André Aciman’s Call Me by Your Name has twice been hailed as a modern gay classic: in 2007, when the novel, about an unlikely summer romance between two young men in Italy, hit bookstores, and this month, as the languorous film adaptation hits theaters. This is odd, given that the story’s main characters might more accurately be labeled bisexual—if such labels can be applied at all to this Midsummer Night’s Dream–like narrative so insistently aloof from contemporary history or politics.
Still, the fact remains that gay men adore this story about two young scholars, Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer), who embrace under the roof of Elio’s intellectual-bohemian family for a handful of weeks. Ten years ago, we adopted the book as an anthem, feverishly passing copies among ourselves, shaming anyone who hadn’t read it. And now critical praise suggests that we might fall in love with the story all over again when we flock to see it in cinemas.
To repeat, this is strange! Why has Call Me by Your Name attained such an iconic “gay” status when it is anything but? When its main characters seem almost aggressively isolated from gay culture or politics? When its precocious protagonist has to be reminded that it’s gauche to make fun of people who are openly gay? Here’s one theory: Perhaps we gay boys have fallen for this ungay romance because it’s so straight—and if we gays love anything, it’s chasing after straight guys.
The straightness is everywhere once you clear the lust from your eyes. The book was penned by a straight author who says that he has never had a gay relationship in his life, and it tells the story of two apparently heteroflexible but largely hetero-leaning men who seem to experiment with same-sex sex only furtively in their lives. The film is even straighter. Its leading lovers are played by straight actors who have been winking and giggling on the press circuit about having to pretend to (sort of) fuck. Indeed, all “gay” sex takes place off screen—only boy-girl or boy-fruit sex happens within the frame. And the only openly gay characters—a pair of “boyfriend twin-ed” academics who visit Elio’s parents for dinner—are portrayed as ridiculous Tweedledum-and-Tweedledee types.
However, despite all this, gay audiences have sought ways to embrace this straight-guys-gone-wild narrative as an authentic gay romance against all available evidence. When Call Me by Your Name first came out, for example, my gay friends made a pastime of questioning Aciman’s sexuality. Sure, we shared copies of the book, but we also shared supposed evidence that Aciman was plagued by repressed desires. I myself obsessed over tidbits from author interviews: He’s saying that he’s never even touched a man? Methinks thou dost protest too much. He’s married with children, but those gay sex scenes are way too real. Just as Elio searches for gay desire in his apparently straight crush, gay readers searched for gay desire in our beloved author. In short, we liked the book, but we loved the mystery of its straight creator.
One of my favorite gay-world rumors about Aciman emerged while he was still giving readings to promote the book in New York City: I heard that he couldn’t read passages in front of his son. According to the tale, when Aciman’s teenage son appeared at a packed book event one evening, the author squirmed out of reading in his kid’s presence. To be clear, this rumor is likely untrue. (Aciman has asserted in interviews that he shared the book with his kids well before its release.) I recount it only because it perfectly encapsulates what we gays love about Call Me by Your Name—the notion of a tragically embattled straight man. The story can’t just be a well-crafted work of fiction that captures a singular experience of young love. It has to be a confession from tortured closet case. A confession so raw, he dare not make it in front of family.
Over the past few weeks, media coverage of the film adaptation has capitalized on this fascination with ambiguous straight men by other means, featuring interviews where the straight lead actors describe their total comfort with pantomiming gay love on set. “I’ve never experienced a sense of safety like that,” Armie Hammer says. “I’ve never experienced a sense of making yourself so accessible and vulnerable.” Then later, of Chalamet: “[He] grabs my crotch all the time.”
We love this sort of playful teasing from straight guys—the grinning suggestion that we might get a swat on the butt or a drunken cuddle as long as we don’t push it too far. So when we consume this film, we’re willing to call it a gay masterpiece without any of the usual demands, such as real gay actors playing realistic gay characters in some sort of gay cultural or historical context. No, we’re going to get all flustered and delight in the straight presence, just like we would if Hammer, as his Oliver does with Elio, unexpectedly squeezed our shoulder during a sporting event in real life. We’re all going to skim these interviews with sweaty palms, searching for more evidence that one of the straight actors questioned his sexuality for just a moment. After all, we readily accepted a straight man’s right to tell this story in the first place.
Think I’m being too harsh? Just look at Aciman’s cameo: In case you missed it, he played one member of the hilarious actually gay couple in the screen adaptation. There were many moments in this “swirling wonder” of a film that made me laugh—the discotheque dance scenes are uncomfortably stiff; the nebbish father/professor figure (Michael Stuhlbarg) gets around the house by skipping, even though he was a much fiercer presence in the book. But nothing got me like seeing Aciman put his arm around another man, supposedly his longtime lover, while keeping almost a foot of empty space between them. There he is, I thought, the man who gave a new voice to queer love, looking like a dad who accidentally walked into the wrong bar.
To be fair, I’m not sure Aciman was ready for this book to become such a gay sensation. In interviews, he claims to have scribbled the thing out in about four months, never taking it too seriously because he was fairly certain that it would never be read. And really, on some level, the story is not so much homoerotic as it is autoerotic—it tells the story of two boys with nearly identical intellects and interests who fall in love with mirror images of themselves and then call out their own names during sex. And the book is certainly not tailored for a mass audience, with all its chatter about Heidegger’s writings on the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus. Who cares about that? (I mean, I definitely ordered Heidegger on Heraclitus in 2007, but still.)
And yet, here we are, genuflecting as a group before a gay masterpiece that is absolutely not gay. But because Call Me by Your Name so perfectly captures one still-powerful facet of man-on-man desire, the straight crush, it has given us a unifying common text—even though we’re not truly represented within its pages. I myself have three copies: one I bought myself, two were gifts, all now on loan to gays who seemed to need them and also my mom. Sure, it’s a primarily straight book, but it’s so breathtakingly beautiful that just to have it glance in our direction seems like enough.