leni says, “I can’t stop thinking about it – about how nice it was. And I’m not sure how that makes me feel.” (p 97) She talks, in a suitably roundabout way, to her mother, who tells her, “I’d say don’t worry and don’t rush. But the other important thing is that you don’t forget that other people have feelings too. You have to try not to hurt other people while you’re figuring things out for yourself” (p 114 – 115) – and the rest of the novel focuses on how Leni recalibrates her friendships with Jo (who doesn’t want to kiss her again, to Leni’s regret) and Adam (who Leni doesn’t want to kiss again, to his regret).
But the resolution to the LGBQ theme in Things I Don’t Know has nothing to do with kissing girls. It comes about when Leni tells Anya, “You shouldn’t say gay like that all the time. It makes you sound stupid. There are way better words you could use” (p 148) and her entire friendship group comes up with alternative words for expressing distaste or disapproval – atrocious; appallingly, abominably awful; disgusting; daunting and disconcerting; diabolical; horrible and hideous; heartbreaking – which gives Leni “a happy, content feeling. Like everything truly is going to be okay.” (p 149) Badger doesn’t editorialise but she implicitly makes the point that Leni doesn’t need to resolve the question of whether she likes girls, boys or both on the spot, an open ending that’s just one of the ways in which she reverses current LGBQ tropes.
In general, girls who kiss the main character and then back off tend to be characterised as manipulative, like Evie in Rebecca Burton’s Beyond Evie, or cowardly, like Georgina in Erin Gough’s The Flywheel, but Meredith Badger’s Jo is just not that interested in kissing girls. Characters who use the word gay as a slur are often rebuked in teacherly language – “Stop using that as a put-down. There’s nothing wrong with people being gay” (Six Impossible Things, p 126) – but Leni uses teenspeak (“It makes you sound stupid”) and jokes to deflect Anya. There are some excellent details too, including Leni’s questions about having two mums (“Like, when you yell Mum, who comes?” (p 21)), and there’s a sense of context, as when Leni says, “The only person who I know for sure is gay is a guy in Marcus’s class – and only because he told everyone he was.” (p 20) And above all, Things I Don’t Know is doing some of the most pioneering work on this list. Only two other Australian writers – Susanna van Essen and Morris Gleitzman – have included LGBQ characters in books for upper primary / lower secondary school age kids – and Badger is the first Australian writer for this age group with an LGBQ main character, making her unobtrusively perfect pitch all the more remarkable.
Maria Boyd: Will Random House, 2006.
Maria Boyd, who published this book after seven years of teaching in Sydney boys’ high schools, makes her agenda a shade too clear by setting her title character a school assignment on stereotypes. By the end of the novel, seventeen year old Will has obediently realised that girls can be intelligent and attractive and guys can be popular and unconfident around girls or sports stars and gay. But reverse stereotypes aren’t as far from the original stereotypes as Boyd seems to believe and her novel would be – well, more like a novel, if she had let her readers draw their own conclusions. Fortunately, Will isn’t completely diagrammatic. Mark, the sports star, may come close to being the ideal gay friend, with wise / clear / witty answers to suit every occasion (“Will, I’ve put up with this type of shit since I was fourteen. And believe me, I’ve had a lot worse than your let me out of the car routine” (p 155)), but he also gets angry at Will for failing to support him when he is called a faggot at school and makes Will work hard for his forgiveness. And when Will spends four pages stressing about whether he might be gay himself, he starts by saying, “It’s not like I was homophobic. I’d sussed that out in Pastoral Care last year. I was cool with it” (p 147), after which Boyd makes it entertainingly clear that it’s one thing to be cool with homosexuality in the abstract but another thing to be cool with having a gay friend.
Alyssa Brugman: Alex as Well Text, 2013.
When Alex was little, his parents told him he had to take medication because he was “a bit different to other boys” (p 104) but they didn’t explain the full implications of being intersex. Years later, after being stripped and mocked at his boys’ school, Alex decides to go off the medication, change schools and enroll as a girl. To begin with, she doesn’t know what effect reconceptualising her gender will have on her sexual preference.
It’s like I’m coming out. Except it’s not like coming out, because I’m not gay. Actually, I don’t know whether I’m gay, because I find girls attractive, but when I think about sex, which I do a lot …, it’s the girl bits I find, well, you know. Maybe I am a lesbian. Except that I imagine that I am the girl with the bits. (p 27)
At her new school, however, she falls in love with a girl, tells a guy that “I, umm, I like girls” (p 100), thinks, “I’m a lesbo” (p 110) and makes a pass at a second girl. This might sound like a clear-cut case of a character who identifies as lesbian, except that Brugman depicts Alex-the-narrator as containing another personality, also called Alex but this time unequivocally male. It’s the male Alex who instigates the pass at the second girl, Sierra –
You don’t think it would make her feel good? Thinking someone had a little crush on her? (p 117)
although female Alex cooperates –
‘What the hell, Alex?’ She pushes me away. But I can see gooseflesh running up her arms. (p 118)
The two Alexes can be read in a number of different ways – as a metaphor for being intersex, as representations of the way Alex was and the way she will be or as symptoms of multiple personality disorder. Reading Alex as simultaneously female and male would position the flirtation with Sierra as simultaneously homosexual and heterosexual and when you add in the fact that one of Sierra’s friends tells Alex that Sierra likes her “in that way”, although she’s “not even a … a you know” (p 185), the romance element of Alex as Well starts to look more like the multiple disguises of Twelfth Night than the pre-trans complexities of The Well of Loneliness. (For a trans interpretation of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, see Esther Saxey’s introduction to the Wordsworth edition.) However, it remains true that Alex describes herself as gay, which matches the definition I’m using here, so I’m including the novel on this list – although I should add that there are important aspects of Alex as Well that I haven’t even touched on here, notably Brugman’s definition of intersexuality and her use of unreliable narrators.
J.C. Burke: The Story of Tom Brennan Random House, 2005.
When Tom Brennan’s older brother Daniel drinks and drives, killing two of his classmates and leaving his cousin paraplegic, nobody in his nuclear family can show Tom how to cope. They move to a new town, where his mother becomes severely depressed and takes to her bed; his sister talks about the hostile reaction of their small country hometown in a public speaking class, without getting Tom’s permission; his grandmother constantly invokes Catholic saints and religious practices; and his father avoids the women’s excesses by remaining resolutely non-interventionist. Luckily, there’s an uncanonised saint in Tom’s life – his gay uncle, Brendan, who introduces Tom to the local football team, takes him to visit his brother in prison and models the appropriate way to respond, starts him running and, in general, shows him how to express emotion without going over the top. In a pivotal scene, Brendan channels the whole family’s grief (“Brendan’s tears could have been any of ours” (p 238)), crying to the sound of Elton John’s “Daniel”, on his own but observed by Tom, which leads Tom to the game-changing realisation that “we were all on our own journeys … If I could look at it like that, maybe I could stop myself from falling into the blackness.” (pp 238 – 9) What’s more, Brendan is the only wholly successful embodiment of one of the novel’s central values, putting family first: he and his boyfriend Jonny Tulake, a local footballer who works at Brendan’s tractor repair business, were planning to move to Sydney but stayed in Coghill, where they’re obliged to conceal their relationship from their religious parents, in order to help Tom and his family.
Tom is rewarded in two separate but related ways for modelling himself on Brendan. Firstly, he gets to be Brendan’s climbing partner on a trip to Nepal (Jonny is afraid of flying) and secondly, he embarks on a new relationship, in which he can become “me again. Simple Tom Brennan – no ties, no debt, no guilt, no bad thoughts. Just me, the way I’d always known myself.” (p 261) While this relationship is technically heterosexual, Chrissy is Jonny’s sister, turning Brendan / Jonny and Chrissy / Tom into matched pairs; Tom initially thinks she’s a boy –
The driver’s door was opening. I signalled I’d open the gates and jogged over, but he was already getting out of the car. I mean she! It was Chrissy Tulake. (p 161) –
– and they have sex for the first time at the “secret waterhole” (p 240) that Brendan has shown Tom, confirming that Brendan (who, as Mrs Brennan’s younger brother, is both part and not part of the Brennan family) is also central to the novel’s other main theme, escaping from “the pain of the family”. (p 261)
Brendan’s narrative function as Tom’s guide and the novel’s moral touchstone, not to mention his unfailing perfection, would appear to position The Story of Tom Brennan as the only novel on this list that portrays homosexuality not simply as equal but as superior to heterosexuality. However, I have two contradictory problems with this reading. On one hand, I find perfect characters problematic in general and I specifically doubt the value of idealising LGBQ people (or LGBQ fictional characters), because it looks too like a simple reversal of the still-common practice of dissing LGBQ identities. On the other hand, given that The Story of Tom Brennan won the 2006 Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year: Older Readers award and was added to the NSW HSC Syllabus list, I know that there are lots of teachers’ guides and student presentations online, none of which position Brendan as the moral centre of the novel and many of which barely acknowledge that he’s gay. (In the Random House Teaching Support Kit, for instance, the character description of Brendan avoids the term “gay”, used by J.C. Burke in the novel, instead referring to “his friend Jonny, with whom he is having a relationship” (p 23), and none of its suggested exercises or activities engage in any way with the information Burke gives us about Brendan’s homosexuality.) So, clearly, my sense that Brendan is almost as central to the novel as Tom himself is, in fact, a queer or aberrant reading – and since I can’t read The Story of Tom Brennan in any other way, I can only warn any reader who is googling the book for a school project that this take on the novel is very different from the mainstream view …
Rebecca Burton: Beyond Evie Angus & Robertson, 2010.
Beyond Evie is a mood piece, more like an extended novella than a short novel. There’s no narrative suspense, because we know from the opening lines that Charlotte’s relationship with the charismatic, changeable Evie isn’t going to turn out well.
You, Evie, told me I was beautiful. I thought that meant you liked me, but I was wrong. That’s not what you meant at all. (p 3)
There are no plot twists either, unless you find it surprising that one girl would kiss another to make a point, then kiss her for real, then kiss her naked body in the shower, then kiss her in front of her friends and finally ask to stay the night. It’s a traditional romance progression, accompanied by Charlotte’s traditionally romantic doubts and concerns. Burton doesn’t describe Charlotte’s and Evie’s night together in detail and she never uses the L-word but there’s no question that Beyond Evie is a novel about a lesbian experience.
Afterwards you fell asleep … (p 176)
Next morning, however, Evie makes it clear that she doesn’t see herself as lesbian. “You and me – we were just experimenting … It was just a new experience – something new to try … I’m not like you, Charlotte. I’m just not that into girls.” (p 180 – 181) Charlotte’s feelings go deeper – the book is primarily an account of her grief over the loss of Evie – but she’s not prepared to accept Evie’s judgement on her.
Because you were wrong, that’s the thing. It was you I was into, Evie. Just you. (p 198)
At the same time, Charlotte isn’t defending herself against an unjust accusation, like Rudi in A Candle for St Antony. She’s just saying that when she meets someone else, she has “no idea who that person will be (he? she? who knows? who cares?)” (p 200) – or, in other words, that she’s still questioning, rather than definitely lesbian or bisexual. In the end, Evie’s biggest impact on her life is that, in her direct, inquisitive way, she pushes Charlotte into acknowledging that her father killed himself, which allows Charlotte to start grieving for him – in part, via the medium of grieving for Evie herself.
Charlotte Calder: Settling Storms Lothian, 2000.
Mel’s family moves to Banyan, a small town in the Deep North, for her academic father Dermot’s a new job. As she gets to know the local kids, Mel finds out that Steve, the 17 year old son of the previous owners, killed himself: his bedroom is now hers. Calder draws parallels between Mel’s unhappiness and Steve’s unhappiness – Mel worries that her charismatic actor mother will destroy the family by taking a job in Sydney; Steve turns out to have killed himself because he was secretly gay and his father was a dominating homophobe. But the parallels don’t hold. Mel’s problems are easily solved by her mother explaining that she will always return to Banyan between acting jobs, whereas Steve can’t, by definition, have a happy ending. Calder tries to make his story more upbeat by showing that everyone in Banyan would have been fine about him being gay, apart from his father and his cousin Phoebe, whose resistance is explained by the fact that she had a crush on Steve. Unfortunately, this near-universal acceptance makes Steve’s suicide harder to understand, at best asking the reader to believe that a popular school captain would rather die than confront one of his parents, at worst perpetuating the belief that being gay is in itself a motive for suicide. On the plus side, Steve isn’t the only gay character in the novel. The teen idol in Davina’s soapie is “Seth Jones, nice, uncomplicated – and gay, forced to live a lie to keep his job” (p 160) and the friends Davina stays with in Sydney are a gay male couple, of whom Mel says, “Ever since I was tiny I’ve always adored visiting Ned and his partner Andrew when we’re in Sydney. I love them and I love their terrace with its leaf-framed glimpses of the water.” (p 142)
Margaret Clark: Care Factor Zero Random House, 1997.
To my mind, Care Factor Zero contains the most overtly negative portrayal of LGBQ characters on this list – and I can say that with certainty, because it happened to be one of the last books I read. Larceny, the streetkid main character, meets a lesbian couple, “short and dumpy” Comma and “spike-haired and tough looking” Bex. (p 57) Bex is a “[s]tuck-up butch bitch” (p 76), consistently hostile to Larceny, and her lesbianism is framed as an attempt to shock.
Bex peered at her over Comma’s shoulder and moved her tongue suggestively. Larceny felt like spewing, although she realised that Bex was putting on a show just for her benefit. (pp 79 – 80)
Comma is more amenable but she is too “thick, stupid and stubborn” (p 93) to answer Larceny’s questions about how she knew she was gay. So, although Larceny eventually acknowledges that “part of her wondered what it would be like to have sex with a girl” (p 91), in the narrative’s terms Bex’s hostility and Comma’s inadequacy mean she is entitled to stick to her original assessment of being gay.
“You reckon I’m nuts and you’re having it off with a girl. Now that’s not normal, is it!” (p 76)
Since Larceny’s response is never challenged by any other perspectives, it might sound as if the novel’s main character and its implied author are equally homophobic, so I need to add that Larceny’s encounter with Bex and Comma is part of a progression, during which she’s let down by everyone she meets and every value system she might have believed in. Margaret Clark is effectively grouping lesbian relationships together with heterosexual relationships, families, foster families, therapy, youth work and religion as aspects of life that in theory might have saved Larceny but in practice fail to prevent her suicide. In other words, her negative take on Bex and Comma isn’t specifically targeting lesbians or lesbianism: it’s just one aspect of a more far-reaching negativity. John L. McKenzie asks in his article on representations of youth suicide in Australian young adult fiction, “What is the point of the climactic unraveling of relationships and Larceny’s death? To assert that there is no hope?” and he concludes that “For the unstable adolescent as the implied reader (who like most adolescents is going through the angst of change and is almost by definition unstable), the story is toxic indeed.”
Margaret Clark: No Standing Zone Random House, 1999.
Defending Margaret Clark against John L. McKenzie’s argument that Care Factor Zero sends a purely pessimistic message to unstable adolescents, academic Maureen Nimon wrote:
My impression of the mass of teenage readers is that they are people from relatively secure backgrounds who have had many of the advantages of life … it is not generally the deprived and abused person who prowls among the realism section of the fiction collection. Rather it is the secure and thoughtful who are attracted to the sensational because they are aware of the world around them and use fiction as one means among many to probe it.
Two years later, Clark published a novel that dramatises Nimon’s construction of the world. This time, her protagonist, Link, is a boy from a wealthy family who has to come to terms with living in a disadvantaged western suburb of Sydney after his parents’ divorce. The world of No Standing Zone is framed in terms that are just as sensational as in Care Factor Zero – the kids at Link’s new school use and sell drugs, have babies and regular gang fights, commit armed robberies and talk in phonetics. (“Wooja piss orf outa it?” (Loc 833)) However, homophobic language is equally common at Link’s private boys’ school and his new Westlands school and the only character in the novel who is in fact gay is the father of Link’s best friend at his private school. (“Johnno’s old man was having it off with another guy and his mum found out. Instant screaming divorce … Johnno keeps wandering round muttering, “Me old man’s a poof. What does that make me?”” (Loc 83)) We never learn anything further about Mr Prior and Clark doesn’t draw any connection between Johnno’s self-questioning and the fact that he later takes Link to King’s Cross, where he approaches a prostitute and goes to a peep show. My guess is that Johnno’s situation is intended to illustrate Link’s eventual conclusion that “Bad influences are everywhere, in poor or rich suburbs, and I know it’s up to me to choose good friends.” (Loc 1296)
Kate Constable: Always Mackenzie Allen & Unwin, 2008.
In its low key, unpretentious way, Always Mackenzie breaks more ground than any other Australian kids’ book with an LGBQ main character published in the first fifteen years of the twenty first century. For starters, it’s the only one that foregrounds the development of a relationship between two young adults who come to identify as gay / lesbian by the end of the novel and look as though they’re likely to make a go of it, without compromising any of their core beliefs: functionality is clearly harder to describe than dysfunctionality. At the same time, Constable’s approach is in no sense didactic. Always Mackenzie is a very funny book, not in the current mode of self-deprecating slapstick but with the kind of verbal humour that emerges from a specific context, as when Mackenzie sees Iris Kwong hugging Jasmin Hussan at the end of a school camp bonding exercise and says, “I hope someone gets a photo … What a perfect shot for the cultural diversity section of the school prospectus” (p 17). Over the course of the novel, Mackenzie and the narrator Jem make, break and resume a friendship: the word “lesbian” doesn’t come into play until page 150. In a final groundbreaking move, the two girls then work out where they stand by talking it through together, rather than by acting out or turning on each other, and the book closes on a note that neither enforces nor avoids the “happy ever after” contingency:
We sat, holding hands beneath the stars, and our faces turned to each other, and I wished that the moment could last forever, the moment that held everything in it; when hope multiplied like stars, and anything and everything was possible, before our paths narrowed and divided and carried us away into the future, before any decisions were made or words said that made us into the people we chose to be; before any promises were made or broken; the moment that was already speeding away from us, the moment before we kissed. (p 179)
Always Mackenzie is a classic young adult romance in the sense, identified by May Lam here, of being all about feelings – not just Jem’s feelings for Mackenzie but the way she feels about all the girls in her friendship group, which is destabilised when she starts to get to know Mackenzie. Since the term “romance” is often used as a putdown, I need to add straight away that there’s nothing formulaic about the language or structure of Always Mackenzie. It’s a well-crafted novel, in which every scene serves two or three simultaneous functions and every narrative development is driven by the specificity of Constable’s characters, not by generalised assumptions about human nature, young women or becoming lesbian. For instance, Jem and Mackenzie connect for the first time during a bonding exercise at a school camp where they are the only cynical hold-outs, which not only starts the process of defining them and their relationship and establishes their friendship as something separate from their school life but also sets up a parallel plotline about Mackenzie’s friend Rosie and Jem’s friend Georgia, who actually bond during the bonding exercise. By the end of the novel, Rosie is controlling Georgia so well that she can stage a kiss between them, in response to the “intense, greedy noise” (p 166) of a hotel room full of boys, who then tell Jem and Mackenzie it’s their turn, indirectly prompting the girls’ final discussion and completing an unobtrusively deft ring structure.
After watching too many Charlie Chaplin movies in my childhood, I became allergic to the idea that klutziness is innately adorable, so I loved Jem’s emotional competence. Her Croatian grandfather was shot for refusing to salute the Nazi flag and Jem has always “wondered if I’d do what was right, or just do what everyone else was doing.” (p 33) When Mackenzie asks her to stop Rosie bullying Georgia, Jem says no, then adds, “But I knew I would do something. And I knew Mackenzie knew it too.” (p 119) In the same way as Jem is an unusually competent example of the nerdy narrator, Mackenzie is an unusually realistic example of the desirable golden girl. Constable confronts the class gap between the two girls, comparing Mackenzie to the equally privileged but more entitled Rosie, and she subverts the usual geek/princess tropes. Mackenzie doesn’t have to be broken, in order to become accessible to Jem, and her appreciation of Jem is grounded in the events of the novel: she’s not a Judd Apatow movie reward for being a nerd.
One way and another, Constable seems to tick all the boxes, including the current requests from academics and reviewers to avoid coming out narratives: Jem and Mackenzie, of course, won’t be faced with any of the issues around coming out until after the novel has ended. So why aren’t more people talking about Always Mackenzie, especially given the current focus on diversity? Has its publishing status, as book 4 in the already-extensive Girlfriend Fiction series, caused the gatekeepers of Australian children’s literature to write it off in advance? Or are the twenty first century gatekeepers not yet ready for a book in which an LGBQ main character forms a same-sex connection (unlike Losing It) that will last beyond the end of the book (unlike About a Girl, Posse, Pink or The Boy’s Own Manual to Being a Proper Jew), without going against some of their basic principles (The Flywheel), having a breakdown (Obsession, The Last of the Braves) or sharing the narrative focus with other non-LGBQ main characters (A Charm of Powerful Trouble, Screw Loose)?
Michelle Cooper: The Rage of Sheep, Random House, 2007.
For most of this novel, homosexuality – or, rather, homophobia – is just part of the background noise for Hester Jones, a fifteen year old girl who is Indian-Australian, more interested in maths than boys and, as a result, an all-round misfit in her 1980s country town. But when her English teacher, Mr Everett, tries to protect Hester from a would-be boyfriend (who has a complex backstory of his own), another teacher misinterprets him as molesting the boy and he resigns in protest. The two plotlines are explicitly connected: in defending Mr Everett against the rumours going round the school, Hester works out how to defend herself and later on she is able to free herself from her dependence on her sheep-like schoolfriends by working in the music shop that Mr Everett sets up with his boyfriend, a local DJ. There are also indications that one of the school sporting heroes is gay but, in keeping with the novel’s low key realism, Hester never finds out for sure. And along with Melissa Lucashenko and Fiona Wood, Cooper is one of the few Australian children’s writers who acknowledge the existence of homosexuality in all of their novels to date: there is an ongoing relationship between two of the main male characters in her historical series The Montmaray Journals.
Verity Croker: May Day Mine Harmony Ink Press, 2015.
Verity Croker’s main character Jodi tells us early on that “I liked boys a lot, but sometimes I found myself looking at girls too” (Kindle Loc 320) and the novel accordingly focuses first on her unsuccessful relationship with Finbar, who secretly starts seeing her best friend, and later on her wildly successful relationship with Dana. At first Jodi thinks “now I might never know what it was like to be with a guy, but maybe that didn’t matter” (Loc 1716) but in the final lines, she intimates that there will be other Finbars and “Dana won’t mind. She understands. Dana understands everything about me.” (Loc 2099) May Day Mine is written by a Tasmanian but published by an American online press specialising in teen and new adult fiction across the LGBTQ+ spectrum and the influence of the Naiad Press model of lesbian fiction can be felt in the descriptions of Dana (“Her long brown hair shines, swinging in the sun, and her dark eyes sparkle when she looks at me” (Loc 30)) and Jodi’s feelings for Dana (“Being with Dana fulfilled me. She was all I needed.” (Loc 1903)) On the other hand, because May Day Mine doesn’t follow the traditional YA methods of representing LGBQ characters, Croker deals with some everyday aspects of being an LGBQ teen that are touched on by few other writers on this list – fooling around with a same-sex friend; coming out by holding hands on a family picnic or kissing at a party; parents who know their kids are gay without being told.
