By the time I saw “Love, Simon” on the Saturday of its opening weekend, one of my best friends had already seen the movie twice. The movie, about a high school senior who comes to terms with his sexuality by anonymously sending emails to another gay student in his school, had been a looming topic in our chats in the week’s leading up the film’s release.
When I got home that night, he and I texted about our favorite parts of the movie, what made us cry, what we think it could mean to LGBTQ people of various age groups, and what we thought it got so clearly “right” about what many LGBTQ people can experience.
My friend and I had seen many queer-themed movies, and a handful of them had been coming-of-tales about LGBTQ teenagers. But for me, my friend, and the millions of other queer people out there, this was for us the first mainstream romantic comedy in the vein of John Hughes or ’90s teen comedies that put LGBTQ characters as the lead. This is important for LGBTQ people who did not get to see this representation when we were teens, not to mention today’s teens, and the future generation of LGBTQ people who will get to grow up with this already being part of LGBTQ movie canon.
But just as importantly, this is a monumental moment for audiences who are straight and not transgender. Many of my friends who are straight and cisgender — cisgender being the term for people are not transgender — want to learn as much as they can be supportive and sensitive allies for the LGBTQ people in their lives. But they fear that they don’t know what they don’t know, and worry that they will intentionally say or do the wrong things. A movie like “Love, Simon” can help mollify those concerns by giving these allies insight into what coming out can be like. The process of coming out is a weird thing to navigate for all people, and the positive representation of allies is just as important as the positive representations of LGBTQ people. Here are the spoiler-free reasons why “Love, Simon” is a teaching moment for straight, cisgender people.
The movie shows there is no one universal experience of LGBTQ people.
Simon’s experience is carefully portrayed as his own, rather than a one-size-fits-all coming-out experience. Early on in the movie, we get to see that one of Simon’s classmates is already out. But this student, who is black and mocked for appearing feminine, has little in common with Simon. This is important, because it lets straight audiences see that there’s no one way to “be” gay. And the fact that they are both gay does not cause an instant bond between them, which helps combat the prevailing idea that LGBTQ people will all get along and be happy to be set up with each other for the simple fact that they are gay.
Simon also benefits from the fact that his far-left family is supportive, and from the fact that he seems to have few external pressures in his middle-to-upper-class suburb where he was able to get his own car on his 16th birthday. He is white, cisgender, and well-off. So, Simon’s coming out doesn’t have the hiccups that other people might fear, but that seems to have been the filmmakers’ point.
Expanding the various ways LGBTQ people are shown on-screen helps them feel accepted, but it also helps straight people see that gay people don’t have to fit the stereotypes that they’ve come to believe define LGBTQ folks. Representations like “Will & Grace,” “Modern Family,” “The Birdcage,” and other films and shows were powerful in pushing the boundaries, but they don’t portray the totality of LGBTQ experience. Nor should they be expected to show the totality of queer life. Gay men can be like Jack from “Will & Grace,” or they can be like Simon in “Love, Simon.” Or they can be both. Or neither.
The movie intentionally has a lead character that suburban dudes can relate to with little effort.
Simon and his friends are no different from the teenagers we saw in “Sixteen Candles,” “The Breakfast Club,” “Can’t Hardly Wait,” or “10 Things About You,” to name a few heavyweights in the teen comedy genre.
Simon was intentionally familiar, and that made him palatable to cis, straight audiences. Here was a kid who enjoyed goofing off with his family, went to cheer on his friends in the Friday night football games, hung out at the local diner, and listened to all sorts of music from all decades. Those were subtle ways that Simon was just like straight teenagers, though the movie also had moments where Simon was more on the nose and direct: in a voice-over at the film’s beginning, Simon said, “I’m just like you.”
Romantic comedies in movies and television have long centered around protagonists that look and feel like Simon. That is to say, cisgender white people who just want to be loved and don’t get why it has to be so hard. As we watch Simon navigate his situation, we see the same struggles that we saw in “Pretty In Pink,” “Say Anything,” “High Fidelity,” “Sixteen Candles,” “She’s All That,” “Some Kind Of Wonderful,” “Dawson’s Creek,” and so on.
Straight cis guys can relate and empathize with Simon without having to do much in the way of putting themselves in someone else’s shoes, because Simon’s shoes will feel already familiar. And that’s good, because they can then have their defense down and be able to digest some of the more nuanced parts of the movie.
The movie shows that just as there is one way to be LGBTQ, there is no one way to be an ally.
I’ve heard from many friends who have wanted to know what “right” things to say, and what “wrong” things not to say. What this movie shows is that there are several ways that people who are straight can interact with LGBTQ people. You will find yourself rooting for all sorts of straight characters in this film, and they are just as relatable as Simon. And they all have their own personal styles in how they show support and love. Simon doesn’t grade them on their methods, because he needs all the love and support he can get.
The movie shows there’s no one way to come out.
This dovetails with the idea that there’s no one universal experience on how to be gay. As the movie shows, each character does so at a different pace and in a different way. Furthermore, there’s not necessarily one “coming out” moment. Some people will do it in a grand way, and others will tell a few people at a time. And each time you meet someone new in your life represents another time to decide how, when, or if to let that person know that you are LGBTQ.
The movie deftly hammers home that how, when, and if someone comes out should be the decision of that person, and that person alone.
