What he said

There’s been a bit of a blog flurry around David Levithan’s speech at the Reading Matters conference earlier this year.
I missed the speech, but arrived at the conference a few minutes later to find people in disarray having been blown away by the content. I’ve heard quite a few people refer to it since, so it was clearly well-timed for some of the people who were there. So I admit there’s been a bit of build up about his words of wisdom, prior to me listening to the podcast.
And don’t get me wrong: it’s good. Reminders about prejudice and the need to fight back against fear are never wasted. People come and go in any industry – new people need educating, veterans need reminding, people who didn’t want to hear from you last decade are now all ears.
He’s dead right that there could be more young adult literature that speaks of and to the experience of young gay men and lesbians – just as there should be more YA literature that reflects the reality of the lives of many other young people – most notably in this country young Aboriginal people, and young people from a range of cultural backgrounds.
But Levithan has made the classic conference speaker’s mistake of jumping to generalizations, in this case a broad and vaguely offensive conclusion that Australia is “25 years behind” the US in terms of public discourse around issues of sexuality.
I could quite easily stroll into any conference of librarians in the US (or the UK, or almost anywhere else for that matter) and make the opposite pronouncement. A public conference aimed at teachers, librarians and publishers is not the same as real life Manhattan – or inner-city Melbourne or Sydney or London.
I could quite easily stroll down the main street of a rural town in the US (or Australia) and get my head kicked in because of the way I look. Maybe that’s not so much of a threat as it might have once been, but it’s still there.
I could have my own books banned by school boards in some US districts because characters commit blasphemy or swear.
Perhaps the oddest comment was his statement that he wouldn’t ask people in the audience to raise their hands if they were gay, for fear of recrimination. I don’t know who put the fear of God into him, but I laughed out loud at that comment.
Gay men in a library? Lesbian school teachers? Perish the thought. (I’m not saying there’s no discrimination – I laughed at the idea that those assembled before him were somehow more vindictive or oppressed than any other group he’d ever addressed.)
It’s a crock to suggest that Australian writers, publishers – and librarians – haven’t thought about these issues, or that good strong and sometimes even wildly popular books on the issue have never existed.
They have. Of course, not as many as there could be. And maybe not so many right now. But there are myriad reasons for that and it’s not because this country is more backward that the US or that the country’s librarians, teachers, publishers and writers have discouraged it.
I can think of a few reasons immediately. First, a whole lot of the people who might have been writing those books didn’t survive the 1990s.
Second, many of us are writing about other stuff because we are all people of many interests and we’ve said – over and over and over – as much as we can say on the topic. Indeed, many of us have raised exactly the same general issues as Levithan, over many years and to many different audiences and readers. Some of us are tired of talking about it, or would at least like to talk/write/think/listen about other issues for a while. Some – like Christos Tsiolkas – wrote a brilliant and earth-shattering book focused entirely on young people, and have now moved on to broader concerns. That’s OK.
The issue of homophobia hasn’t gone away. There will be good, perhaps great books and films and albums and plays and articles and even speeches made about it – here and in the UK and the US – maybe next week or next year or next decade. It’s been like that for all of my adult life and I don’t see it changing.
It’s wonderful to challenge people, to confront them and rouse them into action or to encourage them to take on those vampires in their heads. I loved those inspiring words of defiance, and I can tell that they had an effect. I’m with him all the way on that.
It’s also critical that we question any prevailing prejudices that might affect the books to which young people have access.
But it’s never a good look to patronise an entire community on the basis of a few comments over morning tea.

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