“Is Dana a … lesbian?” (Loc 1801)
And although the biographical note starts, “Verity Croker knows what it is like to live in a small town”, the mining town in which Jodi and Dana lives contains none of the homophobic violence and / or bullying that has become common in Australian young adult fiction with LGBQ characters.
Christopher Currie: Clancy of the Undertow Text, 2015.
In the abstract, Clancy of the Undertow might sound like Australian Gothic, in the manner of Sonia Hartnett. Clancy is a self-described emotionally-challenged bogan, in love with Sasha, the unattainable girlfriend of a guy whose family has lived in their country town since it was first settled. Clancy’s father may be responsible for the deaths of two of the most promising young people in Barwen; her brother dropped out of university to hunt for the mythical Beast of Barwen; her closest friends are an eccentric security guard and a girl whose bubbly personality turns out to be a cover for her own family traumas.
Unfortunately, Christopher Currie guards against the potential for melodrama by taking a resolutely anti-climactic approach to his narrative. When the unattainable Sasha takes up with Clancy for no given reason, at the point where her father’s reputation is at an all-time low, I was sure Sasha had to be playing a trick like the one her classmates play on Stephen King’s Carrie – but in fact, Sasha just hangs out with Clancy till Clancy kisses her, after which she drops Clancy again. At this stage, it looks as though Clancy may become a target for small-town homophobia – but in fact, her brother explains that Sasha’s boyfriend has become the town’s new scapegoat, which means no one will believe what Sasha says about Clancy. I was also convinced that Clancy’s new friend Nancy was a lesbian, yearning for Clancy while Clancy yearns for Sasha – but in fact, Nancy’s secret is that her father walked out a few years earlier. What’s more, Clancy’s father isn’t responsible for the young couple’s accident, her brother may have sighted the Beast but fails to take a photo of it and, most disappointing of all, Currie doesn’t make any use of his title’s reference to A.B. Patterson’s homoerotic poem “Clancy of the Overflow”: neither Clancy nor Sasha have any resemblance to Patterson’s romanticised drover Clancy or to the city office worker who dreams about him. (“In my wild erratic fancy visions come to me of Clancy …”)
There are some good lines in Clancy of the Undertow – for instance, Sasha “stands out, like a vampire in a wheatfield” (Loc 124) – and Clancy has some poignantly unrealistic fantasies about her future with Sasha and some wryly comic thoughts about her present situation.
This is the word I always use with myself. Interested. As if that stuff – gender orientation, whatever – is something to be coolly appreciated. As if I’m casting an eye over an interesting building or walking, detached but aware, through an art gallery. I can’t even tell myself who I am. (Loc 1486)
However, Clancy’s family story never really dovetails with the story of her love for Sasha and her narrative voice never seems striking enough to justify her brother’s belief that “You’re going to be out there doing something amazing while the rest of us are still stuck in our crappy hometowns trying to figure out what we’re doing with our lives.” (Loc 2427)
Nick Earls: 48 Shades of Brown Penguin, 1999.
When Dan’s parents go to Geneva, he moves in with his aunt Jacq and her housemate Naomi. Jacq is a generation younger than Dan’s mother, has hair “Like a handsome young man” (p 9) and plays bass in an all-women band but, since Dan is even younger and very naive, it doesn’t occur to him until Jacq tells him on page 221 that they are both in love with Naomi – although, to be fair, Jacq is still in the process of deciding that she’s lesbian. Earls tracks the consequences with his characteristic wry humour. Dan tells Jacq that it’s fine by him but realises that “To find dozens of ways of saying it’s not a big deal … could make it seem like a big deal” (p 229) and then reassesses his reaction later, instead of assuming he’d got it right first time. Their competition over Naomi is negotiated with good humour and ends with both of them deciding to focus on more accessible women. In Jacq’s case, this means getting together with the other lesbian in the novel, who excited Dan’s school friend Burns by kissing her soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend at a party: even before Jacq comes out to him, Dan has indicated that he is becoming less naïve by finding Burns’s reaction a bit juvenile.
Hazel Edwards and Ryan Kennedy: f2m: the boy within Ford Street, 2012.
At the start of f2m, the main character is still living as a girl called Skye but already knows that he wants to be a boy called Finn. He makes it clear that “Having sex just doesn’t seem part of my world at the moment” (p 198) but by the end of the novel he is relishing his brother’s offer to help him become a chick magnet and thinking, “I could even give Bren a call …” (p 218), which indicates that he’s starting to see himself as heterosexual. His friend Marla, on the other hand, is a lesbian girl-band groupie with an erl piercing, protest t-shirts and strong opinions about everything. Her initial reaction to Finn’s announcement that he is transitioning is to walk out and write on her blog,
… someone you loved and respected as an independent, creative woman goes and says they want to become a man. It might be very convenient to collect all the perks of being male, but it’s just a cop-out, leaving your sisters behind in their struggle.” (p 96)
Finn disagrees but can still say, “Nice to read that Marla loved and respected me. She would never say that sort of thing to my face” (p 96) and they both keep working at their combative friendship. Marla removes “all-girl” from the punk band’s drums, to make it possible for Finn to keep playing with them, and Finn asks Marla to go to the hospital with him for his first testosterone shots, although at the same time Marla continues to have reservations about Finn’s transition (“But don’t you miss Skye?” (p 221)) and Finn continues to get annoyed every time Marla goes over the top – for instance, burning his bras after his breast surgery, when he actually needs to wear them for a few weeks longer. The two of them make an appealing odd couple – although, having used the word “couple”, I need to add that there’s absolutely no unresolved sexual tension between them.
None of the other trans and intersex characters Finn meets or hears about in the course of the novel are in same-sex relationships but his therapist Greer Knight is a lesbian who “advocated for transgender women to be allowed into women-only spaces” (p 126) and then made it the focus of her work. Finn is initially put off by her short hair, string tie and vest but in the long term he finds her helpful, especially when his parents see her talking about her work on TV, which gives them some useful ways of talking to and about Finn.
Susanna van Essen: The Tiger Project Pan, 2003.
Bella, the main character in The Tiger Project, is a combination of worldly and innocent. One minute she is identifying her elderly neighbour as a lesbian, on the basis that Olive Peeves has never married and thinks men are “always full of their own importance” (p 34). Next minute she is startled when her friend Sylvie, a fat girl with 13 ear studs, tells her (with encouragement from Ms Peeves) that she is in love with Innis, a girl in the year above theirs at school. After this essentialist beginning, however, Sylvie’s story focuses on the way love makes her unable even to speak to Innis, rather than on any issues specifically related to sexual preference. On the other hand, Ms Peeves’ story arc remains relatively stereotypical, following the trajectory for unconventional old women established in works like the movie Harold and Maude. Still, Ms Peeves does get to deliver a stirring denunciation of the “gay gene” theory, as part of the scientific investigations that occupy the novel’s foreground, and van Essen gives us one of the very few LGBQ characters in Australian children’s fiction so far who are past retirement age. (The others can be found in Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli’s Love You Two.)
Susanna van Essen: A Trick of the Light Pan, 2004.
Josie Green’s parents are a gay couple, both called Dave, her birth mother being the sister of one of the Daves. Susanna van Essen plays the situation for laughs, creating a world in which Josie’s family set up is a given, rather than an opportunity for angst. The nearest approach to outside criticism comes from her friend Rasmiya, who says of the Daves that “They love you to bits, which is nice and all that, but they don’t encourage you to be normal. They don’t nag you enough in general and in particular they don’t advise you on how to improve your appearance.” (p 55) The down side is that van Essen doesn’t take the comic possibilities of gay fatherhood any further than the Daves’ names: most of the jokes about them are about their New Age tendencies, rather than their gayness. But although the Daves remain one-dimensional, the constant, loving and uncomplicated presence of two gay adults is still an unusual dimension to find in a book for kids.
Archimede Fusillo: The Last of the Braves Penguin, 2009.
Alessandro’s relationship with Cesare has its problems. His Nonno Tino disapproves – “”And you want me to say I am happy that you, my grandson, love another man?” (p 83) – and at school the two boys need protection from Alex’s old friend Ricky – “Alex knew too that it was the unspoken nod from Ricky Gonzales that kept things steady around the school as far as his relationship with Ces was concerned.” (p 25) Alex’s main problem, however, is that his mother is dying and that he’s convinced he has inherited her obsession with the gay artist Caravaggio, a conviction that triggers a violent rampage during which he attacks anyone who criticises his own painting.
According to a current meme, succinctly expressed by Luise Toma in her review of The Last of the Braves on mc reviews: culture and the media, “This is a good thing: a novel about a gay teen, yet not a novel about being a gay teen”. From my point of view, however, to see Fusillo’s novel as fashionably post-gay would be to ignore its most original aspect. There are lots of young adult novels in which violence is a key issue and/or the main character is possessed, in one way or another, by someone from the past but I can’t think of any other novel for young adults that has pushed the traditional homoerotic relationship between hero and sidekick to its limits. Ces doesn’t even come close to sharing Alex’s obsessions –
‘No, I don’t follow. Sorry, Al, but I don’t follow. And you know what? I don’t think you do either, not really’ (p 64)
– and he basically wishes Alex would settle down and paint enough skateboards for them to buy a motor bike. But he still follows Alex as loyally as Sam follows Frodo into Mordor and Sancho Panza enables Don Quixote’s delusions – or even more loyally, given that Ces’s loyalty brings about his death. I accept that for Fusillo, the life of Caravaggio was “the spark for the novel” (p 234), as he says in his Author’s Note, but for myself, I would have loved to see less Caravaggio and more Ces.
NB: In the context of Australian YA reinterpretations of the hero and his sidekick, I can’t resist mentioning the short story “The Most Unforgettable Character I Have Ever Met” in Nadia Wheatley’s collection The Night Tolkien Died, which not only contains a conference paper on “The Homosexual Couple in Children’s Literature” – Tom Brown and George Arthur; Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer; Pooh and Piglet; Ratty and Mole – but a brilliant potted history of the changes brought about by the Gay Liberation movement. Warning: you may cry.
Scot Gardner: White Ute Dreaming Pan, 2002.
Scot Gardner uses two separate but equally effective strategies to convey the full impact of the moment when Den tells Wayne that he is gay. By that time, the boys have been best mates for most of Gardner’s two novels about Wayne, One Dead Seagull and White Ute Dreaming, so Den’s announcement comes as a surprise to the reader, as well as to Wayne – but not too much of a surprise, because Gardner has deftly foreshadowed it in an earlier subplot where a secret admirer sends Wayne sexy notes delivered by a younger boy, leading Wayne to wonder briefly whether his admirer is male. Den’s coming out is in keeping with the rest of their friendship – a semi-accidental comment, while the two of them are getting drunk together in a tent out in the bush (“What are the chicks like at school?” “Yeah, gorgeous. Some real honeys. Some real dogs. I wouldn’t know. I’m gay.” (p 181)). Wayne’s response includes fury, disbelief and betrayal (“All those years of talking about girls and sleeping in the same room. Shit, I’d even slept in the same bed.” (p 183)), followed by an attack of night terror that sends him crawling back into the tent where Den is sleeping and the discovery, when a feral neighbour shoots his dog, that Den is still one of the people he relies on. There’s an odd postscript, in which Kerry, Den’s sister and Wayne’s girlfriend, rebukes him for the way he reacted to Den’s announcement and Wayne sulks but accepts the rebuke. (“I hung my head. Yes Mum, I’m a bastard, Mum.” (p 201)) However, Gardner also makes it clear that Den wasn’t able to talk to sensitive, sympathetic Kerry in the way he talked to Wayne, so the novel still ranks Wayne’s honesty higher than Kerry’s disapproval of his use of the word “poofter”.
Scot Gardner: The Other Madonna Pan, 2003.
Madonna is falling for Jiff, traumatised by a sexually exploitative ex-boyfriend, befriending a feral boy and apparently performing literal miracles, as well as responding to the equally complicated situations of her friends and family. Among them are two LGBQ characters – Madonna’s best friend Colin and her sister Evie, who reveals that she’s involved with her boss Bianca, and. Evie has a story arc of her own – Bianca eventually goes back to her husband – but the narrative momentum means that Gardner can’t give as much time to the effect of Evie’s coming out on Madonna as he did to Den’s coming out in White Ute Dreaming. And Colin gets a great introduction, playing with the reader’s expectation that the significant guy in a girl’s story will be her boyfriend, but after that he becomes a conduit for good advice and Madonna’s reason for assuming that Jiff is gay: in other words, a stereotypical Gay Best Friend. One way and another, there’s too much going on in this book, which means that its potentially interesting characters and situations are never developed.
Eli Glasman: The Boy’s Own Manual to Being a Proper Jew Sleepers, 2015.
Yossi Speilman, the son of a rabbi in the relatively hardline Lubavitch sect of Judaism, thinks of himself as both deeply religious and ineradicably gay and although these two self-descriptions seem incompatible, he wants to find a way to reconcile them. As the title indicates, Eli Glasman is more concerned to investigate what it means to be “a proper Jew” than what it means to be gay. Yossi has already decided he’s gay before the novel begins; he lives in a sex-segregated community but he’s only attracted to a sexy newcomer, Josh; and the sensual aspect of his gayness is described in the language of advertising or sex education texts – he admires Josh’s “surprisingly well-toned bicep” (p 43) and when they sleep together, “We went under the blankets and it was only once they were over me that I started to get an erection.” (p 113) Josh himself seems more like a mirror image of Yossi than a fully realised boyfriend – bold and experienced and worldly, where Yossi is anxious and inexperienced and sheltered – which may explain why Yossi no longer needs Josh after he boldly comes out at a Seder organised by one of his school friends. (Although I’m guessing here: Glasman simply writes Josh out in the last chapter, when Yossi says without warning, “Josh and I never went to bed together again, but we stayed good friends.” (p 173))
Since the main narrative function of Yossi’s gayness is as a test case for Lubavitch Judaism, I was expecting Glasman to follow the standard debating pattern of describing the status quo, considering the case against it and ending either with a synthesis or with a new definition of the place of LGBQ people and issues within Judaism. However, although he glosses some terms for non-Jewish readers (“A Seder was a large meal we held on the Jewish holiday of Passover” (p 32)), Glasman doesn’t get round to summarising the orthodox Lubavitch position on homosexuality until the second last chapter of the novel, after Yossi has already come out to the Lubavitch community. In fact, the novel turns out to be more concerned with the social aspect of religion than its doctrinal or spiritual aspects. One of the first things Yossi tells us is:
I’d lived in this house my entire life. I belonged here. My place was amongst other Jews, keeping alive traditions that were centuries old. I couldn’t imagine a life where one day bled into the next with nothing more to punctuate existence but payday and a piss-up on the weekend. A life with no God, no holy days, no prayers, no significance to food or clothing. (p 3)
Unlike the gay rabbi whom he admires but also pities – “I was secretly jealous of Pinchas and all those men for being so open and comfortable with who they were. But was it worth losing your family for?” (p 90) – Yossi remains committed to his community and the novel ends with him feeling happy because he’s just found out that his father has consulted a website for parents of gay kids. It’s a small sign of progress, in absolute terms, but it’s a lot more than Yossi has expected (and, indeed, received) from the family and community that he refuses to give up on. At a time when Australian children’s writers are increasingly locating homophobia in schools, The Boy’s Own Manual to Being a Proper Jew is a salutary reminder that the homophobia faced by some LGBQ kids comes from people who love them and people they love.
Morris Gleitzman: Two Weeks with the Queen Pan, 1990.
I think it’s safe to say that only Morris Gleitzman, having decided to write about the imminent death of his main character’s younger brother, would then decide the best approach would be to introduce a gay man whose lover is dying of AIDS-related cancer. While twelve year old Colin is trying to find a top cancer doctor to cure his brother, he meets Ted at the hospital and from then on, each story enhances the other. On one hand, the homophobia directed at Ted and Griff is an ugly reflection of the well-meaning attempts by Colin’s parents to shield him from Luke’s death. On the other hand, when Colin helps Ted to keep visiting Griff in hospital, he is helping himself as well: after he has seen Griff “lying still in the bed” (p 123), he can return to Australia knowing exactly what he is taking on. Gleitzman alternately sidesteps stereotypes, confronts them head on (“[Colin] knew that men sometimes fell in love with each other and that it was called being gay. The idea had never worried him that much” (p 107)) and subverts them, culminating in the moment when, as Ted walks out of the story, a bystander says, “Bloody queen” and Colin (who has been writing to the Queen of England about Luke) says, “He’s not … but he should be.” (p 132) Gleitzman’s jokes are as good as his sexual politics and Two Weeks with the Queen is one of those rare books that are simultaneously heartwarming and thought provoking.
Kate Gordon: Writing Clementine Allen & Unwin, 2014.
In the course of Writing Clementine, Clementine Darcy moves from hanging out with her weight-obsessed and boyfriend-obsessed friends Chelsea-Grace and Cleo to hanging out with the kids from the local steampunk society, a process that involves resisting the pressure to behave like everyone else and having the courage to be herself. One of the markers of the change she goes through is that the steampunk group includes Liam Wu and Joshua Phillips, of whom Clementine says, “It only took me a second to realise they were together. And very much in love.” (Kindle Loc 1380) On their first appearance, Kate Gordon describes them in detail –
Liam and Joshua couldn’t be more different but bizarrely, they seem perfect for each other. (Kindle Loc 1374)
However, Liam and Joshua don’t have a story arc of their own and they don’t play any further part in Clementine’s story, although she does later “get stuck into the jocks for using ‘gay’ as a derogatory term”, at which point “Chelsea-Grace was anxious until she realised the boys thought I was being funny.” (Kindle Loc 1999)
Erin Gough: The Flywheel Hardie Grant Egmont, 2015.
More than halfway through The Flywheel Erin Gough’s narrator, Delilah Woolwich-Green, reveals that she has withheld some game-changing information. Having initially told us that she was targeted by homophobic bullies at school because of her “unlikely friendship” with Georgina, one of the suggestively named “pink clutch purse” girls, Del belatedly acknowledges, 110 pages later, that their “unlikely friendship” was in fact a sexual relationship. At this point, I assumed Gough was directing me to mistrust everything else Del had said but on closer examination she didn’t seem to have positioned Del as an unreliable narrator in any other way. I roadtested a few hypotheses – for instance, was Gough trying to circumvent the current critical disapproval of coming out narratives by telling Del’s coming out story backwards and in fragments? – but in the end I had to stop trying to make sense of this aspect of the novel and focus on the rest of what Gough was telling me about Del.
So, okay, Del is a classically misunderstood and isolated modernist hero from the Holden Caulfield mould – physically attacked by homophobic bullies on the novel’s second page; abandoned by both her divorced parents and, eventually, all her friends; obliged to leave school and run her father’s cafe on her own; giving her heart to two women who “turn on me the minute others find out we’re together” (p 208); and hiding her pain behind wisecracks. Because Gough takes the minimalist approach, Del’s emotions are mostly outsourced to other characters, most notably to her girlfriend Rosa and her straight guy friend Charlie. We see Rosa openly worrying about her relationships with her Spanish-Australian family, whereas Del expresses her dissatisfaction with her parents through jokes. (“Dad sent me to karate lessons to help me ‘release’ some of my rage about [her mother] June leaving, in a healthy, non-confrontational way (as he put it).” (p 61)) We see Charlie moving from girl to girl and breaking an older man’s nose in a fit of anger but Gough’s games with chronology obscure the fact that Del either moves equally quickly from Georgina to Rosa or fancies both of them at once and we only know that Del is angry all the time because one of the minor characters tells her she is. And any reservations Del may have about being publicly lesbian are projected onto her girlfriends – Georgina, who retreats into the security of the pink clutch purse girls, and Rosa, who goes through two inspiring incarnations as a hot flamenco dancer and a passionate activist organising a campaign to save the local library but then morphs into a conflicted Spanish-Australian who says, “I shouldn’t care so much what my family thinks, but I don’t want to hurt them, I guess.” (p 246)
The Flywheel’s narrative constantly changes direction – from Del’s love life to her parents, Charlie, two school friends, a teacher and the regulars at the Flywheel, the café she’s running in her father’s absence and trying to save from a “run-of-the-mill competitive slimeball” (p 87) who has opened a franchise café down the road – but the focus never moves away from Del for too long. The café is ostensibly named after a Groucho Marx character but Wikipedia tells me that one of the main functions of a flywheel is “providing continuous energy when the energy source is discontinuous” and throughout the narrative fluctuations of Gough’s novel, the vision of Del as a romantic loner plays a similar role.
Del lives in a world where the only ongoing collective discourse around sexual diversity is homophobia. The pink clutch purse girls who rally to Georgina’s defence have a “fast-growing crowd” of allies, including the netball team’s wing attack and a boy from Del’s Maths class, all of whom instinctively know how to perform homophobia, but Del never tries to enlist support from her friends or her teachers and she has no access to any of the strategies for resisting homophobia developed in the half century since Stonewall. In the second last chapter, she is still being verbally abused and telling us that “I resign myself to the fact that this won’t be my last encounter with the oval-side girls [Georgina’s defenders]” (p 300): the only solution available to her within the novel is the prospect that counselling sessions will help her to control her anger at the homophobes. While society in general has been changing, The Flywheel makes it painfully clear that there are still kids whom the changes have barely touched – even in the gay capital of Australia, let alone its back blocks.
Nicole Hayes: One True Thing Random House, 2015.
The central theme of One True Thing is coming to terms with other people’s secrets. The biggest secret concerns Frankie’s mother, who is currently campaigning to become premier of Victoria, but Frankie’s lesbian best friend Kessie has a secret too and the two stories illuminate each other. In a context where the paparazzi are eager to tell the world about Frankie’s mother’s private life, coming out to some of the kids at school looks comparatively easy – and indeed the first time we meet Kessie is when one of the boys at school calls her a “fucking lesbian”, she replies, ‘Why thank you. Kind of you to notice’ and “everyone around her laughs on cue, just like she knew they would.” ((p 20). Kessie wears Ellen Page badges and fights for multiple causes, from women’s rights to clean water, and her actual secret is a personal matter. She has fallen for Tyler, the drummer in their band, who poses a much greater threat to her friendship with Frankie than the “gorgeous and vacuous” girls (p 24) whom Kessie has previously gone out with, and as a result she is reluctant to tell Frankie about her relationship with Tyler. Kessie and Frankie have to do some serious work in order to hold onto their friendship, a process that parallels the work that Frankie’s family find they need to do after a secret from her mother’s past is made public. Hayes says in her acknowledgements that “the idea for this novel was fuelled by my frustration with the treatment of women in public life” (p 384), which in 2015 (the year One True Thing was published) still inevitably evoked the Julia Gillard story, and Gillard’s publicly lesbian Finance Minister Penny Wong may have indirectly influenced Hayes’s decision to write about a young lesbian who is uncompromisingly out and actively contributes to the main narrative. Oh, and Kessie describes the lone guy in the girls’ band as “an emo of wavering sexuality” and Frankie says, “I’m not entirely sure that Van is straight. I suspect he’s not entirely sure, either.” (p 39)
Sue Hines: Out of the Shadows Random House, 1998.
