I grew up gay in Kansas City, Mo., and became a teenager during that weird period of time between AIDS and the Internet. My dad, an evangelical minister with a Ph.D. in education, taught at a Bible college. We weren’t allowed to go to movies, listen to secular music, or watch TV. Dad would occasionally rent a television during the holidays or the Olympics, but in general, if it hadn’t been for zippers and electricity, we’d have been Amish.
Love, Simon (in theaters Friday) based on Becky Albertalli’s novel Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda, took me right back to that place of longing and desire for the romance I wanted so badly at 17. Like Simon (Nick Robinson), the lead character who comes of age in Greg Berlanti’s new romantic comedy (the first featuring a gay teen lead from any of the major studios), I, too, had a secret. Unlike Simon, I didn’t have a place where I could log on and connect with another gay kid like me.
I sneaked out to see my first romantic comedy at a movie theater in 1990. I was 15, and wept at the end of Pretty Woman for reasons I didn’t fully understand. I only knew that there was something heartbreakingly beautiful about how connection changes people. It was transformative and hopeful.
When I was Simon’s age, I was digging through the “How to talk to your kids about puberty” books at the library trying to find any positive mention about boys who liked other boys. I’d spend the night at friends’ houses so that we could watch John Hughes films on VHS, and desperately searched for myself on the screen. Duckie in Pretty in Pink? Brian in The Breakfast Club? Who could be sure?
Simon’s ready access to the Internet is a huge advantage in this regard. But even though he can connect online with another closeted gay guy at his high school, in many ways, the internal struggles of being a closeted teenager in our culture remain unchanged from when I was in high school. Screenwriters Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker (This Is Us) have pointed this up in their funny, insightful adaptation: We live in a heteronormative world.
We may have achieved marriage equality, but it’s still the responsibility of the gay kid to come out — something straight people never have to do. Simon has liberal parents, great friends, movie-star good looks and a healthy dose of privilege. Yet the timeless truth of this story is that coming out still isn’t easy. As Simon’s supportive mom (Jennifer Garner) says to him after he finally breaks the news, “Being gay is something you have to go through on your own.”
And that’s why this movie matters. Even as coastal blue-state attitudes about gender and sexuality are marching steadily forward across middle America; even when social-networking site TrevorSpace, student-led Gay-Straight Alliances, young adult novels, TV shows and now (thankfully!) movies offer LGBTQ kids shelter and representation, we still live in a country where admitting you’re gay makes you an “other.” As Simon says about coming out, “I knew it would change everything.” That’s something that straight parents and friends — no matter how perfect their politics — have rarely experienced.
Yes, Love, Simon is aspirational: it’s probably a fantasy that an entire high school would turn out to the carnival to cheer on the recently outed gay kid as he waits for “Blue,” the anonymous pen pal he fell in love with to join him on the Ferris wheel. Still, it’s an aspirational triumph that underscores the power of connection. As their correspondence makes them brave and they tiptoe toward coming out, one at a time, Simon writes to Blue, “You inspire me.”
And isn’t that what every romantic comedy is about? Two people, inspired to take a risk by moving toward a connection that allows them to experience the fullness of who they are?
This movie will help a new generation of LGBTQ youth to take that first step toward connection instead of away from it. Equally important, it will challenge adults to measure their own response to an LGBTQ child against the pitch-perfect parents of Love, Simon (played by Garner and Josh Duhamel).
Above all, Berlanti’s film will save some lives — and change some others — as it reminds the rest of us of how far we’ve come, and how much work we still have to do.