Love, Simon has won over many gay fans with its tale of an unassuming hero confronting the challenges of coming out in high school. But not everyone in the LGBT community loves Simon.
In an op-ed for The New York Times, Jacob Tobia recounted how he was "a veritable genderqueer mess" after seeing the movie — the first about a gay teen to be made by a major studio, 20th Century Fox.
Tobia, who is gender-nonconforming, bemoaned how Love, Simon privileged the white, heteronormative character, while sidelining a more effeminate character of color, Ethan. They saw this point of view as part of a systemic problem in Hollywood.
"For over a decade, the unspoken rule of gay cinema and television has been that gay men can be sexy protagonists — as long as they are masculine gay men," Tobia wrote. "Feminine or gender-nonconforming gay men, on the other hand, are desexualized comedic relief."
"Masculine gay men are central characters, understood as attractive, powerful, interesting and dynamic," they added. "Feminine gay men, gender-nonconforming folks and trans people are, at best, guest stars, denied real plots, romantic story lines or central positions in the story."
Tobia said Love, Simon "flirted" with this "right type of gay" trope through its main character, Simon. They observed deplorable behavior in this teen: his gender-policing of a classmate and his silence as the out queer teen, Ethan, was repeatedly bullied. It sparked painful memories from their own school experience, where masculine gay men "profited from my existence" by casting themselves as relatively "normal" to straight peers. "I was the shameful femme foil to their butch pride," Tobia wrote.
Although Ethan is able to hold his own with bullies by using witty barbs in the film, Tobia concluded that his character did not transcend "the trope of the queenly, femme supporting character with no real plot."
Moreover, Tobia was disappointed by a moment that he believes never came: an apology from Simon to Ethan. He wanted words along the lines of "I’m sorry. I was embarrassed by you because I was working on myself. I struggled to affirm your femininity because I was acting from a place of personal shame. Your courage has paved the way for my life to be easier, and I wish I would’ve stood up for you."
However, an exchange in this vein this does occur in Love, Simon, which is not mentioned in Tobia's piece. (Spoilers ahead.) In the film, after Simon is outed to his high school, he and Ethan are made fun of by two bullies, who impersonate them mockingly in the school cafeteria. For their actions, the bullies are sent to the principal's office. Afterward, Simon and Ethan have a heart-to-heart in the principal's waiting room.
Simon: Hey, I’m sorry, Ethan. None of this ever happened when just you were out.
Ethan: You know what they say, one gay is a snooze, two’s a hilarious hate crime. You could’ve told me you were gay.
Simon: I guess I didn’t think we had very much in common.
Ethan: [Laughs] You’re telling me, Simon. It’s not like your all-hoodie wardrobe rocks my world.
Simon: [Laughs] I don’t know, I — maybe I was jealous. You’ve been out since you were 16, and it always seemed so easy for you.
Ethan: Easy? Are you kidding me? My mom still tells my grandparents about all the girls I’m dating when we go over to their house for dinner every Sunday. She says it’s because they’re old and religious and it’s just easier that way. I don’t know, maybe that’s true. But you should hear her voice when she talks about the girls.
In a follow-up statement to The Advocate, Tobia acknowledged that the moment was "an attempt at some sort of reconciliation between them, but I don’t think it went far enough." They saw it as a missed opportunity, "where Simon should’ve owned up to clearly being embarrassed by Ethan’s flamboyance and femininity."
Tobia also disputed Simon's claim that he saw Ethan's existence as "easy." They called this comment "irresponsible" — ignorant, if not mendacious. "Simon saw Ethan being bullied regularly. Simon grew up with Tumblr and should know the word 'intersectionality.' Simon surely knew that it took a lot out of Ethan to be that strong," Tobia said.
Ultimately, they saw Ethan's character as underwritten and worthy of a clap-back. "Ethan’s story deserved more screen time. More than that, Ethan deserved the opportunity to tell Simon off and say 'Hey dude, you were clearly embarrassed by me, avoided me, and that was fucked up.'"
Clark Moore, the actor who portrays Ethan, declined to respond to Tobia's commentary. But in an earlier interview, he defended the presence of his character — who did not exist in the source material, the novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda — as a major victory in representation.
Although Ethan's screen time is much less than Simon's, his presence is felt throughout the film. His wit withers bullies, and his fortitude in the face of them makes him a role model for others. Moore described him as a "world changer," "a guy I wanted to be in high school," and a figure who is "able to soar above the brutal bullying that he experiences."
Moore did not see Ethan as a foil but rather as a character that gives more depth to the spectrum of diversity within the gay community. There is no one way to look or behave, which may help young queer people "trying to figure out who am I in the world that exists between Gus Kenworthy and RuPaul," said Moore. "We can exist in a world where both of those people are equally important, and their experiences are equally significant and valid."
An apology from Simon may also have been outside the ken of the main character, who has spent his young life fearing how his existence may change as an out gay man. Moore observed that those who are closeted in the real world often worry about "guilt by association" by being seen with out people like Ethan. "There's this fear, because they don't want to be outed inadvertently," said Moore. This fear can lead to irrational and hurtful behavior. They can become bullies or anti-LGBT Republicans. Their closeted acts may take years to properly acknowledge and atone for — if ever.
And Hollywood always has opportunities to make amends. A strong box office for Love, Simon will spark other major studios to green-light queer films — and perhaps a sequel.
"Clark would be honored to continue Ethan’s story in a sequel," a representative for Moore confirmed. Tobia even coined a title.
Everyone in the LGBTQI community would gag for Love, Ethan <3. Back me up on this!
— Jacob Tobia (@JacobTobia) March 28, 2018