Out of the Shadows has a complicated backstory. After Rowanna’s mother invites her friend Deb to live with them, some local boys inform Rowanna that Deb and her mother are lesbians and Rowanna not only broods and lashes out but also runs away and lives on the streets. Then, when she returns home with a high fever, she tells her mother she’d love some ice cream and on her way to the all-night supermarket her mother is killed by a drunk driver. In the present time of the novel, Rowanna, now living with Deb, is targeted by Selina, a homophobic mean girl, until Selina is distracted by the arrival of Jodie, who is trying to come to terms with her own lesbianism. At her previous school, Jodie had started a relationship with Kristy, who wasn’t affected by the resulting homophobia in the way Jodie was.
Ironically, the one person who could’ve helped me was the one I pushed away. I wouldn’t talk to Kirsty. Wouldn’t even look at her, because she was the one who’d forced me to face reality. (p 52)
Becoming friends gradually enables Jodie and Ro to decide that they “had allowed other people’s ideas to sway [them] for long enough … Stuff the people who were blind to everything outside their own narrow world, who thought love was only legitimate if it followed a certain prescribed pattern.” (p 195) As a result, Ro resolves any residual problems with Deb and confirms her friendships with Jodie and Mark, a model straight guy (“Plenty of adults could learn a lesson from a sixteen-year-old kid like Mark” (p 212)) who befriends Ro and fancies Jodie. Less transformatively, Jodie accepts that Ro can only be her friend, not her girlfriend, and recognises that at some point in the future she may have to come out to her socialite mother and psychiatrist father.
Hines’s over the top plot is matched by over the top language, which turns everything into emotive abstractions: when Ro finds out that Deb is lesbian, for instance, she says, “The new worlds that had opened up for me – the colour, the excitement, the fun – were all destroyed by an overwhelming hatred …” (p 152) Ro’s and Jodie’s voices are disconcertingly similar and they’re both committed to telling, rather than showing, so the novel swings from accounts of their pain to endorsements of what Hines and her characters see as the right line. When critics and reviewers complain about problem / issue novels or books that are overtly about being an LGBQ teen, I assume this is the kind of book they’re targeting and yet, despite its technical flaws, the main impression that Out of the Shadows left on me was its overwhelmingly good-heartedness. Hines is motivated by a desire for gay kids and kids with gay parents to feel better about themselves, a motivation that’s hard to argue against, and her version of the right line goes further than the average.
In this novel, for instance, the homophobic bullying is done by specific individuals with specific histories and personalities, which allows Ro and Jodie to develop specific strategies for dealing with them, and while both girls initially come close to being crushed by the bullies, the presence of Kristy and Deb on the sidelines reminds us that it’s not mandatory to be destroyed by homophobia. The many instances of homophobia in the novel are also counterbalanced by a sense of gay pride when Deb takes Ro, Jodie and Mark to a Sydney cafe, where they see two women holding hands, talk with a gay man and learn that “there would always be a supportive gay community – a community which has great strength in its unity, even from its place on the fringes of mainstream society”. (p 210) That’s a rhetorical strategy, rather than a lived reality for Jodie, but there’s a lot of highflown rhetoric in the world: it’s nice to see some of it directed towards LGBQ kids and issues, for a change.
Sue Hines: The Plunketts Random House, 2000.
On the Centre for Youth Literature blog Inside a Dog, Will Kostakis talks about readers’ reactions to Sticks, the best friend of the main character in his novel The First Third, who is gay and has cerebral palsy, saying:
it makes me a little sad when, every so often, after I ask people why they like Sticks, they say it’s because he isn’t “over-the-top”. I interpret this as, he isn’t camp. That’s true. He’s subdued to survive. He makes no secret of his sexuality, but he doesn’t feel comfortable talking about some things with his straight best friend. Celebrating Sticks because he isn’t “over-the-top” or camp is being comfortable with representing only a certain level of homosexuality.
Sadly, most of the books on this list confirm Kostakis’s experience. There are only three flamboyantly camp characters – the Polynesian Princess in Melissa Lucashenko’s Hard Yards, a javelin and discus thrower who wears purple mascara and nail polish (but only makes a brief appearance); Miles in Lili Wilkinson’s Pink (whose campness is denounced at length by another gay character in the novel); and Craig in Sue Hines’s The Plunketts, the longterm partner of the main character’s uncle, who “had a very successful and exclusive dressmaking business, producing dramatic stage outfits for several well-known performers. Specialising in outrageous, hellishly expensive outfits he designed himself, he was very popular with drag queens, as well as a number of high-flying society ladies.” (p 80)
Hines introduces the Plunketts as a comically chaotic family, along the lines of Helen Cresswell’s Bagthorpes: “For some reason, debacles in the Plunkett household were regular phenomena.” (p 7) In this context, Craig’s drag act as Chrissy Gift is just part of the general mayhem catalogued by the main character, Bernadette or Bernie.
There was nothing girlish about Uncle Craig. He stood over two metres tall in his high heels, and his broad chest and muscular shoulders looked ridiculous in the strappy little fuchsia frock he was wearing. Bernie noted that he had fantastic legs, through his silky stockings. (p 34)
As the novel continues, however, its tone gets darker. Bernie’s grandmother’s eccentricity turns out to be the result of Alzheimer’s Disease and she dies three quarters of the way through the book. Greg, Bernie’s conservative father, loses his company Plunkett Technologies and attempts suicide. Bernie’s parents almost split up and then decide to move to the country, to escape the digital apocalypse that Greg now fears. This transition from comic debacles to tragic debacles is stage-managed by Uncle Craig and Uncle Paul, the only characters who fit into the zany first half of the novel and the sombre second half without going through major changes. As Bernie becomes more aware of her gran’s decline and her dad’s desperation, she also becomes more aware of the homophobia directed at Craig and Paul – for instance, when she overhears her mother telling her father that “you only hate Craig because he forces you to admit your brother’s queer too.” (p 79). At the same time, the uncles are the ones who hold the family together, stepping in and looking after Gran and Bernie when her father takes her mother to America on a business trip. By the end of the novel, Craig’s camp resilience has turned him into its moral arbiter: we know that Bernie’s father is back on track when Bernie tells her friend Josh that “Craig was one of the first to take Dad up on the invitation to get away from the rat-race.” (p 201)
Joanne Horniman: Sand Monkeys Omnibus, 1992.
In Joanne Horniman’s first novel, sixteen year old Max and his parents have just moved into “two houses, side by side. One house is a children’s house, and the other is an adult house.” (p 1) At one point Emma, who lives in the children’s house, gets drunk for the first time with “her first real female friend” Olivia and thinks, ”It would be so easy to reach out and touch Olivia’s hair, or cheek, or kiss her on the mouth.” (p 102) Back home, she tells Max,
“You think I’m making it up. Why else would I want to kiss her on the mouth? I need to pee. And I want some water.” (p 103)
Max himself is also questioning. He says to Olivia,
“Oh, we kissed. A proper kiss, on the mouth: it sort of went on for a while. And after a bit I said, ‘This doing anything for you?’ And he said, ‘What about you?’ ‘Not really.’ We went on being friends, same as before. He found a girlfriend for a while, but it didn’t last.” (pp 66 – 67)
It’s a minor aspect of a novel that’s fundamentally more concerned with family relationships than romantic or sexual relationships but it will ring some gentle bells for anyone who experiences sexual preference as gradually developing and individually shaped, rather than as genetically coded and instantly recognisable.
Joanne Horniman: A Charm of Powerful Trouble Allen & Unwin, 2002.
Most of the books on this list start by placing their main characters in various kinds of social contexts – gender, race and class; what their parents do; how they get on at school and so on – but the context for A Charm of Powerful Trouble is primarily sensuous. The novel is sustained by its lush descriptions of the rainforest setting and the characters’ intense emotions. The names of Laura, the first person narrator, and her sister Lizzie come from Christina Rossetti’s homoerotic poem, Goblin Market, where Rossetti’s Lizzie saves her sister by telling Laura to
Laura, make much of me …
There is a similar exchange between Horniman’s Laura and Lizzie, although in this story neither is rescuing the other. Laura says:
When I was twelve, we’d lie on the bed together, our legs intertwined, and talk all afternoon. We’d pass food into each other’s mouths like a mother bird with her young. That didn’t seem revolting to us, but natural, part of our intimacy. For a while it seemed that there was nothing we couldn’t say to each other. (p 5)
Men aren’t excluded from this “charmed life” (p 3) – both Lizzie and their mother have heterosexual relationships – but within the womancentric world of the novel, it’s easy for Laura to acknowledge her lesbianism. After her first kiss, the other girl calls her horrible and dirty but Laura thinks unrepentantly, “”I didn’t feel horrible, or dirty from what I had done. I felt wonderful. / I was thirteen. My life, which I had feared would be ordinary, had proved to be full of wonders …” (p 97) She moves seamlessly from dreaming about “girls with bare brown arms and midriffs and flirtatious smiles” – although “Of course I told no one of this and I kept apart from the girls at school. There were girls there who would thump you if they didn’t like your hairstyle” (p 117) – through to falling in love with Catherine, the holiday visitor she kisses at seventeen and finds again years later. As the narrator, Laura spends more time telling her mother’s and sister’s stories than her own, an accurate, if depressing, comment on what it means to be a lesbian writer in the early twenty first century. But despite its comparative brevity, her story moves beyond defending, justifying or explaining into relatively new territory, where it’s possible to actively celebrate same-sex relationships.
Joanne Horniman: My Candlelight Novel Allen & Unwin, 2008.
Joanne Horniman is one of those novelists who often remix similar elements. (That’s not a criticism, by the way. Diana Wynne Jones, another of those novelists, points out that “Painters are allowed to portray the same haystack a hundred times, or the same lily pond, or whatever.”) Like A Charm of Powerful Trouble, My Candlelight Novel is about a mother and two daughters, one lesbian and one straight, although this time the mother is dead and it’s the straight daughter who leaves their country town and the lesbian who stays. Not that Sophie sees herself as lesbian at the start of the novel. The first time she encounters Becky Sharp, she’s a single mother who has just enrolled in a university course, so she’s not looking for a relationship of any kind. Her memories of her kid’s father are pleasurable but so are her successive meetings with Becky.
I was happy, sitting there with my hand in hers. Nothing else mattered. I felt I was somehow at the centre of the world. (p 87)
Their romance isn’t based on misunderstandings or opposition from other people: they just draw a bit closer each time they meet.
Then she got up. ‘Lawson ought to be back soon,’ she said, making for the door. (p 103)
Eventually, Sophie finds out that Lawson is Becky’s gay best friend, not her boyfriend, and Becky ties up some “loose ends” with a red-headed girl called Victoria, so when Sophie returns from her foster mother’s funeral, Becky is waiting for her, with Sophie’s daughter Hetty on her hip. However, neither Sophie nor the narrative line of the novel is focused on whether she and Becky get together. Their story weaves in and out of other stories – Sophie’s family history, the people in the house where she lives and the novel she’s writing, as well as the novels she reads for her uni course. Sophie doesn’t feel any urgent need to place herself on the LGBQ spectrum either. She thinks back to the first girl she kissed at the age of nine, as part of the process of redefining herself that starts when she kisses Becky, and at the end of the novel she wants “to extract from Becky Sharp that ultimate lover’s promise: that she will love me for ever and ever” (p 185), so for the purposes of this list I’ve designated her as lesbian. But she immediately adds, “But I won’t ask that, because ever and ever is impossible”, pointing out that all categorisation is basically provisional.
Joanne Horniman: About a Girl Allen & Unwin, 2010.
Joanne Horniman is a writer’s writer, welcoming her readers into the writing process in My Candlelight Novel and sharing a generous supply of literary allusions that starts with the name of Emma’s friend in Sand Monkeys, referencing Virginia Woolf’s famous sentence in A Room of One’s Own: “Chloe liked Olivia.” So it’s not entirely surprising to find that About a Girl, which charts the progress of a lesbian relationship, has the same narrative arc as Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928), a groundbreaker in the history of writing about lesbians. Both main characters, Hall’s Stephen and Horniman’s Anna, start by having platonic relationships with older women (Anna’s new stepmother; the wife of Stephen’s neighbour). Both have an emotional crisis that is alleviated by psychiatric intervention – reading Krafft-Ebing for Stephen; taking anti-depressants for Anna – after which they become involved with women their own age but eventually renounce them, to give their lovers a chance at a heterosexual life. The main difference between the 1928 novel and the 2010 novel is that Stephen (named after the son her parents were expecting) dresses and acts like a boy, which is seen as an early sign that she is an “invert”, whereas Anna and her girlfriend Flynn have impeccably feminine tastes. And the biggest similarity is that both Stephen and Anna simultaneously accept and feel doomed by their lesbianism. Stephen rejects the lesbian circle she finds in Paris; Anna, who doesn’t know or seek out any other lesbians, leaves Flynn because, in a metaphor that evokes the little match girl and little mermaid of gay writer Hans Christian Andersen,
I saw then that what I’d done was to invite her out into the snow with me, and why would she want to stand outside the ballroom window with tattered boots and icy breaths and no street signs? Because that was the way it’d be – of course she’d want to be in there, drinking wine and dancing with bare shoulders far into the scented night. (pp 168 – 9)
I don’t think About a Girl is consciously intended as a reworking of The Well of Loneliness: certainly, Horniman doesn’t flag it by, for instance, calling her main character Stephenie. On the other hand, she’s definitely working within a long literary tradition of representing homosexuality as an outsider position, in which a diminished chance of happiness is compensated for by enhanced sensitivity. However, while Hall’s Stephen ends with a prayer for a better world – “Give us also the right to our existence!” – Anna is born into that better world but reinscribes her outsider status by simultaneously identifying as someone who “always seem[s] to like heterosexual girls” (p 90) and longing for a longterm monogamous relationship.
From where I stand, there seems to be something missing from About a Girl. I’m not sure whether I needed to know more about what it means for Anna to fixate on straight girls – something that went beyond “Perhaps deep down I liked her [Flynn] capricious and unattainable” (p 171) – or whether I needed to know more about the sense of guilt that Kate Norbury discusses in her article “‘On Some Precipice in a Dream’: Representations of Guilt in Contemporary Young Adult Gay and Lesbian Fiction”, where she suggests that Anna is using her relationship with Flynn as a way of expiating her sense of guilt about her parents’ divorce, her intellectually disabled sister and, possibly, her own sexuality. At any rate, although Horniman’s incidental details are as unusual and evocative as ever, she left me with a disconcerting sense that we haven’t necessarily come a long way since 1928.
Catherine Johns: Me Mum’s a Queer Epona Press, 1994.
Catherine Johns says in her acknowledgements, “This book began when I asked a twelve-year old friend if she had told her friends at school that her mother was a lesbian. She gave me one of those long-suffering looks and replied, “You’ve gotta be joking!” Johns’s response is a novel of ideas that looks at the position of lesbians in society from a variety of angles. Sixteen year old Manny (short for Germaine) decides to acknowledge publicly that her mother is lesbian, because “I didn’t like to have secrets from me friends, ‘cause then it wasn’t an honest friendship. I went through this long period of time when I hated me mum being different, and a queer and that, but I’d grown up a lot since then.” (p 2) As she tells her friends, one by one, each of them comes up with a different objection, which Manny then counters: she also deals with homophobic abuse at school and her grandparents’ regrets. In the process, she loses a few friends but her closest friends understand and one of them comes out as bisexual. Johns’ characters are fairly undifferentiated and improbably articulate but these are occupational hazards for a novel of ideas. More importantly, in 122 pages Manny never gives an account of her initial homophobia or her reasons for believing that she herself is heterosexual.
“Yeah, I reckon. I reckon Mum just didn’t really know.” (p 118)
As a result, Manny comes across as someone who is winning debates with her friends and family, rather than engaging with their resistance or objections, and Johns’ exploration of ideas stops short at the point where she would have to question what she and Manny ‘really know’, which is summed up in the admiring comment from Manny’s mother: “There is no normal to you Germaine, you name what is really there.” (p 52)
Mo Johnson: Boofheads Walker, 2008.
In most of the recent young adult novels on this list, homophobia is an external threat to a sympathetic gay character but Boofheads takes us so deep into homophobe territory that we never actually meet its gay characters. Tommo, Casey and Ed have been friends for a long time but their friendship is being undermined by secrets. It starts when Casey rings Tommo in distress on the night that his older brother Mikey comes out to the family: Casey immediately starts to withdraw from Tommo and never tells Ed about Mikey. Later Ed confesses to Tommo that on a night out with the guys from the professional football team that want to recruit him, they hassled two gay men who turned out to be Casey’s brother and his boyfriend. At the time Ed threatened to tell Casey, which explains why Mikey decided to get in first and tell his family – although in fact Ed had no intention of talking to Casey, because he knew Casey was “one of the worst gay-bashers in the school” (p 170) who once “broke into Luke Grover’s email account to send a piss-take love letter to a male teacher” (p 170). Mo Johnson introduces the three boys through a chapter of casual misogynist banter and she makes it clear that they conflate women and gay men, so it isn’t surprising that Ed and Casey are both freaked by their proximity to a gay man. Ed has a moment of truth –
“I called him a sick perv and whistled at him like the rest of the guys. When he turned round, I couldn’t believe it was Mikey Casey … I was seriously shocked.” He paused. “But not because he’s gay. I mean, I was amazed that I didn’t know that about him before then, but I was more shocked that the random stranger I’d been winding up turned out to be my best mate’s brother. I dunno, Tommo, it just felt kind of weird, do you know what I mean?” (pp 168 – 9)
– but he then drugs himself until he overdoses and nearly dies. Casey cheats on his girlfriend with two other girls, which reads like an assertion of heterosexual masculinity after his initial response to Mikey’s news – “I’ll be the poofter’s brother and everyone will start to wonder if I’m the same” (p 41) – although Johnson appears to endorse his later explanation that he was actually upset by all the secrets and failures of communication in his family.
Somewhat more surprisingly, the narrative arc of Boofheads doesn’t require Ed and Casey to demonstrate that they have changed. In the final scene, the three boys are doing an undies run through the playground, to show the girls “that the boys don’t give a shit” (p 265), a response that’s framed as endearing larrikinism, rather than as one last example of misogyny. Then again, the world of Boofheads is full of male characters who are overgrown boys, irresponsible but ultimately lovable, backed by female characters who are strong, understanding and tolerant. After Ed’s footy mate Marty has harassed Mikey, taunted Casey with homophobic abuse and knocked Casey’s girlfriend to the ground and tried to rape her, Tommo’s mother defends him, saying, “He may seem old to you but, believe me, he’s just a kid too. Imagine going from being a promising footballer to a rapist in the blink of an eye just because he substanced himself senseless?” (p 231) The words “just because” shortcircuit the potential for an examination of the relationship between masculinity, homophobia and misogyny in the novel and its final scene confirms that boys will continue to be boys, a condition that in Johnson’s terms includes attempted rape, sending homophobic emails and harassing men outside gay bars.
Melissa Keil: Life in Outer Space Hardie Grant Egmont, 2013.
Life in Outer Space is a classic romcom, in which a goodlooking, well-connected newcomer singles out a nerdy, socially incompetent outsider, except that this time the gender roles are reversed. New girl Camilla even tells film nerd Sam that “you’re the scared blonde chick at the start of every horror movie [who] spends most of the movie freaking out”. (p 93) To make sure that Sam isn’t seen as gay, because girly, he issues a series of disclaimers, assuring the reader that he couldn’t fancy a girl who is as flat-chested as a young boy (p 9) and repeating “I am not gay” three times in an 8-line description of a hypermasculine karate instructor (p 136); feeling compelled to state that “I think we might have liked [Star Wars] for different reasons” (p 82) when Camilla tells him she had a crush on Luke Skywalker; and explaining that it would be particularly gay to like the Disney movie The Parent Trap (p 147) – although he does like Dirty Dancing, which makes him “question my own sexuality, raising a whole heap of other questions I chose not to answer.” (p 16) And to make sure Sam isn’t seen as homophobic, in a novel where the use of the word gay as an insult signals that the leader of the popular kids is a bully, Sam’s best friend Mike is a karate-kicking gay guy.
Mike isn’t only there to save Sam from charges of homophobia. He has a coming out moment, in which his friends watch Xanadu, Lesbian Vampire Killers, Dirty Dancing and some heterosexual porn with him, to help him confirm that he’s gay, on the basis that people who are gay in the sense of experiencing same-sex attraction will have a semantic affinity with anything that’s gay in the sense of daggy or uncool. We also learn that Mike “wouldn’t want a stranger at his house … because his parents have turned it into a shrine for their gay son – complete with a giant rainbow flag hanging in the foyer” (p 50) and that, while Sam has been stressing at great length about Camilla, Mike has unobtrusively found a boyfriend among the minor characters. For most of the novel, however, he is sidelined by a subplot in which he backs off to give Sam time with Camilla (but doesn’t tell Sam what he’s doing) and Sam assumes that Mike is having “a problem with his love life” (p 59) and withdraws in his turn (but doesn’t tell Mike what he’s thinking). Because we don’t see much of Mike, we’re obliged to rely on what Sam tells us in his first person narrative and in Sam’s view, “our relative sexualities are somewhat pointless topics of conversation” (p 17), so we never get an answer to the question: “Why would a karate black belt whose parents are, if anything, too accepting of his homosexuality choose to remain closeted at school?” As a result, Life in Outer Space creates a depressing world in which gay kids are inevitably marginalised, even when, as in Mike’s case, nobody outside their own friendship group is actually aware that they’re gay.
Will Kostakis: The First Third. Penguin, 2013.
Billy Tsiolkas’s yiayia holds the family together and when she goes into hospital, she identifies Billy as her successor by giving him a list of tasks – finding a husband for his mother, a Sydney girlfriend for his older brother Simon and some happiness for his withdrawn younger brother Pete. Billy is assisted in this quest by his best friend Sticks, an ebullient fixer. The first thing Billy tells us about Sticks is that he brings home souvenirs when he goes out at night – “lawn ornaments, traffic cones and a pair of golden arches from the roof of a certain fast-food outlet” (p 8) – and the second thing is that he has cerebral palsy. It only emerges gradually that Sticks is also gay, in part because he experiences more discrimination as a result of having cerebral palsy than as a result of his gayness. In one of the many gently comic scenes involving Sticks, he tries to make a point about feminism by referencing homophobic abuse but his father and brother are too busy growling, “Who calls you a poof?” and “if anyone ever calls you that, ring me” (p 168) to get the point. Sticks is neither Supercrip nor Superpoof. Kostakis shows him deliberately writing his phone number on a coaster for a guy he was been flirting with, rather than entering it into the guy’s phone: when Sticks stands up, revealing his disability, Billy looks back and sees the guy throwing the coaster away, just as Sticks had anticipated. Encounters like this cause Sticks to stage his first sexual experience carefully and refuse to see his partner Joel again but, as well as intervening in his family’s lives, Billy contacts Joel and brokers a happy ending.
