“What’s that old quote? If you’re going to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”
Benjamin Law, creator and co-writer of The Family Law, is talking of a guiding principle he has used to tell the story based on his memoirs, of growing up gay in an Asian Australian family on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.
In the show’s final season, Law’s lightly fictionalised younger self (played by Trystan Go) comes out as gay, mirroring what was ultimately a positive experience for Law. It gives The Family Law the distinction of being Australia’s first TV comedy about gay teen sexuality, and at a vital time when discourse on LGBTIQ+ youth is at its most divisive.
The comedy also offers a point of difference in a global screen culture that has produced so many negative queer coming out stories.
“I don’t think there’s a right portrayal, I just think that we need a bigger diversity of portrayals of those stories,” Law tells SBS Guide.
“We’re dealing with some heavy stuff here in this coming out story. There’s denial and confusion and awkwardness and shame and embarrassment, but if you frame it as a comedy, people are going to hopefully tune in more easily.”
There’s comic richness in the situations Benjamin finds himself in: he’s completely oblivious to the fact he’s sporting bondage wear at a party and he’s mortified at getting “stiffies” in drama class brought on by hunky classmate and neighbour Klaus (Takaya Honda) and that everyone knows he’s having wet dreams on a family camping trip.
“We wanted to make something non-confronting that parents could watch with their teenagers too, that you could both get a laugh out of,” says Law, with “everyone just being appalled at the jokes together. So to make something approachable like that is kind of necessary because I haven’t really seen anything like that. It’s certainly something I wish I had when I was growing up.”
The Family Law is part of a trend of positive coming out stories with lead teenage characters, following on from movies like Blockers, Alex Strangelove, Hearts Beat Loud and Love, Simon.
True to Law’s own life, parents Jenny (Fiona Choi) and Danny (Anthony Brandon Wong) show loving support when Benjamin comes out. Their reaction resonated personally with Wong, as a gay man himself.
“It’s really important to show a positive coming out story to subvert the idea and the fear that coming out is always going to end in a negative,” Wong says.
“Because in my own experience, my parents are incredible champions of me and they’re very proud of me, and they’ve always welcomed my partners into the family, as family.”
“It’s really important in media and culture [that] we should show all of the different possible outcomes.”
As Jenny embraces Benjamin after his reveal, he asks what his mother is feeling.
“Love. Just love,” she replies.
“I really loved being able to have Jenny’s reaction,” says Choi. “Her overarching need is always to love, to nurture, to protect.
“It’s, ‘I’ll worry about what it does to my understanding of the world later. Right now I have my son in front of me and I want him to feel safe’. That’s the maternal instinct.”
“I think what’s really lovely about what both Jenny and Danny offer is that they do ultimately offer Benjamin the validation he needs, no matter what shock or whatever they’re feeling on the inside.”
But as Law points out, the show’s coming out narrative is far from “completely rosy.”
“The parents are supportive but feel deeply ambivalent and scared for their kid,” he says.
Danny is the most conflicted about his son’s coming out and what that will mean for him.
“I think part of it is because he’s heartbroken that people are going to now treat his son, that he loves so much, differently now that he’s come out. He’s afraid that people are going to be homophobic,” Wong says. “His story is ‘Oh my God I’m worried that my son might be relegated to a life of loneliness’ which is obviously just a story, but it’s a story that feels very true to a lot of concerned parents.”
What can complicate children’s coming out in immigrant families, says Choi, is that there’s “a much stronger yearning for tradition.”
“Because they’ve come to a new place, family is so important,” as is a continuation of generations to come.
It’s an element of the story that’s been on the actor’s mind, the release of season three of The Family Law dovetailing with a coming out in Choi’s own family.
“My husband is Croatian so he comes from a migrant family as well. My nephew just came out to his Croatian nona, his grandmother,” she explains. “Her biggest concern [was] that this means that he will miss out on being able to have children, carry on the family bloodline. Or that he’ll be ostracised for being different, not normal.”
And then there are the most devastating and homophobic reactions to coming out that, while wrapped in a comic sensibility, The Family Law’s writers have been fearless in depicting. In one scene, Aunty Maisy (Diana Lin) tearfully laments her son’s homosexuality, as closeted Benjamin listens, perturbed.
Law says the scene is an “amalgamation of those horrible things that you hear growing up,” as LGBTIQ+ youth wrestle with their sexuality. “It’s like boiling down a lot of those things, and just pouring it in to one hideous, comedic scene,” he muses.
Choi recalls that the cast found the scene intense to shoot.
“Even in the playing of it, we were all a bit ‘Oh no!’ We just all felt what it must sound like and what it must feel [like] to have to hear words like that.”
Ultimately, the culmination of Benjamin’s coming out is a joyous celebration of the freeing power of finally being able to be yourself. And the storyline has been affecting viewers.
“I’ve been getting messages from some fans saying how the show’s helped them,” reveals Go. “Just the other night a fan said how similar their experience of coming out was. They’re actually saying how powerful the story would be for teenagers struggling with their identity.”
Law adds that the portrayal is also resonating across generations.
“They are grateful at seeing a representation of a coming out experience that was easier, that might have been instructive for their families,” he says.
For Wong, the unfurling legacy of The Family Law and its positive portrayal of coming out is that stories featuring gay characters can help LGBTIQ+ people feel a sense of inclusion and belonging.
“I think that’s what The Family Law is going to do for so many young LGBT kids, but also their allies, their straight friends too,” Wong says of the show he calls a “really big landmark moment in Australian TV.”
“To feel that this is normal, this is not something weird and that we’re part of the landscape, and we should be included as such.”
The Family Law airs on Saturday nights at 8.30pm on SBS and SBS VICELAND. The entire series is now streaming at SBS On Demand. Catch up on season 3, episode 3 'Painfully Camp':