Sunday, January 5, 2014

Review: Openly Straight


Konigsberg, B. (2013). Openly Straight.  New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine Books.

Summary

Bill Konigsberg’s book, Openly Straight, is about the desire of a gay high school student, Rafe Goldberg, to transcend his gay identity and live a “label-free life” (4).  Rafe lives happily as an openly gay teenager liberal Boulder, Colorado and is widely supported by his parents, friends, classmates, and community. He even became a public speaker on issues related to being a gay teen for an advocacy group called “Speak Out” (41). But Rafe eventually got tired of being identified so exclusively as “the GAY kid” (133). He decided to move to Natick, Massachusetts to attend a conservative all-boys school to experience life as a heterosexual who doesn’t carry such an all-consuming label. His mission: live openly straight. Immediately Rafe is befriended by some jocks at Natick, which helps propel his image of being straight. However, Rafe fell in love with a strong, sensitive jock named Ben. Through the year at Natick, a “bromance” turned into a sexual relationship between Rafe and Ben (185). As the relationship intensified, Rafe decided he couldn’t keep his feelings or his identity masked any longer. He came out to Ben, his friends, and eventually the wider community of Natick. While the revelation of Rafe’s sexual orientation mortally wounded his relationship with Ben, Rafe built new relationships with other people around him.  In the end, Rafe realized that living openly straight was a lie, and that lie created more problems for him than living openly gay.  His lie hurt his friend and lover, Ben. His lie limited his friendships at Natick. His lie confused his friends and family in Boulder. His lie “created a barrier way worse than the original [barrier of being identified as gay]” (298). So Rafe learned the importance of honesty. 

Genre/Theme

Konigsberg’s book would fit into the category of Contemporary Realistic Fiction.  The book offered a realistic portrayal of a teenager who explored his identity as he simultaneously wanted to reject the labels that get assigned with identities.

Essential Issues

Konigsberg’s book, Openly Straight, focused on a variety of central issues in the lives of adolescents. First, developing gay pride is a complex and difficult process in a heteronormative world. Many things make being gay uniquely challenging: homophobic comments, same-gender community showers, pressure for guys to have a girlfriend, nonverbal expressions of negative judgment from others, assumptions that gay people know other gay people, etc. Even in progressive communities, heteronormativity gets embodied through the over-emphasizing of gay people as gay to the exclusion of all the other labels for which a person might be identified. Rafe encountered all of these challenges in the book, Openly Straight. It’s important for gay teens to have books to which they can relate to their own experiences. This book is especially helpful   since it presents a variety of different representations of gay characters that all have different experiences with being gay. This diversity provides various points of experiential access to gay students. Moreover, through Rafe’s pride and comfort in his sexuality, this book could help gay teens to overcome some of their own internalized prejudice. This book is also important for heterosexual teens because it would help them recognize the unique experiences and challenges of being a gay teen. Plus the narrative and characters would help heterosexual teens to develop greater empathy and understanding for their gay classmates. For example, all-too-many heterosexual teens don’t understand the need to develop gay pride and the need to attend gay pride events. This book would help them to deconstruct heteronormativity and recognize the important role of developing gay pride. With the disproportionately high number of gay teens being bullied, beaten, and/or committing suicide, a careful discussion of the experience of gay teens is both relevant and life-saving to teens in all kinds of schools.  Second, Konigsberg’s book explored the fact that people see things differently because of the different lenses through which they see the world. As Ben says: “[Lenses] shift your perspective on everything you see. They create what’s real for you, and unlike glasses, you can never take them off and see what normal people see” (220). This part of the book would provide an excellent opportunity to discuss the ways in which people see things from different perspectives (African American vs. European American, introvert vs. extrovert, homosexual vs. heterosexual, etc.). One way to engage students in this task is to consider the story from the perspective of various characters. Within the context of Openly Straight, students could explore the perspectives of characters such as Ben (student who comes from a conservative background yet explores his sexuality), Olivia (student who is a friendly and outgoing female), Bryce (student who is African American and depressed), etc. This activity could help students see and appreciate different interpretations of the story. Such a discussion could help students to become more civil, open-minded, and culturally competent citizens. Third, Openly Straight allows readers to explore the powerful influence of a person’s family of origin. Ben might have been gay or bisexual, but he doesn’t allow himself to entertain that idea due to his parents’ opposition to homosexuality. Ben knew his parents would reject him for being gay (242). Since he was beholden to “his parents’ way of thinking” (249), he concluded that he had to “be straight” (285). If Ben is gay or bisexual, he will live a life that is emotionally inauthentic and limited due to pressure from his parents. Ben’s character provides an excellent opportunity for teens to reflect on parental expectations and how those expectations sometimes come into conflict with one’s own life. His character also helps teens to understand the reason that it can be difficult to diverge from parental expectations, whether it’s sexual orientation, vocational goals, or extracurricular interest. It’s important for teens to discuss the ways in which discovering one’s true identity can sometimes be profoundly influenced by one’s parents.  Fourth, Konigsberg uses the book to discuss the important differences between the tolerance (i.e. endure a difference), acceptance (i.e. allow something that is different), and celebration (i.e. honor differences in a pluralistic way) of human diversity. Some students assume that tolerance and acceptance are positive attributes. While these approaches to diversity are more positive than overt oppression, they still imply the need for non-normative groups/students to assimilate into the dominant group. Through the character of Mr. Scarborough, the author promotes the idea of celebrating human difference over and above tolerance and acceptance (140-142).  At the end of his lecture, Mr. Scarborough said: “It’s hard to be different…And perhaps the best answer is not to tolerate differences, not event to accept them. But to celebrate them. Maybe then those who are different could feel more loved and less, well, tolerated” (142). This part of the book would help students to explore the ways that they react to the diversity in their lives. Plus, on an ethical level, it promotes the idea of pluralism as a celebration of diversity. Fifth, this novel promotes the importance of being honest. When Rafe moved to Natick to live a “label-free life” (4), he realized that he had to lie about his sexual orientation. He also had to ask his parents and friends from Boulder to colluding with his lie when they encountered people from Natick. Rafe’s choice to lie about his homosexuality confused his parents and best friend, who had been supporters and advocates of him in Boulder. His lie also limited what could have been a helpful friendship with Toby, the gay best friend of Rafe’s roommate. Plus, Rafe had to lie about his sexual orientation to the guy with whom he was falling in love. Ben had falsely assumed they were both “going through the same thing” (288). When Rafe finally told Ben the truth, Ben said that Rafe was “fundamentally dishonest” (291) and “broke [his] heart” (313). Due to this lie, Rafe and Ben broke up as friends and lovers. In the end, Rafe’s effort to live label-free required him to spin a lie that hurt and confused everyone he knew. Attempting to break down the gay-straight barrier created a barrier that separated him from everyone he cared about (298). The ends definitely didn’t justify the means. So Rafe learned that honesty is vitally important even when a lie is told for a “good” reason. This part of the narrative could be used to discuss experiences when students have lied or have been lied to for “good” reasons and how those lies affected them. Since everyone had probably experienced such dishonesty in their lives, everyone will be able to relate to this discussion.   

