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July 12, 2023

Confessions of a Queer Author

by Will Kostakis

I plant myself beside my books and launch into my spiel. My novels succinctly summarised, with suggestions of where each might fit in a crowded syllabus. I’ve spent the day presenting workshops at a Catholic high school in regional New South Wales, and the teacher is keen to update their text list. She reaches for my new release, We Could Be Something, a sprawling (yet intimate) portrait of a Greek family in crisis, ideal for years ten and above. She gets fewer than three words into the blurb.

It says coming out. There’s no way the school can make it work.

She places We Could Be Something back, dismissing three years of work in an instant. 

To be a queer author in 2023 is to experience near-constant whiplash.

There’s the rush of finding out teens at your all-boys high school now study the gay coming-of-age novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe … and then another library drag storytime event is cancelled in response to intimidation and threats of violence. There’s the thrill of Pride displays, permanent (and prominent) LGBTQIA+ sections in commercial bookstore chains, queer bestsellers … and the reality that one complaint from a conservative activist can pull a queer memoir from shelves.

All it ever seems to take is one person. Any person. 

In mid-March, Sydney bookseller Kinokuniya received an email “calling-in” Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, meaning that the title could not be sold until it had been submitted for classification with the Australian Classification Board. An email like that leaves booksellers with three options:

The first is to approach the local publisher or distributor of the title and have them submit the title. There isn’t a local supplier, so anyone who sells the book locally is, in the Classification Board’s eyes, the “publisher”.

The second is to remove it from sale and write-off the stock since the cost of having a single book classified can be prohibitive (in this case, $560), the process can take weeks and there’s no guarantee of a favourable verdict.

The third is to pay to have the book classified. Kinokuniya did.

The book, which Maia started as a way to explain to eir family what it means to be nonbinary and asexual, was removed from sale until an Unrestricted, 15+ recommendation came through. Frustratingly, the decision was appealed, and Kinokuniya has yet to hear from the Review Board.

“All we really want to do at Kino is sell books that people want to read, and people are all so different,” says Kinokuniya’s English books division manager Allyx Lathrope.

A decade ago, publishers questioned the inclusion of queer characters. Now that queer characters are part of mainstream storytelling, it is much easier for booksellers to fill displays in their adult and children’s areas for Pride month and Mardi Gras, and those displays see excellent sell-through.

To Allyx, it’s clear why. “Queer folks aren’t ‘other’, they are not just characters, they are our staff and our customers, the Kino community.”

Having worked as a children’s bookseller for over twenty years, Allyx is seeing realised something that publishing professionals have always spoken about – that all readers should be able to see themselves reflected in a book.

Gender Queer does this for a host of young adults, and it should be allowed to continue to do so,” Allyx says. “It would be such a shame to finally make some ground and then see it taken away by a few outspoken conservatives.”

For the most part, the non-religious schools and libraries that Allyx deals with are actively seeking out queer content. This mirrors what I’ve witnessed in schools. Teacher-librarians build collections that speak to teenagers’ experiences, and given the fact that queer teenagers exist, new releases feature more LGBTQIA+ content and characters than ever before.

But at some independent schools, usually religiously affiliated, a single parental objection to positive LGBTQIA+ representation is often weighted as more important than the needs of the kids and teens themselves.

“I’ve found other English teachers are usually really open to embracing diversity (even Christian teachers, of which I am one), but the schools are very concerned with the expectations (whether real or perceived) of the parents,” one teacher says. “Which is silly because LGBTQIA+ texts present the kids that actually go to the school.”

And that’s to say nothing of the fact that schools often have conservative shelving practices to begin with, shelving queer content in the senior section, no matter the target audience. Queer librarians themselves are often extra careful, to the point of being overly censorial. 

“There’s a cloud over my head whenever I’m buying new books for the library,” one gay librarian tells me, “and it makes me question whether a book is appropriate or not.”

He second-guesses his queer purchases, and every time a particular queer book is checked out, he fears what parents might think.

“It sometimes feels like we have to work twice as hard to promote ourselves because first we have to validate our humanity and explain why we’re worthy of the same spaces,” says author Cadance Bell.

Her adult “coming-of-gender” memoir, The All Of It: A Bogan Rhapsody shines a spotlight on the trans experience in rural Australia.

“Any money, any validation, any opportunity to grow – all of it fuels a system of choices we’re making about the identity of our country. If we were ever the land of the fair go, this is our litmus test.”

That’s something I keep coming back to – fair go. As somebody who (pretty unconvincingly) masqueraded as heterosexual in the early stages of his career, I have experienced this industry as an author and as a queer author. The difference is stark. Our systems, education and classification, seem biased against queer content creators. One person’s complaints, or even the fear of their complaints, can significantly hamper a queer book’s trajectory. 

Books that aren’t labelled as queer don’t contend with this.

The horse has bolted. There’s no stable door I can close that will unqueer me in the public eye, but there is a measure I can take in the short term, while the queer experience is still fodder for the culture wars. I can choose to write strictly cis, strictly heterosexual texts. I can be the respectable gay guy who doesn’t write anything “inappropriate”.

That means when I spend three years on a book, it won’t be dismissed fewer than three words into the blurb, and it won’t run the risk of being “called-in” for classification or restricted to the senior section, if it’s shelved at all …

But that also means I won’t be reflecting the world as it is. I won’t be writing for Will, the teenager who struggled with his sexuality. I’ll be writing for Will, the career author and mortgage payer. And honestly, if I can’t risk having some skin in the game, fifteen years into my career, and as the more palatable kind of queer (a cis gay man), what kind of ally am I to my queer peers, particularly the trans and nonbinary targets of the current culture wars?

And what am I contributing to the literary identity of our country? 

No. I won’t give in to fear.

And the next time somebody sees coming out and dismisses my work, I won’t accept it with a smile or shrug it off as if it’s reasonable. I’ll call it what it is.

Will Kostakis is an award-winning author for young adults. His first novel, Loathing Lola, was published when he was just nineteen. It sold a whopping ten copies including the seven he bought himself. After a brief break to dabble in celebrity journalism and reconstruct his shattered dream, he returned with The First Third, which sold more than ten copies (possibly fifteen). It won the 2014 Gold Inky Award and was shortlisted for the CBCA and the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, among others. The Sidekicks was his third novel for young adults, and his US debut. It won the IBBY Australia Ena Noel Award.Will has also contributed to numerous anthologies, including the ABIA Award-winning Begin, End, Begin: A #LoveOzYA Anthology. He was awarded the 2020 Maurice Saxby Award by the School Library Association of New South Wales for service to children’s and young adult literature and is an ambassador for the NSW Premier’s Reading Challenge.