First – I want to offer a sincere thanks to the people who stopped by and liked yesterday’s Banned Books post.
Whenever I can, I try to click on at least one suggested post from the people who like or follow me. This round was… wow.
Some of the blog posts that I was led to based on yesterday’s “likes” took me to places that reminded me that while some people would love nothing more than the same passive acceptance for themselves that most straight, white, cis people take for granted, others are in need of a more active support as they live their lives out loud. The truth is that people are individuals and we all need different things from each other.
From the lesbian who is sick of the “never-ending revolving closet door” – this having to come out over and over, to the man who is chronicling his own sexual discovery process as a gay man and shared the awkwardness of his first encounter, to the woman struggling to come out and live life as the woman she was born to be – these people are all looking and asking for different levels of support, understanding, respect and love.
It asks the questions many of these people seem to be asking – How out do you have to be? Can you really connect with people if you hide the part about who you love, or who you look like inside? Why does it even matter? Should it? And, if you’re not out – how do you reach the people you’re into, and who might be into you?
Here’s the basic premise – Rafe is an out gay boy living in Boulder, CO – a safe, open community where coming out wasn’t such a huge deal. As Rafe says, “there we were, a school with gays and straights, and no one died in the process.”
However, while coming out was not a huge deal, being out comes with its own pitfalls. Now Rafe is The Gay Guy. Along with “you-know-Caleb” because all gay people know each other, amiright? Rafe gets tired of his gayness being the first thing people know about him. He gets tired of living the label, and wants to try just being a person. He wants to get rid of the barriers that he sees between himself and the straight guys at school, who tolerate him, but still don’t want to share shower time with him… His plan, to go to a private all boy’s school on the other side of the country and NOT announce his sexuality. He swears he’s not going back in the closet, he’s just “standing in the doorway.” He’s not lying, he’s just… not telling.
Those who know me, know I read with a packet of sticky notes in my hand to mark great passages. Bill’s book looks like it lost a battle with a paper porcupine.
I responded to this book on a couple of levels – First as a person who went to high school. (I know, right!?!) I could so relate to Rafe and his desire to shed his skin like a snake, to have a chance to try on another piece of himself and live in that skin. The teen years are so much about exploration and discovery, but we’re always held back by the person we were, by the perceptions of the people around us based on last year’s self – or yesterday’s self. We make a choice and it pushes us down a road we didn’t even see at the time, and it can be hard to back pedal, to undo the choice and get back on track.
We end up losing ourselves in other people’s ideas of who we are. The idea of being able to start over, to wipe the slate clean is so appealing at that age.
“Hey, did you know I was gay?” I asked.
“Shut up!” she said. “Really, I had no idea, since it’s not like the only thing people talk to you about.”
“I know, right?” I said. “I am so fucking tired of being seen as ‘the gay kid’.”
“I mean, no offense, Shay Shay. But it’s not exactly a cosmic mystery how that happened. I mean it’s not like you told the world, and visited other schools to talk about it. It’s not like your mom is the president of PFLAG Boulder. How rude of people to make a big deal out of you being gay.”
Second, I related as a person who never quite fit in, who lives ever so slightly outside the lines and wishes we could just get past the labels and little boxes already. I went to high school in a very small, very conservative Colorado mountain town. While I could “pass” for “normal”, it was exhausting. When I was socially crucified in 9th grade for being myself I found my people – the misfits.
When Rafe steps outside his label, he’s allowed to explore the various groups, but he finds that too is exhausting, you’re always on a tightrope – can you acknowledge those friends while standing with these friends? Are they really friends if you can’t be your whole self around them?
So on those two levels I responded, and identified just as a person. I hate saying Openly Straight tells a universal story because there isn’t such a thing, but it comes damn close. I think there are pieces of Rafe that almost anyone can identify with. The question he grapples with – how “out” do you need to be to be yourself – doesn’t just apply to sexuality, it applies to so many facets of ourselves. We all protect parts of ourselves and curate the image the rest of the world sees. And yet, we also all desire to be seen and loved as we are.
