Love, Joe — My LGBT History Thanks to “Love, Simon”

I’ve been out since I was 19-years old; that’s when I came out of the closet to close friends. It wasn’t until I was 21 that I came out to my family. But, the story starts long before that…

Simon Spier, the fictional 17-year old and protagonist of “Love Simon” and I have several parallels when it comes to well, coming out.

My sister and I, who, by the way, knew I was gay long before it was public knowledge, saw previews for the now-groundbreaking cinematic phenomenon and immediately added it to our “must-see” queue. We set out once every 2–3+ weeks on a new silver screen adventure for a sibling date night. And truthfully, groundbreaking or not aside, it was one of the most impactful films I had seen in quite some time. The last time I empathized with characters this deeply was when “Brokeback Mountain” was released.

Picture it: 7 or 8-year-old me, running in gym class, experiencing an odd mental sensation, not quite being able to pinpoint it exactly. This was the attraction I held toward my gym teacher — a blond, masculine and muscular man — much, much older than I.

“Mom, I have a secret,” I said one night before saying my prayers and getting tucked-in. I was a curious child, so I’m sure my mother was preparing to answer something about art or God, but not about homosexuality. Especially at that point in my life.

“Okay, sweetheart, what is it?” she replied. With my heart pounding and mind racing, I came out with it. “I like Mr. *****; his butt is squishy, and I have a funny feeling towards him.”

No response. My mother didn’t have a substantial answer in queue, as I’m sure she was in shock. So, denial it was. With a deranged smile and a pat on the head, she said, “That’s okay. We won’t tell Daddy.” And that was that.

I was relieved, but as to whether or not she ran to my father is another story. I’ll never know, and to this day, am deathly afraid to open that can of worms… more so for that frightened child still living inside of me.

So, as I grew up, and battled the everyday norms of being raised in the ’90s, not much else really bubbled to the surface concerning feeling attracted to other men… that people knew of.

Sure, there were handsome classmates I had puppy love crushes on and fantasized about, ones that pushed me toward an “abnormal” realization and eventual awakening. I was stuck and scared, and continued to play the part of a “normal” boy.

I was raised in a household where boys liked girls, grandparents warned parents about the evils of homosexuality, and aunts and uncles always had a “how to get the girl” story ready to share at Christmas and birthday parties… I know, a culmination of wildly inappropriate behavior. And, I might add, too much for one child to handle.

In middle school, I publicly acted like the quintessential pre-teen with other guy friends at sleepovers and in between classes. Hell, I even legitimately pined after members of the opposite sex and fell under their spells when it came time to slow dance at a school mixer or when I smelled their perfume in English class. You know, heart racing, palms sweaty… those kinds of things.

But deep down, I wanted to experience spending time with the popular boy who was a grade ahead of me, or the soccer champ. It wasn’t going to happen.

Skip ahead to high school, and I came into my own. Right around the age Simon was in “Love, Simon.” 17-years-old, ready to conquer the next four years!

I had lost weight and my body was toned due to my extracurricular activities. I still had the baby face, but my body was maturing. And that lurking, unsafe feeling I had suppressed all those years, well, that came back with a vengeance thanks to something called hormones.

There was no anonymous blog at that time where anyone who’s anyone could have confessed their feelings for the same sex or spill some tea on the latest handy that was given by random underagers. You know what I had? AOL and handwritten notes. However, the fear of being outed was thicker than in “Love, Simon.” We LIVED for gossip, and in a graduating class of over 400, news spread…fast.

I had many girlfriends throughout my time in high school; I was even labeled “Don Juan” at an award ceremony senior year. My first kiss was with a girl, and even that didn’t feel right. Friends had guilted me into going ahead with it because “it was the right thing to do.” I actually convinced myself I saw fireworks during said kiss, because that’s what kids on television witnessed. What a crock.

Still, deep down, I watched boys pass by me in slow motion, fantasizing about what they looked like shirtless, or how their lips felt pressed against mine. Nope, it still wasn’t going to happen. Girls were the name of the game, and I had other shit to deal with. The gay thing had to wait.

I’ll add something else, actually. So, the guys who were outed and talked about were freaks. Not to adult Joe, but to teen Joe. They acted effeminately, spoke with lisps, and were seen as clowns through other’s eyes. But deep down, I wanted to take them to a dark corner and conduct a series of interviews to see if I’d fit in with them, too. Or, better yet, plant a wet one on their lips and see what came of it. I wasn’t ready to join the limp-wristed bunch. My town had no tolerance for that kind of shit.

Yes, so, 17-years-old… I was friends with people from a neighboring town, and my friend at the time introduced me to her boyfriend. Wow, he was a beauty: sparkling blue eyes, spiky blond hair… my “type.” We had gotten to know each other at parties and such, until it got more serious.

Word on street was that this boy was gay, and my interest piqued within weeks. One hot spring night, my parents allowed him to stay over. We ate with my family, then went to my room where it was more private. The boy quickly pulled out pornographic computer printouts and suggested we take turns reading fantastical stories of man-on-man action.

