Dapper writer, charming host and self-styled, “massive, publicly open homo,” Benjamin Law is secure in his out-ness, both publicly and privately. So it was a shock when, locked in the writing room for the third and final season of SBS hit The Family Law, those long-buried doubts easily resurfaced.
“Even though it was half a life ago, those feelings of isolation, shame, anxiety and fear were really, really easy to bring back up, because even though I’m as big a homo as I can be now, I don’t think those feelings are easy to shake, and that surprised me,” he says.
He and co-writer Kirsty Fisher had to dig them up for this most intimate of series loosely based on his closeted teenage longings, with the ever-adorable Trystan Go portraying a version of Law finally coming to terms with his sexuality.
“It’s actually really beautiful to watch Trystan do the work, because he’s such a young actor and it was such a huge ask for him to basically carry a show, and then an even bigger ask in season three to carry the real emotional weight of the story,” Law says of his fictional counterpart. “On a personal level, when I see it on screen, it all comes up again. It’s like I’m taking it right back to when I was a teenager in coastal Queensland. It’s nuts, and I think a lot of that is the strength of his performance.”
Shifting the story from Ben and his siblings’ coping with the fall-out of their parents’ divorce and firmly into coming out territory means The Family Law is the first Australian show to focus squarely on queer teen sexuality. “Weirdly enough, it hasn’t been done before,” Law says. “Please Like Me is about a bunch of people in their 20s, and Sweat had a gay storyline with Heath Ledger, but for it to be completely about gay teen sexuality, that’s a first.”
Not that they set out to be capital-W worthy, he says. “When we first started working on The Family Law, it wasn’t like we thought to ourselves, ‘we must make the pioneering showcase about Asian-Australians blah blah blah, because that would be boring. We’re trying to write a really great half-hour comedy, but at the same time, we wore that responsibility with pride.”
It’s the same with this season’s queer focus, in the aftermath of the painfully protracted marriage equality debate. “I think a lot of people in the LGBTIQ community have been asking themselves, what’s the next fight, and it’s been kinda obvious, because anti-gay activists have basically declared that it’s going to be about children,” Law says, noting he was knee-deep in writing his best-selling Quarterly Essay, ‘Moral Panic 101: Equality, Acceptance and the Safe Schools Scandal’ while penning the final season.
“They kinda spoke to each other and I think that people will also see the show as a provocation, and I kind of welcome that, because the discussion is really needed,” he insists. “As much as Australians are increasingly comfortable about the idea of two adults in a very respectable, traditional relationship like marriage, there are many who are still deeply uncomfortable with the idea of young people having a queer sexuality or gender identity.”
When he thinks back to the homophobic bullying he experienced, which he says was pretty mild and more or less directed at everyone, regardless of sexuality, he’s less angry about what happened then and more so about what’s happening now. “Writing the Quarterly Essay and talking to young queer people, I realised I’ve come out the other end and just assumed well, kids now have Love, Simon and Glee, so obviously society has caught up, and it hasn’t necessarily. We need initiatives that help teachers and principals address homophobic and transphobic bullying.”
He’s proud that the show can broach this stuff in a cheeky package that’s totally safe for schools. “A lot of my friends are school teachers and they say when it comes to Wear it Purple Day or IDAHOBIT, they don’t have age-appropriate TV shows or movies they can show the kids,” Law says. “But The Family Law is well-placed, because parents are always telling us it’s one of the few shows they actually watch with their teenager.”
There’s little he’d change about how it has panned out, and with a third season rare for any Australian series, he’s stoked they got to go the distance. When I ask him to look back on that particular period, I wonder what teenage Ben would make of it, and what advice he’d give his younger self?
“Fame-hungry young Ben would be quite pleased,” contemporary Law chuckles. “I mean, he wanted to be an actor who went to NIDA, and I’m like, ‘you don’t even have to put in the hard yards, you’ll just do other things and one day you’ll end up on television in a weird way, like volunteering to be homeless for 10 days’.”
And as for advice? “I’d say your mum’s actually going to be fine and, in fact, deep down inside you already know this. Your mum has been judged for so much of how her life has turned out, she’s going to be the last person who judges you, so tell her as soon as you can.”
Whether the real-life version who co-writes a sex column with her son for The Lifted Brow or Fiona Choi’s depiction on the show, Jenny is a legend, I suggest. “When I look back on that time, the thing that makes me most proud is my mum,” Law agrees. “For a lot of my queer friends, their coming out stories are usually like, ‘oh my parents struggled a bit, but we got there in the end’. But mum was there right from the start with her famous line, ‘it just means something went wrong in the womb, that’s all, there’s nothing wrong with being gay,’ which still makes me laugh, so of course it went straight into the show.”
Season three of The Family Law airs Saturdays at 8:30pm on SBS. The entire season (along with the first two seasons) is streaming at SBS On Demand: