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Attack of the Alphabet People

The teen coming-out rom-com ‘Love, Simon’ is a gem. Now the author of the book it is based on is assailed for her sexuality not matching that of her protagonists.

James Kirchick
October 08, 2020
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When I first watched the movie Love, Simon on a trans-Atlantic flight two years ago, I cried like a baby.

As a 30-something male, I am not the target demographic for teeny-bopper romantic comedies, a genre to which Love, Simon firmly belongs. And the film never would have attracted my interest were it not for its key distinguishing feature: The titular high school student protagonist is gay. To be sure, teenage “coming out” movies are a genre unto themselves. Yet they have always been independently made; found on the film festival circuit, at art house cinemas, or (when I was surreptitiously watching them two decades ago) rented at something called a “video store.” When 20th Century Fox released Love, Simon on the big screen in 2018, it became the first teenage romantic comedy produced by a major Hollywood studio featuring a gay main character.

Why did a fluffy teenage rom-com reduce a grown man to tears? Well, if you are a gay person who came of age in that ancient era when “video stores” existed, you lacked many of the things straight people take for granted—such as growing up in a society where you can get married, peers with whom to discuss your crushes, the luxury of never having to reveal an aspect of your core identity to friends and family, and, not least, John Hughes movies to make sense of all the mental anguish this creates. So for all the ways it might have been just another teen movie, watching Love, Simon was an epiphany akin to discovering an incredible new technology to which I wish I had access when I was younger. It was like having my own The Breakfast Club, Clueless, and Mean Girls wrapped up into one.

Love, Simon tenderly and accurately portrayed many aspects common to the gay teenage experience: the terror of having to make out with someone of the opposite sex, the unbearable letdown upon discovering that the guy or girl of your dreams isn’t also gay (something which straight people, thanks to their preponderance, don’t experience nearly so often), the pain of hearing someone you care about make a homophobic remark. I smiled when Simon killed it—as I and so many other closet cases did—at karaoke, and I felt a knot in my stomach every time he had to lie to his friends about who he was. The film does all this without being sententious or treacly, avoiding the didacticism of so many other “message” films and wearing its progressive politics lightly. So much did I love the movie that I watched it again on the plane ride home, bawling my eyes out a second time, touched not so much by its content but merely the fact of its existence. When I later read that the author of the young adult novel upon which Love, Simon was based—Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda—was a straight woman my age, I was moved even more: Before deciding to become a novelist, Becky Albertalli (née Goldstein) was a clinical psychologist who “had the privilege of conducting therapy with dozens of smart, weird, irresistible teenagers” and “served for seven years as co-leader of a support group for gender nonconforming children.”

The most powerful effect a work of art can have is to elicit the sensation of recognition within its audience, to verbalize or visualize or put into music those innermost emotions you thought were yours alone, and by doing so chip away at the barriers we have constructed between us—as man and woman, Black and white, Jew and gentile, heterosexual and homosexual. Think of the stand-up comedian who can make a room filled with people of different races, political views, and ages roar with laughter, or the musician who brings a concert hall to its feet in shared ecstasy. That a movie targeted at teenagers about a gay kid, based upon a work written by a heterosexual woman, could touch a 34-year-old gay man so deeply was, to me at least, one reason for optimism in this otherwise dreadful period of human history.

I had not thought about Love, Simon again until a few weeks ago, when Albertalli published an essay declaring herself bisexual. Usually, someone coming out of the closet is an occasion for positivity and acceptance. But in this case, the situation is more complicated. In April 2018, a month after Love, Simon premiered in theaters, Albertalli published Leah on the Offbeat, the sequel to Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. Simon’s best friend, Leah, it turns out, is bisexual, and while Albertalli’s acknowledged heterosexuality “was a springboard for some—legitimately important—conversations about representation, authenticity, and ownership of stories,” for other critics it “was enough to boycott the film entirely.” It was not long before Albertalli was being accused of “writing shitty queer books for the straights, profiting off of communities I had no connection to” and being “the quintessential example of allocishet inauthenticity,” a term I had to look up. (“Allosexual” is someone who is not asexual, and “cishet” is short for cisgender heterosexual.)

“Let me be perfectly clear: this isn’t how I wanted to come out,” Albertalli explained in the essay, entitled “I’m late I know.” “This doesn’t feel good or empowering, or even particularly safe. Honestly, I’m doing this because I’ve been scrutinized, subtweeted, mocked, lectured, and invalidated just about every single day for years, and I’m exhausted.” The whole essay reads like a hostage note.

If Albertalli’s literary work had me crying tears of joy, this missive left me feeling physically ill. For here was a critical mass of LGBTQ people, who should know the effects of bullying better than most, persecuting a woman whose “allyship” with our “community,” such as it is, has been compelling, compassionate, and deeply meaningful. Gays should be showering her with prizes, not assailing her as if she had written Cruising, the notorious 1980 William Friedkin slasher flick in which an undercover cop played by Al Pacino descends into New York’s seedy, gay S&M netherworld to track down a serial killer.

“You know what’s a mindfuck?” Albertalli asked. “Questioning your sexual identity in your thirties when every self-appointed literary expert on Twitter has to share their hot take on the matter. Imagine hundreds of people claiming to know every nuance of your sexuality just from reading your novels. Imagine trying to make space for your own uncertainty.”

Simon’s coming out was similarly forced, and not all the characters immediately respond with unconditional love and acceptance. But they get there, and the ultimate lesson is that the process by which a gay person reveals their sexual orientation to others is an extremely personal one, over which he or she must have total autonomy—which is what makes the treatment meted out to the author who created him so hideously ironic. The animating principle of the gay rights movement was to ask the straight majority to empathize with the homosexual’s plight, which at the time the movement gathered steam in the 1960s entailed the threat of criminal prosecution, housing and job discrimination, psychiatric torture and institutionalization, police harassment, street violence, family banishment, and the whole array of self-destructive behaviors which stem from lying to yourself and everyone around you on a constant basis.

