A still from Love, Simon - in cinemas now.

Why ‘Love, Simon’ is a holy freaking huge awesome deal!

Chaz Harris shares the impact Love, Simon had on him as a gay man and how important representation in film and literature is.

It was the weekend of the Big Gay Out during Auckland Pride and I’d travelled from Wellington with my Promised Land co-author Adam Reynolds to hold a stall for our book. Unfortunately, the weather had other plans and sent us torrential rain instead. Pride was literally cancelled.

Luckily, we had something to look forward to. On the Monday morning, we’d been invited to see a preview screening of the movie Love, Simon, based on the YA novel Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli.

After discovering Becky’s wonderful book thanks to book vlogger Margot Wood, I finished reading the final 200 pages of it in a single day in June 2017 and had an emotional meltdown on Tumblr right after. It could have been the bottle of wine I’d got through, or the Coldplay Spotify playlist I’d had on loop, but I think it was most likely just really freaking great writing. In any case, I cried many happy tears that night and I may have even written the words: “THIS IS MY TWILIGHT YOU GUYS!”

I say Twilight only to illustrate the magnitude of teen angst and butterflies I felt. It’s the closest comparison I can think of to describe the levels of fandom the book awoke within me.

When the first trailer was released for the movie last year, I shared it online and told my friends it was going to be my favourite movie of 2018. Now that I’ve seen it (six times so far after two free previews), I’m happy to report my prior claim remains unchanged.

Love, Simon follows Simon Spier, an awkward gay teen who begins an online correspondence with a closeted fellow student at his school. However, as Simon tries to figure out who this mysterious person is, another student learns of his secret and uses it against him.

I was a teenager in the late ’90s/early ’00s and if someone had told me then that a coming-of-age teen romance about a gay kid would one day be made by a major film studio, I think I would’ve laughed in their face.

I didn’t quite realise how much I needed a story like this in high school until I’d read the book. I didn’t know how much I still needed a movie like this now, at the age of 34.

Even before I’d seen it, I couldn’t help but wonder how different my life might have been if a movie like this had been released when I was at school. More importantly, what if my straight peers had seen it promoted alongside all the other heterosexually-focused mainstream teen comedies? It’s a complicated mix of emotion. I felt a tinge of sadness for teenage me, but I was also overcome with happiness for the queer teens of today who no longer have to live without this kind of mainstream representation in their lives. At last, they have a book and a blu-ray worth hugging!

At school, I remember wanting more than anything for the other kids to see me as ‘normal’ (whatever that meant). I never got to see myself portrayed as the hero in stories and I was always projecting myself onto the female leads of mainstream romcoms on the big screen because I never related to the gay sidekicks used for comic relief. I was Katherine Heigl in 27 Dresses, Isla Fisher in Confessions of a Shopaholic and, of course, Bridget Jones.

Many are quick to dismiss the calls for more mainstream queer representation in cinema. Detractors often question why something has to be gay/queer, or why it matters. A particularly tone-deaf piece about Love, Simon even questioned if high school teens today even need a movie like this (because nobody hates queer people anymore, right?). Others say: who cares?

Teenage Chaz would’ve cared, teenage Chaz who was called gay and queer in such a way he believed it must be a terrible thing to be and worth running away from. I think I ran all the way to the age of 17 before I finally stopped and came out to myself. Even though I knew in my early teens, it took me that long to finally say the words out loud.

There’s a scene in the movie where Simon can’t even bring himself to say it himself and it nailed so much of what it was like for me. It was just one of many“That’s exactly what it’s like!” moments on screen. I don’t think the power of that can be understated.

For most of my teens, I convinced myself that being gay was a phase. Even worse, the attitudes of my peers made me hope it was. It made me deny what was happening to me – that I liked boys. I was so fraught with angst and denial and trying to distract myself from it all to survive, I never got to experience the kind of high school romance I saw portrayed in movies.

The reason I’m saying all of this is to make it clear why this film is so important – and particularly so for people like me who never got to see one like it when we were teenagers. It’s already had a significant impact in America, giving many young people the courage to come out after its opening weekend. As Simon would say, “It’s a holy freaking huge awesome deal!”

There has been criticism that this is the story of a privileged white gay kid from a liberal family – not exactly relatable for a lot of people. That’s true. However, for those who aren’t from Simon’s background, or had a different experience, it represents what should have happened. Even if Simon’s experience does not reflect their own, what it does have are the words they all needed to hear when they came out.

Here’s an example. I recently sent a high school student in Arizona tickets to see Love, Simon, organised via a Twitter thread raising money for young people who couldn’t afford to see it. I got a message back that included this:

I felt chills going through me as Simon’s mom told him some of the most impactful words I could ever hear. I wish I was told these things when I came out to my family. Unfortunately, things didn’t go so well for me as much as it did for Simon when coming out to family, but those words are something I will hold to my heart.

This is not the first film of its kind, but it is a first for mainstream cinema with an LGBTQ narrative being centred in the story, not being sexualised and one that’s family-friendly (PG-13). I want more LGBTQ content that shows us happily ever afters and highlights that healthy relationships are more about the person you fall in love with, not what they look like.

A still from the film Love, Simon – in cinemas now.

Its representations of how people can parent also meant a lot to me. I don’t recall ever seeing a dad represented like this in mainstream cinema and Josh Duhamel’s performance broke me into a million pieces and put me back together again in 60 seconds. It made me want every dad to see it; all boys and men who may one day be parents as well. Seeing a macho father expressing emotion like this in a mainstream movie knocked the wind right out of me.

I’ve always wanted to believe that a great love story could happen for me, the way straight people are shown that all the time, instead of one that ends in pain and sadness. I’ve wanted the rest of the world to see me and tell me it didn’t want to shame me into the shadows. For the world to show me that I, too, was lovable.

Reading Becky Albertalli’s book and seeing Love, Simon produced as a mainstream feature film allowed me to see myself in a movie – one just like all the other fluffy studio romcoms – instead of being stuck on the fringes. It ignited a tiny spark of hope in my heart of finding my own love story too, one that I think I’d given up on. In any case, I’ll always have Simon and ‘Blue’.

You don’t have to be LGBTQ to love this movie. Particularly if you’re a parent, or ever plan on being one, it’s important for you to Love, Simon too and that’s because one day the parent of a kid like Simon could be you. With more inclusive stories like this in the world, more of us will learn that even though we’re different, we’re also still very much alike.

With that said, the film’s opening line seems a fitting one to finish on: “I’m just like you.”

Chaz Harris is a Wellington-based filmmaker, writer and co-author of LGBTQ fairytales Promised Land and Maiden Voyage.

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