Benjamin Law | Lismore Regional Gallery | Wednesday 5 June | 6pm
Benjamin Law knows what it’s like to grow up Queer in Australia. The writer’s first book The Family Law blasted him into the hearts of Australians with an eccentric and endearing story about growing up Asian and gay in southeast Queensland. His latest book is Growing Up Queer in Australia – a collection of stories Law has carefully collected and edited, that tell the story of what it is to grow up in Australia as someone with gender or sexual diversity.
Law had previously contributed to the anthology Growing up Asian in Australia. These are part of a series of books that broaden the story of Australian identity and are available primarily in school libraries across the country. Calls for submissions went out to all LGBTIQ writers saying ‘We are looking for first-person pieces about growing up as a member of the queer community, however you identify. These can be in any tone, style or format but we are not looking for scholarly works. What we hope to receive is honest, original and personal non-fiction from people of all ages and backgrounds. We are particularly interested in pieces that defy, question, or shed light on the many stereotypes that currently exist about our vibrant extended community.’
Law has collected stories that share with the reader very remarkable and insightful journeys. Law is aware of how powerful this book will be for young people across the country.
‘I didn’t have these stories to affirm who I was. If I had something like this growing up it would have been a game changer’ says Benjamin.
Law was careful when selecting stories that as many perspectives as possible were shared. Myth busting was a primary objective, as well as turning the tide on heterosexist assumptions around queer sexuality. Like when someone identifies as gay or lesbian and someone asks ‘but have you tried heterosexual sex?’
‘You wouldn’t ask a young heterosexual ‘have you tried being gay?’ says Law. ‘Many people who are gay haven’t acted on it yet because they’re not game. I was glad we could include a perspective about it. I didn’t want the book to be full of stories where you could anticipate what is coming up. I wanted it to be an education across our communities. I don’t know about the intersex experience. I am not trans or bisexual. These were stories where I could learn something.’
While Australia may have legalised gay marriage, Law believes it’s only a very small step towards broader acceptance for the queer community.
‘I think Australia has always been a deeply conservative country. We should pat our selves on the back for supporting two adults to marry one of the oldest institutions – but how does the community feel about trans people? Our support for same-sex marriage is only a metric for same-sex marriage. It doesn’t reflect the experience for many other people in the queer community.’
Law sees the controversy around the Safe Schools program as a media beatup that harmed the queer community, particularly the young, which is why this book is so important.
‘We have a long way to go in order for the community to accept gender-questioning and trans children and how to support queer kids at school.
‘Safe Schools existed, that’s why Abbott launched it – it was non-controversial initially to support teachers and kids. It wasn’t mandatory to teach anything from the program; it was created to support the adults to support the kids. In the history of safe Schools we never had a complaint – critics were lied to about what safe schools actually was.
‘These stories remind us that we are not alone. One of the big things we face is people feeling vulnerable, and many queer people have a predisposition towards isolation. If you are someone from a migrant background and subjected to racism, at the end of the day you go back to a family that affirms your identity; in the queer community. You may go home from a hostile school environment to a hostile home environment. Without wanting to sound grandiose, stories do save lives,’ says Law.
The process has been a rewarding one for Law.
‘It has been an utter joy. The only heartbreaking thing is not being able to make the book twice its length; we had to cull a lot of stories that were great – ensuring with such a diverse community that communities within communities are represented. It was harder to get stories from people with intersex conditions – there are simply fewer trans people than same-sex-attracted people, but we wanted them represented robustly and we also wanted cultural diversity, not just another book of white gay people!’
Queer is one of those words reclaimed by the community it was once used to marginalise.
‘Queer is a pejorative,’ says Benjamin. ‘It’s triggering and brushing to hear, but the community has arrived at a space that goes beyond LBGTI+.
‘Queer has a rich history of defiance and pride.’
Benjamin Law is a featured writer for the Byron Writers Festival in August and this Wednesday 5 June he will appear in Lismore at the Regional Gallery with Scott Harrower for a free talk at 6pm. Tickets at byronwritersfestival.com