Former sportswriter Bill Konigsberg's new YA novel explores what happens when a closeted gay boy falls for a straight boy who starts to fall in love back.
Rafe has different problems from the average gay boy. His parents are so accepting of his gayness that they threw him a coming out party. But his proud PFLAG President Mom has pushed him into the role of the gay poster boy of his Colorado community. A role he has become tired of. He doesn’t want to be the “gay kid” or “different,” he just wants to be Rafe. He wants to be one of the guys. He wants to know what it feels like to be friends with other guys without, what he feels is, the barrier of his gayness between them. To this end, he enrolls in an East Coast all-boys boarding school in his junior year of high school to start over fresh, with people who don’t know him.
SL: Rafe moves across the country so he can have a “do-over” and try not being the openly gay kid at school. Not surprising, he secretly falls in love with another boy. But surprisingly, the boy starts to fall in love back. Is this a romantic fantasy of yours? Did it ever really happen to you?
BK: I suppose there is some level of fantasy involved in this scenario. I definitely, as a kid, had fantasies about finding a guy who was just “one of the guys” who would love me. I was, in a lot of ways, “one of the guys,” much like Rafe is. But I was also different in that I knew I was gay, and I was out to some people. That separated me from a lot of the guys, in a way that felt too powerful to overcome, and I hated that.
SL: Ben is the ideal heart throb: a muscular jock who is an honest, sensitive guy, with an intellectual bent, serious about his studies (Immanuel Kant in hand with his reading glasses on), a hero who stands up for fellow students that are getting picked on, but who can be very open and vulnerable with a close friend. I fell in love with him just reading about him. Did you create your ideal guy?
BK: Basically, Ben is a teen version of my partner, Chuck. He is perhaps a little more of a jock than Chuck, who is, like Ben, a farm boy with an intellect and an unusual way of speaking. I definitely saw Ben as Chuck the entire time I was writing, so it was easy for me to fall in love with him on the page. What I love is that so many readers feel the same way about him!
SL: What made you decide to cast a bisexual character as the heart throb?
BK: It’s so interesting to me that you put this label on Ben. Not because it’s wrong, because, as I think about it, it’s as apt a label as any. But because, I myself , never really categorized Ben, sexually. The book is all about labels, and how labels often fail to really describe or embody us.
The label “bisexual”, as I see it, is perhaps one of the least repressive labels out there. I see sexuality as a continuum, with many, many people having at least some level of sexual feeling for both sexes at some point in their lives. That leaves far more space on the continuum for bisexual folks than anyone else. And certainly, as a teen, Ben fits somewhere on that continuum.
SL: Although Ben had a serious girlfriend back home, he now has emotional and sexual feelings for Rafe and has begun to explore them. But due to his ultra-conservative family, he feels he has to put the brakes on and cannot fully explore, or live out, his bisexual side, because he would lose his family. Is he a chicken? Or is this a valid reason, in your opinion? Will he come out in college? Or if Ben gets married to a woman and has kids, as he plans, will he just wind up in a bi and gay married men’s group later on?
BK: Perhaps Ben will, as an adult, choose for himself the label “gay,” or “straight,” or “bisexual,” as that’s really all a label like that means; they are self-selected. I’m not sure what he’ll choose, and I don’t want to decide that for readers, as I think readers have every right to decide for themselves what a book means and what’s going to happen to the characters. I don’t mean to choose a cop-out, but I always want readers to have the chance to insert themselves and their ideas into my books. It’s part of the process! As for whether he is a chicken? I wouldn’t say so. I think that some people have very strong feelings of allegiance to their families of origin, and simply have trouble labeling themselves in ways that might separate them from those families. To me that’s not a chicken, that’s a person with a different set of priorities than I had as a teen. My whole thing was “to thine own self be true.”
SL: Ben, unaware of Rafe’s homosexuality, thinks both of them are exploring their newly minted emotions, and sexuality, together. When he finds out that his friend was gay all along, he feels betrayed and lied to by Rafe, even if it was a sin of omission. Is this a cautionary tale?
BK: In some ways it is a cautionary tale. Hearts are very delicate. It can be really easy for us, when we see something we want, to forget that an omission is essentially a lie, and a lie can tear a heart apart. I would definitely caution people to be very careful around the hearts of those we love, and Rafe, as wonderful as he is in many ways, is not all that careful around Ben’s heart.
SL: After hanging out with the cool kids, the jocks, Rafe realizes most of them aren’t so cool after all. They can be unkind to each other. They have exploitative, sexist attitudes towards girls. And they’re homophobic. Are you trying to warn kids that the grass isn’t necessarily greener?