Cultural Contexts

Young adult readers of Openly Straight would gain insights into the cultural context of being a gay teen. Unlike some books that focus on the tragedies of being gay (e.g. getting bullied, going through a difficult time of discovering one’s homosexuality, coming out of the closet in an unaccepting environment, etc.), this book explored the unique challenges of being gay in an accepting environment. Openly Straight focused on the life a high school guy who struggles with the fact that his identity is almost entirely wrapped up in his label of being “the GAY kid” (133). In his liberal community of Boulder, he is able to live openly gay in an accepting and caring community. But he gets tired of one aspect of his life eclipsing all the other aspects of his life. He is a gay kid first and foremost. Only on a secondary or tertiary level, Rafe is also a son, friend, student, male, introvert, soccer player, etc.  Konigsberg emphasized Rafe’s perspective on this labeling problem through Rafe’s self-reflection: “One day I woke up and I looked in the mirror, and this is what I saw: “GAY GAY GAY RAFE GAY GAY GAY…Where had Rafe gone? Where was I? The image I saw was so two-dimensional that I couldn’t recognize myself in it. I was as invisible in the mirror as I was in the headline the Boulder Daily Camera has run a month earlier: Gay High School Student Speaks Out” (3). Clearly Rafe thinks he has become a two-dimensional person without the nuanced characteristics that most people are afforded.  In an effort to become a more three-dimensional person, Rafe develops the idea of moving to a new school and attempting to live a “label-free life” (4). He just wanted to be one of the guys without all the extra baggage that went with being identified as gay. It wasn’t that Rafe was ashamed of being gay. He just didn’t want his sexual orientation to be the defining characteristic of his entire personhood. Rafe’s struggle to be a regular-yet-gay guy in a heteronormative world is an important part of his cultural context as a gay teen. The fact is that Rafe can’t just be a regular guy in a heteronormative culture any more than Barack Obama can be a regular guy in a white dominated culture. The difference is the thing that gets noticed and emphasized. Some people react to that difference through homophobic comments, physical aggression, judgmental glances, etc. Some people react to that difference through tokenism, paternalism, assimilationism, etc. And some people react with compassion, support, advocacy, etc. In all of these cases the gay person still feels different. In the end of the book, Rafe realized that he has to be open and honest about his sexual orientation even though he has to deal with some of the baggage associated with being different. It’s important for students to understand this cultural context since gay students are at disproportionally higher risk for being bullied, suffering from depression, and committing suicide.  It’s important for homosexual students to understand that they are not alone and that things often improve after high school. It’s important for heterosexual students to understand the unique challenges that gay students face so they can be more empathetic to the challenges of being gay. Through a narrative set in a high school context, this book does an excellent job of exploring issues related to sexual orientation in a nuanced and relatable way for teens. Rafe helps students see a teen who is supported yet still faces challenges because he’s gay. Ben shows students an example of what can happen when a teenager is overly bound to the mindset of his/her parents.  Clare demonstrates the ways in which a heterosexual teen can be an ally for a gay teen. Opal and Gavin (i.e. Rafe’s parents) show the positive impact that supportive parents can have on teens who are homosexual. Mr. Scarborough exhibits the benefits that a supportive teacher can have on the lives of gay teens. In sum, the characters and narrative of Openly Straight would all be a helpful resource to help teenagers to understand the cultural context of homosexuality from a nuanced and empathetic perspective.  The book would also expand their worldview by showing issues related to gay teens from a positive, three-dimensional perspective. This shouldn’t be considered controversial for classrooms. Demonstrating the humanity of gay teens is simply compassion and justice in action.

