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The author sits down with Vada to discuss his latest novel about the impact of Section 28 on queer young people, and the ongoing hidden censorship that continues in schools today.
Simon James Green is recovering. When we sit down for this interview, a few weeks prior to the publication of his latest book, the author is getting over a bug. He’s feeling a bit better today, he tells me over video call. It’s somewhat of an occupational hazard, I remark, for the author who writes for children and young adults. Green spends a lot of time visiting schools, doubtless where he’s picked up said bug, giving talks to students about the queer characters in his books and LGBTQ+ topics more broadly.
Boy Like Me, the book we’re discussing today is one of Green’s many books. In fact, there must be a bookshelf creaking in his London home with the number of books he’s now penned. This will be his fourteenth, if you also count the anthology Proud, curated by fellow YA author Juno Dawson, which he wrote a short story for. He admits to being filled with some trepidation when he sits down to start writing a new book. “I can’t deny that sometimes I think to myself, I don’t know how I’m going to write another awkward gay teenage boy that isn’t like the others,” laughs Green.
His latest offering, Boy Like Me is somewhat different to his previous work. Set in 1994, the book explores head-on the impact that Section 28, legislation that banned any so-called promotion of homosexuality in schools, had on young people at the time. Green’s main characters leave notes to each other in the margins of a book in the school library. It’s a hidden and secretive romance, which takes against a backdrop of fear and prejudice for LGBTQ+ people.
I begin by asking him where the idea for the book came from. “I guess part of me was increasingly aware of this rising tide of anti-LGBT sentiment online, that was kind of bubbling away,” he tells me. Having written “happy jolly romcoms” as Green describes some of his previous books, he wanted his audience to see a different side to being queer. “In my previous book, Gay Club, I addressed a little bit of that more political edge of things. But honestly, by the time I was writing Boy Like Me, which was last summer, I was just in a place where I thought, I don’t feel it is the right time to be writing a happy, sunny romcom, and pretending that everything is totally fine.”
Green tells me that the idea of writing something other than the “happy” side of being queer, was something that he felt was important for a YA readership in particular. “We’ve got a generation of young people who perhaps haven’t yet experienced quite as much push back as there has been in previous decades,” he says. “I’m not saying they haven’t experienced lots of challenges, because they have, but I was aware that we needed something that looks a little bit more at the nineties and at Section 28.”
As well as wanting young people today to learning more about LGBTQ+ history through the characters in Boy Like Me, Green was also spurred on by a challenge that he faced last year. Having been banned from speaking at a Catholic school, Green admits that a bubble was burst for him. “I’ve naively assumed that progress was a straight line that went all the way up,” he says of the incident. “When actually, that’s not necessarily the case. There are lots of people who would love to turn the clock back and get LGBTQ+ books out of school libraries once again.” This, coupled with various anti-LGBTQ+ legislation that was popping up in the United States, Green felt this was an important moment to explore this time period through the YA fiction lens.
It feels more political than his other books, I remark. “I think it’s important for me that the book included that slightly more political aspect to it, and the book doesn’t shy away from it either,” he replies. “The opinions of people at the time, the Conservative government, Margret Thatcher, they’re all in there.”
Green also explains to a YA audience about the power and influence of political parties and certain religious leaders, who added more fuel to the fire of Section 28. “One of the characters makes the point that Section 28 is about fear and ignorance, and creating a kind of easy enemy for people to latch on to,” he says. “They said that society should be afraid of gay people, because they’re coming for your children or whatever it might be that they’re lying about. And then also, crucially, once they’ve done that, they keep people ignorant of the truth. So they can’t find out that these people pose no threat whatsoever. When actually, they’re just like you.”
As somebody who grew up under the cloud of Section 28, I wonder how much of the book is born from his own experiences as a young person at that time. Green points to the disclaimer. “There’s a little thing at the beginning of the book saying some of this is real, some of it is completely made up,” he says. “And other bits are real, but changed to protect people’s privacy.” It’s not an autobiography, he’s quick to tell me, that’s not something he wanted to do with this book. “But out of all of my books, there is a lot in this one that is me.”