Sadly, Sticks is only a marginal detail in a novel that is mainly focused on finding ways to preserve old-fashioned Greek family values in a world that has moved on: as one character says, “I went to Greece last year and all the yiayiathes over there have blonde hair, botox and boob jobs – they’re not like our ones.” (p 28) The most potentially challenging part of Billy’s mission is Yiayia’s injunction, “Have Simon girlfriend in Sydney.” (p 71) Kostakis tells us early on that Simon is gay but we don’t learn until the final pages that he left Sydney for Brisbane because he felt his mother didn’t accept his sexual preference, a revelation to which Billy reacts in two opposing ways. On one level, he feels Simon is misjudging their mother, who has always been fine with Sticks, but on another level, he is aware that Simon wasn’t fully himself until he came out – “It was the moment’s pause before each pronoun as if it had to pass through a filter and change on the way out. It was the feeling that he wasn’t completely honest, completely happy” (p 77) – and, therefore, that their mother is inflicting real damage on Simon by asking him to remain closeted around Yiayia. In principle, this could be an interesting test of old-fashioned Greek family values but in practice, Kostakis pulls his punches. To start with, Billy accepts Sticks’ suggestion that what Yiayia really wants is for him to bring Simon back to Sydney, which absolves him from the obligation to “un-gay” Simon and allows him to spend most of the novel working out that Simon’s supposedly fabulous life in Brisbane is just a social media invention. And Yiayia dies in the final pages, making it possible for Simon to return to Sydney without confronting her insistence on his heterosexuality, so in the end the conflict between old and new values that drives the novel is sidestepped, rather than resolved.
Margo Lanagan: Touching Earth Lightly Allen & Unwin, 1996.
In most of the books and movies about an unlikely friendship between a good girl and a wild girl, there’s a moment towards the end where someone calls them lesbians, to give them an opportunity to deny it without sounding homophobic. In Touching Earth Lightly, that moment comes early, five pages into the novel, suggesting that the relationship between good girl Chloe and wild girl Janey might indeed turn out to be sexual, like the relationship between good girl Charlotte and wild girl Evie in Rebecca Burton’s Beyond Evie. In this case, however, the guys who say to Chloe, “So she [Janey] does it for you too, eh?” (p 11) and “She’d root anything, that one, wouldn’t matter what sex you were “ (p 13) have been waiting in line to have sex with Janey in an abandoned car in a wrecker’s yard, because it’s “her adventuring time of the month” (p 92). So the possibility of a sexual relationship between Chloe and Janey is discredited in advance by the “rat-boys” who raise it and Margo Lanagan positions this episode early in the novel to make it clear from the start that, while Chloe is deeply committed to protecting Janey, she won’t solve the problem of Janey’s uncontrollable, hormonally-based need for sex (presumably at ovulation) by having sex with her.
In fact, the LGBQ characters in Touching Earth Lightly are Carl and Gus, a gay male couple and friends of Chloe’s mother. Gus has recently died, presumably from AIDS, because Chloe remembers him in a wheelchair “shrunk almost to nothing, his smile ghastly and luminous at the same time, his eyes enormous” (p 148), although the cause of his death is never named within Chloe’s family: “Gus’s death has evaporated so quickly into something she can’t talk about, but that darkens the air around everyone when Carl visits.” (p 127) Carl is one of the few people Chloe can talk to, when Janey is raped and murdered by a group of homeless kids in the wrecker’s yard, where she had gone after being raped and beaten by her brother, and the parallels between their situations go beyond the simple fact that they’re both grieving. They have similar views of the world – the first time we meet Carl, he talks about his relationship with his parents in a way that leads Chloe to analyse her own parents – and their similarity sets up a comparison between Gus and Janey, both of whom die as an indirect result of their sexuality. So the function of the overtly LGBQ characters in this novel is to underline the novel’s conclusion that, while non-normative sexuality has its attractions, it’s also fundamentally unsafe.
The alignment of Chloe and Janey with a gay couple, whose love is still manifest after one of them has died, could also be seen as reopening the question of whether Chloe and Janey’s relationship is effectively lesbian. To make that judgement call, however, I’d need to have a clearer sense both of the novel as a whole and of the characterisation of the two girls. I can’t tell whether Touching Earth Lightly is meant to be a cautionary tale or a contribution to the tradition of writing about sexuality as (in Susan Sontag’s words) “something beyond good and evil, beyond love, beyond sanity”: Lanagan is certainly referencing the graphic description of a pack rape in a wrecked car on a vacant lot from Last Exit to Brooklyn, one of the prime examples of that tradition. Similarly, I can’t tell whether I’m supposed to read Janey as a sexually abused girl, grieving the baby she gave up for adoption, or whether Lanagan genuinely believes that Janey is making a sensible choice when her father and brother indicate that they want to have sex with her and she tells Chloe that “if she meets them halfway sometimes, they might not hassle her so badly the rest of the time.” (p 136)
It would be possible to argue that Janey is punishing herself for the abuse and the adoption by having sex with guys she despises, watched over by a woman she loves but feels unworthy of, just as it would be possible to see Chloe’s insistence on choosing Janey’s partners and being present while she has sex with them as sublimated sexual desire. But in order to do that, I’d need to be convinced that Chloe, Janey and the novel itself were more than a random collation of incompatible ideas. Some academics and reviewers have taken a more positive view of Touching Earth Lightly – Kathryn James, for instance, says that “there are many moments where the text does attend to resisting male universal norms by encouraging readers to resist dominant ideas about female sexuality” – but for me, it’s one of those rare books that relates to nothing I’ve ever experienced or heard about, only to other novels I’ve read.
Julia Lawrinson: Obsession Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2001.
On one level, Julia Lawrinson’s first novel is a characteristically detailed, observant account of the first stage of the coming out process: coming out to yourself. Charlie’s father has killed himself, her mother is drinking heavily and Charlie has been transferred to a new school, so it’s not surprising that she fixates on Kate, a kind, friendly, talented older girl. Lawrinson documents Charlie’s transitions – from idealising Kate, to rejecting the possibility that she’s a lesbian (“The thought of doing anything with a girl makes me sick. Almost as sick as the thought of doing anything with Arron.” (p 129)) and then accepting that “It wasn’t a crush, or major admiration, or anything like that. I loved her. Simple. And really complicated.” (p 127) Charlie finds words for her feelings in places as diverse as a Shakespeare sonnet and a Girlteen advice column, which tells her she will either get over it or become as cool as k. d. lang. And by the end of the novel she can say out loud that she is a lesbian.
So far, so typical of gay teen experience – and relatively untypical of its representation in Australian YA fiction, where 20 of the 35 LGBQ main characters already identify as gay at the start of the novel and 8 of the 15 characters who are questioning their sexual preference remain undecided at the end. However, as her title and the back cover blurb indicate, Lawrinson also wants to tell the story of an obsession. Two thirds of the way through, Charlie decides that if she tells Kate how she feels, Kate will have to love her too and after that, her behaviour becomes increasingly pathological, culminating in an attempt to drug Kate with sleeping pills, for reasons that neither she nor Lawrinson can specify but that have clear “date rape” connotations. It’s a sudden shift, both in the characterisation of Charlie and in the tone of the novel, and because it coincides with Charlie acknowledging that she is a lesbian, it shifts the novel into the Gothic tradition where lesbianism is equated with mental imbalance, predatory sexuality and/or violence (Rebecca, The Killing of Sister George, Heavenly Creatures). Lawrinson tries to counter these negative implications – by suggesting (though never stating) that Charlie’s friend Milka is a well-adjusted lesbian; by having Charlie say explicitly, “You think I’m crazy just because I’m a lesbian” and Kate’s mother respond, “I just think that you probably need a bit of help …” (p 246); and by ending with Charlie’s admission to a psychiatric hospital, rather than with the suicide that the opening pages seemed to suggest. But these liberal gestures just result in Lawrinson pulling her punches, abandoning the realist tradition without fully committing herself to the exaggerated emotions and situations of the Gothic tradition.
Julia Lawrinson: Suburban Freak Show Lothian, 2006.
Most first person narrators are presented as trustworthy, a convention ratified by the fact that the occasional unreliable first person narrator tends to be a full-on sociopath. So it’s an unexpected delight to realise that Jay, the narrator of Suburban Freak Show, is giving an entertainingly biased perspective on her student household. Jay is a detached, cynical observer – or, as one of her housemates puts it, “she’s, like, really kind of negative and weird” (p 103) – and her housemates give her plenty to observe, starting with Christie, passionately dedicated to environmental causes, and Ben, who remains easygoing even when his girlfriend Aurora leaves him for his sister Lauren. When Aurora proceeds to leave Lauren for an underwear model, Lauren joins the household and falls for Christie, with a running commentary by Jay: “Christie kept her eyes on her tofu dip, so she missed the look that Lauren was aiming in her direction. I was fairly certain the look was not to do with wanting to know more about the A to Z of conservation …” (p 98) Jay’s negativity has a lot in common with total acceptance. She gives Christie’s relationship with Lauren and her own developing relationship with Ben equal status – or, to put it another way, she finds being gay or straight equally ridiculous – and she offers no opinions about whether Christie is ‘really’ gay, bisexual or ‘lesbian until graduation’, because she has no particular interest in labels. Lauren, on the other hand, is a dedicated lesbian, who finds heterosexuality “… disturbing”. (p 201)
“Excellent,” I said. “Then everybody’s happy …” (p 202)
Julia Lawrinson: Losing It Penguin, 2012.
Given that Julia Lawrinson has written both the darkest novel on this list and one of the funniest, I was surprised to find that my response to her third young adult novel with LGBQ characters was basically “meh”. Losing It is a high concept novel, in which four girls decide to lose their virginity before schoolies week. The title pays tribute to Melvin Burgess’s controversial young adult novel Doing It (2004) but Lawrinson’s tone stays more consistently close to light comedy. Since I knew in advance that one girl was lesbian, I was interested to see how Lawrinson was going to define lesbian virginity but as it turns out, Bree decides she is definitely a lesbian when she doesn’t have sex with the boy who has previously been fancied by all her three friends. The lead-up to this moment involves Bree falling for Saskia, a woman in her twenties who works out at the same gym and runs a group for GLBTQ teens. After kissing Saskia in a café and running away, Bree starts by thinking
It was such an ugly word: lesbian. It was the thing you called a hated teacher, or girls with horsy faces, and no clothes sense, a general insult to which there was no comeback. It didn’t fit someone like Saskia. Someone confident and strong and graceful. But even she couldn’t make the word sound any less harsh. (p 219)
Before long, however, she is falling for half a dozen girls in quick succession. There are some mildly amusing observations – “Was I a lesbian? When I looked at those websites, I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t see famous lesbians and have one of those ka-ching! moments of clarity: Oh, that’s me!” (p 221) – but Bree’s story has neither the deadly accurate social comedy nor the outright farce of the three stories that have preceded it. At the same time, Lawrinson doesn’t seem to be intentionally reversing her narrative trend to show us that “losing it” can be painful, as well as comic: while it’s true that Bree has to go through a period of readjustment, her suffering isn’t exponentially greater than her friends Abby and Mala, who have to sort out how to become (hetero)sexual beings within families that, to say the least of it, aren’t much help. On the plus side, Losing It is, as far as I know, the only Australian novel about a group of teenage girls in which one of them turns out to be lesbian and the basic message is “no drama”. But I still wish the lesbian section was as funny and as technically informative as the sections about straight girls.
Melissa Lucashenko: Killing Darcy UQP, 1998.
Killing Darcy messes with a range of discourses – looking at racism from the interlocking perspectives of three white characters (father, son and daughter) and a young Indigenous man (the Darcy of the title); pioneering Indigenous Australian Gothic and, incidentally, making several important interventions in the representation of gayness. Unlike most of the other writers on this list, Lucashenko acknowledges that lust is one of the defining factors of being a gay teen. Darcy has been one of the four point of view characters for almost half the novel before we find out that he’s gay by sharing his appreciation when his employer Jon “reached down to bring his shirt up over his ridged belly muscles, over his spreading pecs, showing the black hair of his chest and beneath his arms” and then following Darcy to
the toilet on the far side of the stables, where it took three fast pumps of his hand to do the deed. He achieved a little physical relief but when he went back to where Jon stood the orgasm part of it was still roaring inside him. Still in his head, making him crazy. Still locked up in Jon’s big dark frame, in his face, his hair, in the man of him. (p 94)
Darcy’s physical response is a salutary counterbalance to novels like Kate Walker’s Peter, where characters try to figure out intellectually whether they might be gay. Darcy himself doesn’t spent much of his time in the novel thinking about being gay, because being Indigenous takes up more of his energy. However, when a boy at the riding school makes a pass at him and then tells his father that Darcy instigated it, some casual homophobia from Jon’s daughter Filomena – “He [the boy’s father] thinks you’re gay, when it’s his son who’s a poof!” (p 147) – leads Darcy to tell her his story.
I was a normal kid, just running around, you know. Then when I turned twelve I thought, well, must be time to get it on with girls, like everyone else. I tried that a few times … I dunno, it just didn’t feel right, sort of. I was confused for a long time, till I met this guy … He was gay, and then I realised I was too. And that’s it. End of confusion, happy ever after. More or less.” He shrugged. No big deal, heaps of blackfellas were gay, ‘specially in Sydney. Poofter heaven. (p 149)
Meanwhile, Jon, an old activist who identifies as straight because his “experimenting days are long gone” (p 156), has already worked out that Darcy is gay, in a sidelong interaction that owes more to sensitivity than to stereotypes.
Jon tossed him a Campaign magazine. “Try that. I doubt you’ll find it boring. Even if you do, read it for my sake. All of Federation will know I bought it, and am, therefore, a poofter.” Darcy stared at Jon as the movie credits rolled. The man grinned, white teeth gleaming in a brown face. He brushed the hair off his face. “Just kidding, son. What I mean is, the tiny minds of Federation [the town where they live] will assume that only a queer would take an interest.” (p 140)
And as her final intervention, Lucashenko voices what it’s like to live with gay oppression with the same passion and clarity that she directs at racism. Darcy thinks:
Jon had said would he see she [Filomena] was all right, so that’s what he’d do. Swallow his pride and remember what Danny told him: all straights are homophobic, just accept it and you’ll be right. Seemed pretty right to him [i.e. Darcy]. Ever since he was tiny he’d known to operate on the principle that all whites are racist, so why wouldn’t gay stuff be the same? Don’t trust ‘em, and they can’t hurt you. (p 150)
Then, with her infallible knack for complicating matters, Lucashenko adds, “Only, he was starting to think Jon was different. That was a worry.” Killing Darcy takes us on a whirlwind tour of more LGBQ territory than most Australian young adult novels cover – a feat that is all the more remarkable because it’s packed into ten or so pages of a 227 page book, which goes on to look at racism, Indigeneity and what it means to be Australian with the same acerbic originality. From where I stand, Killing Darcy is one of the top ten Australian children’s books and I still feel shamed by the way the Australian literary establishment poured so much more of its resources into promoting Phillip Gwynne’s mild-mannered Deadly Unna?, a whitefella’s take on Indigenous issues, published in the same year.
Melissa Lucashenko: Hard Yards UQP, 1999.
Being gay was foregrounded in Killing Darcy: in Hard Yards it’s part of the background. Roo is having a hard time, trying to work out who he is within a racist and class-bound society, and only a few people are prepared to help. Among them are the “pair of poofters” in a convenience store who intervene when the store’s minders beat Roo up for shoplifting and even stick around to explain the situation to the cops, who “discussed what to do with him and before he passed out Roo heard them tell the arse bandits that if the kid was only shoplifting they might possibly have let it go at that but, but not the aggravated assault on the two blokes, be reasonable.” (p 141) We already know what kind of risk the two gay guys are running in siding with Roo, because Lucashenko has shown us a group of cops who call one of their number a “Fucken faggot”, because he retreats from a strip show, then piss on him and plan to “go and chase up a few coons”. (p 62)
Later in the novel, Roo trains with Jesse, a javelin and discus thrower known as the Polynesian Princess, who wears purple mascara and nail polish and has the campest of mannerisms: “for those of us mortals who have to train our little black butts off, sweetheart, it’s a never-ending fucking grind, isn’t it?’ (p 176) Jesse’s response to homophobia, one of the small victories of the novel, is worth quoting in full.
How did he get away with it, Roo wondered, as he pulled his Nikes on, lacing them tight across his insteps. Maybe because he gave out an unmistakable message of looming violence, mascara or not. Like the time – Roo started grinning – the time them fuckwits from the coast had thought it funny to start mincing around and talking about spear chuckers, just as Jesse lined up to throw. He’d turned slowly, clocking Roo there ready to jump in when he heard them start. He walked straight over to the main offender, oblivious to the time ticking away, carefully placed the tip of his javelin under the dickhead’s nose as he leaned in with his weight and explained that in his culture men were free to be as they chose. Dickhead had a sudden change of heart and trouble speaking. Jesse didn’t win, in fact he was disqualified as soon as the officials recovered from the shock, but the others were all pretty quiet for the rest of the afternoon. Roo noticed a different attitude after that in his own club towards their pet Polynesian poofter and Jesse continued to do pretty much what he pleased and when. (p 176)
Melissa Lucashenko: Too Flash Jukurrpa Books, 2002.
When Zo’s mother gets a new job in Brisbane, Zo has to leave her Tongan friend Sione behind. “They were best friends, had been since she was the only Murri girl in grade eight, and he was the only queenie in year nine.” (p 13) Sione is an incorrigible trickster, always making use of Zo’s internet connection or nicking her phone, and Missy, the new friend Zo finds in Brisbane, turns out to be equally high-maintenance. “Sione and Missy were pains-in-the-arse, but they were interesting too. At least you knew you were alive when you were around them and their mad, chaotic, fucked-up families.” (p 104) So, when Sione turns up in Brisbane, applying for a dance scholarship, “Zo flung herself at him, squealing, and they hugged like parted lovers.” (p 126) Their friendship is only a minor aspect of Too Flash, which is told from Zo’s point of view and doesn’t go into the details of Sione’s gayness, but it’s an appealing example of a connection between a gay guy and a straight girl. It also demonstrates Lucashenko’s commitment to including LGBQ characters in all of her novels so far: there are significant lesbian minor characters in both her adult novels, Steam Pigs and Mullumbimby.
Caroline Macdonald: Secret Lives Omnibus, 1993.
Macdonald’s main character Ian invents an alter ego called Gideon, who takes on a life of his own and gets Ian into trouble. One of Gideon’s first moves is to make a sudden and violent pass at Ian’s friend and neighbour Jaz and, when she fights back, say, “maybe it’s girls you like better” (p 53). The twist is that this isn’t just a homophobic taunt. Jaz replies, “Maybe I do” and Ian turns out to have already been wondering whether Jaz is gay: as Gideon says, “that made her even more exotic and desirable. Right?” (p 56) It’s a minor point in a book that is primarily about the fragmentation of Ian’s identity but as such, it’s an effective way to convey that Jaz’s lesbianism is a bigger deal to Ian than to Jaz herself.
Doug Macleod: Tumble Turn Penguin, 2003.
Tumble Turn takes the form of emails between 12 year old Dominic and his uncle Peri, who met for the first time at the recent funeral of Dominic’s grandfather and Peri’s father. In one of his early emails Peri gives Dominic a cautiously-worded account of the love of his life, who is now dead – “The purple hat used to belong to my partner, Lu. Lu was a geologist, fascinated by volcanic rocks. It is unusual for a woman to be fascinated by rocks. Your mother never liked rocks. But Lu and I travelled the world, visiting volcanoes” (p 7). When Dominic refers to Auntie Lu, Peri accepts it and then does the same himself, so Dominic only learns that Peri is gay in the final pages. In the meantime, he has been confiding in Peri about his crushes on a new girl at school and on his teacher, Miss Havercroft; about picturing his male best friend in his underpants; about his next door neighbour deciding he is a transvestite, because he dressed as a witch for Halloween, and his mother deciding he is gay, for no specific reason. So it’s not surprising that Dominic takes Peri’s news calmly, writing back to say, “People do seem very worried by the gay label and I just don’t get it. Gay people don’t seem harmful to me.” (pp 152)
Peri explains that he lied because he thought Dominic might be prejudiced, which, to me, puts him in the same category as Dominic’s secretive father (who is having an affair with Dominic’s teacher) and secretive mother (who hasn’t acknowledged that she was in love with Lu herself) and therefore undermines the effect of Peri’s wise advice about living your own way: “A lot of people will tell you there is only one way to live your life. You must have a wife and children and a car with a cup-holder. These things are lovely but they don’t suit everyone … Whatever happens in your life, keep an open mind …” (p 166) However, while Peri doesn’t seem to have earned his narrative status as a role model, Dominic himself is a stellar example of a kid who is questioning everything – a fat Buddhist with a low IQ score and boundless curiosity, who at the end of the novel is simultaneously planning to get to know another new girl at school and observing that his new male friend “looks good in bathers”. (p 168)
NB: Secretive to the end, Uncle Peri has a friend called Bernie living with him but only acknowledges his sexual / romantic relationship with Lex, aka Lu, so in my terms the novel only has three characters explicitly identified as LGBQ – Dominic, Peri and Lex.
Ian MacNeill: Red and Silver Mieli Press, 1992.
Ian MacNeill was a prolific writer of poetry, fiction, plays and biography but this is his only novel for younger readers, dedicated to “my students, with continuing love”. As Michael Hurley said in his obituary for MacNeill, who died in 2011, “Ian continued the honourable practice of publishing with small presses and self- publishing, common amongst many feminist and gay writers, sometimes out of choice, sometimes out of necessity.” The disadvantage of this practice is that there was no editor to trim some of the longer conversations in this conversation-based novel – the class discussion of Hamlet, for instance, or a parent talking about what’s wrong with drugs and what’s right with condoms. The advantage is that in the middle of a casual conversation about exams and being a Westie, we find a young guy saying:
‘You’re probably bi – or going through a phase – you’re probably bi. Most guys are. They just don’t admit it.’ (pp 67 – 68)
After Phillip’s father dies, his mother moves them from Sydney’s West to the North Shore and Ben is the first person he meets there. Over a series of conversations between them and other school friends, we become aware that they’re having sex and that Phillip takes it more seriously than Ben, who accordingly backs off. Phillip handles the transition from lovers to friends reasonably well but loses it when “old Steve” tries to take his place with Ben, at which point one of his teachers takes the risk of letting Phillip know that he himself is gay, in order to give Phillip some counsel.
