Written by Bill Konigsberg
(Arthur A. Levine Books, 2013)
Times have certainly changed since I was in high school. Pre-Glee, pre-My So-Called Life, there weren’t gay teen characters I could look to as role models for navigating high school cafeterias or, worse, the boys’ bathroom. Yes, there were rumors of swirlies in the toilet, not specifically for gays but for dweebs who lacked bladder control. I think I “held it” for my entire tenth grade year.
I’m not saying it’s easy now. Just easier. No doubt, if you’re young and questioning whether you are gay, every “That’s so gay” comment still stings. Every joke about dropping soap in the gym shower seems intended for your ears. Any admiring glance at a member of the football team still involves great risk.
But there are Gay-Straight Alliances, if not in every school, in many. There are Pink Shirt Days. Acceptance is nearer. Let’s face it though. In high school, everyone is struggling with acceptance. The definition of what is acceptable is extremely narrow, defined by a highly nuanced code that shifts according to what is trending in the hallways and online.
I bought a copy of Bill Konigsberg’s Openly Straight for a number of reasons. I’d heard him speak at the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators summer conference in L.A. a couple of years ago and appreciated his earnestness in offering advice to all of us less successful writers, gay and otherwise. I’m working on a young adult manuscript and I need to continue to familiarize myself with what’s on the market. I am naturally drawn to novels with gay characters. And, finally, the premise of the book intrigued me. Why would an out gay teen establish a new identity, striving to pass as straight?
I’m sure it’s not current adolescent lingo, but I thought, That’s whacked.
Once openly gay, how do you go back in the closet? Seamus Rafael Goldberg lives in Boulder, Colorado with parents who are beyond accepting. They have a celebration for him at Hamburger Mary’s and his mom becomes president of PFLAG. Rafe even takes to the speaker circuit, talking to high school audiences across the state about what it is liking being gay. It seems the only trauma Rafe experiences in coming out is his parents’ overly exuberant acceptance. My how times have changed! To be fair, Rafe tires of being seen as gay, first and foremost. Adolescents naturally cringe at being typecast. They crave being part of the group, but also yearn to seen for their individuality. Rafe feels his status in his Boulder world is that of The Gay Guy.
To suppress Rafe’s gayness, Konigsberg needs his main character to move. And so Rafe enrols in a private boarding school in Massachusetts for his junior year. It’s a place where soccer is the status sport and Rafe is immediately accepted as a teammate. As a straight guy, he mixes with the jocks. He is one of them without any of that gay awkwardness.
Except it’s still there. He still hears the gay jokes. It’s just that he’s not the target.
All of this makes for an odd problem. Rafe has already gone through the coming out process. Now he’s actively suppressing part of his identity.
All summer, I’d gone over every scenario in my mind in terms of
gay stuff at Natick. I had firm plans in place. I was going to be
label-free. Don’t ask, and I won’t tell. The only way I would
actually liewas if I were asked directly, “Are you gay?” In that
case, I’d say no.But even then I wouldn’t go on about being
As I read the book, I never shook the feeling that there was something unsavory about Rafe’s turning his back on part of himself. Rafe seems not fearful, just dishonest. As he forms a close friendship with Ben, I braced for a train wreck. It felt like all those soap opera plots where a girl fakes being pregnant to keep a guy. It never works.
As the closeness of Rafe and Ben’s friendship deepens, it is obvious that Rafe’s concealed out-ness will doom their relationship. Would things have gotten as close had Rafe been out as a gay classmate? Likely not. But then the reader might fault Ben. Instead, it is the main character who is hard to like. Rafe’s interactions are deceptive. The old things-got-out-of-hand argument garners little sympathy.
And that’s the problem with Openly Straight. Ben, not Rafe, is the character the reader empathizes with. Any confusion Ben experiences is genuine. Rafe comes off as likable as all those fake-pregnant characters. His conflict is contrived. It’s a well written book but the premise is plain icky. For generations, gay men have shared their coming out stories. These experiences have united us and helped redefine “family” and friendships. No doubt, Konigsberg wondered, What if there is no story in coming out? What if it’s too easy? What if a character rescinds his out-ness?
This twist on coming out comes off as sad and backward. There’s a reason all those characters who fake pregnancy are hated by soap opera fans. And there’s a reason they are never the main character; instead, they get in the way of the characters and the stories we like. Rafe becomes more and more unlikable as he plays it straight. I got to wondering, What’s the point? Is this what a writer needs to pitch to a publisher that feels coming out stories are so twentieth century? Whatever the reason, Openly Straight is fatally flawed and no amount of yarn spinning can twist it into a good read.