This should seem obvious, but as we saw last year when Barry Manilow came out, there are still many people who think that gay people must come out and they must come out as soon as possible. The movie helps show that being out can help other people come out and accept themselves, but it also shows that this can and must be done on each person’s own terms. Some people will feel able to come out sooner than others, and some people will find it easier than others. The role of a straight ally is not to pressure anyone to come out, nor to out anyone. And anyone who does that is not a real ally.
The movie shows that even the people who are harmful still think of themselves as allies.
Some of the most painful experiences that my friends and I experienced were not because of good people who didn’t know what certain words meant. We knew that we had great friends, and even if they didn’t know all the vocabulary, we knew they had our back and best intentions in mind.
The times that seemed really painful and aggravating were when we dealt with people who treated their allyship as an excuse to be flippant, mean, blunt, or insensitive. “It’s OK, I have a gay brother” is not a valid excuse for making assumptions or making anyone feel uncomfortable. I knew a few people who thought they were being helpful by trying to get me to match their vision of what they thought a queer person should be. They would tease and pressure, and thought they were being helpful. After a letting them know that they weren’t helpful, a few backed off and apologized profusely, and a few doubled down on their tactics. These people, to me, were more harmful than the people who didn’t know the “right” terminology. In the years since then, I’ve come up with the words that I didn’t have back then. Just as a woman doesn’t want to hear a man comment on the ways she is or isn’t being a woman, an LGBTQ person doesn’t want to hear critiques from straight people who think they’re being helpful. Coming to terms with being queer is hard enough as it is, without having to hear any commentary from people who never had to go through it themselves.
The movie reminds us that the concept of “coming out” is not fair.
Simon struggles with coming out in part because he finds it unfair that only LGBTQ people have to come out. Straight people don’t have to, and as a result, they won’t necessarily know what to do to help.The movie handles this in a hilarious manner, but beyond the joke, the serious part of it is that not having to come out is a privilege and luxury that straight people can take for granted. The path towards being a true and authentic ally means acknowledge and reflecting upon this lopsided truth.
But the movie also reminds straight and cisgender allies that the intentions and assumptions behind your words can matter more than the words themselves.
There are some scenes in the movie where Simon’s friends question what they can and can’t say. Some even apologize for things that might have offended Simon. When friends have asked me what are the right or wrong words to say, I’ve tried to let them know that good intentions can minimize impact. Your friend might correct you for saying “transgendered” or turning the word into a noun by saying “a transgender.” But the correction isn’t meant to be a rebuke, nor should it be seen as one. Think of it as your friend saying, “Hey, you’ve got some broccoli in your teeth.” It’s meant as a way to help, rather than to judge you. Because the fact that you meant no harm or judgment is probably understood by your loved ones and friends. They know your intentions, and that will help them teach you rather than correct you. They know you love them and support them.
The movie reminds us that even in a world that has made so much progress, coming to terms with being different can still be terrifying.
A review of “Love, Simon” framed the movie as being nostalgic for a time that might not exist anymore, because we now have same-sex marriage, gay characters on TV shows, and so on. My friends who teach high school have reminded me that while despite “Modern Family,” Ellen DeGeneres, and Obergefell, teenagers in 2018 still have some of the same struggles that my friends and I had 20 years ago, and that many others had 20 years before that.
To be sure, it’s important that we have openly LGBTQ artists, musicians, actors, politicians, and writers who set an example for others. But it’s naive and tone deaf to think we have reached a point where coming out isn’t difficult or where LGBTQ teens don’t feel any sense of alienation. To tell kids that are struggling with coming out in 2018 that queer kids “had it harder” in previous eras is not going to help them. Fearing that your life will change and nothing will be the same is a universal fear, agnostic of location, gender, race, or time in history. Kids coming out today might have more out celebrities they can list off, but that doesn’t automatically mean they will feel any more at ease with the idea of having to come out. As I said in the Cover Songs Uncovered post about “Smalltown Boy,” part of what’s bittersweet about that song is that between 1984 and now, a lot has changed, but the pain and alienation is still the same. “Love, Simon” comes out at a time that in many ways feels different from the era of Bronski Beat, and yet, the personal fears about coming out are the same, in part because many of the same external pressures that existed back then still remain.
The movie shows that your LGBTQ friends and loved ones can experience pain even if you’re a good ally, and that is not your fault.
Simon is a teenager learning to navigate the world of early adulthood while coming to terms with his sexuality, what it means, and so on. That’s a lot for any person to deal with, and people go through all sorts of struggles that have nothing to do with their sexuality. There are some things that straight allies can do, like thinking about how they phrase things, inviting single LGBTQ people over for the holidays, teaching their kids to be kind, and so on.
But there are some things that your LGBTQ friends and relatives will have to experience whether you want them to or not. They will have to deal with well-meaning but tone deaf comments that people say. They will have to weigh when they think it’s OK to talk about their experiences and when they think they shouldn’t. They will have to deal with people who have expectations and assumptions about them just because they are gay.
This might not seem fair, but there’s only so much that any one person can do about it. Just as LGBTQ people need to know it’s OK to not live up to everyone’s expectations and assumptions, straight and cisgender allies need to know that their are some troubles you can’t erase for your loved ones. But you should keep on fighting the good fight anyway.
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