In September 2010, 7 gay students committed suicide after being relentlessly bullied, sparking the “It Gets Better” campaign. Even now in 2012, in what should be a secular age of reason, we see American politicians basing their campaigns partly on anti-gay vitriol that should be illegal, labelled the hate speech it is. Gay students continue to be bullied, and many countries in the world will not allow gay marriage. In some, homosexuality is punishable by death. In South Africa, black lesbians are often the targets of vile corrective rape. There are issues, and they need to be met and improved.
And yet so few books are published that actually handle the subject matter tastefully. I’ve mentioned before that the publishing houses often won’t touch LBGTI books because they don’t sell, because they don’t attract the right kind of controversy a la Dan Brown, king of tedium. This is why I am so glad to see The Miseducation of Cameron Post, published by Balzer and Bray. Good on them for taking the chance, and for believing in this book.
Cameron Post is a young, awkward girl growing up in Miles City, Montana, a typically small town in America. It goes without saying that this is not a good place to be anything but white, straight and Christian. When Cameron’s parents die in a car crash she is adopted by her conservative aunt, from whom she hides her relationships with other girls. She falls in love with her best friend Coley, a stunning cowgirl who is straight. Coley experiments with Cameron, but later reports her as a lesbian to their evangelist priest. Being a member of a charismatic church called Gates of Paradise, Cameron is sent off to a Christian camp that ‘fixes sexual brokenness’. There she meets others like her and must learn to hold onto her identity despite the best efforts of others to wipe it out. (Think its only in fiction? Read about it here.)
It sounds like terrifically heavy material; zealous fundamentalists, teen self-harm, societal oppression, but it is dealt with in a remarkably deft and quiet way. Cameron’s ex-girlfriend Lindsey and long-distance best friend is the feminist lesbian voice, bringing in the intellectual aspects of feminism through her letters and tapes, but always tempered with humour and love. She helps Cameron embrace her ‘baby-dyke’ ways as far as possible from distant Seattle. The counsellors at Promise, the de-gaying camp, are not drawn in draconic, simplistic strokes. These people honestly, completely believe that what they’re doing is right, as many religious people mean to do, but they also don’t realise that they’re ruining these teens’ lives. When one of the students tries to commit suicide in a particularly painful and graphic way, their failure to understand gay identity and reality is brought into sharp relief.
This is what literature should strive to achieve: a balance between thought and entertainment. Miseducation asks a lot of questions, but through characters that are easy to care about and love. At no point is it heavy-handed in its message; instead the reader is encouraged to draw their own conclusions from Cameron’s point of view. It is being billed as a YA title, but I can think of quite a few adults who could stand to learn from it, and many who will relate to it. Definitely in the same category as Shine, and I hope this will continue paving the way for other LBGTI titles, so badly needed in this heteronormative market.