Love, Simon May Be a Glossy Fantasy, but It’s an Important Step Forward for Gay Representation

For many queer youth today, coming out is no big deal. But seeing it on screen is still huge.

Nick Robinson in Love, Simon.
Nick Robinson in Love, Simon. 20th Century Fox, TNS

This article is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

This article contains spoilers for the movie Love, Simon.

Love, Simon is many things: an upbeat and charming teen comedy, a leap forward for gay visibility in mainstream movies, and a therapeutic exercise for closeted teens who wish their parents were as accepting as Simon’s, played poignantly by Jennifer Garner and Fergie’s ex-husband. Kids will love it. Their parents will love it. Who wouldn’t love it? Maybe woke teens who see no need for it, but even their sophisticated hearts might melt by the finale. Here is the first major studio film to star a gay teen, a diverse coming-out story with an unapologetic message of inclusion and positivity. So far as I can tell, the only people likely to hate Love, Simon are Fox News hosts and conversion “therapists.” That’s a surefire sign of success.

I myself left the movie with a big smile and a light heart. Filing out of the theater with my partner and a bunch of weepy teenagers—the designated crying scenes mostly hit their mark—I thought the obvious: Imagine if this movie had existed when I was in high school! What a lifeline it would’ve been! It’s an anachronistic dream, of course, but also a potent one, and it started to weigh me down as we walked home. Like every other gay adult to see Love, Simon, I was comparing my own youth to Simon’s. And I wasn’t thrilled by what I saw.

To be fair, a movie this glossy practically demands some measure of retrospective wish-casting. The plot is relatively low-stakes. Simon (Nick Robinson) is a high school senior in an affluent Atlanta suburb. His parents are kindhearted, his friends smart and supportive. Yet Simon has a “huge-ass” secret, as he puts it: He’s gay. Simon strikes up an anonymous correspondence with another closeted kid, and the two confess their secrets from the behind the veil of Gmail pseudonyms. A loser, Martin (Logan Miller), gets ahold of these emails and uses them to blackmail Simon—not out of malice, but pathetic desperation: He wants Simon to set him up with his friend, Abby (Alexandra Shipp).

This extortion subplot leads to some lighthearted hijinks, but its true purpose is to create some semblance of conflict, because otherwise there wouldn’t be any. There’s one openly gay kid at Simon’s school—he’s also gender nonconforming, which is a nice touch—and he’s treated pretty well: Two notably ineffective bullies heckle him, but he goads them right back; the dynamic is more bantering than bullying. The vice principal (Tony Hale!), who exhorts the value of tolerance, wears a pride-flag pin. If Simon simply told everyone he was gay, there would be no real story here, just an It Gets Better entry. Thus the ginned-up blackmail plotline.

Inevitably, Simon’s efforts to make Abby fall in love with Martin fail, and Martin outs him by publishing his emails. His parents instantly accept him, but he is too horrified by his outing to fully process it. Meanwhile, his friends realize they’ve been manipulated and briefly turn against him. Eventually, Simon has heart-to-hearts with his mom and dad, apologizes to his friends, and embraces his sexuality; his anonymous correspondent reveals himself to be a hunky acquaintance (the dreamy Keiynan Lonsdale). The two kiss on a Ferris wheel while everyone cheers.

A fantasy, no doubt, but a tantalizing one, especially if you, like me, did not grow up in such fortunate circumstances. I was still pretty lucky, with amazing parents and a basically bully-free school. And I was much luckier than generations before me, who intrepidly fought the AIDS epidemic, the pathologization of homosexuality, and rampant homophobia in all walks of life.

But the setting of my adolescence, North Florida in the 2000s, was rather different from Love, Simon’s contemporary suburban paradise. So were the country’s politics. I realized I was gay when “sodomy” remained illegal in 14 states (including Florida). Over the next few years, President George W. Bush endorsed a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and 11 states outlawed same-sex marriage by popular vote. Then the hits kept coming: In 2008, when Barack Obama won the presidency (while opposing same-sex marriage), Florida banned not only gay marriage but also civil unions, and California notoriously overturned marriage equality through Prop 8.

I was 17 and closeted when my home state voted overwhelmingly to outlaw any kind of legal recognition for same-sex couples. Even in liberal Tallahassee, support for the noxious “Amendment 2” was high. The campaign in opposition fretted that gay people were too toxic to defend, so it focused instead on straight, unmarried retirees. Passing the yard signs and bumper stickers every day felt like a kick in the guts. My own community was telling me as plainly as possible: Your kind doesn’t deserve equal rights.

Why didn’t I come out in high school? It’s a question I get when I speak to student groups today, because the younger generation now seems to come out in kindergarten. And although I could list plenty of convoluted reasons, the main one is simple: I was scared. I was scared because the president hated gay people and so did my neighbors. I was scared because the law said people like me didn’t deserve equal dignity. I was scared because life as an openly gay person in the 2000s seemed impossibly hard, and I wasn’t sure whether I was brave enough to weather it.

So I took the easier route and stayed in the closet until college. I was too afraid to live authentically. And Love, Simon—this goofy high school comedy starring unrealistically gorgeous people with perfect skin—reminded me that I regret it. I should have been braver; I shouldn’t have lied for so long. I let ridiculous political campaigns convince me to suppress my identity. All that wasted time, and for what? So homophobes wouldn’t hate me? Why would I want them to like me anyway?

I recognize that the closet has its own warped logic. Yet it all seems so silly now, certainly too silly to explain to the teenagers for whom marriage equality is a given, and Love, Simon is just a fun two-hour distraction. The world it presents is so pure, so enlightened and well-meaning, that it is bound to trigger bittersweet reflections. Unlike Call Me by Your Name, the movie speaks in the present tense, suggesting that twentysomething gays like me missed utopia by just a few years. I am mature enough to recognize this fiction as fiction—many parts of the country remain deeply hostile to gay rights, and Simon’s idealized journey glosses over a great deal of inevitable turbulence for the sake of a Hollywood ending. Still, it’s an intoxicating reverie, one with enough truth in it to spur a melancholy meditation on what might have been.

The melancholy proved short-lived. A day after seeing the movie, my self-pity faded entirely. I now feel only happiness for the queer teens of 2018, who can live more freely than I ever thought possible. Progress is a beautiful thing. I’ll always carry that regret with me, but it’s a useful reminder of the pace of change, the stunning speed with which our country has evolved. Queer kids today deserve better than what I got. They deserve the world that past generations of LGBTQ people fought to make a reality—a world that Love, Simon suggests is already within reach.