Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The power and limits of labels: Bill Konigsberg's OPENLY STRAIGHT

When I was in the tenth grade, my family moved from a small suburban Connecticut town to an even smaller city in Vermont. Such a move gave me the opportunity many teens long for—a chance to reinvent myself, unburdened by friends and classmates' prior assumptions about who I was or what I could be or do. In Connecticut, I'd always been labeled one of the "smart" kids; in our progressive, but tracked-by-ability school system, everyone knew which students had scored high on standardized tests, and which ones didn't (classes were numbered; those ending in 9 or 7 were for the bright kids, those ending in 1 or 3 for the not so academically-attuned). I took Orchestra, which meant I couldn't take Acting (the two classes were scheduled opposite each other). Our school was also too large for the uncoordinated and unskilled such as myself to participate in competitive sports. But when I moved to Vermont, I got the chance to strut my stuff on stage, to play Varsity basketball (I scored 2 points all season, but had a lot of fun in spite of my lack of production), and to experiment with other identities that my previous reputation as a brainiac had made it far more difficult to try on while I lived in Connecticut.

In the early 1980's, a do-over of my sexuality was not an experiment I considered. But it's precisely the possibility of such a do-over that draws Seamus Raphael Goldberg, the first-person narrator of the truly funny YA novel Openly Straight, to transfer for his junior year, from a liberal co-ed public Boulder high school to a small private all-boys Massachusetts prep school. Back in Colorado, Rafe leaves behind his ultra-liberal parents, his gal pal Claire Olivia, and, best of all, he thinks, his identity as openly gay. Out since eighth grade, Rafe is tired of being seen only as "gay," frustrated that other aspects of who he is get swallowed up by a label that only captures one part of his identity. He can't partake of the easy male camaraderie other boys take for granted; he's frustrated by the way his mom takes on queerness as her own personal cause (joining and becoming president of the local PFLAG chapter, bringing home stacks of books about homosexuality for him to read); he's angry that he always stands out, always has "different" metaphorically pasted across his back, a "kick-me" sign he's supposed to be proud of but instead just finds a deadening burden.

The above list may make Rafe sound like an ungrateful whiner, but Konigsburg's gifts as a writer create a narrator who is anything but. Between Rafe's narration of his present-day life at Natick and his creative writing assignments detailing "A History of Rafe," short pieces narrating events from his Boulder days that made him long for a less openly-gay public identity, Rafe comes alive as funny and thoughtful, confused and willfully ignorant, self-reflective and self-absorbed by turns, the perfect guide to this exploration about what really constitutes a person's sense of self.

After instituting his own "don't ask, don't tell" policy at Natick, Rafe gets to experience the thrill of being "mainstream," "acceptable," not automatically lumped in with the geeks and dorks and other clearly "different" kids as he was back in Colorado. The day he arrives, Rafe takes part in a pick-up football game and gets to experience the euphoria of group sports competition; later, he joins the soccer team and becomes part of the jock crowd; he even gets to sit with the "top of the food chain" at lunch, and enjoys cracking them up with his jokes. Not everything is about his sexuality, Rafe asserts:

...knowing a person is about more than knowing whom they fantasize about. That's the small stuff, actually. The big stuff is lying next to a guy on the floor and locking eyes and having deep conversations about philosophy. The big stuff is letting a friend know your hopes and your fears and not having to make a joke about it. That's what matters. (180-81)

Yet as the term progresses, Rafe finds himself drawn as much, if not more, toward the awkward and disaffected at Natick as toward the typical jock boys in the sporty crowd: his "ironic survivalist" roommate, Albie; Albie's openly gay best friend, Toby; and his fellow jock, quiet, kind, but guarded Ben. As Rafe's feelings for Ben grow beyond casual friendship, and Ben's for Rafe seem to, as well, Rafe becomes increasingly reluctant to face the truth that his sexuality may just be one of the "big things" about which a real friend has a right to know.

