Rachel Giese is the author of Boys: What It Means to Become a Man, which will be published next month.
Everybody loves Love, Simon, the first major-studio, wide-release movie to put the story of a gay teenager at its centre. It has been lauded by celebrities and embraced by LGBTQ teens – some have even adapted their Twitter handle by inserting their own name after “Love” in support of the movie. The warm and often funny film, which opened in March, was adapted from Becky Albertalli’s 2015 bestselling YA novel, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, by TV writer and producer Greg Berlanti.
Simon (Nick Robinson) is a popular and well-off kid with adoring parents, a close-knit gang of friends and a deep secret: He’s gay and in the closet and he’s fallen for another closeted boy at his school, an anonymous e-mail pen pal whom he knows only as Blue. This tentative connection is put at risk when a straight classmate discovers the e-mails and threatens to out Simon.
Arriving on the heels of the recent wave of independent, arty and critically acclaimed LGBTQ-themed fare such as The Kids are Alright, Pariah, Carol, Moonlight, A Fantastic Woman, Call Me By Your Name and the forthcoming Disobedience, in which Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams play Orthodox Jewish women having a forbidden affair, Love, Simon deliberately makes a bid for mainstream viewership. With the upscale, comfy decor of a Nancy Meyers movie, an attractive, diverse cast of twentysomethings passing themselves off as wise-cracking high-school students, and co-starring Jennifer Garner as a hot and sensitive mom and Josh Duhamel as a hot and slightly-less-sensitive dad, the film is ostentatiously non-threatening. The opening line even has Simon explaining in voiceover how very normal his life is: “I’m just like you,” he says.
For many people, gay and straight, this reassurance, as well as (spoiler) Simon’s relatively low-risk coming-out story is the heart of its appeal. A gay 16-year-old from Missouri told New York magazine, “Walking out of the movie, [my mom] understood me so much better than walking in.” That impact alone is surely worth the price of admission, particularly when lesbian, gay and transgender rights are once again under siege in America and elsewhere. (The Trevor Project, a U.S. distress hotline for LGBT youth, reported that its call volume doubled the day after Donald Trump was elected U.S. President and has increased since his administration began rolling back civil-rights protections.) Representation matters; and a glossy, feel-good story such as Love, Simon can provide a lifeline for kids who feel alone.
Given all this, it feels churlish to fault the film for its timidity, for its desire to appeal to the widest possible audience with its straight-acting star, for its reliance on the cliché of using a coming-out story to focus on the life of a gay kid. But it’s telling that, in order to promote a film on this scale, the studio has to play it safe. Even as queer visibility and rights have expanded in real life, for a LGBTQ film protagonist, there are only two possible narratives: the coming-out story or the queer tragedy.
As affirming as the happy ending of Love, Simon is, the film’s very existence is still seen as ground-breaking, which is depressing. The current boom in LGBTQ literature and television storytelling clearly reveals that coming out is only one aspect of queer life. Apparently, though, it’s the only aspect Hollywood believes a largely straight audience wants to see.
The coming-out story, while meant to signal a new beginning, has become a dead end for cinematic storytelling. It’s the go-to plot line in mainstream films about queer life: Almost every one tells some variation on a private grappling with one’s identity and a public reckoning with the reaction to one’s true self. This preoccupation feels as stifling as the closet itself. Filmmakers seem to have no idea what to do with people who are already out, who are, to paraphrase the old protest slogan, here, queer and used to it. Coming out is a profound and dramatic moment, but what about all the other moments in our lives?
Hollywood acceptance – with conditions
In the 1990s, the rising prominence of low-budget independent movies nurtured by buzz-building festivals such as Sundance and the Toronto International Film Festival helped give rise to what critic B. Ruby Rich dubbed the New Queer Cinema. It was a bit of a misnomer, since there really wasn’t much of an old queer cinema to begin with – the gay and lesbian section of a typical 1980s video-rental shop was a single shelf holding tattered VHS copies of Cabaret, Personal Best, The Boys in the Band, La Cage aux Folles and Desert Hearts – but it did capture the idea of new sorts of stories being told in radically fresh ways.
This was at the height of the AIDS crisis and a period of vibrant, confrontational protest and provocative art-making. The films of the 1990s reflected a DIY edginess as well as a brazen and unabashed openness about LGBTQ lives (it was then that derogatory slurs such as “queer,” “dyke” and “fag” were reclaimed and embraced). There was a flourishing of indie movies by queer filmmakers, often experimental in form, among them: Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning, Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry, Isaac Julien’s Young Soul Rebels, Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman and Rose Troche’s Go Fish.
Their success created a small ripple of influence into Hollywood. Philadelphia, Jonathan Demme’s chaste and polite plea for tolerance, was released in 1993 and won Tom Hanks an Oscar for his starring role as an HIV-positive gay man who sues his former law firm for discrimination.
That same year, Will Smith played a young, gay con man in Six Degrees of Separation, but refused to be shown kissing another man on-screen, as the play it was adapted from had scripted – reportedly, he feared it would threaten his burgeoning career as a leading man.
