I was thinking about how snakes shed their skin every year, and how awesome it would be if people did that too. In a lot of ways, that’s what I was trying to do.
As of tomorrow, I was going to have new skin, and that skin could look like anything, would feel different than anything I knew yet. And that made me feel a little bit like I was about to be born. Again.
But hopefully not Born Again.
-Bill Konigsberg’s Openly Straight (p. 4)
Bill Konigsberg’s delightful and heartwarming novel, Openly Straight, pushes readers to question the possibilities that “shedding one’s skin” offers, and the consequences that arise when reinvention threatens our sense of self. The novel is narrated by Seamus Rafael Goldberg (who usually goes by Rafe), a high school student from Colorado who transfers to Natick–an elite, all-boys school in the New England area. Although Rafe is openly gay, he decides to conceal his homosexuality while attending Natick to live a life free of labels, and to explore the possibilities of living a life unhindered by the so-called burdens of queerness.
Rafe, at first, claims that “The closet is when you say you’re not gay” (132). Problematically, he views the closet as a singular and individualistic space created by self-denial–and he fails to recognize that the act of being “out” relies on the obliteration of the many closets that appear and re-appear in our everyday lives. As pointed out by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in Epistemology of the Closet,
every encounter with a new classfull of students, to say nothing of a new boss, social worker, loan officer, landlord, doctor, erects new closets whose fraught and characteristic laws of optics and physics exact from at least gay people new surveys, new calculations, new draughts and requisitions of secrecy or disclosure. Even an out gay person deals daily with interlocutors about whom she doesn’t know whether they know or not. (68)
Rafe’s initial failure stems from his inability to understand that stepping out of the closet is not a one-step process, for it comprises an act of revelation and disclosure each time a new closet is erected in one’s life. I was impressed with how Konigsberg manages to invoke Sedgwick’s ideas of closetedness, especially as they are experienced by contemporary youths. Given that the novel takes place in a time where homosexuality is becoming more and more acceptable by mainstream society, I was delighted that Openly Straight explores the nuances and effects of closetedness in our brave new world. As evidenced by the novel’s protagonist, closetedness can still haunt even those who are out, open, and accepted.
Rafe is born into a family that readily and openly embraces his gay identity. However, Rafe is unable to appreciate his privilege because he deems that his homosexuality eclipses the other identities that he can embody–to the point where all he is able to see when looking in the mirror is the gay subject he is expected to perform, rather than the self:
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 invisible in the mirror as I was in the headline the Boulder Daily Camera had run a month earlier: Gay High School Student Speaks Out. (3)
Rafe realizes that decision to hide his homosexuality and to pass as straight do come with certain perks. He is quickly accepted by the jocks at his new school, he is able to shower with his soccer team without worrying about the repercussions of the “straight gaze,” and traits other than his queerness are recognized. His ability to keep his self-imposed secret, however, is thwarted as he grows closer to Ben, a fellow jock and philosophy enthusiast who studies at Natick. As Ben begins to show signs of fluid sexuality, and as the two boys grow closer, Rafe reflects on how the perks of his reinvention come with the cost of being able to love truly and openly.
My favorite aspect of the novel is the complex relationship between Rafe and Ben. This relationship makes you feel all the warmth that you expect in young adult novels, yet this warmth is accompanied by realistic depictions of frustration and heartache. This is unsurprising, since Rafe and Ben’s relationship is based on experimentation and sexual confusion, even though one of the two characters definitely isn’t confused. This complex relationship ultimately leads Ben and Rafe to reflect on the nature of love–how it is possible to love people in different ways, and how it is possible for different types of love to overlap. This reflection leads to my favorite passage in the novel, in which Ben contemplates his non-normative affinities with Rafe:
I guess I’d like to think of what we have as agape. A higher love. Something that transcends. Something not about sex or brotherhood but about two people truly connecting. (225)
One another note, Openly Straight, in its essence, is about gazes, and how they control how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us. Rafe’s decision to go back into the closet is driven by the fact he is tired of being viewed as a queer object by his friends, family, and peers. Rafe’s views are not entirely unfounded–he is constantly asked by friends and teachers to give his input as a queer subject. His attitudes, beliefs, and actions are constantly being traced back to his homosexuality by other characters. Rafe, understandably, feels the weight of queerness on his shoulders–and this weight is unshakable.
Rafe, nevertheless, complains about the gaze that others fixate on him, without coming to grips with the ways he gazes at others. In one of the later chapters of the novel, Rafe finds himself scrutinizing one of his queer peers at a Gay/Straight Alliance meeting–remarking on everything from his peer’s clothes to his haircut. As Rafe’s eyes remain fixated on his peer, he remarks how this other boy could pass for a woman if he wanted to. When Rafe’s peer notices that he is staring, Rafe becomes self-conscious about his gazing. It is at this moment that Rafe realizes that he is guilty of performing the very act of “straight gazing” that drove him back into the closet in the first place:
I was staring at this effeminate kid, and judging my own masculinity, or lack thereof. And was I so different from everyone else? Who was to say that Mr. Meyers in Boulder was thinking about when he looked at me? How come I was assuming that his staring at me had anything to do with me? (306)
Gazing, according to Rafe, is not a fixation based on rejection, pity, or disgust, but rather, it is a discursive relationship between the self and an other. Thus, the gazer reflects on his or her own selfhood as contrasted to another person–which leads Rafe to deduce that he could “spend a little less time worrying about what people thought about [him], since they probably weren’t thinking about him at all” (307). In other words, Rafe realizes that the fault and blame lies in the eyes of the gazer and not on the person being gazed.
I love this novel. I have been reading queer YA fiction for years, and I must say that Openly Straight astounds me on many levels. It is a testament to how much queer YA literature has evolved over time, and it makes me feel very optimistic about the present and future of the genre. I foresee that young readers will be particularly drawn to the humor and cleverness of this work. I also admire the fact that this novel offers readers the opportunity to explore a compelling, funny, and heartfelt narrative that doesn’t shy away from the complexities of contemporary queerness.
Konigsberg, Bill. Openly Straight. New York: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2013. Print.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. Print.
You can purchase a copy of Konigsberg’s novel by clicking here.