High school can be a tricky four years to navigate under the best of circumstances. For 15-year-old Jamie, there is an added complication: he is gay. We’re living in 2011, when acceptance of the LGBT community is continually reaching new highs, but coming out to family and friends can still be a very difficult and terrifying step, especially for a teenager. Jamie doesn’t want to wave flags or march in parades; he just wants to feel “normal” and make it through high school intact.
When a classmate discovers Jamie’s identity on a website for gay teens, he decides to preemptively dispel all rumors. To protect the secret of his sexuality, Jamie begins seeing a girl named Celia Gamez, who is rich, beautiful, and popular. Celia’s father happens to be in the business of developing new pharmaceutical drugs and lets slip one day that he is testing a new pill that can “cure” homosexuality. Jamie thinks this is the perfect opportunity to finally become “normal” and carry his relationship with Celia to its expected result. He steals some of the pills and secretly begins taking them before hanging out with Celia.
As you can guess, this plan doesn’t work out exactly as Jamie had imagined. The exact downward spiral is best read firsthand, so go get yourself a copy. I’ll wait…
What I like about this book is that it takes complex, serious issues – coming out as gay, wanting to fit in at school, feeling like society needs you to change something personal about yourself in order to be accepted – and explores them in simple, often humorous, ways. Jamie imagines an island where he will be exiled when his friends and family learn of his sexual orientation, but instead of being bleak about it, he fills this island with shirtless men and frozen drinks. This light touch belies the potentially dark subject matter, making it more approachable and entertaining to read about.
This book also directly addresses the idea of “changing” someone’s sexuality. In the news, I most often see this practice attributed to strictly conservative religious leaders, so I found it interesting that in this case it is a scientist trying to solve the “problem” of homosexuality. His work is not driven by any moral issues, but rather by what he perceives (perhaps rightly so) as an existing demand. As much as I disagree with his solution, Dr. Gamez has a point: There are a lot of people who live in places or situations where they are constantly in fear of their lives based on their sexual orientation, and where the ability to suppress their desires might be enticing. Thankfully no such pill exists, and I hope that we can instead work to develop tolerance and acceptance worldwide, negating any perceived demand or commercial benefit to justify such research.
Another outgrowth of this story is the idea of medicating children in general. Jamie’s best friend, Wesley, is constrained by a daily dose of Ritalin, which keeps him calm and attentive in class, but also leaves him in a constant fog. As Jamie is ramping up the dosage of his stolen pills, Wes decides to stop taking his Ritalin. Within days, Wes becomes violent and unpredictable, but Jamie can’t argue too strongly with his desire to be true to himself and stop letting pills dictate his behavior. As the side effects worsen, Jamie begins to wonder if pretending to be something he’s not is worth losing all that he is.
In the end, when Jamie comes out to his family and friends, it is entirely anti-climactic. This is partially because he has just engaged in $5 million of property damage, followed by an escape via the Chicago River. (Seriously. Read the book.) But it is also because instead of being disgusted or even disappointed, his parents and best friend show him love, support, and understanding. His sexuality is just a part of who he is, and they accept it. Certainly there are families where this would not be the case, but the important point that emerges in this story is that coming out does not have to be a traumatic, painful process. Sometimes when you work up the courage to confront the issue, you are lucky enough to find out it was never an issue at all.
I hope that one day books like this won’t serve such a necessary purpose because having one particular sexual orientation or another will be a non-issue. In the meantime, for a funny and candid look at coming to terms with sexuality in high school, this is your book.