After the second round and deeper discussion on their meaning, the boy turned to me and said, “I just feel more comfortable with guys. Do you know why?” And I stood there like a deer in headlights. “Because, there’s something to grab on to. You know?” I nodded with a grin on my face. The conversation stopped there. We got in bed and turned out the light.

He woke me up with a longing in his eyes and a sweaty forehead. Without getting too graphic, my heart raced rapidly, we briefly asked each other for permission then went to it. It was surreal. I legitimately watched myself from an outsider’s perspective, and somehow knew I had changed that night. I was the guy who now held an even bigger secret.

The next morning, we went for bagels and didn’t say a word about the night before. The boy went home shortly after. Things progressed even more after that during the following weeks.

I started dating another girl from the same neighboring town, and my “boyfriend” was still dating my friend. He and I snuck around from time to time, passing those moments off as “releasing steam” and keeping personal secrets. No one was to know what happened behind closed doors.

People started asking questions and became curious as to why the boy and I were spending so much time together. Like Simon, I denied it and lied double time to cover my tracks. If I had been caught or outed, I would have hid in a deep hole until graduation. This was a tricky situation, a scary one. More people were involved than originally intended. Lying was the only way out.

So, it’s junior year and the neighboring town’s prom was around the corner. My one friend held the pre-prom party at her house; it was her, her friends, the boy we were both involved with, and my girlfriend. You can’t make this shit up. And, come time, the night was filled with lies… one after another, like water poured freely out of a nozzle.

We danced, we ate, we laughed and snapped pictures from disposable cameras we knew we’d hide in junk drawers the moment we got accepted into college. Then the night was finally over… my boyfriend ditched his girl, I ditched mine, and we met at his house around 11:00pm. Tux jackets were strewn in dewy grass as we hopped onto a blanket and made out for an hour.

It was evil, I know, the whole thing was… but there was neither a way to curb the feelings I had for the handsome teenage boy, nor take back the damage that was already done.

Over the summer, we all went to a house party. You know, one of those teen movie-types where top 40 music blared from basement to ceiling and kids puked in bushes before running to a parent’s room to make out. This was when my next “Love, Simon” moment occurred.

My boyfriend was drunk and we had been arguing about how little time we’d spent together as of late, and how he wanted me to come clean to our mutual friend about what we’d been up to. All night, we secretly went back and forth, in laundry rooms and bathrooms, about how it wasn’t going to happen.

A few more hours passed, and he finally cornered me in the attic. He calmly explained to me that he was going to out me and our relationship if I didn’t do so soon. In a drunken stupor, I confessed the entire story to him and how I felt. Later I realized that he recorded our conversation and went for a drive with his friends to play them the tape.

When he came back, he played it for our mutual friend who he was dating, and the rest, they say, is history. So, when Martin found Simon’s emails and attempted to blackmail him in “Love, Simon,” then eventually dropped the bomb on the entire school, that hit home…hard. I felt like it wasn’t real. I was exposed and it sucked.

I collected my belongings quickly and found a ride home. Nobody spoke to me for several weeks because of what happened. I didn’t want to reach out because of the shame and embarrassment I felt. It was horrible.

Word had also gotten out to my classmates in my picture-perfect town. One day, after grabbing food from a local deli, I came back to my car to find a handwritten note that said, “I know about you and *****. Don’t do anything stupid.” It was written in blue ink on a torn piece of grocery bag. I immediately panicked and threw it out the driver’s side window.

So, what’s my point here by therapeutically revealing the mess that were my teenage years as a closeted gay guy?

I’ve said it before, that “Love, Simon” had an immense effect on me. Feelings I haven’t thought of in years swelled back in heavy droves. I cried for Simon, but really cried for my reflection in his character.

This is also the first time, ever, that I’ve come clean about the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I recently posted a partial story on my Instagram and Facebook pages; after seeing “Love, Simon” a second time, I knew there was a deeper story inside of me.

And as for MY great love story? Well, here goes really quickly… I came out, as I’d said in my first paragraph, when I was 21 to family. It didn’t go so well.

The quintessential, “You’re going to get sick and you’ll never be able to marry” line came from my parents. It took them some time to come around and be supportive of who I’d eventually become.

The lines Jennifer Garner wholeheartedly spoke to her on-screen son were words the teenage me had to hear. That was my closure thanks to the movie.

And, for the past 12 years, I have been dating an amazing man I plan on marrying in the near future. No, we didn’t meet on a flashing Ferris Wheel, but close enough…

As for the boy who outed me as Martin outed Simon, I hope he finds peace. He clearly struggled with inner demons, and I finally forgive him all these years later. I was bitter and angry, but what good had that done for me?

My parents call my boyfriend their son-in-law, so, we’re one happy family now.

And for those of you who are struggling with who you truly are, I’m here to tell you it DOES get better. Go see “Love, Simon,” start those greater conversations, because well, we’re waiting to see how fabulous the real you REALLY is.

I’m living proof that you can and will survive. I AM you. I AM Simon. I love you, and I’m your ally.

Love, Joe.