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Boy Like Me by Simon James Green - Review

Thursday, March 30, 2023

So, you know Simon James Green, right? He writes funny books about gay kids, always set recently and usually full of happy queer kids who understand their places in the world. He writes in modern times, definitely from 2010 onwards, when gay marriage is legal in the UK and when the rights of gay and bisexual people aren't under siege the way they used to be. The books are always laugh out loud hilarious, but in a way that does make you think, especially if you aren't a member of the LGBTQ+ community. Simon is great! We love Simon! He makes us laugh!

This is not a funny book. It's also not a modern book. It's set in 1994, when Section 28 was still in place and would be for nearly another decade. It had come in in 1989, and so for me it neatly bookends my education entirely. I'm 39, I went to school in 1989 and I left sixth form in 2002. I never knew an education setting without Section 28 in force. 

And believe me, I am still suffering from the effects of that horrible law. I am still traumatised by the fact that I couldn't come out, because there weren't resources available for me. I am still traumatised by the homophobic bullying I suffered daily, by people who seemed to get away with it because teachers couldn't adequately punish them and may have even agreed with their awful views. I am still traumatised by the teacher who, when I complained that I was being called homophobic slurs, told me that maybe I should try to "act less gay" and then maybe I'd be left alone. So this is definitely a book for me, and for all the others of us who were traumatised by Section 28 and associated homophobic and transphobic views. And in that way, it's Simon's most personal book to date. 

He says at the beginning that some of the events happened, some have been exaggerated, and some have been completely made up. I got a bit stuck on that and for ages while reading it I was trying to work out which bits I thought were true and which bits I had my doubts about. And then I realised that ultimately: none of that matters. The fact is that all of it COULD be true. Teachers were often terrible when faced with abuse like this, because they weren't sure what they could do and because of the laws and probably because sometimes they were homophobic themselves. People do even now get outed against their will and this has happened more times than we can count - look at what happened to George Michael, for instance. Or even Rebel Wilson more recently! Teenagers do know how to stand up for themselves and can make big gestures about anything they feel strongly about. I don't want to say more because I don't want to spoil the whole book, but I really don't think it matters exactly what is true in this book and what isn't. Go with it and read it. 

So, the hero of the story is Jamie. He is sixteen and in the sixth form at his school. He's polite, well mannered, and expected to get good A levels. He has been on the committee to get a May ball under way for the end of term; he's determined to make it a success. He is friends with Beth, but otherwise doesn't have a lot of friends. He always wears shirts and waistcoats to school but then two lads slung some slurs at him so he's decided to wear rugby tops instead. 

And then the librarian gives him a book called Wildflowers of Great Britain, insistent that Jamie take it. Inside, the text is entirely different from what it should be. Instead it is a copy of Dance on My Grave by Aidan Chambers, which features two boys falling in love. (I've never read it, but I definitely know of it - I know my queer history!). And there are some notes from a mysterious person, asking if anyone else feels like him. 

Jamie leaves a message back, and slowly the two start a correspondence. Jamie hadn't realised he was gay before this, but does come to terms with himself. He really wants the two to meet, but the other boy has a lot to lose. Plus, it's 1994 and people are incredibly close minded, especially in a small town in the middle of Lincolnshire. 

The book is full of footnotes, which do add to the autobiographical feel and which do provide some light relief throughout what is a really deep book. There's also "Electra", who is a Wave Warrior on a programme of the same name - this is clearly a pastiche of the 90s game show Gladiators, which was a whole thing on Saturday night in the 90s. This is a really funny part of the book too - I am pretty sure Gladiators was responsible for quite a few people's sexual awakenings. I really hope all the footnotes are true - I hope some of the things that Simon says happened when "Jamie" was an adult really happened because I felt like a lot of them provided closure. But maybe that's wishful thinking. 

On the one hand, Section 28 has been consigned to the history books and therefore the book stands as a historical artefact. If you're a younger queer I would say definitely read it for that reason and learn about some of the crap that we had to live through when we were younger. But on the other hand, the same arguments that were thrown around then about lesbian, gay, and bisexual people are now being thrown around about trans people. The same hysteria abouts books in libraries is still raging. We have to fight, again, even if we're cis. Fortunately I know that Simon absolutely agrees with me here, and I reckon that's partly why he's written this book now. It is a historical testament, but it is also a petition for us to rise to arms to protect trans people in the way we would have liked for people to come out and fight for us in the 90s and early 00s. 

Sorry this has turned into a bit of a thing - but this is a personal book. For Simon, for me, and probably for a million other of us. I lent it to my friend who is only a few years older than me and we had a bit of discussion about growing up queer in such homophobic communities. The bigots won't win. 

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