Bill Konigsberg’s Openly Straight is a thought provoking, unique, take on the LGBTQ coming out story. When Rafe came out in the 8th grade, no one made a big deal about it. His best friend Claire Olivia had figured it out long before. His classmates stopped using words like “faggot” in jokes. His parents threw him a coming out party and his mother even became the president of PFLAG. Thing is, Rafe is tired of being the gay kid. While people don’t tease him for being gay, people still think of him as gay, and he just wants to see how it feels to be seen as just Rafe. So he transfers to Natick, an all boys boarding school, for his junior year and vows to begin afresh. It wasn’t that he was going back into the closet; he just wouldn’t mention his sexuality, and people would assume by default that he was straight. It’s a form of heterosexism — people are assumed to be straight unless they say otherwise — and Rafe wanted to use it to his advantage.
Many of the LGBTQ YA books I read are about coming out, so Konigsberg’s approach intrigued me. Post-acceptance, can society move towards a point where labels don’t matter? By refusing to be labelled “gay”, is Rafe exploring a new kind of freedom or is he denying a part of himself? On one hand, Rafe is enjoying a level of friendship with other guys that he never used to have as “the gay kid.” Free from his past, he easily becomes a popular jock, and can easily converse with his soccer teammates in the locker room shower area without having to avert his eyes. At one point, he makes eye contact with a fellow jock and realizes that, at his old school, he’d have to break eye contact within a couple of seconds, because as “the gay kid,” a prolonged connection would make his classmate uncomfortable. Being just “one of the guys” is liberating.
On the other hand, can he truly be himself when he is keeping his homosexuality a secret? At one point, a couple of his teammates start harassing another teammate for being gay. Rafe stands up for the gay teammate, but then realizes he feels like a fraud: “Who was I? How could I stand up for gay people while at the same time hiding that part of me?” Even more thought provoking, at least for me, he then says:
Straight people have it so much easier. They don’t understand. They can’t. There’s no such thing as openly straight. [67% of Kindle edition]
It’s true. I can reflect all I want about how it might be for society to move to a post-label state. I can march in the Pride Parade and argue passionately for same sex marriage. But I can never fully understand the courage it must take to come out, nor can I fully understand how it must be to live an openly gay lifestyle. As this book points out, being openly gay doesn’t even necessarily mean having a same sex partner; even just having people know you’re gay can make them treat you differently.
As Rafe recalls life at his old school, we realize that acceptance can still lead to Other-ing. His mother gave him a stack of books about homosexuality and he admits that while the material may have been fascinating on their own, that fact that his mother gave them to him made the books feel like “gay homework.” His classmates laugh easily at a couple of football players in drag, but when Rafe does it, even though he too does it for laughs, it is immediately perceived as a political statement — his classmates eye him solemnly and his teachers turn it into an object lesson about the gay movement.
I got tired of feeling isolated, okay? So I decided to tear down that barrier. I came to Natick, and I made a different choice. Not like gay is a choice, but being out definitely is one.
And you know what? That barrier did come down. I arrived here, and for the first time maybe ever, that barrier between me and so-called straight guys disappeared. [92%]
But at what cost? And what happens when Rafe falls in love with one of his friends at Natick? Can Rafe truly escape being labelled gay, and more importantly, should he even want to?
There’s a lot going on in this book, and part of me wishes the ending had been less conventional. I also wish some of the other characters were less predictable — the nerdy outcasts are interesting and show more potential of becoming true friends, while the popular jock leaders are jerks. In a book where the very act of labelling is challenged, I wish these perceptions were challenged as well.
Still, this book is sure to spark much discussion. In a class lecture at Natick, Rafe’s teacher asks if tolerance is enough: “To tolerate seems to mean that there is something negative to tolerate, doesn’t it? Acceptance, though, what’s that?” [46%] And is acceptance even enough, or does it too include a value judgement? “It’s hard to be different,” Rafe’s teacher points out, and while he does propose an alternative to both tolerance and acceptance, Openly Straight shows that it’s never really that simple. And perhaps it doesn’t have to be.