Privilege, representation, and love
As an affluent, educated, cis, white man, I have a lot going for me. The same is true of my gay story. I was raised in Glasgow, a large, liberal city, by fairly liberal, atheist parents; I went to a school that always tried to be inclusive; I’m camp in the way that makes you interesting at parties but not in the way that puts you at risk of being beaten up on the street. But all of this privilege that I can see so clearly now didn’t do a lot to ease my worries when I came out, at 16 to some friends and 17 to my parents.
Once I mustered the courage to make the big push my coming outs were largely fine. Any initial resistance from my parents was settled with hugs and “I love you’s” within 24 hours and the odd snide comment from boys at school was drowned out by support from my incredible friends. Indeed, it was only when my closest friends started with the gay jokes that I knew I’d really been accepted.
And yet, absurd as it might seem to say it, my relatively easy emergence from the closet has had an odd after effect. See, despite being an avid consumer of LGBT fiction, cinema and theatre, I have almost never seen my own story depicted. I know this is for obvious reasons – stories where things are ‘largely fine’ are a little lacking in dramatic potential. Stories of queer folk suffering at the hands of bigoted parents or oppressive communities are incredibly important tales that should continue to be told, but I’ve never quite been able to shake the feeling that they weren’t me. I thought I maybe saw myself in last year’s Call Me By Your Name, but I think my emotions were probably more stirred by Timothee Chalamet in a swimming costume than they were by his character’s situation.
Love, Simon, however, changed things. In honesty, I wasn’t expecting much. I’d had a shit day and figured a gushy, feel-good, American teen flick might lift my spirits. But two hours and several ugly cries later, the film had proven itself to be so much more than that. It tells the story of Simon Spier, a closeted high-schooler, who strikes up and anonymous correspondence with another closeted gay guy from his school. The development of their relationship forces Simon to consider his own sexuality, and carelessly leaving his email logged in on a school computer goes on to have ramifications he could never have expected.
Again, it feels absurd for a man of my privilege to say it, but for the first time I truly felt as though moments, relationships and feelings had been plucked from my own life and put on the big screen to be acted out by a cast of attractive Californian teenagers. I sat breathless in a cinema of 15 year olds, as actor Nick Robinson (one of the kids from Jurassic World) reenacted the moments that kept me awake five years ago.
Simon’s parents are almost comically liberal, and yet he dreads telling them his truth. In my moments of rational thinking I knew my parents were not remotely homophobic, but telling them still tore me apart. The crux of Simon’s story comes when he is outed to his school against his will. While far less dramatic, I had several of my closest friends find out before I had told them which stung, and Simon’s impassioned outburst about being cheated out of his coming out, about not being able to decide who gets to know what and when and how, really struck a chord. But perhaps most of all, Simon’s impossibly tight reconciliation hug with his Dad seemed a carbon copy of my version of that hug with mine.
The movement to increase representation in films is one I have always supported, but one I feel that perhaps I have only just come to properly understand. When artists of colour, or female artists, or even queer artists have spoken of the importance of the young people in their groups getting to see themselves onscreen, I always agreed with them entirely. I don’t entirely know why, but I had never really considered myself to be among one of those underrepresented groups that I so firmly believed should be better portrayed. I had grown up inundated with white men on screen and had always accepted the cast of glee as completely adequate gay representation. It took seeing myself – not my race or my gender or my sexuality, but myself – depicted on screen, to realise quite what those campaigners I have always supported actually meant.
Writing about representation, I can’t help but think of the recent photograph of a young black girl looking at the new official portrait of Michelle Obama in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC. The image shows the toddler standing in awe of the massive, regal portrait of the former first lady. That the little girl should crop up in the story of a 21 year old British man might seem funny but I feel her face looking at that picture was much the same as mine watching Love, Simon: one of amazement at seeing someone like you depicted in a way you’ve never seen before.
Now that LGBT representation is beginning to increase, we can start to have a discussion about the nature of that representation. Programmes like RuPaul’s Drag Race are fantastic in their celebration of difference. However, while there are life lessons everyone could take from RuPaul, without adding additional voices to the discussion we risk encouraging a homogenised understanding of the LGBT community. There are plenty of LGBT young people who begin to realise their queer identity but struggle to identify with figures who, for example, reject gender norms. The inclusion of stories like Love, Simon and last year’s The Pass – about gay footballers – reminds those young people that there is just as much of a place for them in the LGBT community as there is for anyone else.
In moments of gay crisis I think it always does us well to turn to my Lord and Saviour Alan Bennett. In his 2004 play The History Boys, he said “the best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you… and it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.” I’m sure he didn’t mean it, but maybe Bennett’s quote about reading First World War poetry has something to say about watching 2018 teen films. For most people, Love, Simon won’t break much new ground. It is ultimately a gushy coming of age drama, complete with the contrived dialogue and shoehorned references that make the genre oddly charming. But, for those of us who came out in a tolerant but still scary limbo, the movie is an anthem.
No amount of retroactive privilege checking changes the fact that being a queer teen is tough, no matter who you are. But seeing someone go through it and come out happy – and with a very attractive boyfriend – is what I think you would call cathartic, all though I’ve never quite known how to use that word. Should it have taken such specific depiction of my life for me to fully understand the importance of representation? Probably not. But maybe my association with this film shows another way in which representation is beneficial. A portrait of a black woman as First Lady tells the little girl in DC that she can do anything she sets her mind to. Love, Simon is less aspirational; it doesn’t show anyone ascending to the White House. Instead, it shows the intimate, personal struggles that queer youth have gone, are going and will continue to go through forever and assures you that, in going through them, you are not on your own.