There are times that a concept of a book makes you think. It could be a questioning of the ethics of entertainment, such as ‘The Hunger Games’, or a look at values and nature vs nurture, such as ‘I Hunt Killers’. In this case, for me, ‘Openly Straight’ by Bill Konigsberg, made me think about what it would be like to be tired of being ‘that person’ in their lives and want to experience the world. Unsure what I mean? Read on….
Rafe is a normal American teenage boy. He’s got parents that he loves dearly and who love him dearly. He writes, he plays soccer, he’s won skiing prizes. And he’s gay. For him, that’s just part of who he is – he’s the guy who likes to do what he does and that’s him. But to others, he’s the GAY guy. And not in a homophobic way. But in a way where that’s all that is noticed about his personality. His parents made being parents of a gay child their lives – starting support groups, encouraging him to have boyfriends, fighting the fight against homophobia and discrimination. But for Rafe, being gay is only one part of his life while everyone around him thought it was all he was. Time for a change. His goal – a “label-free life”. To accomplish this, Rafe transfers to an all-boys school in New England. His goal there is not to lie about himself but not to define any parts of his life either. He’s still planning to be who he is but he wants to be able to develop all facets of his life without any of them defining him.
And it works! Well, for a while. He gets a great writing teacher who knows what Rafe is trying to do. He has friends, teammates, party companions. He gets to just be Rafe and it’s great. He pretends he has a girl friend back home, which takes care of some of the dating concerns. And he gets to write and play soccer and be everything but gay. But is that enough? He can still fall in love – and does. And the truth is still there – gay may not be all he is, but it is a part of him. As his best friend points out, “How do you take a break from who you are?”. Rafe has to determine who he is and how he can make all parts of his life balance so that no one part of him threatens to take over the others.
This book does a great job discussing tolerance vs acceptance. That is one of my biggest linguistic issues with social justice – when you teach tolerance you’re saying that there are bad things that you’ll put up with. Acceptance means you’ll be good with the person for everything they bring to the table. You are good enough. While Rafe is learning how to present himself so that he is accepted by all, he learns that sometimes the issues are different from he thinks – perhaps not telling people means that when they do learn about it, they won’t accept him. Not because he’s gay but because he’s dishonest. Because he’s presenting a different side of himself then they are expecting and is in a different place in his life than he’s saying he is. But the lesson that when you deny who you are to others, even through omission, you deny who you are to yourself and lose that part of you is a strong one and one Rafe has to learn, through trials, tribulations and acts of tolerance. It’s a story about a boy who came of age and then had to do it again to truly learn who he is.
Sometimes the characters are a little shallow or stereotypical. However, they are written in a smart, funny and often in realistic situations, so that can be forgiven. Konigsberg does a great job balancing the story of Rafe and showing how a character and develop, learn and grow. There is some “language” and a few sexual situations, which makes it realistic for a book about teens. For YA readers interested in LGBTQ issues or ones who work with social justice, this book is a great addition to a collection.
Plus, it has this quote, one of my favorites:
We were dancers and drummers and standers and jugglers, and there was nothing anyone needed to accept or tolerate. We celebrated
I read this book August 18th and 19th, 2013 in a real, live hardcover copy. The ISBN is 9780545509893. It now lives in my classroom library.