By Evan Lambert
When I came out in middle school, my classmates called me a pervert and avoided me in the hallway. In high school, my peers oscillated between openly mocking me and gossiping about me behind my back. I was told I belonged in a zoo; I was told I couldn’t give blood; I was told I was going to hell; I was told I wasn’t “gay enough” to even deserve the attention. I was called a freak; I was called a fairy; I was called a faggot. Ultimately, I graduated second in my class, attended an Ivy League school, and developed a drinking problem.
Love, Simon has given me the catharsis I need to move on.
As I listened to teens around me sob audibly Friday night as Simon Spier — the handsome, traditionally masculine protagonist of Love, Simon — found love and social acceptance (well, more than he already had), I realized that I was crying for a different reason. I was crying because Simon had stumbled towards an Act 3 that I had only ever dreamed of. Case in point: No one, at any point, had told Simon he needed to go to hell. No one had called him a freak. No one had ostracized him. Simon had been gifted a future that I had been robbed of — and I mourned this.
But I also cried tears of joy — for the new lives that would blossom from Love, Simon. I cried because I knew that across the country, at that moment, there were queer teens watching the same movie and seeing themselves represented and embraced — possibly for the first time. Suddenly, they were being fed the same lies about love that had thrilled their straight peers since the advent of the first modern rom-com, The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Suddenly, they were being offered a road map, albeit a fictional one, to happiness.
When I was in high school, I didn’t have a Love, Simon. My closest analogue was 2005’s Brokeback Mountain — coincidentally the last mainstream queer-themed movie to be backed by a major studio. (I had told my parents I was going to see the James Franco vehicle Tristan & Isolde, and even memorized the film’s plot on Wikipedia.) But while Brokeback Mountain didn’t paint an optimistic future for me as a gay kid, I still allowed its tragic heroes to emblazon themselves on my memory. After all, these were queer men who had been, for one fleeting moment, truly happy. It was the same reason I loved the 2005 film adaptation of Rent: It was a mediocre movie, but it was also an earnest promise of a gayer life, in every sense of the word. For my AP English presentation on postmodernism, I performed “Today 4 U” and twerked on my teacher’s slide projector.
There were happier and better queer films, of course, but I didn’t discover them until later. There were far too many restrictions on me in high school for me to have the resources to explore and appreciate the full spectrum of queer cinema. Unlike Simon, I wasn’t allowed to drive to school or even drink coffee. In fact, my mom’s reaction to me drinking coffee would have been the same as Simon’s mom when she found out he was gay: Shock, confusion, and eventual acceptance. I still didn’t tell her until I was 25.
Still, if I had seen Love, Simon in high school, I would have felt closer to my peers, and they to me. I would have had my identity and passion reflected back at me in the most glowing, encouraging way. I would have felt brave enough to come out to my parents on my own terms, and not bottled up my feelings for a lifetime. I would have started college less tightly wound and less isolated, and not veered towards alcoholism or my 2009 overdose on sleeping pills. I would have followed my passions sooner, and not aimlessly returned to Virginia as an adult, trapping myself in the same homophobic morass of my formative years.
Some critics, like Time’s openly gay Daniel D’Addario, have posited that Love, Simon arrived too late — that America stopped needing Love, Simon the moment the country legalized same-sex marriage. However, critics like D’Addario are writing within a bubble of privilege, its filmy coating distorting their vision and their voices. Surely, it’s time to move on from the notion that the LGBT rights movement has “made it” simply because upper-middle-class guppies are swimming into white collar positions across the country.
For those who don’t think Love, Simon is crucial and necessary: Have you forgotten that 32% of the country — over 100 million people — still oppose same-sex marriage? What about the straight children of those 100 million, who grow up learning gay is not OK, and thus send their queer peers spiraling into despair? What about the queer adults who live next to those 100 million, who miss out on employment networking opportunities and a sense of community because their neighbors don’t embrace them? What about, heaven forbid, the queer teenage children of those 100 million, who would be suicidal if not for movies like Love, Simon?
Of course, there are far edgier, more realistic queer coming-of-age tales than Simon. (See: Moonlight, Beach Rats, Pariah, My Summer of Love, Beautiful Thing, etc. — even Call Me By My Name and GBF have their place in the pantheon.) Moreover, Simon has its fair share of flaws. (We could all benefit from a mainstream comedy in which Clark Moore’s Ethan — a black femme force of wit — is a protagonist, instead of just a Magical Homo who helps a white bro live his best life.) And perhaps Simon’s socially conscious center is glossed over to the point that it is unrecognizable. (At the showing I attended, the one uttering of the word “faggot” was drowned out by lingering laughter from the joke preceding it.)
But no other movie has come close to performing Simon’s mainstream hat trick. For once, a major studio is proffering a well-adjusted queer character in a positive, well-made queer movie, and actually finding an audience for it. Media heavyweights have jostled one another for the opportunity to review Love, Simon and capitalize upon its SEO potential. Even Architectural Digest has written about it.
And it is for that very reason that Love, Simon is essential. Its success will beget further success, and its formula will be lifted onto teen movies starring femme teens, cis and trans teens, teens of color — the possibilities are endless and inspiring. And as homophobia continues to insidiously affect the lives of queer millennials, such as myself, and my elder brothers and sisters — by poisoning our relationships, our bank accounts, our sobriety — we should stop for a moment and celebrate the advent of this movie. We should celebrate that teens across the country are now receiving the mainstream affirmation that we’ve been denied for so long. We should belatedly and vicariously absorb that acceptance that we’ve craved, the quest for which has sent us hurtling to the peripheries of society, whether we’ve thrived there or not. We should celebrate that, for the new generation of teens growing up in this brutal, terrifying, beautiful world that we’ve created for them, Love, Simon has come just in time.
We get to exhale now.