Green doesn’t wish to say which parts are real and which are fiction – he wishes to keep that to himself. “The story of course, is very much real,” he adds. “It’s about the individual impact of Section 28, and about the culture of hate during the eighties and nineties. It had a huge effect on people, particularly queer kids, and on their lives moving forward.”
Born in Nottingham, and growing up in a small town in Lincolnshire, Green went off to read Law at the University of Cambridge. He then became a trainee director at the King’s Head theatre, Islington, before going on to to work on various West End shows and UK tours. Screenwriting would come calling for Green, before he would establish himself as a YA author, publishing his first YA novel in 2017.
But before moving to Cambridge, Section 28 would restrict his education. “There was nothing in the school library,” says Green of LGBTQ+ representation when he was at school. “Obviously you couldn’t talk about it with any teachers or staff at school, as LGBTQ+ stuff was just banned from any lessons. There was literally nowhere to turn for any kind of guidance or reassurance or support. And then I guess not only that, LGBTQ+ role models or heroes were few and far between.”
Green names Freddie Mercury as a queer role model at the time, who died of AIDS-related complications. “It was just the most horrible thing,” he says of the HIV epidemic. “I think you combine that with just the relentless tabloid hate, talking about everything from how gay men shouldn’t be teachers in schools, to there being a gay mafia trying to indoctrinate your children. Just utter relentless crap and nonsense in The Mail, The Sun and all the other usual suspects. The culture of fear and hate that was around back then was just horrific.”
I return to something that Green mentioned earlier in our interview. Last year, he found himself at the heart of a storm that mirrored a time that many had hoped was behind us. A Catholic school in London banned the author from visiting. It made national headlines. Yet Green argues that we’re not talking enough about the “soft censorship” as he puts it, that’s still happening in schools today.
“I think what’s interesting is all the schools that don’t even consider booking you in the first place,” he says when I bring this up. “I’ve met various librarians, teachers and staff who have said to me that they’re not allowed LGBTQ+ displays in the library during pride month, for example. Or they would love to have me as an author, but they worry about push back from the parents, so there’s no point in even suggesting it.”
Despite Section 28 being thrown out in England in 2003, Green argues that its legacy still lives on in many schools today. “These are the other things you just don’t get to hear about,” he says. “There are kids in schools all over the country who don’t get to see LGBTQ+ books in the library and a nice display. Maybe they’re hidden away in the bookshelf or something in the furthest corner, but there’s no effort. And they certainly don’t offer authors to come in to talk about LGBTQ+ books or LGBTQ+ issues. For me, that’s a real issue. That’s a real problem.”
Is the issue sex, I venture. “The whole concept of being LGBTQ+ in a lot of people’s minds is just completely inextricably linked to sex. And it doesn’t have to be, of course. I also don’t believe for one second that any author of a heterosexual YA romcoms gets warned that they can’t mention sex. I don’t believe for one second that any single one of them has ever been told that.”
In addition to censorship, LGBTQ+ authors and stories face another hurdle. It’s difficult to make a living out of writing books. When I ask Green about this, he sighs. It’s as though I’m not the first to ask, and that he is somewhat powerless to finding a solution for this issues. “The fact is, it’s incredibly hard to make a living from just writing,” he begins. “You almost certainly can’t. Virtually everyone I know has got some kind of side hustle or main hustle, that they’ve got going on alongside writing.” For Green, it’s his school visits, something which he’s now been able to turn into another source of income. “It’s good, but not everyone can do it that way.”
Does he see a solution? “Well I think publishers… Some publishers, are doing well with it. I have to say Scholastic has been great with me, and they’ve really backed me over multiple books. The same can’t be said for all publishers, because some of them will just give someone a one book deal, and then that’s it.”
Green tells me that this model of working is unfair for emerging authors, who are still developing their readership. “What I’d like to see is a bit more support and backing for our LGBTQ+ authors in the UK,” he says. “Where they actually have publishers stand behind them for a little bit longer, just working away and trying a little bit harder to get their readership together. I think we just need to give LGBTQ+ authors a bit more of a chance.”
Boy Like Me by Simon James Green is published by Scholastic and is available for purchase now. Main image: courtesy of Simon James Green.