Should Henry Lawson be a queer icon?

Australian literary legend Henry Lawson belongs just as much with the LGBTQI movement of today as with the sentimental nationalist and political movements that have made him their poster boy, according to Miles Franklin award winner Frank Moorhouse.

In a collection of essays to be released on Monday, Moorhouse argues that Lawson may have been "destructively conflicted" by his effeminacy and if he were alive today could potentially be described as "bi-sexual or perhaps bi-gendered".

"On the evidence, Lawson struggled with the conventional masculine role and, I believe, the unresolvable inner tensions of his sexuality," writes Moorhouse in The Drover's Wife: A celebration of a great Australian love affair. "I speculate that his effeminate personality contributed to both his abuse of alcohol, which can be both a relief from, and a form of, emotional absence within a relationship."

Moorhouse, a multi-award winning Australian author, argues that Lawson - whose name is immortalised in parks and streets all across Australia and long featured on the $10 note - could become a "hero to all Australian queer kids".

There is no historical record that Lawson, who died in 1922, led a homosexual life, but Moorhouse believes this is not unexpected given the inhibitions of the time. His claims strike at the heart of the Australian mythology of mateship of which Henry Lawson and his contemporary, bush poet A.B. 'Banjo' Paterson, are emblematic. While Lawson has been celebrated as a "bushman, a celebrator of a rugged bush mateship...he was never comfortable in the company of the shearers and drovers he wrote about," writes Moorhouse.

Lawson had at least four romantically significant but difficult relations with women, Moorhouse writes, but developed a "singularly intense bond" with Jim Gordon in 1892.

Lawson, then 25, met 17-year-old Jim Gordon while on assignment for the Bulletin in Bourke, in north western NSW. Gordon later wrote that he noticed Lawson "eyeing [me] off" with "the most beautiful remarkable eyes I have ever seen on a human being...soft as velvet and of a depth of brownness that is indescribable".

The pair carried their swags for three months along the 450km track between Bourke and Hungerford, sleeping under the stars and working rouseabouts.

At the end of the journey, Lawson left abruptly - part of a pattern, according to Moorhouse, of fleeing from the demands of emotional relationships. The pair were re-united - "re-mated" to use Lawson's own words - in Leeton in 1916 and spent their time camping along the Murrumbidgee River, drinking and talking.

Gordon, who Lawson mentored as a writer, recalled the pair would walk arm in arm or "holding hands". Lawson revealed a pet name he had for Gordon from the days of the trek "surprised and disturbed" and "caused distress and pain" to Gordon's wife, Daisy. Lawson's relationship with Isabel Byers also became acrimonious after the men were reunited.

Moorhouse argues that if Lawson were alive today, he may not be as "destructively conflicted about, and disturbed by, his effeminacy and may be bolder in his assertion of implied self".

This story Should Henry Lawson be a queer icon? first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.