Category Archives: Rural Childhood

Reading a lot into homophobia

IT’S NOT THE most pleasant of subjects, but when you’ve written a crime thriller about homophobia, it’s likely that you’ve done your research about this insidious form of discrimination.

Heck, you’ve probably even been on the receiving end!

When I was approached to nominate five Australian books related to the theme of my novel Tank Water, it was hard to go past the critical plot driver in my debut piece long-form fiction.

This novel was a deep dive into prejudice, which often took me into some pretty grisly territory, and even put me on the trail of a real-life suspected gay-hate crime in my home town.

One guiding light for me with this book was to never try to analyse what lies behind the ill will towards same sex-attracted people, but to explore how families and individuals so often dig very deep to overcome it.

So when self-described “bootstrapped underdog” international book site Shepherd offered to platform my choice of five books, it was the conquering of homophobia in Australia that informed my list.

“A century of prejudice is laid bare in these books, but within their pages are countless subtle and overt ways that gay Australian men have given homophobes the big middle finger,” I wrote in my introduction.

“We may not always have thrived, but through resistance, migration, verbal agility, notoriety, and sheer resilience, collectively we have conquered.”

Click through to Shepherd to read my selection, including Indigenous, migrant and pioneering gay voices, and check out their growing list of gay-themed books while you’re at it.

Blowing away Bob Katter’s bulldust

IN 2018 I WAS asked to give a paper at a Newcastle University conference – Surveilling Minds and Bodies. This was a unique chance for a non-academic, and I embraced the opportunity to present some of the research that went into my debut novel Tank Water (MidnightSun Publishing, 2021), which joined an embryonic wave of literature about gay men in rural Australia.

I was subsequently invited to submit an article based on that research for a special edition of the international Journal of Australian Studies.

Fun and frustrating, it was deep dive into the history of Queensland politician Bob Katter’s infamous claim about a minuscule “poof population” in the bush; a ridiculous assertion than needed further examination in the light of what impact it had on rural LGBTIQA.

Here’s the introduction to the article, with a link to read more…

Backwards to Bourke: Bulldust About Gays in the Bush

In his 2006 thesis, “‘Staying Bush’ – A Study of Gay Men Living in Rural Areas”, author Edward Green studied the lives of 21 gay men living in country New South Wales. Green described his subject as the “largely hidden and untold story of gay men living in rural areas”. This year, 2006, became pivotal for the visibility of gay men living in the Australian bush, when the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and Network Ten distributed episodes about rural gay men on Australian Story and Big Brother. In the space of one 12-month period, this cohort went from “hidden and untold” to prime time. But this shifting narrative was contested. From as early as 1989, rural Queensland politician Bob Katter issued a series of widely broadcast public claims that he would “walk to Bourke backwards if the poof population of North Queensland is any more than 0.001 per cent”.

By analysing media, popular culture, judicial and police records, this article explores the visibility and portrayal of rural gay men in Australia prior to and after this 2006 milestone. It scrutinises Katter’s insistence on a minuscule “poof population” during his generation, from the 1940s to the present, locating the debate at the inland margins of Australia’s population. I argue that as rural gay men became slowly more visible in local popular culture as a result of social and political change, debate about their existence was clouded by a lack of research, reporting and inclusion.

“Scholars ignore the margins at their peril,” wrote the editors of Queering the Countryside in 2016, defining America’s rural queer studies as “an emerging field of inquiry”. A backward-facing walk to the Australian bush in search of the “poof population” feels like an intellectually marginal endeavour as most of the academic literature to date has focused on the lived experience of gay men in this nation’s cities. Yet in spite of Katter’s minuscule population estimates, made over three decades, I will argue that the rural gay cohort has always defied such assumptions.

For the rest of the article, head to the journal page.

Don’t come home: a sample of Tank Water

JAMES Brandt didn’t look back when he got away from his rural hometown as a teenager. Now, he’s returned to Kippen for the first time in twenty years because his cousin Tony has been found dead under the local bridge.

The news that Tony has left him the entire family farm triggers James’s journalistic curiosity – and his anxiety – both of which cropped up during his turbulent journey to adulthood. But it is the unexpected homophobic attack he survives that draws James into a hunt for the reasons one lonely Kippen farm boy in every generation kills himself.

Standing in the way is James’s father, the town’s recently retired top cop, who is not prepared to investigate crimes no-one reckons have taken place. James must use every newshound’s trick he ever learned in order to uncover the brutal truth.

A coming-of-age story and crime thriller with a large and gentle heart.


The prologue of Tank Water

Daniel listened to his son’s idiotic answering machine for the fourth or fifth time, waited for the beep, cleared his throat and went to say everything; but when the right words still wouldn’t come, he threw the receiver down and went for another drink.

