What Love, Simon Can Teach Us About Classroom Conversations

For the first time, a rom-com from a major studio is helping gay and bi teens feel seen—and celebrated. Teachers have an opportunity to do the same.
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I was 23 the first time I saw two men kiss on television and mean it. Michael Sam—who had waited hours to hear his name—had become the first out gay man drafted into the NFL. In a moment of celebration he kissed his boyfriend, just as so many other players had kissed their significant others over the years. And it passed without remark, at least at first, which was—in itself—remarkable. 

I was a sports journalist who had written about Sam, who understood the magnitude of the milestone. But during the kiss, I was someone else. I was the boy in the closet who had become a man still in the closet, afraid he'd never know the power of normal. In that moment—if only for a moment—the me I had buried deep resurfaced and felt seen. Felt represented. Felt normal. Felt hope. 

The release of the movie Love, Simon keeps bringing me back to the significance of this normalization. For many gay and bi youth, Love, Simon will represent the first time they see their identity presented this way on screen, or perhaps anywhere. Not as an anomaly, or a controversy, a sin or a death sentence, but as totally normal: an everyday part of a typical teen romance, produced by a major movie studio, released in theaters nationwide. 

When I first heard about teens applauding the scene where two young men kiss, I wept. I knew what that moment might mean to the queer boy or girl sitting in the seats, seeing themselves onscreen, celebrated, worthy of love—and victorious. 

Love, Simon is wholly remarkable because of its unremarkability. It's the movie so many of us wish had existed. An answer to every Disney cartoon and teen rom-com that ended with a man and woman in love, at last. Proof that we exist not only in the margins of history and independent theaters, but at the heart of history and stories everywhere. 

In that way, Love, Simon provides a lesson to those of us advocating for LGBT-inclusive classrooms. We call for integrating LGBT icons and writers into the curriculum. We call for policies that protect LGBT children from harassment. We call for Gay-Straight Alliances, and allies, and upstanders who step in to interrupt slurs. These are vital practices.

But we should also call for something simpler: we should make sure our pedagogy doesn't just include or celebrate LGBT identities on special occasions, but also incorporates them in mundane, day-to-day ways. 

It's as simple as a math problem that begins, Lee and his husband Dan bought 12 apples from the store and ate three. It's as simple as making sure your classroom library includes not only books that explore the challenges of living LGBT, but also books-for-pleasure that feature LGBT characters whose identity isn't the main plot point. It's as simple as making sure casual conversations with students about school dances don't assume boy-girl couplings. It's the sentences you use during a spelling test, the family and friend photos you have on your desk, the current events or pop culture you talk about during downtime. 

Do you ever play contemporary music for your students? That probably includes some cutesy love songs. Consider adding artists whose lyrics speak to LGBT love and identity (e.g., Frank Ocean, Shea Diamond, Sam Smith, Mary Lambert) to your playlist. Ever play videos for your students during snack or bus call? Consider mixing in videos featuring LGBT experiences, like In A Heartbeat

And evaluate your off-handed comments, your jokes, your assumptions. How often do they reinforce heterosexuality as the assumed normal? And how often might they instead make an LGBT student feel included—and valued?

If these changes feel forced, ask yourself: Why? 

In the answer lies the problem. We've been conditioned to be hush-hush about LGBT life and relationships, especially in school. When I worked in a school, even years after coming out, I felt like I carried an open secret; talking about it was taboo. The most basic pieces of casual conversations—weekend plans, if I was married, celebrity crushes—required heavy self-censoring. We're hyper-aware of accusations of indoctrination, of unsupportive families who see representation—our literal existence—as propaganda. 

We've let critics condition us to walk on eggshells about the way we represent LGBT identity in school. And students sense this. They internalize that silence and shame. They've told me so.

But as I hear the reviews come in for Love, Simon, and as I hear about students openly rooting for the film's protagonist, I feel hope for a different school experience than I had growing up. I only heard about LGBT people in quickly-hushed political debates that questioned their very existence. I didn't see them on television. I didn't hear them in conversations about prom or puberty. I didn't imagine there was a place for them, not just—please, somewhere!—but in the sentences I had to type in keyboarding class, in the passages I had to interpret in English, or in the paintings I had to write about in fine arts. 

And what if I had? 

When I think back to my 23-year-old self, rocked to the core by Michael Sam kissing his boyfriend, I wonder whether a movie like Love, Simon could have saved me from that delayed recognition. From unfounded self-hatred and self-erasure. 

Maybe so. Or maybe I didn't need a movie theater. Maybe I just needed a teacher who had the courage to help me find my own.

Collins is the senior writer for Teaching Tolerance.