What “Love, Simon” Would Have Meant to Me

For the first time in history, a major Hollywood studio has released a teen romantic comedy with a gay protagonist. I can’t help but wonder what it would have meant to me had it been released when I was 18.

Promotional Image for the film “Love, Simon” (Copyright 20th Century Fox)
[Warning: Spoilers of a film currently in wide release are strewn through this article. I have tried to make them fairly vague, but this article should be avoided if you want the film’s plot to remain a mystery.]

Two weeks ago 20th Century Fox released Love, Simon, marking the first time a teenage romantic comedy with a gay protagonist was ever backed by a major studio and given a wide release. As a gay man and a cinephile, I was excited for this film since the moment the studio announced it was happening. I had a feeling that a film like this would tap into emotions and memories that no feature film ever had. Nevertheless, when I finally saw it last night I was unprepared for the overwhelming amount of emotions that befell me.

Thankfully I saw it with a dear friend who encouraged, rather than mocked, my ugly cry (we’re talking Claire Danes in Homeland) because I sobbed for the majority of the film’s last 45 minutes. Now, I am not typically a big movie crier. I may have shed a tear or two in the climactic emotional scenes of last year’s Lady Bird and Call Me By Your Name, but nothing compared to this. It isn’t that the film is tragic — quite the contrary. Rather it was the sheer power of seeing my pain, my confusion, my longing, myself represented on screen for the first time.

For context, I turned 34 the day the film was released, so I was the age of the film’s protagonist in 2002. I grew up in a staunchly conservative area of upstate New York, was the youngest of three boys in a military family, and attended a Catholic high school. I had, and continue to have, a wonderfully supportive and affirming family and network of friends, but to say that the overall environment wasn’t particularly LGBT-friendly would be a gross understatement. The entire time I watched Love, Simon I could not help but wonder what this film would have meant to me if it were released when I was a closeted teenager.

A Protagonist I Could Relate To

Until I arrived at college in the fall of 2002, I had never met a gay person. Rather, I had never knowingly met a gay person. They were abstractions to me, not flesh and blood reality. My only representations came from the media. Needless to say, the news was no help. By this point, conservatives were regularly spewing anti-LGBT vitriol and the liberal media had yet to adopt a notable LGBT-inclusive stance. So I looked to movies and TV.

Let’s take 2002 as an example. The major films with LGBT-related content were The Hours (a drama depicting a gay man in the final stages of AIDS-related dementia), Far From Heaven (a period film featuring a gay man being subjected to electric convulsive therapy to “cure” his homosexuality), and Rules of Attraction (a college-set comedy featuring a prominent gay-bashing). These were stories worth telling and well-told, but they were far more successful at giving gay teens more reasons to stay in the closet than to leave it. Things were better on TV, particularly with Will & Grace reaching the height of its popularity. But at that point in the series, Will had no love life to speak of and Jack was little more than a cartoon. (Plus, when you are a teenager in rural upstate New York, the travails of wealthy and sophisticated Manhattanites in their 30s don’t feel particularly relatable.)

So what would it have meant to me to have Simon (played with tremendous nuance by Nick Robinson)? He is flawed, no doubt, but he is a genuinely good person. He loves his family, he is dedicated to his friends, and he is engaged at school. He is intelligent, he is sensitive, and he is brave. He is both grateful for all the blessings he has but profoundly sad that he is unable to be himself. Simon would have given me an LGBT role model that was radically different from anything I had ever been exposed to; perhaps, even one who made me feel that gay identities didn’t solely belong to the tragic fringe and the sassy caricatures that I was used to seeing.

A Teacher Sticking Up for a Gay Student

There is a scene in which Simon’s drama teacher Ms. Albright (played by hilarious scene-stealer Natasha Rothwall) gives two bullies a public shaming after they cruelly mock the recently outed Simon and the high school’s sole other out student. It’s a great scene for a number of reasons, but it really resonated with me because of how it so starkly contrasted my own high school experience.

