Rafe is a normal teenager from Boulder, Colorado. He plays soccer. He’s won skiing prizes. He likes to write.
And, oh yeah, he’s gay. He’s been out since 8th grade, and he isn’t teased, and he goes to other high schools and talks about tolerance and stuff. And while that’s important, all Rafe really wants is to just be a regular guy. Not that GAY guy. To have it be a part of who he is, but not the headline, every single time.
So when he transfers to an all-boys’ boarding school in New England, he decides to keep his sexuality a secret — not so much going back in the closet as starting over with a clean slate. But then he sees a classmate break down. He meets a teacher who challenges him to write his story. And most of all, he falls in love with Ben . . . who doesn’t even know that love is possible.
This witty, smart, coming-out-again story will appeal to gay and straight kids alike as they watch Rafe navigate feeling different, fitting in, and what it means to be himself.
Earlier in the week I’d picked up Honestly Ben after waiting four long years for that sequel. About 50 pages into it, I realized that I didn’t remember a lot from Openly Straight. So I bought the eBook and here I am now, recovering from an emotional roller coaster all over again.
Not only is it a relief to go back and refresh myself on details for Honestly Ben, but also nostalgic. It was the first queer book I ever read. I remember checking it out from the library when I was a freshman in high school. It’s probably one of the hints that made my mom think something was up, now that I think about it. Reading Openly Straight as all my friends were coming out and I was questioning myself made things feel so much easier later on.
Now, four years later, I’m done with my freshman year of college, I’m openly ace-biro and transgender, and I’ve experienced a lot more life. Rereading this was quite the blast of nostalgia. Also, I was laughing for a bunch of the time because when I first read it, my name was something else but now I’m Ben and so is the love interest, and I don’t know. It’s probably funnier in my head, lol.
“Yeah,” Ben said. “Bryce said it’s like lenses that you see the world through. They shift your perspective on everything you see. They create what’s real for you, and unlike glasses, you can never take them off and see what normal is to other people, you know? Bryce had two, and he said it was hard to relate to some of the students here, who seem to have none.”
When I read this as a 15-year-old, I was a questioning cis girl who didn’t know much about the politics of the world. This time around I caught the little things like the use of “transgendered” and a couple of misogynistic comments. The first I can forgive because this published before the whole trans controversy, and the resulting education, blew up. I could also understand a lot more of Ben’s historical references, thanks to having finished my high school education. That’s guy’s humor is spot on.
Must be in the name.
But what hit this time was how there was no way I could fully understand the purpose of the plot when I first read this. Rafe hides that he’s gay when he goes to Natick because he wants to be one of the guys. When I read this in ninth grade, I understood this from a factual viewpoint rather than an emotional one. Now I know that when you’re gay like Rafe or trans like me, you’re a different kind of guy. You’re still a guy, but you’re different.
One of the main conflicts in the book is that Rafe’s parents and his best friend Claire Olivia don’t understand why he’s not advertising his true self to the Natick world. They don’t understand the difference between being a guy who’s straight or gay isn’t the same as the difference between being a guy who likes video games or loves sports. When you’re queer, you’re treated differently from the “normal” guys. This creates awkward problems for everyone involved.
As Rafe explains in the book, when in his hometown of Boulder, Colorado, everyone knew he was gay. It didn’t generally bother him, but that was all anyone ever thought of him as. If another boy in his class was questioning himself, he went to Rafe to fool around. If the class was talking about LGBT+ issues, the teacher automatically asked for Rafe’s opinion. Why wouldn’t he want a break from this?
Ultimately, Openly Straight ends with Rafe gaining some self-acceptance and self-confidence which is great to see in any LGBT+ book. I’m glad that I reread this because a little uplift is what I needed this Pride Month. Hopefully, others will find the same in this book.
Final thought: This is one of the most underrated books I’ve ever read and loved. Please find a copy and read Openly Straight and come talk to me about it. Also, I’m not done reading it yet, but read Honestly Ben afterward because I can already tell it’s another beautiful book by Bill Konigsberg!