Characters

The protagonist in the story, Rafe, is a very relatable character for teens. He is a typical teen who enjoys sports, sex, humor, and discovering his identity as an emerging adult. He also has a complex relationship with his parents. On one hand, Rafe appreciates his parents for their love and support for him (e.g. his mom became the president of PFLAG). On the other hand, Rafe is embarrassed by some of their behaviors (e.g. his dad’s rapping and his mom’s naked yoga). Rafe is also witty, insightful, and smart. He’s a regular teen in many respects. One difference from the typical teen is that Rafe is gay. He likes guys in the same way that many gays like girls. But he doesn’t want that one aspect about himself to define his humanity. Students who have dealt with similar identity challenges may relate especially well to Rafe (e.g. African Americans, disabled students, introverts, etc.). But his story of simultaneously seeking acceptance and individuality is a rather universal story to which most students would connect. Like the character David Fisher on the TV show Six Feet Under, Rafe is a regular guy who happens to be gay – even though he isn’t treated that way. For all of these reasons, students should be able to relate to and connect with Rafe whether they are gay or not. Plus, in the end, this story is about the universal journey to find love, self-acceptance, and peer-acceptance.

Rafe’s parents were interesting, complex characters. His mom, Opal, was an emotion-expressing, Prius-driving, naked-yoga-doing neo-hippy. She was also an ardent supporter of Rafe and became the president of PFLAG. Rafe’s dad, Gavin, was a college-teaching, karaoke-rapping, sensitive-male-type neo-hippy. He was also very supportive of Rafe. Both of his parents simultaneously embarrassed and impressed Rafe. They were painted so fascinatingly as characters that they could have a book or TV show that focused just on them.

Ben was Rafe’s love interest at Natick. Ben was a muscular jock, caring friend, wise philosopher, and all around attractive guy. He was anything but typical for a guy at Natick. Ben was the son of a lower-income farmer while many of the other guys came from wealthy families. He was the most athletic of all the guys but he was also deeply sensitive and empathic. Ben didn’t like labels or homophobia yet he didn’t want to be gay himself due to pressure from his parents.  Plus, Ben, as a straight guy, started to explore his affection and sexuality with Rafe. The two became increasingly close until Rafe revealed that he had lied to Ben about his sexual orientation. At the end of the story, Ben broke off their relationship due to his broken heart over Rafe’s dishonesty. He, as the sensitive guy, was too hurt by Rafe to continue their relationship. Obviously Ben is a combination of many positive attributes that tend not to come together. By the end of the story it’s clear that Ben is meant to be the one that got away.

Clare was Rafe’s best friend in Boulder. She was outgoing, friendly, and a bit egocentric. But she was also a faithful friend and ardent supporter of Rafe. In many ways, she was the typical best friend in teen novels and movies. Of all the main characters, she was probably the flattest. The author didn’t draw the reader into her life and make her character worth caring a lot about. Her character seemed to operate as a tool to propel Rafe’s narrative and character forward.

Mr. Scarborough was Rafe’s teacher at Natick. He was also the advisor of the Gay Straight Alliance (GSA). While his personality wasn’t very well sketched by the author, his role in Rafe’s life at Natick was pivotal. Mr. Scarborough was the first person that Rafe told about his label-free experiment, which inspired Mr. Scarborough to give Rafe a journal writing assignment about his experience. Through this journal, the reader got insights into and reflections upon Rafe’s life at Boulder and at Natick. Like Claire, Mr. Scarborough’s character is more of a tool to support Rafe’s character and story.