We should be encouraging straight writers to create gay characters, gentile writers to create Jewish characters, Jewish writers to create Black characters, and so on through each and every imaginable permutation of human identity.

It is hard for me to conceive of a better example of a heterosexual making a good-faith effort to place themselves in the shoes of a homosexual than by writing a novel for young people sympathizing with the struggles of a gay teenager. The fact that a straight woman could produce a literary work with which so many gay people identified makes it laudable in its own right, just as the fact that a straight man wrote the gay-themed My Beautiful Laundrette endows that novel, and the wonderful film upon which it is based, with a social significance distinct from what it would have been had the story flowed from the pen of a gay man. An entire genre of writing composed by straight women envisioning homosexual relationships between male characters from popular cinema and television franchises—“Slash fiction”—has existed ever since some imaginative female Star Trek fans began creating homoerotic fantasies involving Captain Kirk and Spock. I have absolutely no interest in reading any of it, but if it makes the people who create and consume it even slightly more empathetic toward gay men, which I can’t help but imagine it does, why on earth would I demand that they relinquish “ownership” of “my” story?

Rather than embrace the totalitarian logic of #ownvoices—an internet-based campaign devoted to the noxious catechism that only writers from marginalized groups may “represent” characters from said groups in their work, and which by interrogating people over their sexual orientation has brought the tactics of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI to the realm of young adult fiction—we should be encouraging straight writers to create gay characters, gentile writers to create Jewish characters, Jewish writers to create Black characters, and so on through each and every imaginable permutation of human identity. To insist otherwise would usher in nothing less than a system of literary apartheid.

Yet the campaign of vilification directed toward Becky Albertalli is just the latest example of how authoritarian attitudes and tactics have become commonplace within LGBTQ spaces, itself a stark departure from the American gay tradition which had always emphasized individual autonomy.

More than any other value, the brave men and women who started the American gay rights movement in the middle part of the last century advocated freedom—the freedom of sexual expression, the freedom to hold a job, the freedom to publish, the freedom to associate (whether at a bar free from police harassment or in a political meeting free from FBI surveillance), the freedom to serve openly in the military, and the freedom to marry. Now that it has achieved those freedoms and a cultural influence once thought impossible, much of what passes for gay activism today is driven by an impulse which is the very opposite of freedom: control.

Gay people fought for a tolerant and open society. Now, many of us pour our energy and organizational resources into getting people who disagree with us fired, suing wedding photographers who decline their services on religious conscience grounds, and assailing heterosexual young adult novelists who have the gall to create relatable gay characters.

No minority group has achieved more social progress more quickly thanks to America’s unfettered and raucous free speech culture, its individualist ethos, and its embrace of mavericks and free thinkers than gays. A group which can proudly boast Oscar Wilde, Fran Lebowitz, Camille Paglia, James Baldwin, Gore Vidal, and Lily Tomlin as cultural icons is increasingly characterized by the hectoring “post-comedy” of Hannah Gadsby, the abstruse theories of the parodical Judith Butler, and the vengeful social media hordes who tsk-tsk Caitlyn Jenner for claiming “Dude looks like a lady” as her “theme song” and condemn RuPaul—who has done more to challenge and subvert gender norms than possibly any human being alive—for making the simple, and true, observation that drag performance “loses its sense of danger and its sense of irony once it’s not men doing it.”

Last December, one such icon, John Waters, gave a little-noticed interview to a local Washington, D.C., gay magazine. “Liberals are as big fascists as the Republicans,” the self-described “Filth Elder” said. “Because they never think that anybody wouldn’t agree with them. And I’m a bleeding heart liberal.” More recently, he admitted to British GQ that “I never understood what a trigger warning was,” which surely qualifies as the greatest understatement of the 21st century coming as it does from the man who introduced movie audiences to coprophagia. “I thought you went to college to have your values challenged,” he added. “I thought that was the point of education.” Waters also confesses to reading The Wall Street Journal editorial page every day because “I want to read how smart people I don’t agree with think.”

Waters is the embodiment of a certain type of gay man—witty, widely read, cultured, discriminating yet open-minded—who have been tastemakers and trendsetters in whatever field they deigned to conquer be it art, cinema, literature, design, fashion, journalism, etc. Yet he is of a dying breed that’s being replaced by hectoring, busybody gender studies Ph.D.s and social media twits. Why did it take a straight comedian, Dave Chappelle, to come up with one of the greatest riffs on the disputatious internal dynamics of the LGBTQ community, or, as he hilariously put it, “the alphabet people”?

In her anguished coming-out essay, Albertalli describes herself as a 37-year-old woman who has “been happily married to a guy for almost ten years,” “never kissed a girl,” and “never even realized I wanted to.” If this is an honest statement about her sexual orientation, then I applaud her. If it’s the tortured result of a forced confession by someone subjected to years of online bullying, then it cheapens the coming-out process by contributing toward its transformation into something any opportunist can perform in order to acquire this or that professional bauble or ward off this or that online mob. Albertalli’s sexuality—along with her gender, race, religious affiliation, and any other identity category humans more often use to divide than to unite—should be utterly irrelevant to the characters she creates and the stories she tells. If gay people wish to secure and enjoy the freedoms we’ve achieved for ourselves, we must take care to extend them to others.

James Kirchick is a Tablet columnist and the author of Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington (Henry Holt, 2022). He tweets @jkirchick.