In a weird coincidence, I recently read two novels in a row that had teenage homosexual boys as the protagonists. I heard about Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World by Janet E. Cameron on Melanie Cole’s blog, and I had the pleasure of taking a workshop from Bill Konigsberg at a writer’s conference, and since he was funny, I thought his book Openly Straight might be too. (It was.)
For Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World’s Stephan Shulevitz, the end of the world comes when he realizes he has fallen in love with his best (straight) friend. After years of pretending to be straight, this novel is his journey out of the closet and into being who he really is.
Rafe, from Openly Straight, is openly gay and has been for as long as he can remember. When he is accepted into an all boys’ high school back east, he realizes his chance to be known as something other than “the gay kid” has come. This novel is his journey back into the closet so he can be who he really is.
This is the essential question that both novels address: what is it that defines who we are?
Sexual orientation is a part of it, of course, but it is not the only part. Great damage is done when you have to hide your sexuality, and great damage can also be done when you are labeled as “homosexual” and then dismissed because someone thinks they have everything about you already figured out.
Labels are limiting, even when they fit. I am a stay-at-home mom and could not be more proud of it, and yet I have had people use that label to stick me in a box, refusing to believe that there could be anything else of value to know about me.
Rafe struggles with this too. In his hometown, he was the “gay” kid. In his new school, he is the “soccer jock.” In reality he is both, but no one seems capable of believing two such contradictory labels can co-exist in one person.
As limiting as labels are, they might be preferable to not having a label. In Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World, there is a period of time where Stephen is adrift. His “straight” label is slipping, but he’s not quite ready to slide into the “gay” label. He has no identity to grab onto, and he deals with it in typical teenage boy fashion: by drinking, smoking pot, and throwing up…a lot.
I know I am guilty of labeling people. There have been times when I think I have someone pegged, only to discover that there is a another aspect to that person that I never even knew. But did I try to look for more, or did I stop searching as soon I stuck my label on them?
For me, the take home message from these two books is that who you are transcends labels. People are not simple; we are complex creatures with lots of moving parts like personality, moods, interests, desires, and talents. We are kind people who can be cruel in certain situations and health conscious people who occasionally like to binge on chocolate cake. We are homosexual males who are tremendous athletes and heterosexual males who like to sew. We are quiet librarians who rock out on the electric guitar on the weekends and long-haired rockers who like to read.
We are so much more than any single label can encompass, and I am going to do my best to remember that myself.