‘Love, Simon’ and the Trouble with Conflating Sexuality & Gender

We need a more nuanced view of how sexuality relates to gender

I’ve waited quite a while to write about Love, Simon, trying to take time to process all my feelings about the film, and also take in the criticism and praise from other writers. As the first mainstream teen film to feature a gay protagonist, the stakes were high.

Reactions have been pretty evenly split in the LGBTQ community. Some have gushed about how much the film moved them, and how much it would have meant to them to have such a film around when they were teens (for the record, I fall mostly into this camp — the film really moved me, it was a joy to watch). Others have criticized it for catering to a straight audience, and making protagonist Simon Spier adhere to heteronormative relationship standards. I’ll link below to a couple of the better criticism pieces I’ve read, both of which I mostly agree with and are well worth a read. I especially appreciated Amber Stewart’s discussion of queer characters vs. queer plots.

However, I think what’s being lost in a lot of the conversation around Love, Simon is the distinction between sexuality and gender expression. A lot of the flack Simon-the-character is getting revolves around how “straight” he seems. This assumes that there is one particular way to be visibly queer, and anyone who falls short of that expectation is somehow letting down the queer community…by being themselves. When I hear Simon being derided as “too masculine” to be the hero of a gay film, I wonder whose perspective this is serving — and whose is being overlooked.

I probably take this view because as a bisexual woman, I deal with the perception that bi people have “straight-passing privilege.” If you’re expecting me to have short hair, androgynous clothing, or any other trapping of stereotypical female queerness, I’m probably not going to seem “queer enough” upon first meeting me. I can relate to Simon in a lot of ways.

The film does start with a very problematic line:

I’m just like you. I have a totally perfectly normal life. Except I have one huge-ass secret. Nobody knows I’m gay.

This is one of the more clear-cut ways the script panders to a straight audience. Simon also enjoys the privilege of living in a fairly liberal town, with accepting parents and friends. For viewers in more conservative communities, there’s significantly less likelihood of seeing queerness as normal, and for them, Simon’s story must feel more like a fantasy than a relatable tale.

Simon’s questionable self-framing aside, I don’t think it’s fair or even helpful to criticize his character for looking and acting too much like a straight guy. Yes, we need to celebrate and encourage representation of more recognizably queer identities, but that doesn’t mean we have to erase the other ways that queer can people can exist. If we’re uncomfortable with a gay character who can “pass,” that might say something about the mainstream LGB community’s struggle with understanding gender identity.

And we can’t really fault Simon for feeling pressured to fit into a heteronormative society. He simultaneously feels internal pressure to be more visibly queer, as we see in the fantasy-like musical scene and his mini makeover. It would be one thing if Simon was actively trying to act more masculine to hide his queerness, or be more accepted by his straight peers, but he seems to genuinely struggle with how to convey his sexuality. It can be just as hard to feel secure in your gender identity when society expects you to perform it a certain way if you’re queer. And I think part of Simon’s reluctance to come out is a reaction to this — he knows many of his friends and family will be surprised because he doesn’t seem gay. I felt this way when I was a teen, too. There’s a sense that you might not be believed (and just compound that disbelief if you’re bi, like I am. “Are you sure?” was a constant refrain when I came out).

At one point in Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda, the YA book the film is adapted from, Simon wonders, “Why is straight the default?” and goes on to declare his wish that everyone had to self-identify. Even though that’s clearly wishful thinking, I think we would all benefit from also uncoupling gender identity from sexuality in our minds, and not make assumptions about what sexuality someone is based on their gender expression. And it goes both ways — just as someone like Simon who seems straight could actually be queer, the reverse can be true, too.

It’s important for us to hold LGBTQ media to a high standard, and hope that a more diverse offering of queer stories will be told. But we can’t expect every queer story to look the same, or describe those that don’t live up to our stereotypical vision of queerness as “sanitized.” We need to think about whose stories get erased when we have a limited view of what types of gender expressions are valid within different queer sexualities. The spectrum of expression is what makes our community so vibrant, and it’s worth celebrating.