The Heterosexual Coming Out Story: On ‘Love, Simon’ and ‘Boy Erased’

“I loved that”, said my friend after our screening of Love, Simon finished. The lights were coming up, ‘Aflie’s Song (Not So Typical Love Song)’ was playing over scrapbook style credits. She had been babbling since they started rolling. Her face was a portrait of the film we just watched, eyes red and puffy, mouth in a wide grin. “I loved that so much, I can’t wait to see it again”. I agreed. Love, Simon was easy to love. I wanted to see it again. And see it again I did, three more times in fact, and each with the same amount of joy.

Love, Simon is by all measures a crushingly average film. It is about as cliched as a high-school, coming-of-age, romance film can be. That’s what, in my mind at least, makes it so good. Prior to Love, Simon I had felt that while queer experiences had been depicted well in film, it was normally reserved for awards season or indie films­. When queerness was in the mainstream it was usually packaged for heterosexual audiences rather than being for the queer community – 2013’s GBF sticks out as prime example of this.

While this had been improving, 2016 and 2017 certainly saw queer films pushed further into the mainstream with Moonlight and Call Me By Your Name respectively, much of the press surrounding the latter sought to detract from the queerness. With two white male leads in an otherwise common love story its only unique factor to me seemed to be the queerness – yet efforts were made to detract from this queerness, with the film frequently being touted as a ‘universal’ love story.

For Love, Simon to be as average as it was while simply letting its protagonist be queer was nice. “Everyone deserves a great love story” ran the tagline. I wouldn’t call Love, Simon exceptionally great but the queer community was finally getting a middling high-school romance and that did feel great. It felt great because it felt normal – we were finally being treated as normal. Love, Simon seemed special considering that 2018 was year where many films with queer narratives fell into the same clichés of queer cinema past. From these films, Boy Erased sticks out to me as the most egregious example.

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Where Love, Simon was focused on the future, Boy Erased was trapped in the past. The story of Jared (Lucas Hedges) is one that we have seen before multiple times, from the 1999 cult classic But I’m a Cheerleader to this year’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post (which tells the conversion therapy narrative with far more delicacy and emotion than Boy Erased).

What is perhaps most telling about Boy Erased is the experience I had seeing it. I went alone (my friends wisely chose to skip it), and where the theatre had been packed for Love, Simon it was near empty for Boy Erased. I was the only young person in the crowd, the rest of the audience was comprised of elderly heterosexual couples exclusively. As the film progressed, I found myself increasingly alienated. The rest of the audience were involved, I heard sniffles, sobs even at one point. When the film ended, and Troye Sivan’s “Revelation” was playing over the lifeless credits, I heard one lady say, “that was just marvellous”. It wasn’t.

I reflected upon why they, heterosexual men and women, connected with what was ostensibly a queer narrative while I, a gay man, did not. The conclusion I reached was because, unlike Simon, Jared is not a character. His only major trait in the film is that he is a writer. “Their manuals misspell ‘god’ as ‘dog’”, Jared points out in one of the rare moments where Boy Erased allows him characterisation. This moment is subtle and telling of Jared’s personality and the overall themes of the film. The problem is that moments like this are a rarity not the norm in Boy Erased.

The rest of the time Jared drifts through the film, lacking autonomy, existing as a cypher through which the audience can experience the torture of conversion therapy. He rejects the practices of Live In Action early, but he is not afforded the choice to leave. No, that choice is given to his mother, Nancy (Nicole Kidman).

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Jared’s parents in fact, receive far more characterisation than Jared does. His father Marshall (Russel Crowe) is a preacher. Marshall is a tough but fair man, self-driven and a firm adherent to traditional Christian beliefs. Nancy is also a devout Christian, but her belief often comes into conflict with her compassionate side. In the end her compassion puts her at odds with conversion therapy, and by extension her husband and his unwavering literal interpretation of Christian doctrine.

It was here that I realised why I responded poorly to Boy Erased while the rest of the audience did not. While the film posits that this is Jared’s story, it is not. This is the story of his parents. Every major story beat that should belong to Jared is instead given to his parents.

Jared’s first queer sexual experience is when he is assaulted by his male roommate. He rushes home to his parents for comfort only to find out the college has called ahead and disclosed everything. Jared doesn’t come out to his parents. Instead, they are told and coerce the truth out of him. It’s coming out in reverse. This trend continues throughout the whole film. Jared doesn’t choose to leave Love In Action, his mother does. He doesn’t confront his father, his mother does. 

Boy Erased is at its core a story about coming out and finding self-acceptance. It’s a distinctly queer narrative. Yet the queer experience is removed from the queer character, repackaged, and handed to the heterosexual characters. In the end it is Marshall, not Jared, who must reconcile with and accept homosexuality. Jared has been raised with the same beliefs as Marshall, and has to overcome the same hurdles, but we never see him do that. It became no wonder to me then that the audience I was with responded so well to the film, because this is not a film that is interested in queer representation. Boy Erased is a film made by and for heterosexual audiences to help them understand and accept homosexuality.

