A few of the viewers on my YouTube channel, after I said I would read Openly Straight, asked me to do a review. Because they said please, here’s my review. If you’d prefer to read it, scroll below the video.
It’s essentially a reverse coming out story — Rafe, who among other things, happens to be gay, has decided that while he’s grateful that his family and community are super supportive of him, he’s tired of feeling like he’s just Rafe the gay guy. So he decides that he’s going to go to a different school across the country – an all boys boarding school – and he’s going to be openly straight. Or rather, he’s going to live without labels. And he does, and he discovers that enjoys being a jock and he enjoys hanging out with the nerdy boys, and he enjoys not being just gay. It gets tough to maintain the lie and eventually, Rafe’s outed, which sucks.
I totally get not wanting to be the token gay guy in his community in Boulder, Colorado. For Rafe, it was like being gay was the only thing anyone paid attention to in their effort to show him that they supported him. So instead of facing up to his friends and family, he ran away. It’s funny because when T and were talking about this part of the story, she said that a number of members of the queer community leave home so they can figure out their sexuality. Rafe’s got that figured out and he moves away so he can figure the rest of himself out.
So she goes to this all boys boarding school in order to start over and my first thought was, really? This isn’t going to go badly. Naturally, it starts innocently enough. He has a few issues with his roommate because their cleaning styles differ dramatically. He gets in with the jocks after he takes a football to the face and then joins the soccer team. As annoying as I find Rafe’s decisions, I like him. He’s an average guy. He’s not the best player on the pitch, but he’s not the worst, either, which I appreciated. Really, what it boils down to is the decision to stay closeted and some of the decisions he makes as a result of this active deceit make me want to pop him one. Of course, I might be projecting, and without this set up, the intended conflict wouldn’t play out.
There are two things I really want to talk about that aren’t how Rafe is being ridiculous. Heteronormativity, and cashing in on the passing privilege that Rafe cashes in on, and a specific element of characterization. I might be an English teacher. Oh, and I know that people sometimes get their knickers in a twist when we start talking about privilege. I’m not framing privilege as a negative. Diverse people have privilege. I have privilege.
That isn’t to deny, however, that there’s an ease to walking through the world being perceived as straight. Rafe identifies this, and I think it’s the basis of his decision. While he think’s he’s living label free, perception doesn’t work that way. He may perceive himself as having no labels, but other people perceive that he ascribes to what amounts to norms for the US – straight white male.
I think Openly Straight does a great job creating another space in which we can talk about heteronormativity, the privilege that accompanies it, and the consequences of allowing people to make assumptions based on those norms.
So Rafe is one of the guys, but becoming one of the guys under – well, not really under false pretenses, but kind of like through the withholding of information once friendships are established – he uses heteronormativity to maintain his status within his circle of athletic friends. He hears how the boys talk in the locker room and he doesn’t say anything. He engages in conversation about girls as though he is really a participant in this type of adolescent boy interaction. And while it makes him a little uncomfortable, he lies anyway to continue to benefit from the acceptance and privilege that comes from these interactions.
I take back my comment about false pretenses. How many teenagers withhold information to save face or to maintain their place in the social structure? Rafe’s choice is a problem, yes, but his choice is also a symptom of a larger problem within the sociopolitical structure that labels him as other. As such, his experience isn’t normalized within those spaces, which is really what it seems like he wants. We can have endless conversation about normalization of that which is perceived by some as other. Let’s do it. Comments. Leave them.
So the other thing I said I wanted to talk about was characterization, specifically, the foil. A foil is a character whose actions and experiences are set up to provide contrast to the experience of the protagonist. In the case of Openly Straight, those characters are Toby and Robinson. So when we look at Robinson, we see a character who is a jock like Rafe. We get to see how he’s treated by his teammates before he’s outed, and after he’s outed. It feels like he’s set up to what it looks like to be closeted, as well as how Rafe could be treated once he, himself, was outed. We also have Toby, who is the best friend of Rafe’s roommate. Toby’s been out the entire time – mostly with little positive regard, especially from the alpha male of the soccer team. We can look at Rafe’s decision with the added perspective of these two characters, and we can, or at least I can, see how Rafe could make the choice he did, even though I disagree with it.
Rafe experiences conflict that I essentially expected – conflict from lying, conflict about not wanting to stand up for teammates because he doesn’t want to lose the privilege of being perceived as straight.
And then there was the conflict of Ben. I loved the Rafe’s relationship with Ben, maybe because I’ve had a similar experience. Rafe and Ben become friends after Ben’s roommate leaves school. Gradually they get closer. The relationship is sweet, even though it’s built on the premise that both boys are going through this questioning phase together. It felt realistic.
And then the climax. Rafe and Ben’s relationship is tested. Truth surfaces. People are pissed. And things aren’t tied up neatly with a little bow. I like happy endings in stories, but as this is realistic fiction, I feel like it ended the way it needed to.