‘It’s not easy being gay. But it gets easier. The things people say – or you think they’re saying, or thinking – don’t matter so much when you accept yourself.’ (p 132)
Phillip uses the impetus from these confrontations to come out to his mother, who responds in classic fashion, “You’ve always been a perfectly normal little boy” (p 137), and the novel ends with an epilogue set several years later, in which Phillip is getting on with his life and Ben is hanging out with Steve and asking Phillip about gay pubs but still trying to evade making any commitments. At the start of the book there’s an evocative moment on a station platform where Ben asks Phillip to choose between red and silver, explaining that
‘These trains are a mixture of red and silver carriages. Red’s old-fashioned, silver’s the latest thing the Department of Railways, or whatever it’s called, can come up with. Some days I feel like the old-fashioned, some days I feel like the silver.’ (p 8)
This image recurs in the final lines, when Phillip turns away from Ben and “crossed the platform and got into his train. It was silver.” (p 145) I read MacNeill as saying that Ben and Steve are gay but closeted / old-fashioned and that Phillip is the latest thing / openly gay. On the other hand, two of their school friends, Helen and Chrissie, “used to go to bed together” (p 100) but now go out with guys, so in their case same-sex sexual experimentation seems to have been what Ben calls “a phase”.
Melina Marchetta: The Piper’s Son. Penguin, 2010.
Ned the Cook is introduced as someone who has fancied both Sarah and Zach, another character’s house mates, and as someone who can hold his own against teasing or biphobia. While he is a comfortably familiar type – simultaneously shy and witty, “slightly too cool-looking to be considered goofy, but it’s a very fine line he walks” (p 55) – it’s a type that moves beyond contemporary LGBQ stereotypes. Sadly, although Ned raises the novel’s zest level every time he appears, he is only a minor player in the story of angsty Tom (from Marchetta’s Saving Francesca) and Tom’s angsty family: making friends with bisexual Ned at his café job and immigrant Mohsin at his data entry job is one of the signs that Tom is finally coming to terms with his backstory. Still, at least Ned has his own story arc, with a strong indication that he is headed for a romance with another Marchetta series character, one of the Mullet Brothers from On the Jellicoe Road.
John Marsden: Checkers Pan, 1996.
Checkers is a remix of John Marsden’s first novel, So Much to Tell You, in which an electively mute girl reviewed a traumatic relationship with her powerful father. In this novel, the unnamed narrator has been sent to a psychiatric hospital, rather than a boarding school, and she talks to the other kids but not to anyone in authority. Among her fellow patients is Daniel, who is introduced as follows:
I’ve never met anyone so openly gay, and it seems amazing, at his age, at our age. He’s comfortable with me, with all the girls, really. I suppose he doesn’t feel threatened by us. For that matter, I suppose we don’t feel threatened by him. He’s more like a girl in some ways: the more girly we are, the more he likes it. He gets so excited about our clothes and make-up and stuff. I’m a big disappointment to him because I’m not very girly: I’d rather play basketball than talk about my hair. We sort of tease Daniel a lot and we probably shouldn’t, but I can’t help it and I don’t think he minds. He’s only got us, really. Oliver’s nice to him but they don’t go off and have D & M’s or anything. Ben’s so nervous of him that when Daniel comes within a hundred metres it’s like Ben needs an instant Largactil shot 200 mls, stat. (pp 11 – 12)
The reliance on gender stereotypes here might sound unpromising, especially in combination with an early example of positioning homosexuality as biologically determined: when Daniel tells the group, “I can’t help the way I am. I didn’t choose to be this way”, (p 77), the group leader lets it pass without question. But at the same time the narrator sides with Daniel against “some of the staff, like Sister Norman, who’s obsessed with the fact that Daniel is gay, and gets nervous when any guys are in the bathroom too long with him” (p 40) and Marsden devotes a whole chapter to exploring Daniel’s pain when another staff member calls him “a fairy, a poofter, all those names”
I understood what he meant then. It was a smart move. (p 77)
Marsden makes it clear, without spelling it out, that Daniel’s Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, principally manifesting in an obsession with cleanliness, is a product of social attitudes towards LGBQ kids. The narrator sees him as less defended than the others in her group –
Daniel, I don’t think he has a mask. He just keeps away from anyone he feels might be cruel to him. Oh, wait, yes, I guess he does hide stuff. He usually acts pretty laid back, making witty jokes about everything, but I know from things he’s said in Group that he’s not very happy inside. (p 60)
– and at the end of the novel he is the only one who has definitely benefited from his stay in the hospital. In an understated way, Marsden demonstrates that Daniel doesn’t, in fact, have any problems with himself: he has ended up in a psych hospital as a result of the problems other people have with him.
David Metzenthen: Jarvis 24 Penguin, 2009.
Jarvis 24 is one of several books on this list in which an ordinary guy finds out that someone he knows is gay and handles it with a bit of endearing klutziness and a lot of aplomb. When he signs up for work experience at a used car yard, Marc Jarvis finds himself working with a dying man, a single mother and a young gay guy. To begin with, Jarvis’s relief that he doesn’t fancy Mikey is just the text for a meditation on sexual preference.
I’m relieved it appears that I’ve settled the gay thing with myself, at least for today, because I think most people have to deal with it at some time in their life; although there’s a time in your life where you don’t have to deal with it at all, because from about zero to say ten, you don’t know anything much about being gay, straight, metro, lezzo, or vego. (p 35)
But, refreshingly, Mikey has a storyline of his own, as well as contributing to Jarvis’s story. He tells Jarvis that he left his home town in Queensland because he felt that “everybody in town … would’ve preferred it if I’d lived somewhere else” (p 72) but not long afterwards Jarvis sees a Missing Persons ad placed in The Big Issue by Mikey’s family. The car yard is somewhere between a metaphor and a catalyst for Jarvis’s coming of age and the ensuing discussions about whether he should show Mikey the ad teach him a lot about his own ethics and priorities. When Mikey turns out to have different priorities, choosing not to contact his family, Jarvis has to start all over again and decide whether to go behind Mikey’s back and tell his family where he is.
Unfortunately, halfway through the novel Metzenthen’s focus shifts from the car yard to Jarvis’s love life. His ethical problem about phoning Mikey’s family is solved at two removes, when his friend Travis sends The Big Issue to one of Mikey’s lesbian friends, who then gets in touch with his family. Mikey’s brother Brad, who turns up unannounced, is a memorable character –
‘You won’t.’ Brad grips his beer with fingers like cables. ‘But that’s not your problem.’ (p 245) –
but the end of Mikey’s story is too far from its beginning to have the impact it promised. And the lesbians in the novel are basically plot devices, who carry messages, appeal to the better nature of some homophobes when their group is attacked, applaud Jarvis and Travis after the ensuing fight –
‘Lovely!’ Immy grabs my wrist, and kisses me hard on the lips. ‘Thank you, Marc.’ She turns to Travis and kisses him. ‘And thank you, Travis. We love you both.’ (pp 149 – 150)
and, in general, say and do nothing that distinguishes them from a pair of straight girls, apart from telling Jarvis that they’re a lesbian couple.
Bernie Monagle: Hot Hits: the Remix. Lothian, 2003.
The good news is that Hot Hits: the Remix establishes a benchmark against which other novels with LGBQ characters can be measured. First and foremost, Bernie Monagle treats his straight and LGBQ characters exactly the same – and I mean that literally, because he’s taken the idea to its logical conclusion by writing the same novel twice, covering the same events (two years of school, bookended by two parties) from the points of view of half a dozen straight kids in Hot Hits and four LGBQ kids in Hot Hits: the Remix. It’s a startlingly rigorous interpretation of the old slogan, “Different but equal” and Monagle’s vision of what equality might look like in literary terms instantly makes it possible to see more clearly how other writers construct the relationship between heteronormativity and homosexuality.
In the majority of the novels on this list, for instance, the heterosexual characters are either friends or foes of the LGBQ characters, a simple binary that’s disrupted by the basic format of Monagle’s novels. While the LGBQ characters in Hot Hits: the Remix are aware of the straight relationships and the pregnancies described in Hot Hits, the straight kids are mostly unaware of the LGBQ kids’ stories. Even when they designate particular kids as gay, they usually get it wrong. Eric, aka Nance, is the object of sustained homophobic bullying and violence that nearly kills him but it becomes clear that he’s not even close to being homosexual – he’s just weird, in a world where the words “weird” and “gay” are synonyms. And, to my mind, the most poignant of the four main characters in Hot Hits: the Remix is Sean, to whom almost nothing happens. At the start of the novel, he already knows he’s gay and at the end he’s still waiting to leave school and get a life, because
the noise and constant possibility of violence … exhausted him. The constant effort to remain invisible when it was so easy to trip up consumed all his energy. He watched others pilloried for the slightest infringement of the unwritten laws of conformity. Sean was amazed that he was rarely targeted but he knew he was next in line. The days when the obvious walking victims were away from school were the worst.
All Sean has done in the course of the book is to watch the other kids and occasionally cut himself. Monagle knows that sticks and stones and name-calling aren’t the only hazards LGBQ kids face at school: they also have to deal with the consequences of having their experience completely negated.
The other three main characters in Hot Hits: the Remix are Darren, who finds a gay porn magazine in the street that changes his life; Randa, who gets bored with being a supportive girlfriend to footy-playing Spanner, starts playing hockey herself and ends by setting up the school’s first Gay Straight Alliance; and Courtney, who just plain fancies girls. Like the heterosexual stories in Hot Hits, their stories are mainly told in dialogue, which lets Monagle cover a lot of ground fast and protects him against any temptation to editorialise. In contrast to Sean’s story, the other three stories are full of incident. Darren spends an evening driving his stepmother’s car around, in the hope that the cops will chase him and he’ll crash and kill himself. Randa learns a lot about herself by observing the adult lesbians on the hockey scene and she’s politicised by seeing what happens to Eric. Courtney has sex with one of her friends, then with a girl groupie she meets at a bar and in the final pages she’s having sex with Spanner, who, in a comic twist, was Randa’s boyfriend at the start of the book.
Some of the LGBQ kids confide in their friends, who mostly respond well, but none of them recognise each other in the course of the novel. (Randa says to a friend, “You know how many joined the Gay Straight Alliance? Five, one of those was Mr Ho and one was Sumo [who is picked on for being fat], cos he knows what it feels like. The others were too frightened to sign up but wanted some advice.”) That’s another of the novel’s benchmark functions – the suggestion that there are at least three more unidentified LGBQ characters in the background of all the novels on this list. At the same time, although the kids are isolated within the school, their stories speak to each other within the novel. Because Monagle is telling four very different stories simultaneously, he doesn’t run the risk of implying that all LGBQ kids are suicidal or self-harming, that all LGBQ kids should start Gay Straight Alliances or that all LGBQ kids should be interested in both sexes. Some of his main characters have a bone-deep knowledge that they’re gay and others are, and maybe always will be, thoroughly mutable; some of them see gayness as a social and even political identity and others are just in it for the sex. And, while the kids in Hot Hits and Hot Hits: the Remix are divided in significant ways, they ultimately have a lot in common. At one point in the novel, Courtney
looked around the room again and realised that they all had a secret sexual journey going on, not just the gay kids. They all had secret passions, furtive sexual experiments, disturbing desires.
By combining so many shades of gay and straight in these paired novels, Monagle shows us the big picture and, in the process, clarifies our sense of the specific areas that other writers have chosen to concentrate on. To have a book like this around is unequivocally good news for anyone who wants to think about their place in the spectrum of writing about LGBQ kids.
Oh, and the bad news? Hot Hits: the Remix is not only out of print – it’s also virtually impossible to find a secondhand copy anywhere. I guess that means it’s not such an effective benchmark, after all.
Merrilee Moss: Thriller and Me Silver Gum Press, 1994.
Twelve year old Angelina has two mysteries to solve – a dog that barks in the night time and her father’s disappearance. It is only in the last fifteen pages that she discovers that her dad has moved out to live with his new boyfriend, Glen, and by that time we know her well enough to anticipate her reactions. When Angie says,
We’ll learn to live with it. (p 114)
it comes across as characteristically matter of fact and pragmatic – the character’s individual response, not the author’s attempt to model a politically correct position for the kids of gay men and women. At the same time, having done the work of establishing Angie and her friends in relation to each other and to the mistreated dog, Moss is able to pack a lot into her last fifteen pages, without compromising her realist approach. Angie talks to Beth and her diary about homophobic name-calling, gay custody battles, whether to tell the other kids at school, why some of the schoolkids hate gay men (“Maybe they’ve never met any gay guys. Maybe they’ve never watched Oprah or Donahue. Maybe they’re just dumb airheads.” (p 111)), whether you can recognise gay people on sight and whether 2.6 of the 26 kids in their class will be gay, concluding, “All I know is my Dad’s OK. He hasn’t changed, just because he’s in love with Glen. It’s weird, but it’s normal. If you know what I mean” (p 113) – all of which fits with what we already know about Angie and is expressed in her wry, angry, comical voice.
Martine Murray: The Slightly True Story of Cedar B. Hartley (Who Planned to Live an Unusual Life) Allen & Unwin, 2002.
Cedar is introduced via a description of her inner urban street, which contains a rich family, an Italian family, a Yugoslavian widow, a Syrian family and, a few pages after the others, “the boys”, Robert, who is a doctor, and Pablo de la Renta, whose occupation isn’t given. They are never explicitly identified as gay, either by Cedar’s ex-hippie mother or by the rich kid Harold Barton, who calls the Syrian kids “Lebbos”, but there are lots of details that would code them as gay to an adult reader – Robert’s silky lilac shirt and Pablo’s apron covered with little red hearts; the tidiness of their house, which “makes you feel like you shouldn’t sit down on anything in case you leave a mark” (p 74); the way Pablo’s surname evokes the term “rent boy”. Murray comments, via Cedar’s twelve year old perspective, “I don’t know why Ricci calls them ‘the boys’ because they are both quite old, as old as my mum” (p 74). My own understanding would be that the gay couple are being infantilised by a woman who thinks the only acceptable rites of passage into adulthood are heterosexual but I’m not sure whether that’s what Murray intends me to think and I find it even harder to guess what twelve year old readers would make of “the boys”. Their only narrative function is that Robert diagnoses Cedar’s broken rib and they aren’t reintroduced in the sequel, The Slightly Bruised Glory of Cedar B. Hartley (who can’t help flying high and falling in deep), which is set in the same street and revisits most of the same characters – although there is a puzzling moment on page 98 of The Slightly Bruised Glory when Cedar sees Pablo sweeping his driveway, which may indicate that “the boys” were present in the first draft but disappeared during the edit.
NB: This annotation describes to the Australian edition. For the American edition, a number of changes were made – for example, Robert and Pablo have just adopted a baby.
Bron Nicholls: Mullaway Penguin, 1986.
Mullaway was the first Australian children’s book with an explicitly gay character – or, to be precise, five explicitly gay characters. Maybe for that reason, it’s still one of the most original, its characters and situations drawn directly from life, rather than being mediated by other novels or TV shows. Phoebe Mullens, known as Mully, doesn’t find out that her older brother Steve is gay by catching him in the act of kissing his best friend Guido. She doesn’t even deduce that he’s gay by piecing together the series of clues that Nicholls gives the reader, from the “newer pictures of Boy George and Elton John” (p 16) in Steve’s bedroom to the way Steve moving into Guido’s house coincides with their father’s insistence that they attend his new church, The Lord’s Flock.
‘You couldn’t get it plainer than that!’ roared Brother Baxter. ‘There will be no homosexuals in heaven!’ The organist pulled out all stops and the choir stood up. (p 56)
Instead, Mully remains steadfastly unaware that Steve is gay (partly because she has a longterm crush on Guido herself) until she finds herself writing a letter to her dead grandmother, where she puts her suspicions into words for the first time and imagines her gran’s reassuringly conventional response: “Steven is a proper male just like his father … As for that Eye-talian boy, well that could be a different story, you’ve only got to look at their history.” (p 124) Even after she acknowledges the possibility, she can’t ask Steve for confirmation: she can only think,
Please tell me about it. I don’t mind, honestly. Like you said, nothing fazes me. You see, it would explain such a lot, my lack of success with Guido, for example, at least I’d know it wasn’t because he didn’t like me but that he liked you more … (p 137)
When Steve finally does tell her that he’s gay, he explains that he’s been holding back because he knows how she feels about Guido, which restores their old brother-sister intimacy. From then on, Mully is included in the guys’ relationship, helping Steve when Guido is arrested for shoplifting, just as Guido has already enlisted her help when Steve was experimenting with heroin – although she takes some time out from being an understanding sister to worry about whether homosexuality runs in families and wonder whether she fancies her best friend Helen. And Steve’s family problems aren’t all solved by coming out to Mully: in the background of her story, we catch occasional glimpses of all the conversations that have to be had, in order to renegotiate his position in the family.
Mullaway isn’t only a remarkably nuanced and understated account of being gay within a family. Nicholls also places Steve’s experience in a context of adult gay experience, as represented by Larry, Mully’s former English teacher and one of the few people in the novel who has her interests at heart. Larry isn’t a role model, any more than Steve and Guido are model gay teenagers. His relationship breaks up in the course of the novel and he misses Mully’s Christmas party because he has been arrested for picking up a teenage boy – unjustifiably, in the sense that he was trying to help an ex-student who is now living on the streets and dealing, but understandably, in the sense that, as Steve says, “in one way it’s Larry’s fault. He gets carried away trying to help people and doesn’t protect himself, if you know what I mean.” (p 263) On the other hand, Larry warns Mully “not to give in to the natural downward slide that threatens to overtake all things eventually” (p 85), encourages her to write and generally provides both her and Steve with benchmarks to measure themselves against. And his story and Steve’s story are just minor strands within Mully’s story, which encompasses even more varieties of love with the same meticulous accuracy and detail.
Amra Pajalic: The Good Daughter Text, 2009.
Dealing with a new school, as well as her mother’s decision to move back into the Bosnian community in St Albans, Sabiha is attracted to Brian straight away, even though Dina and Gemma, the girls she hangs out with, warn her that “He’s a fag” and “You don’t want to be a fag hag.” (p 67) Sabiha has a lot on her mind – for starters, her mother is bipolar and they’ve just moved in with her strict Muslim grandfather – so she takes a long time to figure out that Dina and Gemma were right: in fact, it only really sinks in when she opens Brian’s bedroom door and sees him and her good-looking, entitled cousin Adnan “frantically pulling up their pants”. (p 277) This isn’t, however, a cue for Sabiha to feel betrayed by Brian. When her friend Dani lists all the signs that, to her, meant “It was visible from an aeroplane that Brian was gay” (p 288), ending with “I always felt like I was hanging around with a girlfriend when I was with him” (p 242), Sabiha realises she was drawn to Brian because she’s been “uncomfortable receiving guys’ attentions” ever since a mate of her mother’s current boyfriend tried to molest her after she flirted with him at a party. And although Brian’s initial explanation for kissing her is simply that, after kissing Adnan, “I had to know for sure if I was gay” (p 279), he later adds, “I only kissed you because I thought if there was anyone I could not be gay for, it would be you.” (p 309) The net result is to deepen the friendship between them and, by extension, the friendship they share with Dani and Brian’s friend Jesse, which in turn allows Sabiha to see that her mother and the rest of her family “weren’t perfect, but they were here to stay” (p 311) The only villain of the piece is Adnan, who drops Brian and starts dating a girl to protect his reputation, but he gets his comeuppance when he tries to manipulate Sabiha into keeping his secret and she responds by kneeing him in the balls (although she also thinks, “As much as I hated Adnan I couldn’t hurt my aunt and destroy our family by revealing Adnan’s secret” (p 307)).
Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli: Love You Two Random House, 2011.
Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli starts by drawing attention to an issue whose absence from the LGBTQIA+ alphabet has often puzzled me – namely, polyamory. Pina is sixteen when she casually reads an email on the family computer and discovers that Nathan, a family friend, is her mother’s long term lover and that Pina’s father Ren is fine about it. Pallotta-Chiarolli positions polyamory on the scale of marginalisation by showing us that Pina has grown up with parents who have gay and lesbian friends and “tell Nonna that if she wasn’t comfortable coming over for my mother’s fortieth birthday party because gay people would be there, then she could choose not to come at all” (p 37) – but who have felt it necessary to keep their polyamory secret. Pina is initially horrified by her discovery but as she thinks about it, she begins to realise that things in her own life aren’t going so well. Her friend Rosie compulsively calls other girls dykes, especially Pina’s calmest and most sensible friend Laura, and her boyfriend Scott is controlling and abusive, to the point where he has arranged for his younger brother to beat up Pina’s younger brother Leo, so that, as Rosie tells her, “he’d stop being so gay. For his own good, don’t you think? … ‘Cos being gay’s sick, isn’t it?” (p 100) In a final showdown with her friends, Pina also learns that Laura has in fact been forcing her own mother to stay closeted.
‘Pina, my mum’s gay. I made life so hard for her for a long time because it was hard for me … She wants to be proud and strong. The way she’s meant to be. But I won’t let her speak. Not even to my boyfriend who must think I live with a serial killer ‘cos I never let him come over.’ (p 102)
Overwhelmed, Pina runs away to stay with Zi Don, her uncle who lives in Melbourne, and his girlfriend Wei Lee. On the way, her bus passes through Bordertown and after crossing the border, all the people she meets expand her understanding of relationships and families in some way. Among these people are Zi Don, who turns out to be bisexual – “He has a heart that enables him to fall in love with a person regardless of gender” (p 157); John, a gay man dying of AIDS and cared for by his lover Mick; Dennis, an eighty year old man, who came out at sixty after years “in and out of psych hospitals, getting “cured”” (p 208), and Rosa, a Sicilian-Italian lesbian who fell in love with Sudanese Abdel and married him. Pina listens to all their stories, which are as complex and convincing as you would expect from a writer like Pallotta-Chiarolli, who has published a range of interview-based non-fiction, including Girls’ Talk (1998), Boy’s Stuff (2001, with Wayne Martino) and Border Sexualities, Border Families (2010). Everyone Pina encounters is both sympathetic and inspiring – apart from Zi Don’s ex-boyfriend, who is a ‘slimy shiny character’ (p 185) – and within days she is working hard to fit in.
