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Posted on 10 Sep 2019 in Non-Fiction |

BENJAMIN LAW (ed.) Growing Up Queer in Australia. Reviewed by Michael Jongen

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These personal essays in Growing Up Queer in Australia are full of insight and self-reflection. The queer community can take great pride in the quality of the stories and the voices that represent it.

This is a very polished collection of stories, perhaps not surprising given that the contributors’ biographies reveal that many of them are writers or otherwise involved in creative endeavours.

Law explains in his introduction why he has chosen ‘queer’ as a collective noun for those who embrace the rainbow umbrella. Queer was once a slur, however the community has chosen to use it as an affirmative identity. Identity is a constant theme throughout the collection, with stories of the child who is not quite right, who doesn’t fit in.

I would have liked to see a broader explanation from Law as to how he chose his stories, however he has succeeded in his aim of bringing both accounts that engender a sense of self-recognition and those that are entirely alien. His introduction is both personal and political: ‘One benefit of being a repressed gay teen in the suburbs: you come out literate in art-house cinema auteurs.’

Initially I missed the rawness and open emotion of stories within other volumes of the ‘Growing Up in Australia’ series. However, as I read through the collection the sheer white-hot anger that bubbles through these many nuanced pieces came to the fore. These are great stories, containing comedy and drama, sex and death.

Three themes in particular come through strongly: how as a society we have wasted queer talent; the bullying and abuse dished out by a society who regarded this abusive behaviour as normal and acceptable; and the consistent focus on sex rather than sexuality and gender. The collection abounds with examples of how the Church, State and media encouraged our families to disown us. And how still, despite Number 96 and Will and Grace, Lyle Shelton and his ilk rage against the Safe Schools program and preach the sanctity of bathrooms.

The AIDS epidemic in the 1980s reached deep into the community and this too is reflected in the collection. Many stories also allude to the postal plebiscite on marriage equality and the hope that followed.

Kelly Parry in the very funny ‘Reunion’ goes to her 40th school reunion, and has the excruciating experience of outing herself after escaping to Brisbane when she was 20:

Queer connections run deep and wide – not only through choice, but also through necessity. Although this was not supposed to be a coming-out story, it always ends up that way. We lose family, friends and former lives when we begin the process of showing the world the truth of ourselves.

As queer readers will know, coming out is a process repeated each time we meet someone new.

I turned to the stories of Justine Hyde and Nayuka Gorrie early as I follow them both on Twitter. Hyde tells her story ‘The Most Natural of Things’ in filmic vignettes. Her characters don’t have names, just initials, This is a finely nuanced piece as Hyde identifies the key moments of her self-discovery — the first touch of a breast, the Sydney Goth scene — leading up to a glorious moment at the end when she crosses a cusp. She observes: ‘The continual effort of hiding myself in plain sight is an incremental act of erasure.’

Nayuka Gorrie’s story ‘Rob, and Queer Family’ is about her ‘first encounter of the queer kind’. She realises that queerness is always there but you need to understand the code. Her story of her life after being introduced to the queer life through Rob is very funny and insightful, and she honours him, saying: ‘I would not be the queer I am without Rob and I will miss him forever.’

Rebecca Shaw is also very funny and sharp. Her story crackles with one-liners and is intensely poignant as she swiftly details her childhood growing up in a town of 150 people, hitting puberty and discovering the concept of gay. She writes of a life of secrets, self-monitoring and censorship, fake emotions and behaviour. She details the damage this can do to any young people who feel the need to keep their secret for fear of judgement. She describes how hard she has worked to overcome her upbringing and how, as the years have gone by, she has come to cherish her queerness and regard it as a gift:

Of course, I hope that all the queer kids of Australia today are having an easier time of it than I had, but if they aren’t I need them to know something: your world might seem small now, but your people are out there waiting.

Scott McKinnon in ‘Kissing Brad Davis’ looks at the subliminal messages in the films he was watching and their overwhelming heterosexual message. From crushing on The Lost Boys, McKinnon moves on to seeking out every queer film he can find:

… even with all that straight kissing up there on the screen, there are still boys who want to kiss other boys, girls who want to kiss other girls, along with all those kids who suspect that the label ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ doesn’t quite fit them …

I loved ‘Caritas’ by Jack Kirne, a sublime story of chicken and obsessiveness – a perfect short story.

The gay community is an inclusive place, as evidenced by the ever-expanding LGBTIQA+ acronym, however the most powerful stories of sexuality and racism I have read lately were contained within Growing up Aboriginal in Australia and Growing up African in Australia. I follow many queer people on Twitter and I wonder if their voices and experiences are all represented in this collection. Was there no room for a young aromantic? Did the conservative gay men I follow submit contributions? I did strongly feel the absence of young voices under 21 and the voices of our elders.

I am ambivalent about the inclusion of the six ‘LGBTI-Q&A’ interviews with William Yang, Kate McCartney and others, and the beautiful chapter ‘Shame and Forgiveness’ from David Marr’s The High Price of Heaven published in 1999. Law is an accomplished interviewer and the Q&As are very personable contributions. But perhaps these pieces from some of the more prominent members of the community belong in a different anthology?

These are mere quibbles. This is a wonderful collection of beautiful writing and shared experiences, full of insight and self-reflection. The queer community can take great pride in the quality of the stories and the voices that represent us. Readers will take home the powerful message that we are who we are, despite society’s best efforts to break us: we are here and we are strong, and we write a good story.

Benjamin Law Growing Up Queer in Australia Black Inc 2019 PB 352pp $29.99

Michael Jongen is a librarian who tweets as @michael_jongen

You can buy Growing Up Queer in Australia from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.
To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.