I vividly recall the day a former close friend of mine absconded with silly candid photos of me from the room where the yearbook was being assembled, made dozens of photocopies emblazoned with the word “FAG,” and distributed them around school. This was before I was even out to myself so the fear and confusion remains palpable. The hate signs were eventually taken down, but there was a notable lack of action. Later that day I was explicitly told, “If we make too big a deal out of this incident, it will just make you a bigger target.” Meanwhile, in the mandatory religion class, we screened the tragic 1993 film Philadelphia in which Tom Hanks dies of AIDS, followed by a group discussion about the fact that like all sinful humans, gays deserve compassion when they are suffering even though they are suffering because they have violated the will of God.

Seeing the drama teacher stick up for Simon would have shown me that those particular authority figures at my school were not necessarily the norm. Maybe they were not representative of a world where the people supposed to protect you would not understand you and would not have your back. Rather, maybe they were specific to my context. In this way, having Love, Simon would have made me so much more hopeful and so much more eager to explore the larger world.

Promotional Image for the film “Love, Simon” (Copyright 20th Century Fox)

A Mother and a Father Who Really Got It

When I came out to my parents in my sophomore year of college, their response was extraordinary. It was on par with, and in many ways exceeded, the heartwarming response that Simon gets from his mother and father, who are played with charm and depth by the impossibly attractive combination of Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel. They don’t simply love their son “no matter what,” they just love their son — full stop.

Simon’s mom agonizes over whether she should have pushed her son to share the secret she knew he was hiding, even though she didn’t know exactly what that secret was. She says, “These last years, it’s almost like I can feel you holding your breath.” And a bit later she adds, “There are parts of [being gay] you have to go through alone. And I hate that.” Simon’s dad initially resorts uncomfortably to humor but later comes around with a heartbreaking speech about his bewilderment that he could be so close to his son and not truly see him, and he also hints at the pain of all the micro-aggressions he fears he may have unintentionally delivered along the way.

Simon’s parents’ responses to his coming out were undoubtedly affirming, but nevertheless painfully real. As a teen, I believed that no one would understand — not my friends, not my church, and certainly not my parents. I vicariously learned to expect humiliation and rejection. The scenes with Simon’s parents would have given me some contrary evidence; a faint doubt that my fire-and-brimstone predictions were inevitable.

Friends Who Stuck Around

In Simon’s bedroom, there is a chalkboard counting down the days until his high school graduation. Unlike most high school films, there is little to no mention about what he or his friends are doing after high school ends and there is no climactic graduation scene (the event is never depicted at all). So why the ever-present countdown? To me, it symbolized his anxiety about making it through the end of high school with the straight identity he so ambivalently clings to intact. I imagine that for Simon, this is hardly a matter of ego, but rather one of survival.

Promotional Image for the film “Love, Simon” (Copyright 20th Century Fox)

The unknown of whether your friends will stick around after they find out your secret is scary no matter what age you are or what secret you hold. But in a culture in which LGBT identities remain largely taboo and at an age in which social relationships are paramount, the prospect of coming out and losing your friends is terrifying. I remember being so inspired and relieved when Ellen DeGeneres came out as a lesbian on her eponymous sitcom in 1997 and her friends stuck around despite some initial discomfort. In contrast, Simon’s friends do abandon him after his identity is known. But it really has nothing to do with him being gay; his friends (temporarily) abandon him because of the hurtful lies and manipulations he has orchestrated to keep his secret intact. When they eventually forgive him and get back in his corner, it’s a hard-earned and affirming resolution that would have led me to critically examine my unfounded certainty that I would be disavowed by my friends if I told anyone.