Bottles rattled in the fridge door as he yanked it open. He twisted the top off one and threw his head back for the first gulp. From that angle the leftover sausages on the top shelf looked like his best option for tea, but their yellowed skin reminded him of his nephew’s bloated body inside the freezer at the police station.

Even after shutting his fridge the smell was there. It’d been hanging around for days, like there was mortuary fluid on his shoes. Whenever he noticed that sickly blend of chemicals, Daniel couldn’t help but picture the photographs of Tony’s remains before they’d removed him from the river below the Kippen Bridge.

He turned to the sink and washed his hands again, but the mossy scent coming down the pipes from the tank didn’t help. What water did to a corpse — filling it with more death than it seemed to have room for — was the very worst thing he’d seen in twenty-five years of police work. The head, shoulders and most of the torso had been submerged, swelling the guts. The legs were broken and lying at awkward angles, entirely concealed by reeds and the thicket of poplars.

Daniel reached for his beer and flicked the radio on. Music he didn’t recognise unsettled him, but the news would come on in a few minutes. Word was already getting around town. He hoped no one had contacted the Kippen station with the worst of the stories. Tony would probably still be lying there if a jogger’s dog hadn’t sniffed him out. The park below the bridge was known for attracting lonely types, and his nephew certainly fit the bill. Every ten years or so, one of them jumped.

He reached into the bread bin. Only crusts left. Everything else was in the fridge, but Daniel wasn’t game to open that again. Nothing much in the cupboards. He wasn’t in the habit of going into Kippen just for shopping, not since he’d finished up at the police station. Anyhow, there were beers left from his retirement party on the back seat of his car.

As he pushed through the screen door onto the verandah, rabbits scurried off the last patch of lawn by the tap. A cloud of dust in the middle distance partly shrouded his brother inside his tractor cabin, heading for home. Beyond that, already out of the sun’s reach, Deloraine’s homestead blended into the dark furrows that would push up Bill’s cheeky early sorghum crop soon enough.

Daniel sucked at his drink and swirled each mouthful around his teeth before swallowing, testing whether it could somehow be right to head over there and hang around for something to eat. For more than twenty years, Doris had told him to come around for a meal whenever he needed. He had a whole unopened carton of beer to offer.

Sitting up in his cabin, Bill was a bloody wonder. He never let the farm go, even after the worst life threw at him. With the chance of frost right through to November it was dicey to plant so early, but Daniel knew why his brother did things that way. It was like they couldn’t lose no matter how much they gambled. Bill planted crops even if the conditions were all wrong. He loved feeling like a winner in spite of the weather reports, and there was no one out here to overlook your failures. It had been a huge risk, but he’d pulled the tough older brother act and forced Daniel into sowing sorghum on every square inch of Deloraine and The Mulgas, less than a month after little Gregory had died.

Daniel gnawed the inside of his cheek, remembering his own dead boy. The hard work of that huge crop had paid off richly for them, but it had been Daniel’s last full season of farming before he’d pulled the skittish younger brother act, sold the land and applied to become a cop. Harvesting his share of nearly five thousand acres in the solitude of his cabin while he’d sobbed for Gregory had done him in. All that was left of The Mulgas’ perfect cropping country was the home yard.

‘Thank Christ,’ he muttered as though someone was there. His colleagues were right. He’d started talking to himself. Former colleagues. Bill changed gears and the tractor disappeared behind the tall pine trees that obscured the machinery shed at Deloraine. As Daniel watched, he felt the air cool and noticed the gloom of his own house stretching over the field between the homesteads. The unmistakeable shadow of The Mulgas’ water tank steadily covered the dried grass, the gravel laneway and the bare fruit trees along the fence.

He shouldn’t go and bother his brother and sister-in-law. The Mulgas had him in its grasp, and staying in was better than witnessing poor old Bill having to go home to Doris. He’d be trying to disappear into the woodwork even more than usual, and she would be busy with funeral arrangements like it was a bloody dance at the town hall.

Daniel heaved a sigh, drowned it with another mouthful, and prepared to sit with the sorrow in the homestead that once rattled with a wife and kids. There was just one more thing to do before he’d put the lock on the top gate, fetch the beers in and call it a night.

He flung the door open, killed the radio, went for the phone and dialed the number he’d circled in the newspaper next to his son’s photograph. While he waited for the comedy act of Jamie’s message, still with that girlish tone, Daniel finished his beer.

‘You’ve reached James Brandt, journalist at the newspaper everyone loves to hate. I’m not available to take your call at the moment, but please leave me a message if you’ve got the scoop.’

Right off the beep, Daniel spoke.

‘Jamie,’ he said and burped. He wasn’t about to let his son imagine anything had changed. ‘It’s Dad. Look, I’ve been trying to catch you for a few days. It’s just that, well there’s no easy way to say it. There’s been a death in the family. Just call me, son. Funeral’s next week. There’s a couple of things to discuss, but you don’t need to be here.’

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.