I have been a fan of Simon James Green‘s works for a while now. His predominantly LGBTQ teen novels are funny (in terms of rib-tickling jokes and adventures to hilarious awkwardness), emotional (ranging from themes on love and loss to mental anguish) and represent almost every young adolescent’s life growing up as part of the LGBTQ community – whether they are sure of that or not. He has also forayed into books for younger children and those in the Early Years, which also at least loosely look at LGBTQ issues.
Green’s latest book, Gay Club! is a step away from the dramatic romantic and family problems his main characters usually struggle to deal with as it takes on a more politically driven plot. Barney Brown (is Barney actually a name that’s still used?) is a self-confessed geeky gay sixteen-year-old striving to run for president of his school’s LGBTQ+ society (do that many schools really have those nowadays?). Although Barney is confident in his ability to not only be a great president and take the society to the next level, pushing for better visibility, protection and rights for the LGBTQ+ students in the school, he is also confident he’ll win the election. Which he doesn’t see as being hard since there’s only three other regular members and two of them (business-like trans guy George and no-nonsense Black lesbian Maya) are his best friends. However, he is up against the very competitive Bronte (another randomly strange name) who is a popular, rich lesbian and then another very unlikely candidate whose presence throws more spanners in the works when Bronte underhandedly opens up the vote to the rest of the school.
In opening the election up to the whole school, they can then enter the organisation Rainbow Youth’s Global Ambassadors competition to represent LGBTQ+ school societies around the world. This includes a trip to New York, all sponsored and paid for by Virgin Atlantic. Sadly, this is not a real organisation (at least not the one in this story) but it certainly sounds like a fabulous idea. I wonder if Richard Branson would support it?
But as with all presidential elections and political campaigns, Greenacre Academy’s LGBTQ+ society soon shows it is not immune to the usual drama, backstabbing, lies (both white and web of), gimmicks, publicity stunts, in-team fighting, and backlash. At almost every turn, poor chess and board game-loving Barney is pushed back from his ambition to being president by not only his rivals and their allies, but other school kids, his teachers and even love interests. Even in a seemingly never-ending battle with Bronte, hot, straight football captain Danny Orlando, George and Maya’s constant political game tactics, not-out-yet bisexual Paxton who is at first reluctantly roped into his campaign, and online chess-playing pen pal Kyle (who is actually from a rival all boys school), Barney shows his perseverance to keep getting back up and going.
Simon’s other works, Noah Can’t Even, its sequel Noah Could Never and You’re the One That I Want are all brilliant, gripping and humorous reads, that like Gay Club! feature one type of main character he is well-known for and used to writing – clever, dorky, virginal and socially awkward. Barney, like Noah and Freddie, however, is one you want to root for. Adorable, passionate, slightly naive and proud to be an outsider, but mostly always loyal and tries to be ethically moral. But he is still without his flaws that either stoke the flames of dishonesty or inadvertently makes mistakes that create a lot of mayhem. Yet it is never really intentional or because he necessarily wants to do it. And if you’re a fan of Simon’s other books, there is a cameo appearance from one of the most charismatic and entertaining supporting characters in Noah Could Never, which could interestingly open up a whole SJG Literature Universe in the future… There’s also a subtle and very intriguing dig at a certain author who may or may not have anti-trans views… I wonder who that could be?!
Although Simon’s sexually inexperienced and yet confidently gay lead characters are his forte, it makes me wonder whether other works of his feature some diversity? To be sure I’d have to read the rest of his others too. He is also known for the plots of these stories to revolve around or eventually lead to the main character becoming romantically involved in some way with the gorgeous and seemingly unattainable guy who to most seem very unlikely to be a good match for them, both in terms of looks, interests and personalities. While this type of relationship is cute and has nearly always ended happily, it does make me wonder how often this has happened in reality? Perhaps that’s the cynic in me… Because even though the romance element is not a big driver in Gay Club!, it does of course still feature on the side as the group’s up and down love lives play parts in both their political gains and setbacks. And for Barney, Simon’s usual nerd-falls-for-the-hottie story does make a reappearance in the narrative.
That observation of Simon James Green’s story structures (and his use of Americanised spellings such as using “z” instead of “s”) aside, Gay Club! is perhaps his best yet in my opinion. It shifts focus away from Barney from to time to time to the issues and individualities of the other characters who are all under the “LGBTQQIAAP” umbrella or them as a collective team and is vastly more focused on LGBTQ+ topics. Gay Club! makes it a must-read for those wanting to reaffirm why things such as LGBTQ+ societies (especially in schools) exist or need to and why individuals within that rainbow community are as integral to making a change in wider society as they are as one big family co-operating together.
Homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying, toxic masculinity, the fetishisation of lesbian and bisexual women, the erasure of identities, intersectionality, the multi trans experience, LGBTQ+ history, sex ed and other teachings, allyship and of course a common one among teenagers – the state of questioning one’s sexuality and gender identity – are all issues that are covered throughout Gay Club!, to often heartbreaking and harrowing extents. Unlike Heartstopper, that while excellent on many levels, decided not to depict the brutal reality many LGBTQ+ teenagers face even today on a big scale in favour of a more positive portrayal, Gay Club! does. Greenacre Academy and others in it may be progressive enough and more so than those from as little as 10-20 years ago to at least have an LGBTQ+ society, but ultimately it still shows that for many youths the road to true freedom to be themselves is still paved with obstacles. Yet conversely, it shows the determination many have to continue fighting despite it all.
Being LGBTQ+ and having a political stance or ties to politics often comes hand in hand. Gay Club! is a refreshing, modern understanding of that that teenagers today – whether they are LGBTQ+ or not – can digest and hopefully relate to. I know if I was still in school reading this it would likely inspire me to want to make a change. Unfortunately, it makes me wish I was as confident and driven enough back then to try and do something, despite there being no LGBTQ+ society or talk of such things or us as people in school – or wish we did have one.
Through all the twists and turns, twisting knives and the sometimes upsetting scenes of anti-LGBTQ incidents, Gay Club! still manages to be amusing and heartwarming, showing friendship, love, passion and freedom will not be broken down or overcome by hate and intolerance. The question now is whether it could ever be adapted into a TV series or film? Because that would be amazing!