My coming out experience followed a predictable arch for a millennial on the west coast in 2000s. It started in middle school, with a fierce suppression of any and all feelings of same-sex attraction. The next couple of years were spent trying to train myself to be exclusively attracted to the opposite sex (and feeling encouraged when those feelings did genuinely come). Eventually, I realized that the "training myself" thing was kind of like training myself to stop growing taller, so instead I just internalized humiliation and shame and embarrassment for being something that I truly did not want to be. The penultimate step, the one right before coming out, was convincing myself, (successfully, for a couple years) that I would never come out, that I could keep my secret forever, and that this was in everyone's best interest. But then, racked with anxiety and fear, I did come out, one by one to all my friends and, eventually, my family -- and I was embraced with love and acceptance.
I was lucky.
I've been thinking about my coming out story a lot because of Love, Simon. I've seen the movie, directed by Greg Berlanti, twice and I just finished the book, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, by Becky Alberalli. It's a beautiful story about a suburban kid's coming out experience, and I love it because I see some of my own story in it. Like when Simon is trying on clothes in his room, wrestling with how "gay" he is supposed to be, or when he imagines himself at "Liberal University" dancing in bright colors with rainbow flags covering his wall. He's trying to figure out how who he loves impacts who he is. I remember that struggle. There's also a moment when Simon is sitting in a car with one of his best friends, and he tells his secret out loud for the first time. I had that moment, too. Then there is the joke about whether Simon's previous girlfriends "turned" him gay. I remember that, too.
I think most LGBT people will see at least some of their story in Love, Simon. I love that about the movie.
I also love it because it tells a story that I never got to experience. I didn't come out until I was a junior in college. In high school, I didn't allow myself to be in love with a boy. Was I attracted to guys? Against my will, yes, I was. But did I think about holding hands and going on dates and being boyfriends with another boy? Never. I literally could not imagine that possibility when I was a junior in high school, like Simon.
Troye Sivan, a singer who performs a track on the movie's soundtrack, tweeted after watching the film for the first time: "Had I have seen that movie when I was 12 I thoroughly believe it would’ve changed the shape of my life." I feel the same way. I wish I had Simon Spier in 2006 when I started high school. A lot has changed since then.
It was before Michael McShane struck down Oregon's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage by asking Oregonians: "Let us look less to the sky to see what might fall; rather, let us look to each other...and rise." In fact, it was before McShane was appointed to the federal bench. It was before the Supreme Court of the United States made marriage equality the law of the land. It was before Kate Brown, the first ever openly-LGBT candidate to be elected governor, had taken office. It was just eight years after Matthew Shepard's murder, and three years before the hate-crime legislation bearing his name was signed by President Obama.
In the early 2000s, "gay," "fag," and "homo" were commonly-employed insults in middle school and high school hallways. I'm sure they still are in many places. I heard those words daily, sometimes even directed at me, and I sometimes used them myself. Each time I heard them (even when I said them), I added another lock to the closet door I was hiding behind. “Nothing is worse than the secret humiliation of being insulted by proxy,” Simon says in Albertalli's book. Whether the insults were directed at me or not, I knew that they were about me.
Love, Simon is a high school love story -- it's not about politics. It's a story for everyone. That's why it's so important. Watching it on opening weekend in a crowded theater felt like a social milestone. I imagined it as the unofficial, unscientific end to the culture wars -- that might be wishful thinking, but at the very least it was a major victory for love and acceptance. The theater was full of high school kids, in friend groups, with parents, and with boyfriends and girlfriends. There was clapping and cheering and shouting and tears -- but none of the reaction was a response to Simon's sexuality. Instead, it was about Simon's pain and joy and everything in between. The audience was empathetic, and we were all rooting for Simon. It struck me that coming out is so much less controversial than it was a decade or two or three ago.
The "coming out" movement used to be urgent. Coming out used to be a revolutionary statement. Harvey Milk used to call on closeted people to join the movement, saying:
"Every gay person must come out. As difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family. You must tell your relatives. You must tell your friends, if indeed they are your friends. You must tell your neighbors. You must tell the people you work with. You must tell the people at the stores you shop in. Once they realize that we are, indeed, their children and we are, indeed, everywhere -- every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and for all. And once you do, you will feel so much better."
The moral urgency of coming out, underpinned by the idea that each person has an individual responsibility to the LGBT movement, has faded as our culture and our laws have becoming more accepting of love in all forms. Today, there's an emphasis on voluntary self-disclosure of one's sexuality; we believe that each person should decide when, how, and to who they want to come out. That's partly what Love, Simon is about. But there's also a philosophical question embedded in the movie: Why is straight the default? There is a great vignette in the movie that imagines the straight characters coming out to their unsupportive parents; it shows how unfair and ridiculous coming out is as a cultural requirement for LGBT people. It made me wonder: what's next?
In the 1970s and 1980s, the coming out movement was about the moral imperative for adults to come out as a way of contributing to the greater gay rights movement. In the 2000s, and 2010s, it's been about giving control, comfort, and support to kids who are struggling with their identities. So what's next? Maybe we ought to look to Simon Spier. Maybe it's time to intentionally eliminate the default setting of "straight" from our social understanding of sexuality. Maybe we shouldn't expect every kid to be straight until we're told otherwise. Maybe we shouldn't assume anything about each other's sexual orientation. Maybe the next phase of the coming out movement is the end of the coming out movement: a society where coming out is no longer relegated exclusively to the LGBT community; instead, it's a rite of passage for all young people to express who they are, whenever and however they want.