Where the first section established the limitations of Pina’s world, the second section is an attempt to create a new world of cultural and sexual diversity, like the world Dorothy finds over the rainbow and Lucy finds on the far side of the wardrobe (or closet) door. Pallotta-Chiarolli’s awareness that this new world requires a new style and narrative focus is demonstrated by her ongoing references to Narnia. C.S. Lewis’s novels are important to Pia, because Zi Don read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to her when she was little, and they are important to Pallotta-Chiarolli herself because, as she says in the Author’s Note, “C.S. Lewis’s own complex, contradictory life and relationships … have too often been erased or ignored in order to construct a more respectable, simplistic version for a conservative Christian readership.” (p 307) On the whole, however, Pallotta-Chiarolli retains her initial realist approach, rather than launching out into the technicolour magic realism or utopianism of Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat series or David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy. As a result this section reads like a series of individual scenes that never cohere into a unified whole – although part of the problem is that Pallotta-Ciarolli is aiming for something very ambitious, which to my mind makes her failure more interesting than a novel that successfully repeats effects that have succeeded before.
Unlike most of the other books on this list published after 2000, Love You Two doesn’t see its LGBQ characters as isolated members of minority groups. Instead, Pallotta-Chiarolli tells us that the entire spectrum of human sexuality is currently monitored and controlled, by a process that resembles the nineteenth century philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s model of the ideal prison, where “If the prisoners feel they’re always being watched, even when you may not be watching at all, they’ll police themselves. They’ll behave as if they’re always being watched.” (p 154) When Pina returns home, she discovers that Rosie’s mother is lesbian and that her grandmother displaced her grandfather’s previous girlfriend, which explains why Rosie and Nonna monitor other people’s sexuality so vigilantly. Pallotta-Chiarolli offers us a solution too. The metaphorical way out of Bentham’s prison is openness, exemplified in The Two of Us by the telling of stories. Pina’s time in Narnia allows her to realise that her parents are “”just expanding the rules of what a relationship can be, like gay people are” (p 269) and even Rosie and Nonna relax some of their vigilance after their stories have been told. And yet, puzzlingly, in the final pages of the novel Pina is still wondering when she’ll find the right moment to share her family story with her friends, two of whom have just told her that their mothers are in a lesbian relationship together. It seems like an oddly cautious end to a consistently daring novel.
Jenny Pausacker: What Are Ya? Angus and Robertson, 1987.
Jenny Pausacker: Mr Enigmatic Reed, 1995.
Jenny Pausacker: Getting Somewhere Reed, 1997.
Jenny Pausacker: How to Tell Your Parents that You’re Straight Random House, 1998.
Jenny Pausacker: It’s not over till you’re over it Random House, 1998.
Jenny Pausacker: Down and Out: The Blake Mysteries 7 Hodder Headline, 1999.
Jenny Pausacker: Truth or Dare: The Blake Mysteries 9 Hodder Headline, 1999.
Jenny Pausacker: Sundogs Hodder, 2001.
Jenny Pausacker: Dancing on Knives Lothian, 2004.
Jenny Pausacker, writing as Jaye Francis: First Impressions Greenhouse, 1988.
Jenny Pausacker, writing as Jaye Francis: Rebecca: Hot Pursuit 4 Penguin, 1991.
Daniella Petkovic, Maria Kokoris and Monica Kalinowska: Livin’ Large Pan, 1994.
Livin’ Large was written by three young women who met at an outer suburban Sydney high school in 1986 and later decided to write a novel together, “because they thought school life should be updated” (author biography). The high school in the novel is “rough and tough – you had to be strong to survive” (p 2), especially if you’re gay, like the main character’s friend Max Smith. Max makes the mistake of telling Tara McNosh that he fancies one of the “wog boys”, because “he thought Tara was too dumb to go and repeat whatever he told her.” (p 20) But the other guy challenges him to a knife fight and Max ends up in hospital, starting a downward spiral in which he drops out of school, is kicked out by his parents and lives in a caravan and parties with his twenty-five-year old boyfriend Fred, until Fred is diagnosed as HIV-positive. The narrator, Stassy Korvak, goes with Max to a clinic where the doctor tells him he is still HIV-negative but in the epilogue he is HIV-positive and reclusive, grieving his boyfriend and twin sister, who have died of AIDS and an overdose respectively.
In synopsis, Max’s story sounds like a cautionary tale about the dangers of being gay but in fact the lives of most of Stassy’s schoolmates are just as mind-numbingly dangerous. Stassy sympathises with Max (“The way I saw it, he should’ve been proud of his sexuality – but he wasn’t” (p 63)) and she’s often on the verge of supporting him publicly, although in the end she betrays him instead.
I wanted to be the heroine and go to Max, show all of these losers that being Max’s friend was cool – but something held me back. I guess I was too afraid of becoming the next public enemy at Deakin [high school] … I realised I was a follower too, and a try-hard, and a loser … I couldn’t single myself out ‘cause I was scared of what the rest would say. (pp 168 – 9)
On the other hand, Stassy makes it clear that Max’s gayness is an ineradicable stigma. It marks him out physically – he has a “soft, squeaky voice”, is “over-the-top, flamboyant and loud” (p 25) and “You could swear he thought like a woman sometimes, it made him so easy to talk to … He was like, [sic] a man in appearance, but with a feminine nature.” (p 42). And being gay also determines Max’s place in the pecking order at school and, by implication, in life generally.
I didn’t want things to turn out this way for Max, but I knew he’d never change. Max wasn’t a follower like the rest of us, and I kind of admired him for standing up for himself and stating his individuality to us all. But at the same time I felt sorry for him, ‘cause he was an outcast. Nothing was worse than being a reject teenager, no matter who you were. (p 64)
Aimee Said: Little Sister Walker, 2011.
Aimee Said has clearly put a lot of thought into what she wants to achieve in this novel. Sometimes she follows through on those thoughts, turning them into unexpected one-liners or unusual situations, but there are also times when she gets distracted and fails to develop other lines of thought, which means that Little Sister often feels like a rollercoaster ride. On the up side, students at the main character’s school start a gay-straight alliance, for the first time in an Australian kids’ book with LGBQ characters; on the down side, the alliance fails to take a stand when the most popular girl in the school is outed, even after the homophobes publish pictures on Facebook and tape copies to the walls in the boys’ toilets and locker rooms and all the noticeboards. On the up side, Said gives examples of the school system tacitly condoning homophobia – for instance, when the deputy principal removes a post on the school blog “demanding that the school ban the use of the word “gay” in a derogatory sense (p 35); on the down side, the deputy principal redeems herself by giving the main character “the closest thing to a smile I’d ever seen her attempt” (p 299), rather than by officially acknowledging the existence of homophobic bullying. On the up side, there’s a class discussion of the gay gene, deftly summarising the scientific arguments about whether homosexuality runs in families; on the down side, the novel seems to endorse the resolutely unscientific statement that “you can’t choose who you’re attracted to” (p 167).
Said starts with an example of resistance to homophobia –
As far as I could tell, Sally didn’t worry about what anyone thought of her. She’d outed herself during a Health and Development lesson in Year Nine, after Jamie Butcher claimed that lesbians just hadn’t met Mr Right yet. Sally let him know in no uncertain terms that there was a whole lot more to her attraction to girls. (p 35)
– but both Al, her main character, and Al’s high-achieving older sister Larissa embody the belief that homophobia is an almost unstoppable force, even in a school where 101 people have signed the petition for a gay-straight alliance. Larissa is outed while she’s on study break and refuses to say anything about it for most of the novel. The reasons for her silence never really become clear, presumably because the novel’s main focus is on Al. To begin with, Al comes across as very gay-friendly. She signs Sally’s petition for a gay-straight alliance without even bothering to read the blurb and has a weekend job in a cheese shop run by a gay male couple, Dylan and Jay, who are characters in their own right, not simply illustrations of a theme, described by Al as “the most in-love couple I knew” (p 248). However, when she hears the gossip that Larissa is involved with Beth, Al segues speedily from disbelief to feeling implicated and humiliated. All her friends take turns in criticising her failure to defend her sister, most notably Dylan, who says, “I feel like I’ve gone back in time thirty years and I’m talking to my dad” (p 198), but Al continues to experience a sense of shame that doesn’t seem to match the way she was initially characterised.
The closest Al and / or Said come to explaining why she is so mortified by the whispers and comments is when she tells the school counsellor that the real problem for her is Larrie herself, not Larrie’s sexual preference. Al’s sense of guilt by association only ends when she discovers that the person responsible for outing her sister is Josh, the boy Al is dating, who also calls the other team in a school football match “girly fags” (p 274). His homophobia eclipses Al’s own problems with Larissa and she instantly takes back her refusal to become co-president of the gay-straight alliance; publishes an article on the school blog that criticises the footy team’s homophobia, saying, “Even if we don’t call people names or write about them on walls or pay them out online, if we stand by and do nothing to stop the abuse, we have to share the blame” (p 283); and tells the same boy who dissed Sally early on that “I am a card-carrying, fully paid-up member of the Whitlam gay-straight alliance, and if that automatically makes me a lesbian to idiots like you, I don’t care.” (p 293)
There’s a complex set of forces interacting here – and I haven’t even mentioned the episode where Al kisses a girl and likes it, after being dared at a party. I also haven’t mentioned the guy from Al’s friendship group who issues the dare, Prad Chandarama, to whom Said gives some of the most homophobic lines in the novel (“Do they [Larissa and her girlfriend] let you watch?” (p 141)), while at the same indicating that we should read him as cheekily engaging, in a politically incorrect fashion. It’s hard to know what to say about Prad’s characterisation or Al’s girl-kiss because neither of them is taken far enough to give a clear sense of what they’re doing in the novel. Like Prad, Little Sister is both engaging and frustrating. I simultaneously loved Said’s abundance of ideas and wished that she had pruned back some of the abundance and either focused on homophobia in the school yard or let us see the central figures of Al and her family more clearly.
Tim Sinclair: Run Penguin, 2013.
Dee, short for David, the narrator of Tim Sinclair’s thriller-in-verse, has lots of good things to say about Jessie – “truest friend, / genuine genius with her feet on the ground” (p 16); “I watch her in awe. How lucky I am” (p 18); “she’s fierce, my Jessie, spunky girl” (p 33) Then, almost halfway through the novel, they go to a pub, where Dee is attracted to
And the feeling, it seems, is mutual. (p 97)
It’s a good trick to play on the reader, messing with our expectations about boy/girl friendships, and it’s also a useful plot device. Because Jessie looks like Dee’s potential girlfriend for so long, Sinclair doesn’t need to give Dee an actual girlfriend or a guy friend, both of which would add unnecessary elements to his streamlined narrative structure. At the same time, Jessie’s lesbianism isn’t just there for the author’s convenience: it forms the basis of her independent nature.
‘Why, yes, that is correct.’ (p 99)
Jessie isn’t just Dee’s sidekick either, the reliable Hermione-style back-up to his heroic Harry Potter. Dee gives multiple testimonies to the centrality of their friendship – “I knew where we stood. And where we stood was solid” (p 103) – but at the same time Sinclair makes it clear that Jessie gets involved in Dee’s problems with some mysterious infiltrators not only because she’s his friend but because she enjoys problem-solving for its own sake.
at the age of seven years old. (p 124)
And as well as having a complex personality and a secure place in the action (while Dee can outrun the main villain, it’s Jessie who hits him with a plank), she also has a brilliant girlfriend – Hannah Lim, “thrashing out another killer bass line / for her neo retro pop punk riot grrrl crew” (p 116) and taking her turn at saving Dee from the bad guys. They’re both larger than life and completely believable: I could totally see myself writing J/H fanfic.
Ruth Starke: Coming Out Omnibus, 1996.
Coming Out is a jeu d’esprit – a play on the 1970s term “coming out of the closet”, which in itself was simultaneously a play on the idea of debutantes coming out into society and the term “skeleton in the closet”. Ruth Starke puts a lot of work into making us believe that the students at a fairly ordinary state school would want to revive the debutante tradition and one of her strategies is to focus on three characters who are ambivalent about the deb ball but would clearly benefit from coming out of their shells. Phoebe is shy; Erin can’t tell her mother, the State Commissioner for Equal Opportunity, that she likes girly things; and Tom, who initially seems more socially adjusted, turns out to be acting a part and wishing, with increasing urgency, that he could tell the school that he’s gay.
Starke’s novel isn’t particularly concerned with her three characters’ inner lives. While Tom is technically one of the 9 gay male main characters on this list, we only go into his point of view for 7 pages of a 75 page book. In fact, most of Coming Out takes the form of letters to the school newspaper, memos from the principal (“I realise we live in so-called enlightened times. Nevertheless, I think the day is not yet with us when young men can escort other young men to school dances, let alone a formal debutante ball” (p 57)) and so on. Starke’s documentary approach signals that Coming Out is, first and foremost, a novel of ideas. The main debate is about whether Erin has a right to bake Blowaway Sponges and organise deb balls: she wins the cake battle but changes her mind about being a deb because
I realised what a meaningless charade the whole business was when the school wouldn’t let Tom Stenberg really come out. I mean, they denied him the right they grant to every other student, the right to attend the ball with the partner of his or her choice. (p 71)
And Tom himself reminds us that coming out of the closet was initially framed as a political act, not a purely personal matter, saying:
So, yeah, originally this was just a personal thing. You know, coming out, finally getting real. Now I’m doing it for all the other gay kids at Freemont. So they know they have the same rights as everybody else. And to deliver this message – nobody ever changed anything by hiding away in a closet. Come out. Start fighting. Start living! (p 74)
G. J. Stroud: Measuring Up Scribe, 2009.
Jonah, the first person narrator of Measuring Up, starts to suspect that his older brother Link is gay and his suspicions are confirmed when Link calls to say he’ll be bringing his boyfriend Sam to the family home in Merimbula. Link has a long talk with Jonah – “He said that being gay was the way he was born. Apparently I couldn’t catch it” (p 106) – and Jonah experiments with calling his brother “fag” and “Nancy”, till their mother tells him to stop. His narrative conveys no sense of concern or distress, right up to the moment where he bursts out:
‘I don’t get it and I never will. And you’ll go off to Canberra and live your poncey little life and I’ll be here getting slagged on because my big brother’s a poofter. And before you start all that PC crap, let me tell you that’s what people will say. That’s what we say around here. Homo and poofter. And now it’s like I’m in amongst all of that.” (p 112)
As it turns out, the only homophobia that Jonah experiences after Link’s return to Canberra comes from his mate Ferret, who – as Jonah’s girlfriend Mel and his other mate Dan point out – has a serious drug problem. (Dan’s only reaction, when Jonah admits that his brother is gay, is to mumble, “At least he’s getting a bit.” (pp 178 – 9)) So it’s hard to understand why Jonah attacks Ferret, suddenly and viciously – “I heard his head hit the ground as I squeezed my hand against his throat. I jammed my knee into his groin and belted him hard in the ribs” (pp 164 – 165). And it’s equally hard to see why the novel ends with Jonah and Link joking together, when we’ve been given no prior indication that Jonah has worked through his violent reaction to his brother being gay.
There are some nice moments in Measuring Up. Stroud shows Link and Sam being physically affectionate, which is unusual, and in a context where most fictional gay guys are unremittingly straight-acting, I liked the way Jonah began to realise Link was gay when he dropped out of university to become a male model (although Link is also an ace surfer). However, because Jonah says nothing about his feelings, it’s only possible to make sense of his apparently unmotivated attacks on Link and Ferret by assuming that anyone who finds out that their brother is gay is justified in becoming verbally or physically violent at times. In the same way, Stroud’s jump cut from Jonah feeling compromised by Link to Jonah joking with Link relies on an unstated assumption that families always manage to sort things out: to the best of my knowledge, neither of these assumptions is reliable.
Diana Sweeney: The Minnow Text, 2014.
Tom’s family died in a flood a year ago and at the beginning of the novel she’s living with Bill, who is the same age as her father, has sex with her when he finds out that she isn’t a boy and drops her off at her friend Jonah’s house after she becomes pregnant. Jonah, who was orphaned in the same flood, lives on his own in his family home and is currently in love with James Wo, one of their teachers. If, like me and Morrissey, you saw the movie A Taste of Honey at an impressionable age, you can’t help finding the combination of a gay guy and a pregnant girl ineffably romantic but in fact, Tom ends up spending more time with the other quirky minor characters in their country town, while Jonah’s main function is to look after Tom and her baby, the Minnow. Tom initially describes him as “Mr Concerned” and “a dreamer” (p 83) but after the Minnow is born, she says,
Jonah is a machine. He can cook breakfast, have a conversation with me, and rock the pram with his foot. He’ll probably learn to burp the Minnow while he’s studying. (p 214)
Then, in the second half of the novel, Jonah gets involved with Caleb Loeb. Tom distrusts Caleb, because she believes he is “a bully, but not overtly, more in an underhanded way”, on the basis that in year six he pretended to have a crush on their teacher but secretly despised her: Tom explains that “I knew this because Papa [her long-dead grandfather] taught me to read the signs” (p 86). (Interestingly, Diana Sweeney has also given Caleb the surname of one of the homosexual murderers of a fourteen year old boy, whose trial was the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope.) Later Tom tells us that “Caleb has done a runner” (p 226), confirming her suspicions, but when he returns, he takes up with Jonah again and Tom’s final comment on their relationship is
Don’t ask me about Caleb. I can’t bear thinking about him. Let’s just say I’m confident there is no future, so I have given up worrying. (p 251)
In a summary like this, Jonah could sound like an unabashed plot device – a baby-minding machine, whose presumed grief for his own family never intrudes on Tom’s grief narrative and whose first relationship is described only in terms of the narrator’s disapproval. In context, however, the loose ends in Sweeney’s characterisation of Jonah are just part of her overall methodology in a novel that also contains unanswered questions about Tom’s family, her relationship with Bill, her future with the Minnow and whether she can actually see dead people or whether she just has a vivid imagination. Readers who enjoy Sweeney’s general inconclusiveness won’t be concerned that her take on Jonah and his relationship with Caleb is inconclusive and readers who like to know where they stand will have bigger problems than the representation of her LGBQ characters.
Tegan Thomas: Rose Loves Nick Dolly Fiction 69 Australian Consolidated Publishing, 1991.
When Rose changes schools and starts hanging out with handsome, popular footballer Nick, everyone from her best friend Maria to Nick’s parents wants them to become a couple – everyone, that is, except Nick. His friend Jamila tells Rose, “We got really really well till we were practically best friends – but then he just seemed to shut off. As though we could go so far and no further” (p 40), after which it won’t come as a surprise to most readers to learn that Nick is gay. In general, Thomas takes a lighthearted approach to Rose’s and Nick’s problems, consistent with the novel’s position in a teen romance series. Nick has a coming out speech that gives him “a new found confidence” (p 141); Rose is able to move straight on to Nick’s older brother; and Thomas ties it all together with upbeat generalisations like “I’d finally realised that it didn’t matter what people thought you were – gay or anything else – if you knew what you were and felt good about it, then everything was okay.” (p 134)
At the same time, Rose’s reaction to her mother’s gay friend Michel, early in the novel, is uncompromisingly homophobic – “the truth is, he scared me. It’s pathetic, I know, but I didn’t know any gay men, and I felt really strange about Michel’s complete coolness on the subject.” (p 47) As a result, the changes in her attitudes to Michel and Nick represent an actual journey from one set of values to another, not just an opportunity for her and her author to demonstrate their politically correct credentials. When Rose cries on Michel’s shoulder because she has discovered that Nick is unattainable or defends Nick after inadvertently outing him at school, Thomas gestures towards ways in which a genre often seen as irrevocably heterosexual can become a gay-friendly space (although sadly she doesn’t give Rose a brother for Nick to go out with).
Kate Walker: Peter Omnibus, 1991.
Kate Walker spends the first three-quarters of her novel carefully establishing the set of circumstances that will lead Peter, a fifteen year old boy who has always assumed he will eventually find a girlfriend, to wonder whether he might be gay. The homophobic abuse in his trail bike group accelerates; he meets David, the gay friend of his older brother Vince (“He wasn’t the first gay I’d come across (we’ve got a couple of highly-possibles in year 12 at school) but he was the first I’d had a chance to study close up” (p 39)); he backs away from a sexually aggressive girl; his father stresses about some graffiti saying that Peter’s “services were available at two dollars a hit” (p 100); and finally he fights one of the trail bike guys and is comforted by David. “It was like coming home, like finding the place you’ve always wanted to be, and I could’ve stayed there forever holding onto him.” (p 118) Unfortunately, the hug is witnessed by Mrs Minslow, his mother’s cleaner, and immediately becomes the subject of a family conference, during which his father states that he couldn’t love Peter if he was gay. Then, in the final section of the novel, Walker takes Peter through a diagrammatic series of options for kids who are wondering about being gay – ringing Lifeline, looking at gay porn, consulting his brother, fantasising about David, talking to a girl he likes and finally attempting to seduce David, who tells him to wait.
Peter comes close to being a perfect example of the adolescent problem novel, with every character and situation economically and plausibly furthering Walker’s examination of her designated problem. There are only two points at which I felt that her control of her material faltered. The first point is the moment when Peter looks at a gay porn magazine in a public toilet, surrounded by the smell of urine and “everyone else’s shit-water”, evoking an aesthetic of gay abjection that would be familiar to readers of Jean Genet or Edmund White but seems less appropriate to a sexually inexperienced teenage boy. And I was equally disconcerted by David’s refusal to direct Peter towards any forms of support, like gay youth groups or books about homosexuality: he doesn’t even offer any relevant stories from his own life, apart from a contextually complacent declaration that “There was never any question about it for me.” (p 157) However, Walker may be deliberately distancing herself from gay male sexual practices and the gay community in order to focus the reader’s attention on her main thesis, which is that it’s okay to wonder whether you’re gay, because wondering about being gay doesn’t automatically lead to becoming gay. The possibility that Peter might indeed be gay isn’t completely dismissed but at the end of the novel he is left to spend the next three years passively waiting for some indisputable form of abstract revelation, rather than learning from a range of lived experiences and experiments.
NB: I’m talking about the 1991 Omnibus edition of Peter here: Kate Walker describes the ebook available from her website as “a slightly revised version”.
Sarah Walker: The Year of Freaking Out Pan, 1997.
Just as my novel What Are Ya? was the first Australian young adult novel with an LGBQ main character, The Year of Freaking Out, published ten years later, was the first Australian novel with an LGBQ first person narrator. Two years before the novel begins, Kim Holden had “a furious crush” on a woman teacher: she says indignantly,
I’d been made to feel like a freak. When Bog had had a major infatuation with Mr Derne, her music teacher, no one had sent her to the counsellor. (p 8)
So when Rachel, a new girl at her school, literally falls into her arms, Kim recognises the flutter in her stomach as a warning sign. “I wasn’t supposed to feel that way about a girl. It was wrong.” (p 15) At the same time, she can’t resist flirting with Rachel, even after she finds out that Rachel has a boyfriend and thinks, “If I continued to fall in love with girls like her, I was going to get badly hurt but where would I ever meet a girl who was like me?” (p 111) It’s an accurate prophecy: Rachel kisses Kim at a nightclub and then tries to shift the responsibility onto her, while complaining that the same thing has happened before with her best friend at her previous school.
