Do me a favor and head over to Twitter. (Please come back when you’re done.) Search the terms “Evan Hansen gay.” And then scroll to your heart’s content. You’ll find no shortage of people in the process of discovering, as the Broadway musical–turned–major motion picture heads for theaters everywhere on Friday, that Dear Evan Hansen is not a queer story—that the titular Evan Hansen is not some sad, gay kid getting bullied and riding out high school in the bathroom at lunch. Nope: Evan Hansen is a heterosexual menace.
Yet this pervasive notion, that Evan is gay, lingers on, years since the Broadway blockbuster’s debut. The question that remains is: Where did that even come from in the first place? Well, to get there you first need to know a little bit about the plot. (Spoilers for a 4-year-old musical ahead.)
In the stage musical, Evan Hansen is an anxious, weirdo teenager clad in a blue-striped polo shirt. Did I mention he is anxious and weird? So anxious. So weird. The entire plot hinges on the audience buying into the idea that he is anxious and weird but not gay. He’s a loner, because the aforementioned anxiousness and weirdness keep him from having any friends at school. At the urging of his therapist, Evan writes fill-in-the-blank letters addressed to himself and signs them “Me.” “Dear, Evan Hansen,” he writes. “Today is going to be an amazing day and here’s why.” One of those letter winds up in the possession of a classmate, Connor, who dies by suicide. When Connor’s parents find the letter alongside their son’s body, they presume Evan and Connor had secretly been best friends. It’s a lie Evan perpetuates for most of the show until he finally comes clean to Connor’s family—though not before becoming a viral sensation and having sex with the dead kid’s grieving sister.
Connor’s parents could have just as easily leapt to the conclusion that their son and Evan were more than just friends, however. Instead, the show establishes their faux-friendship in the form of “Sincerely, Me,” a song where Evan back-writes fake correspondence between the two, in order to more fully convince Connor’s family that the boys’ friendship existed. Baked into the song are both homophobic undertones and the lingering notion that perhaps Connor and Evan doth protest too much. There are supposed jokes about how life without Connor was “rough” or “hard,” and the even more blatantly homoerotic line, “Our friendship goes beyond/ Your average kind of bond/ But not because we’re gay/ No, not because we’re gay/ We’re close but not that way/ The only man that I love is my dad.” It’s also worth noting the role of Evan Hansen has been played by a string of out gay actors. (Ben Platt, the OG Evan and star of the film, is, in fact, currently dating another former Evan, Noah Galvin.) Which is not at all to suggest gay actors can’t play straight, but this public knowledge and casting pattern certainly does little to shape the narrative away from the idea that “this is a gay story.”
So much of Dear Evan Hansen is about unrequited longing, about feeling completely alone in this world, like nobody will ever love you or get you or even just see you. The show opens with a number called “Waving Through a Window,” a heartbreaker from Evan about how he’s always outside the glass peering in on the friendships and girlfriends and happy families he longs to have himself. This is not to say those feelings of depression and loneliness aren’t universal to being human, but they are certainly experienced to a heightened degree by LGBTQ people. Suicide contemplation and attempt rates are significantly higher for queer kids than their straight counterparts, per the Trevor Project, a LGBTQ crisis intervention and suicide prevention organization. A recent study found that a staggering 52 percent of trans and nonbinary people under the age of 25 contemplated suicide in 2020. And Dear Evan Hansen doesn’t just imply the possibility of sucidal ideation. Alongside Connor’s death by suicide at the beginning of the show, Evan sports a cast on a broken arm; we’re told he fell out of a tree over summer vacation. Until, near the very end, we learn the much darker truth. Evan’s injury was no accident, but a marker of surviving a suicide attempt.
Which is what makes Evan the perfect messenger for the show’s big first act finale, “You Will Be Found.” “You Will Be Found” finds Evan giving a speech at a school assembly in Connor’s memory, nervously at first, and then with every ounce of emotion in his body, telling his classmates they aren’t alone. He can empathize with Connor’s pain because, in some way, it’s also his own. The whole thing has palpable “it gets better” energy, the mantra of the aptly named It Gets Better Project, a nonprofit focused on supporting LGBTQ youth. The It Gets Better Project took off in 2010, thanks to a bracingly emotional, and now-viral, video from co-founders Dan Savage and Terry Miller, who implored LGBTQ kids to stay alive because life, well, gets better. In the show, Evan goes viral in much the same way. He and his classmates even go on to name their effort … the Connor Project.
Queer people sometimes get accused of reading too much into art, seeking representation where—so the omniscient they say—there is none. That’s bullshit. If something speaks to you in a film or a book or a musical, take whatever you can from it. But it’s unfair to say that to watch Dear Evan Hansen and find gay subtext is like reading tea leaves for a hidden sign. Frankly, it’s not even subtext; it’s just text. There’s actually a Dear Evan Hansen tie-in novel from the show’s creators (don’t you just love capitalism?), which offers more plot and backstory about the musical’s characters. It turns out that Connor had a relationship with a male classmate and was in the process of figuring out his “fluid” sexuality; we just never get to see it onstage.
This isn’t like J.K. Rowling outing Dumbledore a decade after his death as a publicity stunt. Making Connor canonically queer only confirms what so many fans and critics of the show knew inherently, and what a zillion other people on Twitter felt about the show without really ever engaging with the material beyond the surface: Dear Evan Hansen is, deep down, as gay a story as they come.
“It’s about the need to be seen and be heard and feel like your voice matters. I absolutely felt that way for a very long time and still feel that way sometimes,” co-creator Benj Pasek told the Advocate in 2019, while doing press for the book. “The gay identity—you’re living in a world where the world is basically telling you that you’re not enough. And the end of the show is really a message for anyone who feels that way.” Dear Evan Hansen traffics in gay stereotypes and experiences, using them for its own benefit to make Evan as othered from his classmates as possible (as othered as a white man ever can be, that is). But to keep Evan accessible, that othering stops short of actually making him a nuanced, queer character. Instead, to keep him someone that everyone can see themselves in, Evan must be just another straight guy. LGBTQ fans are welcome to find themselves in him, while internalized homophobia keeps the inverse situation, a straight audience member relating to a gay character, from being a reality the show considers. All that we’re left with are clichéd tropes and close, invented, definitely not gay male friendships. No wonder people think Evan Hansen is gay, no matter how hard the musical might try to stop them from doing so.