Toby and Albie were Rafe’s friends at Natick. They were both long-time friends with one another and had a lot of insight jokes and stories.  Toby and Albie were not the so-called cool kids, but were cool in their own way. Their banter among themselves and their banter with Rafe gave the book an occasional sit-com flavor. For being non-central characters, they were well developed and quite funny.

Choices, Challenges, and Resolution

Rafe has to wrestle with a variety of difficult choices. First, Rafe has to decide how he’s going to live openly straight at Natick. Second, Rafe has to decide how he’s going to mask his homosexuality. Third, Rafe has to decide how long he can lie to his friends and boyfriend at Natick. Fourth, Rafe has to decide how he’s going to explain his plan to his parents and best friend in Boulder. Fifth, Rafe has to decide how to keep his life at Natick separate from his life in Boulder. Sixth, Rafe has to decide what to do when he comes out at Natick. Finally, Rafe has to decide if his experiment worked. For all of these decisions, Rafe sticks with the value of attempting to live life in a label-free way. In the end, he regretted some of those decisions and eventually came to a place of contentment with his label.   

There is one major, overarching challenge that shows the strength of an adolescent. Rafe moved from the liberal safe haven of Boulder, Colorado across the country to conservative danger zone of Natick, Massachusetts in order to try his experiment of living label-free. This journey is a bold decision with no assurances of success. Rafe just makes the commitment to try his experiment and then does it. It would take a tremendous amount of strength and resiliency to engage in such an experiment. He moved away from friends and family who were supportive and loving to a place he knew was going to be more hostile to gay teens. Yet he did it anyway. Rafe may have made his decision and transition hasty manor, but he stuck with his plan and played it out until the end of the year. By the end, Rafe was reflective enough to realize his dishonesty created more problems solutions.  

The end of the novel featured Rafe reflecting on the importance of accepting his label as a part of who he is as a person. He’s gay. If people want to make a big deal out of that label, it’s their choice. But he cannot deny his label out of a desire to avoid those moments. After he came out at Natick and joined the GSA, Rafe said: “I stopped worrying about how I looked to anyone else or what they were thinking. I was smiling and not worried if I had food stuck to my teeth. I was laughing and not wondering what it sounded like. Along with my times with Ben, and some of the time with Albie and Toby, this was the happiest I’d been since coming to Natick. I realized I wanted more of that” (309-310). Rafe had found happiness with his label because he had found happiness with living openly gay in a label-laden world. By the end of the book, it’s easy to picture Rafe repeat the famous words of Martin Luther: “Here I stand. I can do no other.” Rafe is gay. And happy. Like him or not.

Student Appeal

Konigsberg’s book was a story that adolescents would read for a variety of reasons. First, it talked about a homosexuality, a real thing that teenagers experience for themselves or through others. Second, the book provided a story of adventure as a teenager explored his identity. Third, the author used witty dialogue and relatable situations that were authentic to adolescents. Fourth, the book would promote conversation about the problems with heteronormativity and the importance of celebrating homosexuality. Fifth, the plot was linear yet included a journal that allowed for easy-to-understand reflection on current and past events. For all of these reasons, this book would likely be appealing to many adolescents. While it would be tempting to assume that this book would have broad student appeal, it’s possible that some students would avoid reading it because it’s about “gay issues.” Hopefully students could be convinced that gay issues are actually human issues.   

Literary Merit

Bill Konigsberg’s book, Openly Straight, is a well-crafted book for many reasons. First, the dialogue and characters are very realistic and complex. Second, the narrative explores homosexuality in regular-guy kind of way that makes the book more genuine. Third, the author brings up many topics that could inspire fruitful discussion with students (e.g. gay pride, labels, lenses, etc.).  Fourth, the story remains interesting despite the assumption that Rafe’s lie is going to implode under its own weight. Fifth, despite the fact that this book explores many topics that could be considered controversial, the narrative is also appropriately witty and funny. Sixth, the plot is complex enough to make it convincing and engaging yet not so complex that it’s difficult to appreciate and comprehend. Seventh, the book uses modern lingo (e.g. bromance) while simultaneously discussing important issues (e.g. interpretive lenses), which helps draw readers into the book and it’s topics.  Finally, Openly Straight has received external recognition for its literary merit. In fact, Openly Straight gained recognition such as the following: Young Adult Library Services Association’s (YALSA) Best Books of 2013, Booklist’s Top Ten Romance Fiction for Youth for 2013, a starred review from Booklist, a starred review from the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (BCCB), and a positive review in the New York Times. It’s unknown if Openly Straight will win major literary awards since there haven't been any major awards for which it's been eligible yet. So far Openly Straight has shown significant promise when it comes to gaining positive recognition.

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