Kim’s life is an emotional rollercoaster. One minute she’s twisting the arm of a year 7 kid who called her friend Kaz a fat cow; next minute she’s devastated when the principal says this might lead to her expulsion, saying,
Another heavy duty pause. Special problems. Sure. (p 68)
While her attraction to Rachel drives the narrative, Sarah Walker is equally interested in its effects on Kim’s multicultural friendship group. Chook feels left out, Nicky drifts off into her own relationship with Robbie and Bog calls Kim on it, saying, “As if we didn’t already know that you might be like that … It’s because you won’t admit it or talk about it that makes it such a big deal.” (p 134) Walker’s first person narration doesn’t follow the standard young adult formula, which produces a carbon copy of Holden Caulfield that emphasises his use of humour to distance emotion. Instead, Kim has her own kind of ferocious humour (“Bloody poser, I thought. Why were teachers such savages?” (p75)) and her own distinctive voice – urgent, self-aware, opinionated and vulnerable by turns.
For Kim, sorting out her sexual preference is only one aspect of sorting out her place in the world. in some ways, it’s more important to tell other people that her uncle has been sexually abusing her, especially when she realises he’s also sexually abusing his daughter. But coming out to herself and her friends is important too and Kim goes about it in her unique way – sometimes making realistic assessments of her situation (“The idea of kissing Matthew wasn’t repulsive, whereas the idea of kissing Rachel was attractive. I wouldn’t mind spending more time with Matthew, whereas I really wanted to spend more time with Rachel” (p 111)) and sometimes acknowledging her contradictions (“It was one thing to admit to myself that I was probably gay, but I still couldn’t bring myself to talk about it.” (p 135))
Above all, The Year of Freaking Out confronts a range of assumptions about the ways in which lesbian narratives are supposed to work. Walker reverses the pre-Gay Liberation trope that lesbian desire has to be paid for by a character’s death, often in a car crash: there is indeed a car crash in her novel but this time no one is hurt. She also reverses the central trope of the first American young adult novels about lesbians, where the main character is a “real lesbian” who is let down by a flighty femme: while Rachel is definitely a flighty femme, she develops and changes, just as Kim does, and the novel ends with the possibility of a relationship between them. Last but not least, The Year of Freaking Out challenges the current belief that all coming out narratives are alike, not simply because Kim’s story is so resolutely individual but because it’s contextualised by stories about a straight guy (Matthew), a questioning girl (Rachel) and, more unexpectedly, another lesbian.
“Besides, if it hadn’t been for you having the guts to tell me about Rachel, I’d probably still be denying it to myself,” Chook admitted. (p 214)
Sarah Walker: Water Colours Hodder, 2000.
Most of the LGBQ adult relatives and family friends on this list are fairly exemplary but Aunty Eddy in Water Colours goes further than that. She reminds me of the gloriously eccentric great aunts of classic British children’s literature.
Aunty Eddy was fun – she was a bit strange, and had a loud voice and said things that no one was supposed to say. She even swore in front of Grandma without saying sorry. Aunty Eddy called me ‘cherry chops’, and ‘petal pie’ and ‘lambikins’ and made a fuss of me whenever I visited her and Aunty Gail. (p 22)
Like the eccentric great aunts, Aunty Eddy isn’t just a comic character: she gives the main character Bea alternative ways of understanding her world.
She liked to understand something completely before she made up her mind. If you held up two shirts and asked her to pick the one she liked best, she wouldn’t just point to one, like most people. No. Aunty Eddy would have to know what material it was made from, what country it was made in, what the washing instructions were and how much it cost. Then, maybe, she’d be ready to make a decision. (p 81)
Aunty Eddy is in fact an honorary aunt of the main character Bea, a childhood friend of her dead mother, and she has already explained, when Bea asked her why she never married, that she is married to Aunty Gail. After Bea’s grandmother decides she can’t cope with a teenager, Bea asks Aunty Eddy if she can live with her and Aunty Gail, rather than with her biological aunt and uncle, and Aunty Eddy says:
“I think you’re better off with me as your good friend, rather than your parent. Everyone needs a place to escape to – and this is your place, Bea. If you lived here, where would you go to get away from everyone else?”
She gave me her best smile. And I couldn’t help smiling back. I didn’t quite agree with her, but at the same time, there was something special about the feeling her words gave me. So maybe she had a point. (p 83)
There are more testing times to come. When Bea finds out that her mother killed herself and that her extended family has been lying to her for thirteen years, she lashes out at all of them but particularly at Aunty Eddy. In the discussions that follow, Aunty Eddy explains that neither she nor Bea’s biological aunt and their respective partners would be living in a small seaside town if they hadn’t made it their priority to stay close to Bea. That information turns Bea’s anger around and the last we see of Aunty Eddy is “her usual kind expression, tinged with amusement” (p 177). Aunty Eddy is the embodiment of the Australian expression “no drama” and she’s also a sterling example of a character whose lesbianism is crucial to her narrative function, rather than a character who just happens to be LGBQ. She’s there for Bea because she was in love with Bea’s mother and the reason she and Aunty Gail are so good at being there for people is glossed by Bea and one of her friends.
No, because too many people judge them, I thought to myself. (p 104)
Kate Welshman: Posse Random House, 2009.
I never really figured out how Kate Welshman intended me to read Posse. To begin with, I assumed she was flagging sixteen year old Amy as an unreliable narrator, who sees all the women around her as either incredibly beautiful or incredibly gross, uses language as flowery as Humbert Humbert (she describes her fourteen year old girlfriend as “shapely, flame-haired. She drives me wild” (p 27)) and insists on her own truthfulness to an extent that inevitably made me wonder whether she was telling the truth (“I can’t lie to save myself. It’s odd because both my parents are prodigious liars” and so on. (p 6)) But then the focus shifted to Bevan, a teacher in his thirties who assaults both Amy and her friend Clare at a school camp, and I started to see Posse as a Jodi-Picoult-style combination of high emotion and legal conundrums. (Welshman’s biographical note tells us that she is a barrister.)
In fact, however, the investigation of Bevan’s ethical and legal position gradually peters out, its main outcome being that Amy phones Lizzie, her lawyer stepmother, for help and ends up staying with Lizzie and her father for the first time in five years. At this point, it looks as though the incident at the camp is being framed as an opportunity for Amy to learn some life lessons – most notably, that she may have been taking advantage of Marina, in the same way as Bevan took advantage of her. Where Amy initially said, “She’s only fourteen, but she seems to be leading us through the physical side of our relationship” (p 69), now she acknowledges that
From time to time I’ve sensed she wasn’t completely happy with the physical things we were doing, but I brushed off those concerns. She’s fully developed, I told myself. She can handle it. She’s the one who kissed me. She enjoys it. (p 256)
The layers of potential paedophilia reach Hitchcockian levels of everyday Gothic with Amy’s mother, who wouldn’t let Amy’s father kiss Amy-as-a-baby on the face, “in case people thought it was sexual” (p 22), and Amy’s father, who celebrates their reunion by giving her wine, then coming into her bedroom wearing
‘I knew you’d come back to me, Amy …’ (p 243 – 4)
However, my life lesson theory was demolished in the final chapter, where Amy, reflecting on her story six months later, reveals that she didn’t stick to her resolve to break up with Marina but that Marina broke up with her, for being “unfaithful” with Bevan. The internal contradictions of Amy’s narrative temporarily revived my unreliable narrator theory but I gave up on theorising altogether when the novel ended with a fantasy in which Amy reverse-engineers herself into an ordinary schoolgirl with no interest in sex, who loves her schooldays and whose parents are proud of her. In synopsis, I can see that Posse’s dramatic shifts from one genre to another and its melodramatic treatment of sexuality could sound like a queercore “let’s see how far we can take it” collaboration between Kathy Acker and John Waters. But, while I’m still not sure exactly what Welshman is aiming for, I feel pretty sure that she intends us to take Amy literally, not as performing a camply ironic undermining of school and family values, when she says in the final words of the novel:
That’s a dream I’ve held secretly for a while. Now it’s actually within my grasp. (p 278)
Chris Wheat: Loose Lips Hyland House, 1998.
Loose Lips is the first in a series of novels by Chris Wheat about kids in Melbourne secondary schools. Wheat was working as a teacher and it shows in his encyclopaedic knowledge of school culture and idiom. The novels deal with the same issues as traditional young adult problem novels but the affect is very different, because Wheat writes in the comic mode and tells multiple stories which contextualise each other. In Loose Lips, for instance, Joshua comes out in slow succession to his mother, his older brother, his father, his girlfriend Zeyneb and his new friend (and crush object) Angelo, whose reactions range from tears to instant flight. Instead of going into Joshua’s reactions, however, Wheat keeps crossing to the stories of Matilda (raised by dingoes), Chelsea (running an escort service from school) or Zeyneb (whose OCD requires her to line up everything from her brother’s trainers to the wheelie bins in her street), all of which makes Joshua’s story relatively ordinary. Joshua isn’t even the only gay in the school: two-thirds of the way through the book, Angelo’s crush object Georgia turns up at school with a shaved head and tells her best friend, “I went to the hairdressers and when I came out I was a lesbian.” (p 117) Georgia, who is adopted, also finds out that her biological father is an Indian prince, making her “Vistaview Secondary College’s first lesbian princess senior girls hockey captain” (p 163) – and, in the process, letting Wheat gesture towards the variety of coming out narratives and the variety of reactions that young gay men and women might expect.
Chris Wheat: Grinders Hyland House, 2001.
In this novel, Chris Wheat tracks a year at another multicultural school by following two of the teachers and two of the final year students, Grace Busuttil and her boyfriend Kurt Buzinski. Grace’s friend Aaron is gay and his close friend Ben dies of a heroin overdose towards the end of the year but their stories are told indirectly, through their impact on Kurt and Grace. Even before Aaron comes out to Grace, she is offended by the compulsive homophobia of Kurt’s friend Darren and refuses to have anything to do with him, although at the same time she tries (unsuccessfully) to talk to a younger boy on the bus who is experimenting with homophobic abuse. Kurt’s acceptance of Aaron in the final pages (“He’s cool. I like him too. It doesn’t matter to me” (p 165)) is a turning point in his relationship with Grace, changing him from a temporary boyfriend into someone she can imagine sharing her life with. Wheat’s focus in Grinders isn’t on the experience of homosexuality but on the way one character’s gayness affects the lives of the straight characters around him, most notably by functioning as a touchstone for their liberal values.
Chris Wheat: Screw Loose Allen & Unwin, 2008.
Most sequels operate on the same principle as What Katy Did Next, giving us more of the same. In Screw Loose, however, Chris Wheat uses what he has already done in Loose Lips as a springboard, launching off from the coming out narratives of Joshua and Georgia to create multiple perspectives on what it means to be gay at school. The two of them have some homophobic stereotypes to contend with (when social-climbing Chelsea tries to start a rowing club, one of the boys asks, “How gay is rowing?” (p 30)), as well as some equally stereotypical idealisation (Joshua’s friend Angelo thinks, “Joshua always had the answers – gay guys always did.” (p 5)) Worse still, Chelsea talks the principal into celebrating Gay Week, which involves outing Georgia and Joshua at a school assembly and “playing songs by Elton John over the public address system at lunchtime” (p 71) – although, having extracted all the comic implications from this situation, Wheat also observes that afterwards “whenever someone called a thing gay, like a salad sandwich, and then noticed [Joshua] near by, they apologised and sometimes gave him a peace sign.” (p 86) And both Georgia and Josh experience first love – Georgia meeting Tamsin (“Call me Tim”) Court-Cookson at Mary Magdalene Ladies’ College and bonding instantly; Josh meeting deaf emo Heath on Gaywayz and being called a “prejudiced prick” (p 136) at first meeting but learning to love Heath and his guinea pigs.
At the same time, their straight friends Angelo and Zeynep are having their own gender-bending problems. Angelo, taken up by an AFL team, is told, “You can’t be a professional footballer and refuse to dress up like a woman. That’s out of the question … It’s a bonding thing. We want well-adjusted young lads in the Cockatoos, not fruitloops.” (p 130) Zeynep, conversely, has to dress as a boy to meet Angelo secretly, resulting in a YouTube-backed rumour that Angelo is gay. Meanwhile, Joshua overhears his parents’ friends talking about their gay dogs at a dinner party and Georgia’s biological parents are fine about her lesbianism but want to arrange a marriage for her, while the aunt and uncle who brought her up are described, with Wheat’s characteristic ironic tolerance, as
dear people, although they told her there were no lesbians in the Bible. She had read some of the Bible, but it was an enormous book with quite a few dull patches, and the thought of searching it for any mention of lesbians made her feel tired. Her uncle and aunt prayed for her salvation, and Georgia counter-prayed for a girlfriend. Their prayers seemed to have cancelled one another out.
Nadia Wheatley: The Blooding Penguin, 1987.
When a group of environmental activists come to the logging town Cornwall, Colum, the son of a logger, has to reassess the way he sees the world, including his sense of masculinity. The customs of the Cornwall community are a mixture of homophobia and homoeroticism and through Col’s eyes, Wheatley shows us how they reinforce each other: men are allowed to give each other “drunken kisses”, as long as they call outsiders cissies or poofters. Col’s father worries that his wife is turning Col into a pansy, by knitting him Fair Isle jumpers or washing his clothes too regularly, and Col himself accepts Cornwall values to begin with, saying:
What the reporter said about ‘drunken kisses.’ Yeah, sometimes when we’re pissed we do kiss I suppose you’d call it sometimes, but we’re not poofs or anything. And it’s not kisses. Not like you’d do with a girl. Just like footballers do, when they’re proud of each other, and mates. Not like that poofter that came down from the Ministry, that hung around with Kathy Dolan. What I reckon is, poofs should at least stick with poofs. Not hang around with girls. (p 35)
“That poofter”, Garry Lazlo from the Ministry of Conservation, Forests and Tourism, is the first challenge to Col’s certainties. When a schoolmate says, “That Garry Whatsit’s a poofter”, Col’s response is, “I was kind of interested, because I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen one in real life.” (p 46) When they actually meet, Garry reminds him of the ancient Greek statue of the charioteer, so the gay-literate reader won’t be surprised to find Col dreaming, later in the novel, of dancing naked with Garry.
Meanwhile, Col is also torn between “the greenie bit of me” that wants to preserve the bushland and “normal old Col, one of the boys” (p 127) who is more concerned to protect the loggers’ jobs. After the conflict inside and outside of Col results in a showdown, he ends up staying with Garry and his partner Rick. When Garry warns Col that he is gay, Col says, “I think I might be too”, to which Garry replies, “No such luck” (p 168) – an assertion that Col seems to accept, because next minute he realises that he has been writing his account for Kathy, a girl from his school who has been a continuous presence at the edge of the narrative. To my mind, this sequence of events establishes Col as heterosexual, rather than questioning – but a new kind of heterosexual, one who assesses the evidence and makes an informed decision about their sexual preference, rather than seeing heterosexuality as the default setting and LGBQ as the exceptions.
Terry Whitebeach: Watersky Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1998.
Watersky is told from the perspectives of two first person narrators – Brodie, who ends up in a psychiatric hospital after a personal tragedy, and Heather, a student doing postgraduate research at the hospital – but the novel revolves around Jana, a psychiatric patient with an unshakeable belief that she comes from another world. With Jana as her benchmark, it’s not hard for Terry Whitebeach to convince us that it’s relatively ordinary for Heather’s friend Jeremy to come back from a trip overseas with an English boyfriend, even when Jeremy’s parents are so upset that “there’d be no fatted calf killed for this prodigal son”. (p 171) Jeremy and his boyfriend aren’t poster gays – when Heather is called in to facilitate their first encounter with Jeremy’s parents, she observes that “the sangfroid of his [Jeremy’s] lover, a cool bloodless Englishman called Tristan, would have done justice to a dead fish” (p 153), while Jeremy himself “just wasn’t scared of the truth, however unpalatable”. (p 163) The couple become crucial to the narrative when Tristan, who works as a community theatre director, puts on a performance of Jana’s story, which convinces her that this part of her Quest is complete. Brodie, Heather, Jeremy and Tristan then agree to help Jana return to her own world.
‘It’s a risk,’ Jeremy said again, ‘and if something does happen to her, we’d be in deep shit.’ ‘Especially us three,’ Tristan said with a laugh, looking meaningfully at Jeremy and then at Brodie. ‘Marginalised members of society. They’d lock us up and throw away the key.’ (p 219)
Jana then disappears into the waterfall she was originally found beside and the novel ends with Heather’s deadpan comment, “That just left me with the problem of how to write up the case notes.” (p 223)
Margaret Wild: Jinx Allen & Unwin, 2001.
Jinx is a novel in verse, spotlighting moments of intense feeling within a group of people who are all, in Tolstoy’s words, “unhappy in different ways”. The main character, for example, is a young woman who changes her name from Jen to Jinx after her first two boyfriends die in quick succession. One of the few counterbalances to all this unhappiness is the story of Jen’s friend Connie, who is openly gay at school and establishes an ongoing relationship with Megan, although she can’t tell her family about it. While Connie’s story only occupies 8 of the novel’s 215 pages, it’s relatively unusual to read about a gay kid who is as open about her feelings as her straight friends, without automatically becoming a target for homophobia. At school Connie can make jokes about liking a new boy better when he dresses up as a girl, even if she can’t yet see how to come out to her family and their Greek community.
Lili Wilkinson, Pink Allen & Unwin, 2009.
Pink starts by inverting the standard narrative conventions of gay fiction and presenting a world in which Ava’s three year relationship with Chloe is taken for granted at school and actively encouraged by her parents, while Ava’s forbidden desire is to wear her pink argyle cashmere jumper in public. This is an old joke – comedian Gretel Killeen’s story in Mark Macleod’s 1996 anthology Ready or Not is called “Tragically Straight” and I published a novel called How to Tell your Parents that You’re Straight in 1998 – but Lili Wilkinson plays it relatively seriously, asking her readers to see Ava’s girlfriend’s and parents’ potential disapproval as sufficient justification for Ava’s decision to change schools, rather than just putting on that jumper.
Admittedly, by chapter 4, Ava has acknowledged that she doesn’t just want to wear a pink jumper: she also wants to date boys, be normal and sing in her new high school’s musical. At this point, it looks as though Pink is going to be a novel about coming out as straight but in fact Ava fails the audition for the musical, joins the stage crew and spends the rest of the novel trying to give its freaks and geeks a makeover, in the manner of Jane Austen’s Emma – teaching Sam maths, matchmaking Kobe and Jen and then, when Jen turns out to be lesbian, taking her to the “semi-goth emo lesbian” café where Chloe hangs out. (Jen hasn’t told the rest of the stage crew that she’s attracted to girls because she assumes they’ll hate her, although one of the guys is openly gay.) After various mishaps – ‘This whole Emma thing was never meant to be so hard’ (p136) – Ava learns to see the freaks and geeks as more authentic than either the popular girls or the semi-goth emo lesbians, resolving the Emma plot but not the question of her sexual preference.
The disparate elements of Pink are held together by its ongoing value judgements, which cover everything from gender through to old Penguin classics, although I’ll focus here on the right and wrong ways of being gay. Jules, one of the stage crew, won’t audition for the musical because he believes it would make him look “ghey-with-an-h”.
‘There’s two kinds of gay,’ Jules explained. ‘There’s normal-gay, which is people like me who happen to like boys but are otherwise functioning members of society. And then there’s ghey-with-an-h. Gheys-with-an-h have shiny, shiny skin from too much exfoliating. Gheys-with-an-h constantly apply lip gloss – not lip balm, but lip gloss. Cherry-flavoured. And they wear women’s jeans … Oh, and they walk like ladies. Not women,’ he added hurriedly, catching my outraged look. ‘Ladies. The kind of ladies who have their hair set once a week and use lavender-scented drawer liners.” (p 65)
Jules isn’t the only character who bases important decisions on their value judgements about queers. Alexis, the unquestionably straight leader of the popular girls at Ava’s new school, used to be friends with Jen but dropped her when Jen came out, because she assumed that Jen would “want to hang out with other lesbians and wear polar fleece and stop watching BSG and start watching The L Word.’ (p 255) And the narrative makes as many judgements as its characters. We know it’s good for Ava to get away from Chloe, because Chloe smokes, calls Jen “a retarded gimp monkey” (p 200) and has all the signifiers of a lesbian vampire – she is pale, dresses in black, associates exclusively with other semi-goth emo lesbian and just before she comes out to Ava, “there was something weird in her face. She seemed frightened, but also hungry somehow.” (p 10)
Wilkinson clearly sees Pink as gay-friendly – she dedicates it to David Levithan, saying, “I hope this one helps kill a few more vampires” (see Levithan’s article here for an explanation), and she qualifies all the negative stereotypes presented by her characters or her narrative. Ava tells Jules that he’s being misogynistic and sees Chloe as vulnerable on several occasions, while Jules himself kisses Miles, the main theatre ghey, at the cast party, although his last words in the novel are “I hardly even remember it!” At the same time, Pink evokes more gay and lesbian stereotypes at greater length than any other Australian children’s or young adult novel that I’m aware of. While Ethan, the stud muffin, turns out to be a virgin and Alexis, the straight “mean girl”, is rehabilitated by turning out to be a repressed geek who used to watch sci-fi movies with Jen, Chloe and Miles remain the lesbian vampire and “mincing queer” (p 66) that they have always been.
And all of this is just the context within which Ava is trying to explore her own sexual preference. At the end of the novel she’s still asking Chloe whether they can try again but she’s also telling Sam that although she likes him, she can’t take it any further, because she’s not sure whether she is ”straight or gay, or gay with a twist of straight or what” (p 285). Sam, the Mr Knightley figure, suggests that “it’s okay to be both” (p 285) but even he can’t actually say the B word. On one level, I was relieved that Wilkinson didn’t complement her list of gay stereotypes with a list of bisexual stereotypes but on another level, I was baffled by the implication that Ava had either never heard the term LGBTQI or never asked one of the semi-goth emo lesbians what the B stood for. (If you want to read a more detailed interpretation of Wilkinson’s construction of bisexuality, check my bibliography for Barbara Epstein’s article “The Case of the Missing Bisexuals”, which concludes, “this is yet another young adult novel in which bisexuality is not portrayed as an acceptable identity’ and Bonnie Kneen’s article, “Neither Very Bi nor Particularly Sexual”, which sees Ava as ‘fill[ing] the bisexual space or gap in the lives of teenage readers with the most disempowering of compromises: she suggests that bisexuality is a form of identity, with all the restrictions and prescriptions that this entails, but without the sense of belonging and community associated with shared identity”.)
NB Jules’s use of ‘ghey’ is an idiosyncratic one that didn’t match any of the definitions on the Urban Dictionary or Wiktionary in 2015.
Lili Wilkinson: Love-shy Allen & Unwin, 2012.
