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Ask The Passengers, by A S King

When my friend returned this to the library and discovered that I hadn’t read it, I asked her to convince me. This involved no more than the words “school”, “America” and “gay”, and the assurance that she’d loved it. I am easily swayed. I took it home with me that afternoon, and read it in two days. I was that annoying person walking down the road with a book because I just didn’t want to stop reading.

Astrid Jones desperately wants to confide in someone, but her mother’s pushiness and her father’s lack of interest tell her they’re the last people she can trust. Instead, Astrid spends hours lying on the backyard picnic table watching airplanes fly overhead. She doesn’t know the passengers inside, but they’re the only people who won’t judge her when she asks them her most personal questions–like what it means that she’s falling in love with a girl. As her secret relationship becomes more intense and her friends demand answers, Astrid has nowhere left to turn. She can’t share the truth with anyone except the people at thirty thousand feet, and they don’t even know she’s there. But little does Astrid know just how much even the tiniest connection will affect these strangers’ lives–and her own–for the better.

In this truly original portrayal of a girl struggling to break free of society’s definitions, Printz Honor author A.S. King asks readers to question everything–and offers hope to those who will never stop seeking real love.

Ask The Passengers is beautiful. Astrid is smart, and funny, and extremely easy to identify with. She’s so well-written. Her family and friends are frustrating, and that’s easy to identify with, too. A S King clearly remembers what it’s like to be inside a teenage head. Nothing is too wise but equally nothing is too naive. She doesn’t pretend that high school is any better or any worse than it is. The ending is satisfying. It’s a brilliant book, and it made me think. It made me think a lot.

It made me so angry to read all the parts where Astrid’s family and friends accuse her of lying to them, where they try to bully her into coming out. I remember, when I was a teenager, my mum asking me if I “had something to tell her”, and being tangled up because the answer was “no”, for so many reasons, the most important of which was that I didn’t know, but I knew what she meant. She never pressured me, nobody did. Some people I knew weren’t happy that I didn’t tell them sooner, but that’s all. I was lucky. I remember beating myself up for it, though, telling myself that I was being dishonest with people by not telling them that I’m not straight, that if I could tell one person, I should tell everyone. But I was scared.

“I was scared” never seems like a valid reason when it’s said out loud, even though that fear kept me up at night, sent me into regular panics, had me self-censoring my social media ‘just in case’, meant that, when I eventually came out, I asked my parents to tell some people for me so I didn’t have to find the words myself, that I chose to tell most people by posting a link to this on my facebook rather than tell them one by one and risk bottling it. It means that, still, well over a year later, I say nothing to my neighbour when she complains that I don’t have a boyfriend. That fear comes from having known someone who is in prison for killing a gay person. That fear comes from the attacks in Orlando. That fear comes from people saying that they would be disappointed if their child was gay. That fear comes from people, still, complaining that “that’s so gay”. That fear comes from people refusing to serve gay people, from institutions wanting to deny us marriage, from airlines showing a version of Carol that has no kissing in it because children might see it. For Astrid, that fear is reinforced by casual homophobia at school, by the reaction to getting caught at a gay club being much worse than it would have been had she been underage in a ‘normal’ bar. That fear is real, and many say it never really goes away. Holding a partner’s hand could always be dangerous. That fear is enough on its own to keep us in the closet, especially if we aren’t sure. Why risk all that when I might change my mind? And what will people think of me then?

Which brings me onto the first part that made me cry. The second was the very end, and I’m not telling you anything about that, but the first was this passage:

“Do you remember Deanna Klinger?”

“Yeah.” I vaguely remember her. I think she ran cross-country.

“We dated for a while, you know?”

I feel my whole face go hot. “Oh.” Reason number 543 Dee Roberts was a bad first choice. She has dated a lot of girls, and I haven’t dated any.

“She – you know – chose the wrong side. It wasn’t pretty.”

“Chose the wrong side?”

“Yeah. She found some guy she really liked, and now she’s all hetero.”

I sigh deeply and lie back down to look at the sky. No airplanes. No passengers to ask. So I ask the clouds. Did you guys know there’s a wrong side and a right side? Why didn’t you tell me?

The clouds don’t answer.

It made me so sad, because I can’t even begin to count how often I’ve heard things like that. It was a huge barrier to accepting myself, because if a person doesn’t fit the I-always-knew-I-was-gay narrative, then they’re not gay enough. It has to be either/or, and it has to be permanent. Because bisexual people don’t exist. Pick a side, we’re told. Don’t be greedy. Experiment, but only if you “end up” gay, else it’s just for attention. If you’re in a relationship that others perceive as straight, then you’re straight and you’d better stay out of the community, Pride isn’t for you. Pick a side. Pick the right side. Stay on it. It’s disgusting and it it makes me so angry and so sad and I have no time for it.

It’s frustrating, too, that nobody in Astrid’s life seems to want to take “I don’t know” as an answer. Not enough space is given to people to work things out, but we all change, all the time. When I was Astrid’s age, I thought I couldn’t possible know until I had “tried both” (my understanding of gender was somewhat limited at that point), as though I would only be sure by sleeping with people. I’m not sure what I thought I would do once I’d done that, but I’m sure I would’ve thought of something. But since then, I’ve learned that it’s about more than sex, and it wouldn’t have helped at all. What did help was broadening my horizons: getting out of an environment where the only gay people were men, and women and bi people were openly mocked, and finding people more like myself, making friends of different ages and in different countries, and consuming media that gave me a different point of view. I learned, slowly, that there are far more options than any given binary offers, that everything is fluid, that there’s nothing wrong with trying on an identity any more than there is with dying one’s hair blonde. A lot more about me has changed since I was 15, or 18, or 21, than how I identify my sexuality, and accepting that that constant change is natural and healthy has made a huge difference to me. A lot of that acceptance has come from interacting with people who can help me to understand it, and I am extremely fortunate to have friends like these. I hope everyone has friends like these. 

I hope that a young person who isn’t sure reads Ask The Passengers, and realises that it’s okay to be scared, it’s okay to change their mind, and it’s okay to say “I don’t know”.

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One thought on “Ask The Passengers, and coming out

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