It would be another 12 years before Brokeback Mountain, another high-profile, big-studio LGBTQ was film was released, with lavish praise for its straight stars, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, and their “courage” to play gay. Ang Lee’s award-winning weepie tells the story of two cowboys who fall in love one summer in 1963 and carry a painful torch for each other in the years that follow. Epic in scale and deeply romantic, Brokeback Mountain, like Philadelphia, ends with the death of one of its protagonists. Considering the still-hostile climate (the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell military ban was still in place in the United States), perhaps a happy ending was too much to expect; together with Philadelphia and the 2008 biopic Milk, about openly gay San Francisco politician and activist Harvey Milk, who was assassinated in 1978, Brokeback Mountain furthered a cinematic tradition that focused on gay tragedy and victimhood – in the rare films in which gay lives received any focus at all.
After Brokeback Mountain, there were very few mainstream high-profile LGBTQ films until Love, Simon. In that absence, TV picked up the slack. The economics of television production, the explosion of new platforms and streaming services, the rise of reality TV and the serialization of storytelling on TV has created the ecosystem for a much more inclusive, nuanced and varied view of queer lives. In its most recent annual report on representation, U.S. media watchdog and advisory group GLAAD found that 58 of the 900 regular characters (or 6.4 per cent) on scripted prime-time network TV shows were identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and/or queer. This is the highest percentage the group found in the history of its survey. (On scripted cable shows, there are 103 regular LGBTQ characters; and 51 in scripted series on the streaming services Amazon, Hulu and Netflix.)
These roles span a broad spectrum, among them: a nerdy lesbian Latinx teen played by Isabella Gomez on the family-friendly One Day at a Time reboot; a gay interracial couple on Star Trek: Discovery (played by out actors Anthony Rapp and Wilson Cruz, they shared the franchise’s first gay male kiss); Laverne Cox’s portrayal of a trans prisoner on Orange is the New Black (Cox was the first openly trans person to be nominated for an Emmy); on the comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Andre Braugher plays a gay police chief and Stephanie Beatriz a bisexual officer; there’s also the late-in-life lovers Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston on Grace and Frankie; and Dan Levy’s pansexual David on Schitt’s Creek.
TV’s plurality alleviates the burden for any single character to represent all aspects of LGBTQ life – they can be angelic or villainous, flamboyant or closeted. In an earlier era, Scandal’s Machiavellian Cyrus Beene might have been denounced for amplifying the stereotype of the lethal, bitchy queen. Today, he’s just one example of many gay men who populate our screens. TV has pushed boundaries to such a degree that when Will & Grace, a ground-breaking series when it ran from 1998 to 2006 on NBC, was reincarnated this year, it felt as if it had emerged from a time machine. Really? Was this rather conventional sitcom about four self-absorbed white New Yorkers, two of whom are openly gay men, actually controversial at one time?
Yet, even amidst this rainbow of representation, there remains a persistent hostility. A recent collection of plot-twisting deaths of popular LGBTQ characters on the shows The 100, The Vampire Diaries, Blindspot and others was so pronounced and ugly that it came to be called the Bury Your Gays trope. On a TV industry panel last year, GLAAD’s Megan Townsend noted that since the beginning of 2015, “we’ve lost more than 50 queer women on television – often in violent ways that benefit somebody else’s story rather than anything contributing to that character’s own arc.” These characters were collateral, a titillating addition to a storyline to be killed off when no longer useful.
Fixated on coming out
The sumptuous look, masterful performances and sensitive storytelling of the recent crop of prominent, independent films such as Carol, Moonlight and Call Me By Your Name suggest that we are entering a new era of film-making – a new New Queer Cinema. These films have become part of the cultural conversation, been taken up with critical seriousness and watched closely for their potential to build audience interest in more LGBTQ stories.
It’s worth noting that all of these films tell a coming-out story and all set the stakes high for their protagonists. Will they or won’t they pursue their desire? If they do, will it be worth the risk?
Carol is set in the 1950s, when homosexuality was illegal and gay people were routinely jailed and institutionalized. Cate Blanchett plays a well-to-do suburban housewife who falls for a younger woman. As a result, she’s terrorized by her husband, who threatens to take full custody of their child.
Moonlight’s Chiron is a sensitive child so affected by trauma (racism and poverty, his mother’s addiction, the death of a father figure, the betrayal by a boy he cares for) that he grows into a man (Trevante Rhodes) whose loneliness is palpable. When he and his childhood crush meet again as adults, he confesses he hasn’t been touched by another person since their one-time teenage fling. The film is an exquisite meditation on black masculinity, intimacy and vulnerability; it’s also, until its final moments, deeply melancholy.
The lush, sexy Call Me By Your Name has a lighter tone, recounting the idyllic summer affair between a teenager (Timothée Chalamet) and his father’s research assistant (Armie Hammer). Still, the story, set in 1983, hints at the ravages of AIDS on the horizon and ends in heartbreak (and a wonderful lengthy shot of Chalamet’s tear-streaked face): Hammer’s character leaves him and gets engaged to a woman.