This narrative choice felt more flagrantly regressive when you compare the parents of Boy Erased with their Love, Simon counterparts, Emily and Jack Spier (Josh Duhamel and Jennifer Garner). Emily is as compassionate as Nancy but more introspective and considered. Jack meanwhile is stubborn but still a loving father who views his family as equals rather than inferiors. They are as equally realised as Marshall and Nancy, despite having markedly less screen-time.

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The lessened presence of the parents in Love, Simon when compared to Boy Erased is important because it allows Simon to be a fully realised character. Only minutes into Love, Simon we already have a better picture of Simon than we get of Jared throughout the entirety of Boy Erased. Simon is awkward, charming, loves his friends and family, and is deeply emotional but struggles to express it. He also is a queer person. Simon self-identifies as a gay man within minutes of the film beginning. This identification comes from him. Not anyone else.

It’s important that we hear this from Simon so early because without that Love, Simon would fall into the same traps as Boy Erased. Martin (Logan Miller), who blackmails Simon with his emails with an anonymous gay classmate who goes by the pseudonym ‘Blue’, could easily have hijacked Love, Simon in the way that Marshall and Nancy do Boy Erased.

Martin threatens to out Simon to the whole school unless he helps him get with transfer student Abby (Alexanda Shipp). Unlike Boy Erased the fear of being outed is not only properly articulated, but also explored in a manner far more emotionally resonant with a queer audience. Where Jared said nothing about his fears Simon talks openly about them. Simon knows that his friends and family will be accepting, but he still worries.

That’s because coming out is emotional and personal and unequivocally queer. It is about the fear that a love you thought was unconditional actually came with conditions. It can be compared to broader heterosexual experiences but it is inherently not the same. By having Jared’s first queer sexual experience and his coming out be non-consensual, Boy Erased robbed itself of the one universally queer element in its story. Not all queer persons have been to conversion therapy – but we all have come out to someone.

I did question Love, Simon’s choice to focus so heavily on the coming out narrative. It’s generic and been done before (several times this year in fact), and a queer identity extends far beyond the act of coming out. The coming out narrative has become in many ways the queer narrative for heterosexuals. It’s easy for anyone to empathise with the act of coming out, because while being queer is not something everyone experiences, having to expose yourself in a way that makes you vulnerable to others is. 

Love, Simon, however, justifies the decision to be another coming out movie. It reads as a meta-commentary on the inundation of coming out films. “Why is straight the default?”, Simon asks ‘Blue’ as a montage of imaginary heterosexual coming out moments play. Love, Simon takes this meta-read further when Martin does out Simon to the whole school after Abby rejects him publicly.

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Martin’s anger, however, quickly gives way when he realises his moment of humiliation is not the same as exposing an element of one’s personal identity without consent. Martin attempts to apologise to Simon and for a moment Love, Simon threatens to become a film about the heterosexual man learning to understand and empathise with queerness. But it doesn’t. Simon cuts him off and says, “that’s supposed to be my thing”.

It’s a simple line but it forms the thesis for Love, Simon. When Simon says that Martin, he is also saying it to all heterosexual audiences: queerness in film is our thing, not yours.

The handling of Martin is controversial aspect of Love, Simon and that is due in no small part to the ending. Simon sits on a Ferris wheel waiting for ‘Blue’. His mountain of tickets is running out. ‘Blue’ hasn’t shown up. Everyone is watching. The last ticket goes. Simon looks set to experience the same personal shame as Martin when Martin runs over with a ticket. He hands it to Simon and buys him the extra time he needs.

Some saw this as redemption for an irredeemable character. Certainly, outing someone is in my mind an irredeemable action. But this moment is not redemption. Simon does not forgive Martin, nor does Martin ask for it. He hands over the ticket, and the film moves on.

Instead, it’s a symbol. Martin sees that Simon is set for the same public humiliation he experienced, but also recognises that there is something unique about it. He made coming out about him when really it was about Simon. In handing over the ticket he’s admitting that. In that moment Love, Simon becomes an admission that queerness in cinema doesn’t have to be for everyone. “Everyone deserves a great love story” is the films tagline, but nowhere does it admit that every love story is meant for everyone. Nor then should every queer story be for everyone.

Yes Love, Simon is another coming out story, but it is also symbolic of the changing landscape of queerness in film. We have films like The Favourite and Can you Ever Forgive Me?, where queerness is incidental rather than the point of the film. Like Simon himself, those films are many things before they are queer, but that does not mean the queerness is not significant. It’s simply allowed to exist as a part of a films tapestry, just as the queer community wishes to exist as a part of the wider tapestry which is humanity.

That Boy Erased is a movie set in the past and Love, Simon is a movie set in present feels fitting. The former is a film that re-treads where we have been, the latter is a film that suggests where we can go. And it seems that film is ready to move on from the past.

1 thought on “The Heterosexual Coming Out Story: On ‘Love, Simon’ and ‘Boy Erased’”

  1. This was, I think, the main reason I loved God’s Own Country so much and why it hit me in a place in my heart that I just can’t let it go from. The totally nonchalant treatment of queerness – in a part of society that many people assume is stuck in the past – that lets the protagonist (and us) focus on all the parts of his life that are pretty common to the average person in his community instead of being about 2 hours of anxiety about being outed, or of being attacked, or of being unlikable because of adultery. Great article.

    Like

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