It's not just about having gay parents: why we wrote our kids book about queer families | Maya Newell

It’s important to resist society’s attempts to define our families by sexuality alone, the Gayby Baby director says

Gus opened the door, transformed from the 10-year-old wrestling-obsessed kid in Gayby Baby into an awkward teen with a mop of blond hair and a skateboard appendage. I’d come to ask if he wanted to co-author a children’s book about his own story – a story that formed part of the 2015 documentary Gayby Baby that I directed (yes, that PG film about same-sex families that was banned from schools by the New South Wales premier).

I pitched it to him: “There’s a big gaping nothing when it comes to children’s books that represent queer families and identities. Wouldn’t it be great to write our own? It will be one of the first books where the crux isn’t just that our parents are gay. A story about masculinity, dressing up and wrestling!”

“Nah,” he replied. “There’s heaps already. All my favourite books growing up were ones with gay families.” Perplexed, I looked to one of his mums, Jen, who was pickling lemons in the kitchen. “And which ones were they?” I asked.

Jen began vigorously chopping rinds. Gus skipped to the bookshelf, which held a small collection of children’s books that had been recycled many times over to the benefit of Rory, his younger sister. He picked out a book with fondness, opened it and began reading aloud, with some gusto, the story of a family of dogs who could fly. He had clearly identified with the main character, a hairy stray having trouble flapping with his wings. “One day I went with my mum and mum … ”

Gus paused, took a deep breath and gazed at Jen with a look of crushed disappointment.

On the page, the word “dad” had been carefully disguised with white-out and replaced with the word “mum”. The father dog character was an easy match for Gus’s other parent, Jamie, a trans queer-identified photographer with short spiky hair.

An illustration by Tom Jellett for the children’s picture book
Maya Newell: ‘During the marriage equality vote, our families were under attack and naturally we were forced into a defensive cycle.’ Photograph: Allen & Unwin

Gus straightened up from his crumbling statue pose and said, “Yeah – let’s write a children’s book.”

This moment was the inception of Wrestle! In some ways, the flying dog book probably appealed to Gus because it wasn’t written for kids like him with LGBTIQ families. It assumed the “normalcy” of its reader, and wasn’t imbued with the worthy, message-driven quality that infuses so many of the bedtime stories that target Gayby children. When we sat down to write, all three of us – Gus, Charlotte Mars (who produced Gayby Baby) and I – agreed that Wrestle! would would not try too hard to correct the narrow-mindedness of a conservative society. Above all, it would be fun and entertaining.

We came up with a book, beautifully illustrated by Tom Jellett, about the universal conundrum of winning over your parents, scheming with your sister, and discovering that there is no “right” way to be yourself. The plot follows eight-year-old Gus, who loves wrestling. Problem is, his two mothers think it’s violent, macho and mean. When his mums ban him from wrestling he enlists his younger sister, Rory, and together they ingeniously work out a way to win over their parents again. Importantly, the family’s queerness is not the defining characteristic of this story, nor of this child.

Maya Newell, Gus Skattebol-James and Charlotte Mars
Maya Newell, Gus Skattebol-James and Charlotte Mars, authors of Wrestle! Newell and Mars released their documentary Gayby Baby in 2015 which examined the lives of four children raised by gay parents. Photograph: Jamie James

But we can’t blame our parents for their need to reinforce in us strong messages of self-worth. During the marriage equality vote, our families were under attack and naturally we were forced into a defensive cycle. For us kids of LGBTIQ parents, not only did we read two-dimensional narratives about our families, we actually manifested them. In Gayby communities across the globe, this instinctive reaction is commonly referred to as “poster child syndrome”. It’s when kids feign perfection for fear of being deemed unfit to be a family. In battle mode, our identities become merged with the gayness of our parents and our stories get caught in a didactic loop – a protective screen to the naysayers.

We won marriage equality but the effects of that battle are still entrenched. Even when Gus was asked to do publicity to promote this book, he fell silent. The inevitability of a new grilling on what it’s like to be raised by a gay parents was daunting. We are culturally queer by birthright but our parents’ sexuality does not define us.

Wrestle! is a reaction to the protest of the past when “happy families” was all we could muster. It’s an attempt to be seen as three dimensional by telling ever-more complex stories about who we are and how we live. These stories are the connective thread between political change and the everyday behaviours that make our society more accepting. They are a gateway to new ideas and new ways of seeing.

• Wrestle! by Charlotte Mars, Maya Newell and Gus Skattebol-James and illustrated by Tom Jellett is out now through Allen & Unwin. It will be launched on 22 February as part of Sydney’s Mardi Gras


Maya Newell

The GuardianTramp

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