BK: I wouldn’t have necessarily stated it that way when I wrote it, but I think you’re on to something. Yes, we all have ideas about how other people’s lives are more interesting, or more shiny, than our own. In my experience, that’s entirely untrue. One thing we often have to remember, and teens especially need to remember, is that when we judge our own interior life with the exterior lives of others, it’s like judging our dress rehearsal against their final performance. We know all of our foibles and frailties, but generally we don’t know about those of strangers. And all people have them. So yeah, the grass is basically NEVER greener…
SL: When Rafe leaves Colorado, he leaves his BFF Claire Olivia behind, the one person in Colorado who really gets him. They reconnect when he goes home for a visit. She seems like the perfect BFF: did you ever have a female friend like that? Or is she the best friend you wish you had?
BK: Claire Olivia is an amalgamation of many friends I’ve had over the years and especially as a teenager. She has pieces of my friends Sonia, Rhonda, and Eliza, all of whom were teen friends whom I still have good relationships with. I have a weakness for wacky women, and characters like this tend to show up in my books, I must say. I see a big difference between Claire Olivia in Openly Straight and Carrie in Out of the Pocket, but a few readers have remarked that there are strong similarities.
SL: When Rafe comes out again, he finds support and friendship with the GSA crowd, and Toby, a gay boy he was already friendly with, but had never told he was gay. But he’s doing it on his own terms: low key and one of the guys--not as the gay poster boy.
BK: Yes, to me this seems like a moment where Rafe is being more authentic with who he is. Of course, he’s just figuring out who he is, too. So he’s trying things on. When he tells Toby, Toby gets a little “girl-talky” with him. Rafe isn’t sure how he feels about that, but he tries it on for a moment. I definitely can relate to that “trying on” feeling. How do I enjoy being? What kind of person am I? Do I fit any labels, and do they fit me? These have all been big questions for me throughout my life.
SL: The one thing that disappointed me about the book was that your bisexual, or bi-curious, character, who was admirable in every other way, walked right back into the closet, after sticking one toe in bisexual waters. There are many out bisexual kids in high schools and in GSA’s. Before GSA’s even existed, I was out as bisexual in high school. Why didn’t you have any out bi kids in your story?
BK: It’s a fair question, but to me, the answer is simply that there aren’t any bi kids because no bi kids are among the cast of characters. An openly bisexual character may have been an interesting addition to this novel, but he (or she) isn’t in there. As for Ben and the closet, yes, it’s true he doesn’t “come out” about his feelings. But I don’t think he’s ready to. I think these feelings – at least acknowledging them – is very new to Ben. He thought the feelings were new to Rafe, too, and he felt that they were exploring this together. When this turns out not to be true, it’s no surprise that he’d retreat into the closet and lick his wounds.
SL: I would love to see an openly bi character somewhere in your next book. Even if it’s a supporting character like Albie, Toby or Claire Olivia.
BK: To answer your question: My next book is already written. It's called The Porcupine of Truth, and the two main characters are a straight white male, and a gay black female. I'm working on another book right now, however, and the labels in that book seem a lot more fluid. Maybe there will be a bi character!
SL: You had a high profile coming out in 2001 and must have an idea of what it feels like to be a gay poster boy…
BK: Yes, my coming out was very public. Of course, it wasn’t my ONLY coming out, as I came out to friends and family before that. But it was my public coming out, if that makes sense. Coming out, to me, is something we have to do over and over again in our lives, and if we wind up in the public eye – as I did – at some point that process takes place publicly. It was good for me. It helped make me a more honest person with the world. I no longer had to hide any part of me from anyone.
SL: After you came out, did gay and bi athletes come out to you privately? How many and from what sports?
BK: A lot of gay and bi athletes came out to me in emails, both after my coming out at ESPN.com and when I wrote Out of the Pocket. None of them were professional athletes, but some were college athletes. I couldn’t say how many, but I would say at least 10. And from all different sports – baseball, football, lacrosse, tennis, swimming, running, soccer, to name a few.
SL: In your 2001 coming out column on ESPN.com you noted that, “no male figure in one of the four major team sports ever has revealed himself to be a gay, at least while still playing.” How do you feel about the recent coming out of the NBA’s Jason Collins?
BK: It was awesome! I was so thrilled that he came out, even though it did sort of make both my ESPN.com piece and Out of the Pocket “historical pieces” in a way. It’s history, and it’s happening right now. I’m thrilled to be alive and watching this all play out, and I know it’s just beginning.
Openly Straight is available now from your favorite book purveyor.