Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg
Deep in the throes of my hopefully final finals, I went on a NetGalley binge. I do my best to limit myself to one or two titles, because my reading list is so long without my attention wandering to whatever looks shiny. (I blame myself as a child for this habit. I used to lurk under bleachers.) But I need to have a bucket of posts ready to go for July and August, which, to me, justified going crazy and requesting everything that remotely sounded interesting. Thus Openly Straight, whose title and cute cover caught my eye. I got nothing else, really; another reason I try not to pick up books sight unseen is that I will just read any and everything. Some media habits are hard to break.
Openly Straight follows Seamus Rafael Goldberg—better known as Rafe. When Rafe came out in the eighth grade, his crunchy family and the entire town of Boulder, Colorado, couldn’t be more welcoming and accommodating. In fact, they’re a little too accommodating. Rafe is tired of everyone being so sensitive around him and being known as “that gay kid”. When he transfers to an all-boys boarding school in Massachuetts, Rafe decides to try a little experiment: passing as straight through omission. At first, it works, and Rafe is finally able to just be “one of the guys”. But things get complicated when he’s assigned a writing assignment about his little project, a classmate gets hospitalized for depression, and he finds himself falling for his new friend Ben…
One of my greatest difficulties with young adult fiction is the fact that the protagonists are nearly always teenagers. Adolescence is a weird time for everyone: experiences can range from the mildly traumatic to the truly cringe-worthy. This makes writing about white, middle-class teenagers difficult. You want them to be sympathetic, but they’re also finding their feet as human beings. I can respect that. But, given my own relationship with my adolescent years (they’re called the Wombat Years for a reason and it is not a cute one), it’s hard to not want to punch some of them in the face to help them along their journey towards self-actualization.
It’s especially difficult in light of Rafe’s little experiment. I think this could be a well-written plot—teenager knowingly goes back into the closet as a social experiment—but Rafe isn’t the kid to do it. This is a boy who dragged his feet when his mother began researching queer theory like a boss and treats being remotely introspective about his orientation and queer history as the worst chore ever. Being able to pass as straight, as Rafe does, is a privilege, but Rafe, due to his distaste for theory, utterly lacks the vocabulary and perspective to dissect this. To be fair, the novel ends with Rafe starting to think about this sort of thing, when he sympathizes with another gay teen who is so butch people never read him correctly, but it’s only the start. If this project had been undertaken by a gay teen eager to contrast and compare his or her experiences, I think I would have liked the protagonist more. I understand Rafe chafing under the gaze of people seeing him as a label instead of as an actual human being, but I don’t think the novel explores labeling enough. What could have been an interesting exploration of queer identity ends up being very, very surface, although Rafe’s actions do, mercifully, have actual consequences.
Obviously, this hits close to home for me, as someone who believes deeply in both the power of language and the ignoring of haters. I, for instance, identify as queer instead of bisexual or pansexual (which could cover the same-ish ground) because I think queer manages to convey the sheer scope of my easily distracted style of attraction better, as well as a few notes about my worldview. Ash and Huntress author Malinda Lo has a good post about labels, which I think Rafe would benefit from reading:
Those labels that other people apply to me are their attempts to understand me. But my sense of self is independent from others’ categorizations of me. So these days, I don’t care what people label me. They can label me whatever they want, because I am still the person I am inside. … It’s an attempt to understand it and to categorize it — that’s all. Furthermore, I’ve come to understand that labels can be useful, because they can call out to others who are interested in the things those labels identify. … The label serves a purpose. But don’t let it do more than that. The label is not all there is.
There are a few other missteps in Openly Straight: it’s hard to buy his English teacher’s effusive praise of his writing with the evidence before you (as Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip showed us, never show us the sketches), the tone is uneven (Konigsberg cuts away from some sex scenes, but is more crude with others), and a couple of sixteen-year-olds now discuss a Nickelback song that came out when they were four like it’s something they care about. Now that’s unbelievable.
Bottom line: Openly Straight, about a gay teen deciding to pass as straight as an experiment, could have been a really interesting exploration of queer identity—but Rafe utterly lacks the vocabulary and perspective to dissect the privilege of passing, coming off as entitled instead. Pass.
I read this book for free on NetGalley.
Openly Straight will be released on the 28th—tomorrow!