A few weeks back, my professor asked our class to name a book that fundamentally changed our lives. I gave an answer — Melvin Dixon’s Vanishing Rooms — but it was a half-truth.
I had never been moved by a book to the point my life changed. Vanishing Rooms rewrote my perceptions of sexuality and race. Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man inspired me as a writer. They awakened me in the moment of reading but quickly became emotional residue that I would only occasionally remember. Some English major I am.
Conveniently, Becky Albertalli’s Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda was on the way to my mailbox for spring break reading at the time of my professor’s inquiry.
I read 150 of its pages on a bus ride to Birmingham, Alabama, and finished it in a hotel lobby because my roommates wanted to sleep.
The next week, I saw Love, Simon, its movie adaptation, on opening day. I have every intention to see it in theaters at least once more.
“Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda” fundamentally changed me. Love, Simon put that fundamental change into moving pictures. The feelings they invoked aren’t fleeting. Both works are grounded into me.
It’s an odd claim. Both are teenage rom-coms for the masses. There’s so much cheese in Love, Simon, — the jokes, the interactions, the love plots — it feels as if your heart is getting dipped in a fondue fountain at times.
I love it.
Both works are about Simon, a high-schooler who has fallen in love with a boy. The problem? The two contact each other anonymously via email and neither are publically out. When a peer, Martin, stumbles upon the email chain, he blackmails Simon, pressuring him to hook his friend Abby up with Martin. The situation makes Simon come to terms with himself, his friends and the relationship with his mystery love interest.
It’s a variation on a classic rom-com setup, and both book and movie deliver it well. Albertalli and Love, Simon director Greg Berlanti know how to tune their audience’s heartstrings and pluck them with pathos in just the right places.
Social issues, like explicit and unconscious homophobia, do exist in both works — they’re tough to avoid with LGBTQ protagonists — but these conflicts are quickly and soundly resolved; they are minor plot points if plot points at all.
Simon doesn’t take part in pride parades or cross-dressing. He isn’t hypersexual or breaking any gender norms. He blends right in with every straight high school boy. Simon doesn’t fit the typical themes I’ve read and watched in gay literature and film.
Instead, just like any other teen rom-com, the movie is really just about being in love.
It’s perfect in that way: just one boy in love with another and nearly nothing else.
I think we, as an LGBTQ community, need that. I don’t want to think about stigmas of sexuality or social issues when I watch or read a gay romance. I think about that too much outside the book pages and theaters. I want to see my fairytale love story play out perfectly like straight love stories do. I’ve been waiting to see (or read — or experience) a story like that all my life.
Albertalli made the right move making Simon privileged with upper middle class, liberal and accepting parents and friends. Berlanti made the right move keeping social issues to a minimum. They allow the story to focus on one boy being in love with another.
I think both straight folks and the LGBTQ community can lose sight of what being gay really means: being in love with another man. That’s it. It’s not a culture or a lifestyle or a stereotypical characteristic. And that’s what Love, Simon delivers. And I love it.
The first lines in Love, Simon are “I’m Simon Spier, and I’m just like you.” I believe it. I feel like I’m Simon at my core, and I think there are other gay, bi and queer men who feel just the same.
I found identity in Simon. I love that he is what we would historically call “masculine.” Approach any peer of his in high school and they would identify Simon not by outward appearance but by who he is. We know Simon as someone who’s quirky, funny, emotional, loving and incredibly human.
I’ve seen many positive portrayals of gay men in entertainment, but not one could be categorized as strongly masculine. That’s great. So many gay men can identify with and become empowered by these portrayals that break gender norms and embrace self-expression.
But those portrayals don’t reflect who I am. The immediate subconscious associations we make with the word “gay” was what partly kept me in the closet for so long. They just aren’t my identity. Simon, however, is.
Shortly after coming out to his family, Simon asks his mother if she knew he was gay all along. She said she didn’t, but she could tell he was keeping something secret.
“These last few years, it’s almost like I can feel you holding your breath,” she says. “You are still you, Simon.”
Simon doesn’t fear his sexuality or homophobia. He fears that his life and the perception others have of him will be different than it was when he was in the closet. It’s a theme that unfortunately gets muffled in the movie, but it’s crucial.
I think myself and others feel the same way. We have the privilege of open-minded kin, but we fear that our identities or places in life will never be the same. It really is easier to be straight. You don’t have to subconsciously think of others’ perceptions and reactions towards you who know you’re gay.
It’s important to stress again that Love, Simon and its novel predecessor are romantic comedies at their core. It’s important to stress, too, that both are not the paragons of gay movies or books. (Music Director Rob Simonsen, Albertalli practically gave you the soundtrack in the book! A little Elliott Smith or Passion Pit wouldn’t hurt the masses).
Nevertheless, Love, Simon and its book changed me. It gave me a love story, plain and simple, nothing more. It gave me Simon, a character whose personality, struggles and feelings I can find identity in.
It helped me fall in love with the idea of being in love. It’s helping me find comfort in saying the word “gay.” It helped me come out to my family. It let me breath.
And Love, Simon helped me find my first celebrity crush. Keiynan Lonsdale, you are absolutely stellar.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons