Sunday, August 4, 2013

Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg

Fair warning now, this review is likely to be gave me all the feels. I went into Openly Straight completely clueless. Honestly, I saw the cover at Barnes and Noble while browsing one night and thought "hey that looks intersting!" so I picked it up. Yes, I have a problem. I was so not expecting this book to be as good as it was and I certainly wasn't expecting it to make my brain explode with more thoughts and philosophical debates within my own head than any other book has made me do all year. But that's exactly what it did.

I was hooked from page one of this book. Konigsberg writes some of the best, wittiest, most sincere dialogue I've read in awhile now. I loved the honesty of this book, a book that dealt with a fundamentally dishonest situation. The book is about a teenager named (well, nicknamed) Rafe. Rafe came out as gay in 8th grade and was accepted by pretty much everyone. His parents are awesome. They're these incredibly liberal, super hippie parents living in Colorado, Rafe's home state and his mom is the president of their local PFLAG chapter. Rafe's never had major problems at school and has generally been accepted as who he is. But he's tired of who he is..."the gay kid."

Konigsberg didn't play out the normal stereotypes of who "the gay kid" is here...Rafe plays soccer, wears very normal clothes, when his looks are described they seem very "average"...what I think Konigsberg was going for here was to make and "everyman," but to show that coming out automatically stands you apart from the crowd. But Rafe hasn't had a hard time after coming out. He's just sick of being known for that one part of his persona. So he decides to move across the country for his Junior year of high school to an all boys boarding school and go back into the closet, to take the label off of himself and just be "one of the guys."

Oh where do I begin? I should say that I was shocked by my guttural reaction to this book from the very beginning. I found myself literally laughing out loud (something I haven't done while reading a book since the last David Sedaris book I read) and then on the next page feeling pure fury inside. It took me 30 years of my life to come out as gay due to pure fear of being rejected by everyone I knew, though I've found since that that fear need not be there. And here was a kid that came out at such a young age, wasn't just accepted by everyone but celebrated by his parents, and now he wanted to go back IN the closet. And yes, I was well aware that this was a fictional character.

And then my thoughts began running immediately to the sympathetic. For a couple of different reasons. It's often true that once you come out as gay, that's what many people see....{your name}, who's gay. You become "that gay guy" or "that lesbian girl". Not that people are looking down on you, but it becomes a definition of who you are all of a sudden. I'm going to use myself as an example even though I've been lucky enough to not experience too often. I don't consider being gay any more important than someone who is straight would consider themselves being straight. It doesn't define who I am, it's a part of who I am. It's my sexuality, and while that is a big part of who I am, it's not me. So I sympathized with Rafe for wanting to basically yell "STOP!" and get away from that and start fresh.

But here's the can't take away such a vital part of yourself such as your sexuality. That's the conclusion I came to. The question that kept coming into my brain over and over and over again is why DO we have to come out. Because it is frustrating and it's beyond stressful. No one comes out as straight. It's the norm. But because it's the norm, those of us who are gay are left with the choice to either declare our sexuality as being attracted to the same sex, therefore making life a WHOLE lot easier, or not telling anyone, fundamentally keeping a giant part of ourselves a secret and making any relationships we'd like to have really hard.

I would love to live in a world where we didn't have to come out. Konigsberg writes a great little snippet of dialogue about this in the book, talking about tolerance and acceptance. After reading it, we need something greater than both of those before we get to that point where no one needs to come out....he basically says to tolerate something is to put up with something because you have to whether you like it or not. Acceptance can mean many things but most ways you look at the word, you're saying "it's ok for you to come into our circle...we accept you." What we need is equality or celebration or I don't even know what other word...just things to be fundamentally the same where it doesn't matter.

But right now it does and that's what Rafe learns in this story. When he takes away that part of himself at this new school, we quickly find a person who is a non-person. A person who once held a strong personality that was so loveable who's now lost and is almost a character actor. And a person who's falling in love but is unable to express that or tell the person who he loves exactly who he is. And it all gets to a point where everything can all come crashing down again so easily.

The last couple of lines of this book are some of the most beautiful I've read, and they're spoiler free, but I'm not going to share them with you....I'll let you discover them for yourselves. Because I think this is a book that everyone should discover for themselves. It's an important book, it's witty and comical, honest and raw, and damn it's a book that really makes you think about things.

10 comments: said...

This is a wonderful post, and so open and honest. I find I am a little ashamed that I have never really considered how weird it is that there is a culture in which the heterosexuality as the norm is reiterated through the idea of having to come out when you are gay. That is really interesting, but also sad, really. Thanks for pointing that out. This sounds like a very important book, but very sad that the main character wanted to start one high school year over in a different school and then remaining in the closet. I gather that is exactly meant to problematise the ideas surrounding coming out and being gay as being different somehow?

Amanda said...

Wouldn't it be wonderful to have a world where no one had to come out at all, that we could all just be who we are, and when we bring home a boyfriend or girlfriend, it wouldn't matter what gender we are, or what gender they are. It wouldn't matter if we're straight or gay or bisexual, and people wouldn't question you all the time because there is no "norm." This sounds like a really interesting book.

Bellezza said...

I can't comment on the coming out part, as that's not my experience, but being labelled as anything is not good. It's too easy to out people in a box and not see them for who they are. I love it when an author takes the opposite point of view than the traditional one. I remember reading a book about a "fat" girl (hate saying that!) who loses all her weight to fall in love with a guy who keeps a fat girl on the side. Jemima K, I think was the title. Anyway, what a wonderful premise: that we are desirable to others as we are.

Bill Konigsberg said...

Well gosh! What a delightful review of my book! I'm so glad that A) You found the book at B&N, and B) It impacted you as it did. Also, I got to learn what tl:dr means, so that's a plus. Thanks so much, Chris!

Beth F said...

Wow! And I agree with Amanda, I've just never understood why people have to be so defined by just one aspect of themselves -- sexuality, gender, religion, skin color, what have you. Sounds like a book worth checking out.

Debi said...

Every time you talk about this book, I fall in love with it even more. Sheesh--what's going to happen when I actually read it? :D

Chris Howard said...

Iris, Yes that is exactly the point of this book...that it's very problematic and it all blows up on him in the end. And I think that we as a society don't even THINK about heterosexuality as being considered the "norm" for the most part therefore making homosexuality's just sort of how we've been trained. This book gave me lots of feels!

Amanda, Yes indeed it would be wonderful!!! I so look forward to that day!

Bellezza, I love that last line "that we are desirable to others as we are" :) I wish more people had that thought process. You're right's when we try to change ourselves for others that we often lose ourselves...and it's sad that we sometimes feel that we do have to change ourselves.

Bill, They had quite a few copies at B&N! It was sort of highlighted in the new release section :) I really can't thank you enough for writing a book like this. I'm a gay man myself and I also happen to be a counselor who works with a lot of lgbt young adults and the thinking this book caused me to do will certainly influence me. A very important book and a much needed one these days :) And I'm glad I could educate you on tl;dr :p

Beth, I haven't understood it either :/ I don't know why people just can't be people. One day we'll have that!

Debs, Well go get yourself a copy already and find out :p

Snowball said...

My son came out in his early 20s. When he finally told me he was gay, I simply said, "I've known since you were three." He asked why I never said anything and I told him that I felt it was for him to share it when he was ready. It was always a non issue for us. (He has other traits that are far more problematic, and none of them have anything to do with his sexual preference.)

What it means to be gay seems to be changing. Not the sexuality part, obviously, but the social part. As gays and lesbians finally gain their place in society, they have to reconstruct something which has been mostly defined by what it was fighting against. For some people this is hard.

I'm used to the perspective of older folks like myself, who lived through the plague years, (80s) I think a younger perspective would be beneficial. This book looks like a good choice.

Daphne said...

This sounds terrific. As someone who experiences somewhat fluid sexuality, I find it puzzling sometimes how to handle the conversation when it turns to my 'ex's -- which range from boy to girl to transvestite. Mostly I just use regular pronouns ("he" "she" and "he -- wearing a dress") and let folks figure it out for themselves. However, having 'come out' once to my family and friends I do know that it's stressful -- for some people, it can be devastatingly so. I personally really hate labels (as I find them so difficult to apply to myself) and try to avoid it... but it's hard, even when you want to be inclusive and non-label-y! We continue to try and do better, all of us...

bkclubcare said...

Love your enthusiasm, you always put a smile on my face when you share from the heart; your reviews, your postcards, your photos of plants... Applause