Moonlight and Call Me By Your Name both feature tender moments of acceptance by a straight parental figure, but the characters in all three films exist largely separate from other gay people who could offer them acceptance, love and recognition, too. Missing in these films is a sense of the LGBTQ network of bars, clubs and community institutions, and the shared history, culture and political movements that have made life out of the closet possible. That separation and solitude is, in part, the result of fear of persecution and rejection. By contrast, the two men in Call Me By Your Name live in a romantic bubble, keeping their relationship semi-hidden. Chalamet’s character even sneers at two foppish gay friends of his parents, signalling that he’s not like them.
Similarly, in Love, Simon, a secondary gay character, a snazzily dressed, flamboyantly out black kid named Ethan, exists in the margins of Simon’s story. Despite Ethan having blazed a path for Simon by coming out years earlier and having endured homophobic bullying with his advanced-level shade, Simon never pursues a friendship with Ethan nor seeks out his support. As Simon has already made clear, he doesn’t like anything or anyone “too gay.” Simon’s distance from Ethan and the internalized homophobia that the distance suggests are quickly glossed over. It’s a lost opportunity to tell more of Ethan’s story: How did this kind, confident, interesting kid become comfortable in his skin? What’s been his experience being an openly gay teenager?
But Ethan is just side note to the main event of Simon’s big reveal. Of course, the fascination with the coming-out story is understandable. For LGBT audiences, it’s cathartic. For straight ones, who may be uneasy, it’s a gentle introduction to queer lives. As a plot device, the expression of a hidden truth offers ready-built tension and a narrative arc. Coming out of the closet is also a relatable metaphor. Who hasn’t struggled with self-acceptance or felt that they haven’t shown their true identity to the world?
The frustration, though, with Hollywood’s fixation with the coming-out narrative, to the near exclusion of all other stories, is that it freezes LGBTQ lives at the moment after realization and declaration. It’s a woefully limited lens. It’s a depressing experience for a queer moviegoer to see films that tell us over and over and over again that the world hates us and fears us, and that being ourselves might come at a cost. How long will it take until LGBTQ characters in film have a plot line and purpose beyond wrestling with who they are? In The Ringer, gay film critic K. Austin Collins describes his mixed feelings about Love, Simon’s well-intentioned, “deliberate banality,” writing: “Watching queer go mainstream in the 21st century entails weighing and reweighing how it feels when the rest of the world keeps reminding you that it’s still playing catch-up – in slow motion, no less.”
Existing on their own terms
Another kind of storytelling exists, one that takes LGBTQ lives as a default, doesn’t dumb down queer stories for straight people, but instead just drops audiences into these worlds in all their specificities and complexities. Tangerine, Sean Baker’s 2015 microbudget buddy movie (it was shot on an iPhone), tells the story of two trans women of colour who are sex workers in Los Angeles. Not only are the two stars trans women themselves, the movie acknowledges the challenges they experience without making them objects of pity or prurience. They love each other and fall out, bicker and flirt with boyfriends, have good clients and bad ones, they are often hilarious and occasionally sad and they have ambitions for themselves and their futures. These are lives that are rarely depicted without salaciousness or judgment, but here, they are revealed to be, as with all other lives, worth attention and care.
Similarly, the 2017 French feature Beats Per Minute is set in Paris in 1992 and much of the action takes place in the sterile lecture hall that houses the local weekly meeting of the HIV-AIDS advocacy group ACT UP. The film is authentic and urgent – and not particularly easy. Very little of the medical and activist jargon is explained, the characters are often rude and impatient, arguing about the appropriate degree of militancy to use. With vivid scenes of characters splashing the offices of a pharmaceutical company with fake blood, being arrested by police, dancing together in wild abandon and negotiating when and whether to use a condom in the middle of sex scene, it’s a vital and thrilling homage to a determining moment in LGBTQ history. Bright, furious young activists, many dying of a disease overlooked and ignored for years, fought for their survival and fought to be seen.
Coming out doesn’t guarantee a happy ending, in life or in movies. But being out affords the opportunity to exist on your own terms and, hopefully, be seen in the fullness of your humanity. That films such as the ones above remain niche and the idea that a mainstream audience might not find something moving in the friendship between two transgender women or inspiring in the account of a civil-rights movement is dispiriting.
Hollywood’s timidity and reluctance to tell a wider variety of stories is oddly out of step; It’s been surpassed by television and by a global renaissance of LGBTQ lit, a sprawling category that encompasses poetry, graphic novels, memoir, young-adult fiction and novels. Hollywood’s even been overtaken by some of the very kids that Love, Simon is meant for, those who have created YouTube channels and Instagram accounts about their own transitions and revelations and about life as openly LGBT teenagers. For an industry that embraces sequels, Hollywood doesn’t understand that coming out is just the origin story, just the first instalment in the epic tale to come. Isn’t it time to find out what happens next?