Like Pink, Love-shy is a romantic comedy that references Jane Austen’s Emma and presents LGBQ issues in several different ways. It starts from a premise that requires Penny Drummond, girl reporter, to interview all the guys at her school who might have been posting on the love-shy forum. Lili Wilkinson establishes straight away that the men who suffer from this condition are heterosexual and Penny therefore exempts Clayton Bell, because he’s gay, although she adds that he “insisted that I interview him, to prove I wasn’t homophobic, then badgered me to allocate more money from the SRC budget to the Gay-Straight Alliance” (p 50). There’s also a moment where “Clayton Bell marched past, his arms full of rainbow-coloured bunting for the Gay-Straight Alliance Lamington Drive” (p 115) and at the end-of-novel dance Penny sees “Clayton Bell making out with the Year Nine boy he’d brought as his date” (p 306) – all of which adds up to an example of the sort of thing that, hopefully, every second young adult novel will eventually contain, reminding the reader that there will be some LGBQ kids in every school, even if the writer happens to be focusing on the straight kids.
While Clayton is a deft background detail, the second construction of gayness in Love-shy is part of the plot – specifically, Penny’s backstory. A few years before the novel begins, her father Allen realised he was gay but, unlike the gay fathers in Thriller and Me or Six Impossible Things, he stuck around. In this case, Penny’s mother is the one who walked out, leaving the house without Penny a few minutes after Allen said he was gay and then taking a job on the other side of Australia. Although Penny’s mother’s behaviour is as unusual statistically as it is in fiction, Wilkinson doesn’t go into much detail about her reasons for abandoning her daughter or the precise effects it’s had on Penny. In the absence of any clear motivation, it looks as if her characterisation of Penny’s mother depends on the assumption that finding out someone’s gay is so inherently traumatic that it temporarily excuses any kind of behaviour – an assumption that pathologises gayness as unobtrusively as the characterisation of Clayton normalises it.
Even more disconcertingly, we’re told early on that Penny once interviewed a guy called Bradley Wu for an article on gay students, in which she claimed, for no reason given in the novel, that he was gay.
BRADLEY: I don’t. But I’m not one of them. And I had to explain that to my girlfriend. And my mother. (pp 45 – 6)
This is bizarre behaviour, both for a girl who sees herself as an old school fact-checking journalist and for a girl whose own mother is still completely devastated by learning that her husband was gay. I wondered briefly whether Wilkinson intended me to see Penny’s passive-aggressive attitude towards Bradley as a manifestation of her latent hostility towards her distraught mother or her gay father but the moment of catharsis she gives Penny at the end of the novel involves having “a proper cry” (p 294), not expressing her anger at either or both of her parents. Meanwhile, Penny’s inability to hear what Bradley Wu is telling her is combined with an inability to see Asian students in general. (“The Asian kids … mostly had the same hair and eye colour, and similar-shaped faces. I supposed that made me seem horribly racist, but everyone else was such a riot of different hair and eyes and freckles and stuff that it was easier to tell them apart.” (p 25)) In this context, Penny’s attempt to talk Bradley into agreeing that he’s gay definitely places her in the territory of homophobic bullying described in other recent titles on this list. So the third construction of gayness in Love-shy is its protagonist’s ambiguously positioned homophobia and racism, which goes beyond some endearing minor slip-ups that most readers could identify with but falls short of any analysis, explanation or catharsis.
Fiona Wood, Six Impossible Things Pan, 2010.
Dan Cereill is in trouble. One of the six things that strike him as impossible is the prospect of speaking to his father Rob, who has just announced that “the family business was in the hands of receivers, he had been declared bankrupt, he was gay and he was moving out.” (p 4) Dan’s immediate reaction is that the main problem is “not because he’s gay; it’s because he’s shot through and upset Mum …” p 22) but Rob’s gayness clearly upsets him more than the fact that his bankrupt father is currently spending a month at “a “wellness” retreat in Byron Bay. Getting centred or grounded or something.” (p 189) In general, Dan’s tone is wry and jokey – “I wonder a lot about him being gay. Did he always know it? Or was it unexpected, like a fit of sneezing?” (p 103) – but he also says at one point:
I’m beginning to think that getting used to my father being gay is something like going into the ocean. It’s freezing to an unbearable level for a while, then once you’re in it feels fine and you wonder what the problem was. Unfortunately, I’m still only in up to my ankles taking chicken-shit steps. (p 71)
His first turning point comes where he eavesdrops on his mother telling her friends that his father “would be just as happy for Dan to live with him, but we thought it’d be better if he stays with me” (p 122), after which Dan notices that “I’m thinking he’s maybe less of a bastard than I thought.” (p 123) The following day he rebukes the kids at his new school for using ‘faggot’ and ‘gay’ as insults and discovers that “Even though I can’t talk to him, I’m on my dad’s side. I feel angry on his behalf.” (p 126) Eventually he is able to write “a quick self-help ‘nine stages of how I came to terms with my father’s sexuality’”, which goes:
He’s gay, but I really don’t want to know about it. (p 191)
However, the down side of all of Dan’s common sense, humour and openly acknowledged emotion is that it makes his refusal to speak to his father seem more like a plot device than an integral part of his characterisation. This central ambiguity is reinforced by the fact that Rob Cereill never actually makes an appearance in the novel and all we ever learn about him, via Dan’s eavesdropping, is that he used to say he was bisexual and Dan’s mother’s friends always thought he was too handsome to be straight. Dan’s reconciliation with him is similarly oblique, achieved not through a meeting or even a phone call but through finally reading a letter his father has given him, which is rendered as a series of key words: “… pretty thick … not know … gay … I’m sorry …” (p 349) Wood goes to puzzling lengths to ensure that her readers never get a chance to form their own independent impression of Rob, which has the disconcerting effect of making it seem more important for Dan to come to terms with gayness in the abstract than with his gay father in person.
Fiona Wood: Wildlife Pan, 2013.
In her second novel, Fiona Wood looks at gay parents again but from a very different angle. Grieving for her dead boyfriend Fred, Lou leaves her old school and goes to Mount Fairweather, which is a cross between a school camp and a boarding school. Thirty pages from the end, a particularly mean girl sees Lou and another girl returning from the bathroom together and says, “Have you two finally gone lezzer?” (p 331) Lou replies, “No, we are not”, then adds, “And PS … my parents are both women”. A brief discussion establishes that Lou’s mothers’ sperm donor was one of their brothers, which “means that I’m biologically related to Biff as well as to Mum” (p 332), to which the mean girl responds, “That’s sick” and Sib, who shares the first person narration with Lou, says, “No, it’s bloody not, now shut up.” And that’s it. In Lou’s half of the narrative, she never comments on the fact that she has two mothers, any more than Sib ever comments on the fact that she has a mother and a father.
If Wildlife was a standalone novel, I’d read this as Wood expanding her view of gay parenting by demonstrating that, while Dan’s father became a gay parent by accident, it’s equally possible to become gay parents by choice and that, while Dan was disconcerted when his dad came out, Lou takes her mothers’ lesbianism for granted. But in fact, Lou has already made an appearance as one of Dan’s new schoolmates in Six Impossible Things, where Wood presented her as so uncompromisingly forthright that her first words to Fred are “Our social is in two weeks and Dan thinks I should ask you. I trust his opinion and he says I wouldn’t hate spending some time with you – so would you like to come?’ (p 176). When Dan confronts the kids at their school who “use faggot and gay as insults”, adding that “they do it all the time” (p 126), Lou says, “Slam dunk”. On my first reading that seemed like another example of her directness but when I returned to that scene after reading Wildlife, the fact that she just makes a brief detached comment from the sidelines looked like a clear indication that she’d never mentioned her mothers’ lesbianism at school, either to Dan or to the homophobic kids – a discovery that retrospectively changed the entire basis of her characterisation.
To keep the school homophobes from finding out that her parents are lesbians, Lou must’ve stayed silent for years while they used faggot and gay as insults “all the time”. She must’ve had to make sure that only one of her mothers ever came to the school; she must’ve had to watch everything she said, to avoid mentioning her two mums; and she must’ve accepted from primary school onwards that she could never invite other kids home. What’s more, she must’ve done all of this consciously, because her mothers’ existence is too integral a part of her life to be suppressed by accident, which means that for all of her years at her first school she has either been deeply ashamed of her lesbian mothers or deeply terrified of the other kids. Either way, in the subtext that underlies these two novels, Lou is as secretive and compromised as she is forthright and uncompromising in Wood’s text.
Because Lou’s decision to talk about her parents in Wildlife is seen through Sib’s eyes, we never find out why she was closeted-at-one-remove in Six Impossible Things or why she decided to come out at her next school. So it’s impossible to tell whether Wood was working on the assumption that even a confident, assertive kid would naturally avoid mentioning their gay parents, if some of the kids at their school used “gay” as a pejorative, or whether she simply hadn’t thought about all the labour that would have to go into keeping such a basic fact of Lou’s life secret. Either way, this contradiction in her characterisation of Lou is a textbook example of the way in which a writer’s construction of LGBQ issues depends as much on the context they create as on the specific words they use.
Fiona Wood: Cloudwish Pan Macmillan, 2015.
But wait! In Fiona Wood’s third novel, Lou is back again, starting out at yet another new school, and this time she has clearly been up-front about her lesbian mothers from day one, because “she has some extra cachet thanks to having lesbian mothers. Which seems to have been judged as cool.” (p 17) So there’s a happy ending to Lou’s story: after her years of silence she now gets to share the “cachet” created by the work of LGBTQI activists and the visibility of lesbians like Penny Wong, referenced on the same page of Wood’s novel – visibility, of course, also being a form of work.
Lou’s new openness has a domino effect. Jess, the lesbian best friend of Wood’s protagonist Vân Uoc Phan, “actually whooped and air-punched at the lesbian mothers revelation”. (p 17) Jess describes herself as a lesbian-in-waiting.
She’d known she wasn’t straight since forever, but believed to the tips of her toenails that there was no way she could come out to her parents until she left school and could support herself, because it was likely they would get the locks changed rather than accept her sexuality. (p 17)
Jess’s main function in the novel is to react with suspicion when rich, good-looking Billy Gardiner seems to be interested in Vân Uoc, although she is rewarded by meeting a private school girl called Eliza while she’s covering for Vân Uoc’s first date with Billy.
‘I don’t know,’ said Jess. ‘A girl can dream.’ (p261)
But although Jess plays a minor role in the novel as a whole, she serves as a useful reminder that, even in 2015, there were kids who would have been relieved, rather than embarrassed, if their parents had hung a rainbow flag in their foyer (like the parents in Life in Outer Space) or thrown them a coming-out party (like the parents in Pink) or put a rainbow flag in the window of their café (like the father in The Flywheel). Wood also reminds us that the overwhelming majority of LGBQ kids are still economically dependent on their parents and, like Jess, can’t be openly LGBQ without getting their parents’ approval or losing their main financial support: a soberingly appropriate note on which to end these annotations.
(NB: The titles in bold are novels which arguably contain main characters who are identified as LGBQ.)
Pina Grieco-Tiso: Sticks and Stones Random House, 1998.
Nette Hilton: Square Pegs Harper Collins, 1991.
Laurene Kelly: Still Waving Spinifex, 2005.
Rebecca Lim: Afterlight Text, 2015.
Helen Manos: Snapshots Ominibus, 1995.
Irini Savvides: Sky Legs Hodder Headline, 2003.
Eleanor Spence: A Candle for St Antony OUP, 1977.
Sarah Walker: Camphor Laurel Pan, 1998.
Frank Willmott: Suffer Dogs Fontana Lions, 1985.
Alasdair Duncan: Sushi Central UQP, 2003.
Metro UQP, 2006.
Kerryn Higgs: All that False Instruction (Angus and Robertson, 1976, republished by Spinifex, 2001.)
Emily O’Beirne: A Story of Now Yiva, 2015.
The Sum of these Things Yiva, 2015.
Hoa Pham: Wave Spinifex, 2015.
S. R. Silcox: Crush Juggernaut Books, 2015.
Christos Tsiolkas: Loaded Vintage, 1995.
Barracuda Allen & Unwin, 2013.
Michelle Cooper: A Brief History of Montmaray Random House, 2010.
The FitzOsbornes in Exile Random House, 2010.
The FitzOsbornes at War Random House, 2012.
Kelly Gardiner: The Sultan’s Eyes Harper Collins, 2013.
Catherine Jinks: Pagan in Exile Omnibus, 1994.
Pagan’s Scribe Omnibus, 1996.
Carolyn Logan: The Huaco of the Golden God Angus and Robertson, 1988.
Doug Macleod: The Shiny Guys Penguin, 2012.
Michael Noonan: McKenzie’s Boots UQP, 1987.
SF / FANTASY
Eleanor Beresford: Pegasi and Prefects KoR Cubed, 2015.
Elves and Escapades KoR Cubed, 2015.
Fairies and Felicitations KoR Cubed, 2015.
Mary Borsellino: Thrive Clan Destine Press, [nd].
Claire Carmichael: Originator Random House, 1998.
Alison Goodman: Singing the Dogstar Blues HarperCollins, 1998.
Kate Gordon: Vulpi Random House, 2012.
Kerry Greenwood: The Broken Wheel Harper Collins, 1996.
Whaleroad Hodder Headline, 1996.
Cave Rats Hodder Headline, 1997.
Feral Hodder Headline, 1998.
The Stormbringer trilogy:
The Rat and the Raven Lothian, 2005.
Lightning Nest Lothian, 2006.
Ravens Rising Lothian, 2006.
Jack Heath: Replica Oxford University Press, 2014.
Justine Larbalestier: Liar Allen & Unwin, 2009.
Melina Marchetta: The Lumatere Chronicles:
Finnikin of the Rock Viking, 2008.
Froi of the Exiles Viking, 2011.
Quintana of Charyn Viking, 2012.
Marlee Jane Ward: Welcome to Orphancourt Xoum, 2015.
Scott Westerfeld: Afterworlds Simon & Schuster, 2014.
NB: I have only listed the reviews cited in this booklist.
Binks, D. “We Read to Know We Are Not Alone: Examining the Lack of LGBTQI Characters in Young Adult Fiction.” http://www.killyourdarlingsjournal.com/article/we-read-to-know-we-are-not-alone-examining-the-lack-of-lgbtqi-characters-in-australian-youth-literature/
Hodge, D. ‘Gay? Jewish? Neither? A manual to help you challenge the rules.’ http://theconversation.com/gay-jewish-neither-a-manual-to-help-you-challenge-the-rules-29027
Toma, L. “The Last of the Brave.” m/c reviews: culture and the media http://reviews.media-culture.org.au/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=3429
Bloumis, J. The Story of Tom Brennan Teaching Support Kit http://www.randomhouse.com.au/content/teachers/teachingsupportkitthestoryoftombrennan.pdf
Elderton, W. E. The Male Closet in Many a Classroom: an annotated book list of teenage novels on the issues of being gay. 3rd edition, 2001. http://homepages.ihug.co.nz/~Serlewis/mtke/closet.htm
Jenkins, C.A. Young Adult Fiction with Gay / Lesbian Content 1969 – 2009: a Chronological Bibliography. http://people.lis.illinois.edu/~cajenkin/yabib.html
Kostakis, W. “Who’s Afraid of Over-the-top?” http://insideadog.com.au/blog/whos-afraid-over-top
“Reintroducing myself.” 26.2.16 http://willkostakis.com/
“in case you want to send me this email.” 02.02.16 http://willkostakis.com/
Larbalestier, J. “Oz GLBT YA books (updated)” 01.07. 07 http://justinelarbalestier.com/blog/2007/07/01/oz-glbt-ya-books/
Wong, S. “Hacking Diversity: who are we to need diverse books?” https://writersvictoria.org.au/writing-life/on-writing/hacking-diversity-who-are-we-need-diverse-books
This section lists articles in academic journals that look at one or more examples of Australian children’s and young adult fiction with LGBQ characters. NB: Christine Jenkins has been publishing articles on LGBQ children’s and young adult fiction since 1993 but I have only listed her most recent work, The Heart has its Reasons, written with Michael Cart.
Bittner, R. (2012) “Queering Sex Education: Young Adult Literature with LGBT Content as Complementary Sources of Sex and Sexuality Education” Journal of LGBT Youth 9: 357–372.
Crisp, T. (2009) “From romance to magical realism: limits and possibilities in gay adolescent fiction.” Children’s Literature in Education 40 (4): 333 – 348.
Crisp, T. and S. M. Knezek (2010) “Challenging Texts: ‘I Just Don’t See Myself Here’: Challenging Conversations about LGBTQ Adolescent Literature” English Journal 99 (3): 76-79.
Epstein, B. J. (2014) “”The Case of the Missing Bisexuals”: Bisexuality in Books for Young Readers.” Journal of Bisexuality 14 (1): 110-125.
Gross, C. (2013) “What Makes a Good YA Coming-Out Novel?” Horn Book Magazine 89 (2): 64 – 65.
Kidd, K. (1998) “Lesbian/Gay Literature for Children and Young Adults.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 23 (3): 114-119.
Kneen, B. (2014) “Neither Very Bi Nor Particularly Sexual: The Essence of the Bisexual in Young Adult Literature.” Children’s Literature in Education Original paper: 1 -19.
Lam, M. (1987) “A place for us: adolescent girls reading romance fiction.” Equal Opportunity Newsletter 6 (1).
McInally, K. (2003) “’Camphor Laurel’: A Re-vision of Desire.” Papers: Explorations into Children’s Literature 13 (2): 27-36.
McInally, K. (2008) “Subverting Censorship through Heteroqueer: How to Do Straight Queerly (and Get Away with It) in the Novels of Doug MacLeod.” The Looking Glass: New Perspectives on Children’s Literature 12 (2).
McKenzie, J. L. (1997) “To be or not to be? Don’t be a wuss: life sucks!: moral responsibility and suicide in children’s literature.” Access 11 (3): 10-13.
Mills, C. (2015) “Minority identity and counter-discourse: Indigenous Australian and Muslim-Australian authors in the young adult fiction market.” Text 32 Special issue website series. http://www.textjournal.com.au/speciss/issue32/Mills.pdf
Nimon, M. (1998) “Finding the Acceptable Boundaries: The Challenge in Young Adult Literature.” Orana 34 (2): 18-24.
Norbury, K. (2012) “‘On Some Precipice in a Dream’: Representations of Guilt in Contemporary Young Adult Gay and Lesbian Fiction.” International Research in Children’s Literature 5 (2): 184-194.
Pausacker, J. (1997) “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” English in Australia 119-20: 10-14.
Perkins, M. “Catholic school tells gay author Will Kostakis his speaking visit no longer appropriate.” http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/catholic-school-tells-gay-author-will-kostakis-his-speaking-visit-no-longer-appropriate-20160302-gn8ju1.html
Rhodes, D. B. (2010) “Out in Print in Australia: Male Same-sex Attraction in Australian Young Adult Novels.” International Journal of Learning 17 (4): 409-419.
Rhodes, D. (2009). “Out of the Silence: Bridging the Queer Divide in Australian Secondary English Classrooms.” English in Australia 44 (2): 43-52.
Saxby, M. (1996) ‘Challenging the young reader? Changing perspectives in Australian children’s literature.’ Orana 32 (2): 76-91.
Abate, M.A. and K.B. Kidd (2011) Over the rainbow: queer children’s and young adult literature. Ann Arbor, Michigan, University of Michigan Press.
Cart, M. and C.A. Jenkins. (2006) The Heart has its Reasons: Young Adult Literature with Gay/Lesbian/Queer Content, 1969–2004. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.
Clyde, L. A. and M. Lobban (1992, revised 1996) Out of the Closet and Into the Classroom: Homosexuality in Books for Young People. Port Melbourne, Victoria: Thorpe/ALIA.
Cuseo, A. (1992) Homosexual Characters in YA Novels. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.
Day, F.A. and N. Garden (2000). Lesbian and Gay Voices: An Annotated Bibliography and Guide to Literature for Children and Young Adults. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood.
Epstein, B.J. (2013) Are the Kids All Right? Representations of LGBTQ Characters in Children’s and Young Adult Literature. Bristol: HammerOn Press.
Hillier, L., Jones, T., Monagle, M., Overton, N., Gahan, L., Blackman, J., & Mitchell, A. (2010). Writing Themselves In Three: The 3rd National report on sexuality, health and wellbeing of same sex attracted and gender questioning young people in Australia. Monograph Series Number 78. Melbourne, Australia: Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, La Trobe University. ARCSHS Monograph.
Hurley, M. (1996) A Guide to Gay and Lesbian Writing in Australia. St Leonards: Allen & Unwin.
James, K. (2009) Death, Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Adolescent Literature. New York: Routledge.
Jones, D.W. (2012) “Some Truths About Writing.” Reflections. Oxford: David Fickling Books.
Leonard, W., Marshall, D., Hillier, L., Mitchell, A. and Ward, R. (2010) Beyond homophobia: Meeting the needs of same sex attracted and gender questioning (SSAGQ) young people in Victoria. A policy blueprint. Monograph Series Number 75. The Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health & Society, La Trobe University: Melbourne.
LeVay, S. (2011) Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why: The Science of Sexual Orientation. New York: Oxford University Press.
Misson, R. (2002) “Not Telling it Straight.” Crossing the Boundaries. G. Bull and M. Anstey. Frenchs Forest: Pearson Education Australia: 221-234.
Moore, N. (2012) The Censor’s Library. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.
Radway, J. (2008) “The Reception Deception.” New Directions in American Reception Studies. P. Goldstein and J.L. Machor. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press: 2008.
Saxby, M. (1993) The Proof of the Puddin’: Australian Children’s Literature 1970 – 1990. Sydney, New York: Ashton Scholastic.
Saxey, E. (2008) Homoplot: the Coming-out Story and Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Identity. New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien: Peter Lang Publishing.
Saxey, E. (2005) “Introduction.” The Well of Loneliness. R. Hall. (First published 1928.) Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions.
Sedgwick, E. K. (1993 / 1994) Tendencies. London: Routledge.
Smith, A., Agius, P., Mitchell, A., Barrett, C. and Pitts, M. (2009) Secondary Students and Sexual Health 2008 Monograph Series No. 70. Melbourne: The Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, La Trobe University.
Sontag, S. (2002) ‘The Pornographic Imagination.’ Styles of Radical Will. New York: Picador.
Stephens, J. (1993) ‘Hide-and-seek in a Huge Space’: Cultural Schemata, Selfhood and Voice in Jenny Pausacker’s What Are Ya?’ Australian Children’s Literature: Finding a Voice. M. Stone. Wollongong: New Literatures Research Centre, University of Wollongong: 138-148.
Williamson, G. (2012) The Burning Library: Our Great Novelists Lost and Found. Melbourne: Text.
 Strictly speaking, this booklist stops at 2015 but I want to footnote the fact that in the following year Will Kostakis, who received his first publishing contract in his final year of school and later wrote The First Third (2013), which includes two gay male minor characters, came out in a 26.02.16 blog post, making him the first publicly gay male Australian children’s writer with a mainstream publisher. Earlier in 2016, Kostakis also published The Sidekicks, one of whose three main characters is a gay guy.