Teachers of my generation, those with a commitment to social justice, can often find the reluctance of younger students to acknowledge the racism, sexism, and heterosexism that still surrounds us frustrating, even bewildering. Reading Openly Straight helped me to understand a bit better where this reluctance stems from, and how my own attempts to counter it might just be compounding the problem. For example, after Rafe tells his parents about his sexuality:

   Suddenly there were six books I had to read about what it's like to be gay. I said to her, "Mom, can't I just be gay, and not read about it?" But she explained—and Dad backed her up—that we need to know history. Those who don't study history are doomed to repeat it, blah blah blah.

     You know how you get the urge to clean your room, and it's no big deal? But when your mom tells you that you have to clean your room, you don't want to? That's me, anyway. So maybe if I had found all this stuff on my own, I would have really enjoyed learning about it. But instead, I got a pile of books from Mom, and now it was like I had gay homework from my mother. I was like, Thanks for making this exciting new thing a chore, Mom. Awesome.

I think I'll still be offering the books (including Openly Straight), Rafe's frustrations notwithstanding. But I will have a little more patience when my offer is met with a groan or a grimace, keeping in mind Rafe and the time and space he needed to come to terms with the more difficult, even painful, aspects of embracing and accepting a "different" identity. And perhaps, after reading Rafe's story, teen readers will cut us older ones a bit of slack when we jump on the "let's celebrate difference" bandwagon, calling embarrassing attention to aspects of their identities that they're still learning to wear with pride.

Photo credits:
Gay Candy poster: Zazzle.com
Rainbow books: Salon.com

Bill Konigsberg
Openly Straight

Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, 2013


  1. I don't really have a comment other than to say that I think the best approach is to leave books around rather than insist that one's child must read them to do being gay right (and how presumptuous is it for someone who's not gay to tell someone who's gay how to do it right even if they are that person's parent?) and that I need to put this book on my list of books to look for.

  2. I'll be interested to hear your take on it, Lawless. I don't think that Rafe's mother's intention in making him read the books was to make him "do being gay right." It's to help him understand the history of gay liberation, to show him what it took for gay people in the past to fight for the rights that Rafe takes for granted: "I figured I'd come out to my parents, get my first boyfriend, and then just live my life. No. Instead, it was like this thing had happened, and now we all had to mobilize. (I should have known. My mom is a mobilizer.)" (79). What I so like about this book is that it allows us to have sympathy for both sides--both for Rafe, who has the privilege of not having to experience much oppression, and would rather not think about the larger stakes of being gay are, and his parents, who are very aware of the history of homosexual oppression, and want Rafe to be aware of it so that if he encounters it in the future, he'll be prepared and not blindsided by homophobia. And that he can take pride in the courage of other gay people in the past, who worked to gain the acceptance that Rafe has the privilege of now taking for granted.

  3. I understand his mother, but I agree with Rafe. If he wants to live his life as if being gay is like having blue eyes, he should. He'll learn differently later on anyway and if he's blindsided, at least his parents have tried to prepare him. The rest is on him, not them. (As you can tell, my philosophy is not to be all that protective because in the end, your child has his or her own life; it's better for them to learn to live it on their own.)

  4. Your focus on "protective" makes me feel that I haven't entirely conveyed the right impression of Rafe's parents-- their motivation in giving him the books is not only, or primarily, protection. They're activists, and want their son to be an activist, too, to embrace social justice with the same passion that they do. And he does for a while, before he goes away to school.

    But Rafe isn't the same kind of outgoing person his parents are, something he comes to terms with, too, by novel's end.

  5. So they're social justice/cause types, it seems. I still think they should let Rafe be Rafe. They're still trying to make him fit their mold, not his own. I'm actually quite sympathetic to his viewpoint. (That doesn't mean I don't understand where his parents are coming from, and it's part of their characterization, but sometimes kids are like Rafe precisely because their parents are into causes and their kids are sick of it.)

    Power dynamics of this type bother me, whether it's parent/child or boyfriend/girlfriend. I find people who manage other people, or who think they know better than them what they should do, perfectly horrible except in the most extreme cases.