Sometime around 2016 Australia went through one its regular paroxysms of idiocy. The national anti-bullying program Safe Schools had drawn the ire of some because part of it explained that being queer was actually totally fine. Cue hysteria from religious lobbyists, conservative media, and politicians, all of whom should have known better. The program was out to turn kids gay, or worse, trans. Soon people would be marrying their sheep and breast-feeding their carrots. It was, journalist Benjamin law wrote in his Quarterly Essay, a good old-fashioned moral panic. Leading the charge was the Australian newspaper. For over a year I opened the paper with trepidation, wondering what new cruelty would be inside. Law tallied the coverage: when printed, it was thicker than the essay he was writing. The program was canned. Fortunately, similar anti-bullying programs survive in some states.
You might be wondering why Australia needed a school program that explained, actually, that queer kids are alright. Shannon Malloy’s memoir Fourteen provides the answer. As Malloy explains in the acknowledgments, this memoir in part grew out of an op-ed he penned around the debate. You could dismiss his story as a single, tragic data point, if research didn’t suggest that experiences similar to Malloy’s are common, the norm even. While the Safe Schools debate raged more than a decade after Malloy was at school, 13-year-old Tyrone Unsworth suicided in Brisbane after relentless homophobic bullying. LGBTIQ rights can feel like they’re advancing so quickly that soon there’ll be nothing to worry about. But even a study this year found that a third of those surveyed had experienced physical harassment or witnessed it done to other queer kids.
Fourteen is framed around the year Malloy was the titular age, in grade nine. It begins with a harrowing prologue. Malloy already stands out for all the wrong reasons in the all-boys Catholic school he attends in Yeppoon on the central Queensland coast in the early 2000s. He is teased and bullied mercilessly for his effeminacy and rumoured sexuality. At a wood-working class, the boys hand around a cruel note, a fabricated love letter signed from Malloy describing in explicit detail what he would like to do to one of the popular kids. The teacher, getting wind of the disturbance, unthinkably reads it out. After school, Malloy is beaten. When he gets home, he stands in front of the mirror, preparing to suicide.
You know of course that Malloy doesn’t die because he is writing the book. But one of his successes – if you could call it that – is how he traps you in the horror of his year. Unlike his friends and family who are characterised in detail, his perpetrators mostly remain unnamed, a seething mass of undistinguished teenage masculinity. At one point Malloy states that his school had little over a hundred students, but when he is being bullied, it feels like thousands. It is potent and claustrophobic. At several points he uses the term torture to describe what he experiences at school, and it is a precise one. How else to describe the systematic bullying and abuse that Malloy experiences, designed to curtail any deviance from straight masculinity? If governments or businesses did it, there would be riots – or you hope there would be.
Malloy struggles with the term “homophobia”, because it implies fear rather than the rage he experiences from other boys. Like racism, misogyny, ableism and other forms of bigotry, it sits under a broader church of dehumanising practises that assist the powerful to remain so, practises that can remain hidden until they erupt into horrors like the Holocaust. In one of the book’s lowest low points among many, the boys celebrate the murder of gays in Nazi Germany. Malloy can’t even bear to look up whether what they say is true. The history teacher says nothing.
What hurts most, what really makes the eyes sting, is the utter uselessness of the adults whose job it is to look out for kids like Malloy. The teacher who reads out the note; the school counsellor who says to him, “Your walk, the way you walk … It’s very gay”; the boarding supervisor who drives him back to school after a near sexual assault; the weird GP who diagnoses him with anorexia and forces him to strip to prove he’s not hiding weights in his underwear.
But for every useless adult, there are those that comfort, protect and shelter. His mum is always there for him, a youth worker gives him an outlet to be himself. His girlfriends and siblings are fierce protectors. All of them assure him that things will one day get better. When Malloy isn’t worrying about being jumped by older teens while walking down the street, he’s being a normal, bored teenager in a regional town: smoking durries behind the shops, going to parties and drinking too much, planning a fashion show for the local youth festival and escaping overseas on student exchange.
Malloy writes with an unfussy, enthusiastic style that casually evokes what it’s like to be a teenager. Fourteen has a wonderful sense of place. Yeppoon in the early 2000s is a place where the biggest news is rumours of a Macca’s to be built in the town five minutes away. It’s the sort of place where the Great Barrier Reef’s annual coral spawning, widely regarded as one of nature’s wonders, is a horror:
Just as summer was about to begin, the reef off the coast to the north would secrete huge plumes of stinking foam, which would gently float across the waves and onto the shore. You couldn’t swim for fear of being covered in gunk. The main street stank of rotting fish. It was disgusting.
I also grew up a queer kid in regional Australia but fortunately never experienced anything remotely like what Malloy did. There was a bit of name-calling, the occasional rough and tumble. I never felt unsafe or overly hurt by it, although I was always wary of men. The most direct homophobia I ever saw was a visiting fire-and-brimstone preacher blaming the Boxing Day tsunami on gays. I was protected by friends and largely passing as straight. The worst thing about my queer adolescence was the silence, the lack of visible queer role models, the absence of queer topics in sex education, the acknowledgement that anything other than straight people existed.
Like the allies in Malloy’s life, he is at pains to point out that life does get better for queer kids. His adult life is testament that it does. But how tragic, that the best we can offer queer kids being tormented at school is that, if they can only survive just a few more years, there’s happiness ahead. It does get better, but it shouldn’t have to.
Gay rating: 5/5 for its depiction of growing up queer in regional Australia.