Originally Published: June 14th, 2013; Updated: June 24th, 2014
What’s the difference between “tolerance,” “acceptance,” and “celebration”?
I never thought much about it before. Or at least, I never sat down and had a conversation about the inherent difference in that collection of words; not in a concrete way, anyway.
For the length of this blog post, think about those words. Mull them over. Swirl them around in your mouth, taste every letter, swallow every syllable.
• • •
Every once in a while, one book enters my periphery and I’m immediately intrigued by it’s premise which, generally, won’t stop until I’ve purchased the book — preferably the hardcover because I’m OCD like that — and I’ve read the entire thing, front to back, in an unusually short time frame.
On Wednesday, after work, after weeks of saying, “I need to buy this book,” I finally made my way to Barnes & Noble and purchased Bill Konigsberg’s Openly Straight.
On Thursday afternoon, after I sent out a whole mess of query letters for my own novel with strikingly similar ideas, I finally had the chance to sit down with Openly Straight and really sink my teeth in — oh, and nothing is better than having an ultra understanding boyfriend who, even though he wanted to spend time with me since we both happened to be home at the same time with nothing immediate to do, he knew that reading this book was exactly what I needed.
I started around 3:30pm and by 8:30pm, I was done.
And by done, I mean I was completely, totally, utterly finished. Openly Straight had finished me. I’ve never felt such a range of emotions in such a short, concentrated timespan. I laughed my ass off because the characters were so authentic, so witty, so funny that at one point I made the mistake of taking a sip of iced tea and consequently cackled, and dribbled it down my chin and all over my shirt! And that was at a point in the book when I thought “I can’t possibly laugh for a good long while.” I was wrong.
And that’s the thing: I didn’t see anything coming. Ok, sure, I had ideas and hopes and dreams and wishes, but like life, literature doesn’t always read the way you expect it to. But here, everything was so true to life that one moment I was on the verge of tears or all riled up because of what the main character was doing, but the next minute, one his friends would say something completely unexpected and I’d be rolling on the floor (while choking on tears).
Seriously, it was a roller-coaster of emotions. One that I was not expecting, and in all the best, most wonderful ways. Isn’t that the most amazing aspect of real life? We never know what’s coming, good or bad, and that’s what makes it most exciting!
Openly Straight is about Rafe, a typical teenage guy from Boulder, Colorado, who came out in 8th grade to thunderous applause from family, friends, and his community. All he has known were ideas of tolerance and acceptance, and when he came out, his mother became president of PFLAG and EVERYONE knew he was gay.
And Rafe was tired of only being known as the “gay” kid.
He hated the label and
wanted needed to try something new, a new town, a new school, a new Rafe. At the beginning of his junior year, he transferred to an all-boys boarding school in New England and decided that he wouldn’t exactly be straight, but he would evade any and all questions regarding his sexual preference. If anyone asked him about girls or girlfriends, he’d just word it so that he wasn’t exactly lying, but that he wasn’t exactly being truthful, either.
So he created a new life for himself. He became one of the jocks, and for the first time, a group of guys saw him as Rafe, and not “the gay guy.”
And then he met Ben.
That’s all I want to say about the plot and premise, because it’s just THAT good that YOU NEED to pick this book up and read and experience it for yourself. But what I will talk about is the writing. This is my first experience reading Konigsberg (his debut novel, Out of the Pocket, came out in 2008 and after reading Openly Straight, I will definitely be picking it up!) and I was completely blown away. Not only was he able to create a world that I believed, but I felt like I was at the boarding school, walking the halls, seeing through Rafe’s eyes. I was experiencing every single moment of elation, every twinge of guilt, every moment of fear. I couldn’t put the book down because I didn’t want to step outside of the world Konigsberg created, not even for a moment.
As I read, all I kept thinking was: this is the book, of every single book that has ever existed, that I wish I would have written. I’ve said in the past that I would love to have my name on the Catcher in the Rye book jacket, or on David Levithan’s Love is the Higher Law, or Nick Burd’s The Vast Fields of Ordinary, or Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but this book is different. This book felt like an open window into my head, heart, soul. It discusses labels and identity in the ways that I long to do in my writing. I would have made all the same creative choices, and I wouldn’t change one word.
Not. One. Word.
I am proud to have Openly Straight on my bookshelf, and I won’t lie, I’m planning on reading it again within the next week. There is so much I want/need to process, so much more to take in, because, really, it’s an earnestly beautiful book. It’s one of those rare, truly remarkable books that allows you to see the world through a different lens. It’s an eye-opener. It will allow you to understand the differences between tolerating someone who is gay, what it means to actually “accept” someone who is gay, and how different both of those are from actually celebrating someone who is gay.
The discussion about labels and tolerance v.s. acceptance v.s. celebration needs to continue. Openly Straight is a huge part of that discussion, but it isn’t the end. It’s a huge step in the right direction, but it isn’t the only step that those who write YA with LGBT characters will need to take.
But thanks to Bill Konisberg’s, the discussion just got better!