“Oh, I’m so glad. You love a boy,” my mom said. “You’re still our Rafe, underneath this hideous straight disguise…”
“It’s not a disguise,” I yelled, surprising even myself. “I know you don’t get this, but there’s a part of me that this truly is, okay? I know, I’m gay. I’m your gay son. But could you just give me a fucking break for two minutes so I can be just me too? God.” I pounded the seat next to me.
Last, I responded to this book as a mom, an educator, an ally – an outsider to this specific struggle – looking in. And THAT was a revelation.
I take my heterosexuality for granted, as does just about everyone around me. That said, not every guy I smile at thinks I’m hitting on him. I can strike up a conversation with a dude and not have him feel the need to tell me he’s married, got a girlfriend or not interested. We’re used to each other’s heterosexuality and we understand that there are billions of us and clearly we are not all trying to get in each other’s pants all the time. Seeing Rafe’s struggle to just be one of the guys really drove home for me how different it can be for homosexuals, and how ridiculous it is that heterosexuals saddle them with our crap baggage and insecurities.
He looked me in the eye. His eyes were translucent blue. He looked kind. I didn’t want to look away. I realized that not being the gay kid here allowed me more access. I wasn’t supposed to hold eye contact with jocks back in Boulder. It was understood: They accepted me, and I didn’t freak them out with eye contact. Here, no such contract had been made.
The access he’s talking about here is just friendship. As the out gay kid, can you still hug a fellow teammate after a good game or give them the standard congratulatory ass-pat for scoring a good goal? How can you be one of the guys when doing the things guys do makes them question your motives?
This book also explores the differences between tolerance and acceptance, and finds them both lacking.
“Actually, tolerance and acceptance are different. To tolerate seems to mean that there is something negative to tolerate, doesn’t it? Acceptance though, what’s that?”
I thought about that…
I mean, if you accept something, you take it for what it is. Tolerance is different. Less. So is acceptance at the top of the pyramid? Is that what everyone wants in the best of all possible worlds? Acceptance? I rolled the idea around in my head. It didn’t feel right, somehow.
No one was saying anything.
“Acceptance also has a bit of a negative to it, doesn’t it?” I finally said.
Scarborough looked over at me. “Yes! Tell me more about that.”
My face reddened. I knew everyone was looking at me. I didn’t want to stand out in this conversation, but I did have something to add. I took a shot.
“Well, if you need to accept something, that means it’s not like it should be, right? Like you accept something as it is.”
“No,” someone said, from the back. “You get accepted into college. It doesn’t mean you aren’t as you should be. That’s stupid.”
“Not stupid,” Scarborough said. “Stay with me here. That’s a slightly different form of the word. And yet, colleges accept students who are otherwise rejected. Acceptance is an affirmation that you’re good enough.”
… “It’s hard to be different,” Scarborough said. “And perhaps the best answer is not to tolerate differences, not even to accept them. But to celebrate them. Maybe then those who are different would feel more loved, and less, well, tolerated.”
In the end, that was the message that resonated the most. Throughout the book, Bill Konigsberg does a good job of weaving in a host of characters that all have their individual quirks – as we all do – and showing how we are all different. We all have lines that we live outside of. In the end, those are the things that make us unique, special, valuable.
Perhaps it’s time we started celebrating them, rather than accepting or tolerating them. Perhaps it’s time we stopped trying so hard to make everyone color inside the same lines. Perhaps it’s time we started celebrating the new lines being drawn, and the new doors they open for all of us.
Disclaimer – I met Bill this past weekend and had the honor of moderating for his presentation at the Colorado Gold Writer’s Conference. I have since contracted quite the writer’s crush. The book truly is phenomenal. Every time I tried reading it in private I would end up laughing so loud that anyone within hearing would be forced to come ask what was so funny. It’s one of those books that I will be compulsively buying just to make sure I have adequate stock to loan out.