I first read Bill Konigsberg’s Openly Straight in April, 2014. Ten months later, reading it again, the questions it poses are as powerful as they were the first time.
How do I really feel about being gay? I always thought I was okay with it. Am I though?
Relative to many (most, even) members of the LGBTQ+ community, I have had something of a charmed life. I was never really in any doubt about my sexuality: like Paul from Boy Meets Boy, it just seemed obvious to me. I talk sometimes about my parents having two sets of friends: friends from school (both my parents are teachers), and their lesbian friends from the girl scout camp my mother attended and directed. As I noted in an earlier essay, it was my father who gave me Hey, Dollface. I attended the liberal private schools my parents worked at. My entire 9th grade class was required to take what was essentially an introduction to social justice, and although many of my classmates complained about it, it helped create a baseline dialogue about social justice issues that extended beyond this specific class. I was sorry to hear that we would be the last students to take it.
When, freshman year, an installation art piece was defaced with slurs, it sparked a schoolwide dialogue. A significant portion of the upper school participated in the Day of Silence my freshman year, and the GSA followed up with a presentation on homophobia in schools. Things had changed somewhat by senior year, but it was still, on the whole, a liberal, safe environment.
I have never experienced physical violence because of my sexuality. Only once in my life, senior year of high school, have I been the target of a homophobic slur, and the student who called me and one of the other theater techs “faggots” was subsequently suspended. I deal with microaggressions, like any other gay person, but that’s about the worst of it.
Sometimes I do actually listen to the things straight people say about their lives as straight people. I recently went to a reunion of drama students from my high school, where two of the people I was talking with spent part of the evening reminiscing about their high school romances (plural), and all I could think was
I didn’t kiss another guy until I was twenty.
High school romance was a passing fantasy. I asked a straight guy out senior year, embarrassing myself in the process, but that was it. The idea of there being enough people in my social circle of compatible gender and sexual orientation for me to not only date at all but actually go through multiple relationships just doesn’t quite compute. I would never want to be straight, and yet — sometimes it’s obvious how much easier things would be if I were. I hate it.
Straight people have it so much easier. They don’t understand. They can’t. There’s no such thing as openly straight.
Last summer, through a combination of chance and nepotism, I was able to go to Japan for four weeks in August. Thrust suddenly into a new group of people, I found my high school habits coming back. “I’ll tell them eventually,” I said to myself. “Just not yet. Maybe it’ll come up naturally.”
There are not a lot of contexts where “by the way, I’m gay” is a natural addition to the conversation.
For the first week and a half or so, I was Rafe: “I was elated. That was the feeling in my chest. Elation.” I never exactly said I was straight — if anyone had asked me outright (one person did), I would have told the truth. But it was assumed. I was deeply amused that people thought I was dating one of my close (female) friends. I made straight guy friends in a way I never really had before. The barrier came down.
The longer it went on, though, the more I hated not being able to talk about this key part of myself and my experiences. Every interaction felt like a lie. “When I put away the label,” Rafe says, “things were great for a bit because the burden of it all went away. But then it was like I went away too, and that part sucked.”
Not until my second to last night did an opportunity present itself, and I seized it: “This seems like a good time to mention that I’m gay.” And I was me again, more or less.
I wonder, though, how things might have been if I had been that comfortable in my skin from day one. If I could have been that comfortable.
After I came out during high school, one of my parents’ lesbian friends mentioned that there was an LGBTQ+ youth group at her church, if I was interested. I said I’d think about it, and I did, briefly. The idea of outing myself like that, even in a relatively contained environment, seemed impossibly daunting.
I don’t think being gay is a curse. Definitely not. But we all know that being open about it comes with a lot of things that make life harder. Even if you have great parents and a school where you’re treated well, it adds stuff to your life.
I can’t change the choices I made in high school, but I wonder, now, how things might have been if I had gone. How much the defense mechanisms, the straight-acting techniques I built up in high school have hurt, rather than helped, me. Part of me is angry with myself for not being a little braver, for denying myself that chance, for not taking advantage of my safe surroundings. Who could I have been if I had felt different about my place in the world?
Another part of me whispers, not unreasonably, that the homophobia I internalized, the microaggressions, the low-level heterosexual discomfort — in short, all the things that convinced me not to be open about my sexuality — none of these are my fault. The first question leads inevitably to a second one: who could I have been if the world had been different?
I’ll never get to know.
Nathaniel Harrington was born and raised in suburbs of Boston, studied (comparative) literature in college, and is currently improving his Gaelic on the Isle of Skye. He has been writing gay YA since 2008 and reading it since 2009; someday he hopes to be able to share it with others in a format that isn’t half-finished NaNoWriMo first drafts and miscellaneous fragments. He enjoys working out the details of magic systems, doing citations for academic papers, reading in several languages (although he has yet to read any LGBTQ YA in a language other than English; suggestions are welcome), and obsessively categorizing books he reads on Goodreads.