The Possibilities of Social Media

Social media is a central plot device in the film. The cringe-inducing vice principal (played by Arrested Development and Veep co-star Tony Hale) mocks the students’ reliance on their devices and confiscates their phones while secretly arranging hookups on Tinder. But the students are mainly using it to get support from one another, both overtly (Facetiming one another in times of stress) and anonymously (posting confessions on a high school message board and eliciting support). What I found so interesting about this part of the film was how it contrasted to my own experience in 2002. Then, a web search for gay material mainly led to one of two things — anti-LGBT news articles or pornography. The only real way to connect with other gay men was through anonymous hook up websites, which emphasized sex over emotional connection, identity, and support. As problematic as the ubiquity of social media today is in a number of regards, it also made me realize the possibilities for support and affirmation that are open to closeted teens now that simply didn’t exist for me. Perhaps if these outlets had existed, I would have had some emotional support and my first few dates would not have felt so secretive, so shameful, and so terrifying.

A Fairy Tale Ending

In what I assume won’t come as a shock to those who have not seen it, Love, Simon has a happy ending. At the film’s end, Simon is happier and more confident, Simon still has all of his friends and family by his side, and he’s in love. (I won’t say with who, because that’s a big part of the fun of seeing the film.) In general, there is nothing more predictable than a Hollywood film with a happy ending. But a happy ending for LGBT characters is far from the norm. The fact remains that most stories involving LGBT characters either keep them at the fringe of the narrative or leave them with heartbreaking endings. (The progressive 2016 Best Picture winner Moonlight — the first LGBT film ever to win Best Picture — ends the mostly tragic film on a hopeful note, but it falls far short of a fairy tale ending.) What would it have meant to me at 18 to see a gay teenager come out, find love, and have a happy ending? I honestly don’t know. Even though I’ve had my own fairy tale ending to the arduous journey of adolescence, seeing a gay teen get one of the big screen moved me immensely.

A Theater Full of Cheering Teens

Perhaps, the most moving experience of seeing Love, Simon did not happen on the screen but in the theater. There was an entire row occupied by a dozen or so high school students who were clearly excited to see the movie. (Their enthusiasm was infectious so I forgave them for stealing our seats — I mean, what is the point of having reserved seating if people don’t sit in the seats they selected? I digress…) Hearing teens cheer on Simon’s climactic moments was in stark contrast to my nights at the movies as a teenager, where I lived in dread of the inevitable moment when the homophobic joke led to uproarious laughter — shoving me further into the closet. What would it have been like for me if my friends and I went to see Love, Simon as teenagers and I saw them cheering him on? Again, I don’t know, but I suspect I wouldn’t have waited so long to come out to many of them and drifted away from a few others.

Love, Simon is not a perfect film. It is not the definitive LGBT film nor are John Hughes’ classics at risk of getting bumped from the top of the teen movie pantheon. But nevertheless, it is a beautiful film. It is directed with remarkable sensitivity by Greg Berlanti, the out-and-proud creator of such teen-skewing television shows as Dawson’s Creek, Arrow, and The Flash. The nuanced and heartfelt screenplay was skillfully adapted from Becky Albertalli’s 2015 young adult novel Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger. And the performances by the entire cast are utterly superb.

It must be noted that the film shows Simon coming out in arguably the ideal context. His parents are liberal and emotionally attuned. His friends are progressive theater kids. And his whole fictional town seems to be embracing of diversity. Yet, it’s still a profound struggle for him. Now imagine swapping out any of these best case scenario factors for ones that better reflect the harsher realities the majority of children face. Imagine the pain. These stories undoubtedly need to be told, but I believe Simon’s did, too.

Just as many black and female moviegoers were profoundly moved by seeing themselves as the heroes in recent blockbusters Black Panther and Wonder Woman, I watched Love, Simon and felt seen. And heard. And affirmed. Despite the proliferation of platforms that original narrative content can be consumed on, there is still something magical about the silver screen. And I cannot overstate how it felt to have Hollywood tell me that my story was worth telling on it.

The feedback I got on from this post inspired me to write a series on the topic. Click here to see the next article: https://medium.com/@richardlebeau/what-ellen-coming-out-meant-to-me-21d3a5ac3e1

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