On Section 28 and Its Effect on Queer Lit, a Guest Post by Kathleen Jowitt

On the site today we have Kathleen Jowitt, the author of Speak Its Name, the first self-published book ever to be shortlisted for the Betty Trask Prize. (More on that below.) In honor of Pride Month, Kathleen is here to share a piece of queer lit history, namely the British rule of Section 28, and how that affected the publication path of Speak Its Name. Before we get to that, a little more on the book itself:

A new year at the University of Stancester, and Lydia Hawkins is trying to balance the demands of her studies with her responsibilities as an officer for the Christian Fellowship. Her mission: to make sure all the Christians in her hall stay on the straight and narrow, and to convert the remaining residents if possible. To pass her second year. And to ensure a certain secret stays very secret indeed.

When she encounters the eccentric, ecumenical student household at 27 Alma Road, Lydia is forced to expand her assumptions about who’s a Christian to include radical Quaker activist Becky, bells-and-smells bus-spotter Peter, and out (bisexual) and proud (Methodist) Colette. As the year unfolds, Lydia discovers that there are more ways to be Christian – and more ways to be herself – than she had ever imagined.

Then a disgruntled member of the Catholic Society starts asking whether the Christian Fellowship is really as Christian as it claims to be, and Lydia finds herself at the centre of a row that will reach far beyond the campus. Speak Its Name explores what happens when faith, love and politics mix and explode.

Buy it: Amazon (US) * Amazon (UK) * Lulu (paperback) * Lulu (ebook)

And now, here’s Kathleen:

My first novel has just become the first self-published book ever to be shortlisted for the Betty Trask Prize. This is an annual award presented to the best first novel by an author under the age of 35.

Speak Its Name is the story of an evangelical Christian, and closeted lesbian, trying to navigate the troubled waters of university politics. The judges called it “An original, closely-observed, funny and often touching story with an unusual setting and a keen understanding of the interactions between members of small communities.”

I’m thrilled, of course, and I’m very proud to be the first self-published author on that shortlist. It’s pretty amazing to have the quality of my work affirmed in such an unarguable manner.

But I can’t help wondering… if history had been different, might there have been a route into conventional publishing, a route that wasn’t closed off to me and my book? What would have things been like, if it hadn’t been for Section 28?

Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act is notorious in British LGBT history. It stated that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”.

It came into effect in 1988, three years before I started primary school, and was repealed in 2003, just as I’d begun my first year at university. The whole of my school career, therefore, was overshadowed by this silence. I can only imagine what my life would have been like if I’d heard the word ‘bisexual’ before I turned eighteen.

Because Section 28 was assumed to apply to the school library as much as it did to biology or citizenship classes, it stunted a whole branch of LGBT teen literature. If a library (a public library or a school library – both would fall under the Local Government Act) couldn’t be expected to buy a book, then a publisher couldn’t be expected to publish it.

As a result, the long, honourable tradition in the United States of America stretching from Nancy Garden to David Levithan and beyond, just doesn’t exist in British publishing. Jacqueline Wilson, who’s tackled issues from adoption to eating disorders, homelessness to mental illness, doesn’t address homosexuality in any sort of depth until 2007.

The one book with any sort of LGBT theme that I can remember getting into my school library was Dare, Truth or Promise – by New Zealand author Paula Boock. The only Nancy Garden was, ironically enough, The Year They Burned The Books.

That meant that, when I wrote Speak Its Name, nobody knew quite what to do with it. Even though Section 28 had been gone for the best part of a decade, the genre that my novel would have slotted into had never recovered.

So I published it myself. And, while my shortlisting shows that this was absolutely the right decision and I don’t regret it for a second, I can’t help but be a little bit wistful. Not for my book, but for all the other books, the ones that never made it to print because “nobody would publish them'” because “nobody would buy them'” because of Section 28. The ones that my fifteen-year-old self would have loved to read.

*****

Kathleen Jowitt was born in Winchester, UK, and grew up deep in the Welsh Marches and, subsequently, on the Isle of Wight. After completing her undergraduate degree in English Literature at the University of Exeter she moved to Guildford and found herself working for a major trade union. She now lives in Cambridge, works in London, and writes on the train.

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