“Sixteen will be the year I finally figure out what I want,” says Victor, a teenager coming to terms with his sexuality in Georgia on the new Hulu show Love, Victor (June 19th). The series, a spin-off from the 2018 film Love, Simon, looks like the corny teen rom-coms of my youth, the ones I lived vicariously through. The ones with straight girls, played by Hilary Duff or Lindsay Lohan, who fall in love with hot straight boys played by Chad Michael Murray.
When I was sixteen, and realizing I was gay, I was not engaging in actual romances. There were no intensely palpable moments in coffee shops, no lingering looks like Victor shares with Benjy, the object of his affection. There were no secret online relationships, apart from a few short-lived long-distance friendships with other gay teens over instant messenger that fizzled out as fast as they began. In fact, the idea of having a boyfriend before I graduated seemed as inconceivable as walking on water. Instead, I spent my formative years watching my straight friends have their first boyfriends, listening as they talked about losing their virginity, and paid attention while they philosophized about first love. I was out to my friends, but my potential for romance wasn’t discussed, my sexuality rarely acknowledged. It seemed, to everyone around me, that high school was not my time. That would come later when I went to college, moved to the big city, and grew up.
When I was in high school, positive, or even nuanced, representations of LGBTQ+ teens on screen were not common. I occasionally saw that gay men could be the best friend to a woman in a romantic comedy, maybe they could be a lawyer on a sitcom, or a villain in an animated Disney movie (Jafar? Clayton? Scar? I mean, come on). I could glean from the little access I had that there was maybe some hope beyond high school, but I would have to wait.
The announcement of Love, Victor made me wonder about the queer high school experience today, how different it could be from what I knew, and whether the content we now see is a symbol that it’s gotten better? It’s sometimes hard to fathom just how much has changed. As Jill Gutowitz wrote for them., when you’re queer and in your late-twenties, “modern stories about queer teenagers can sometimes feel like they depict a beautiful but deceptive alternate universe.”
One undeniable thing, however, is that it’s certainly more visible. In the real world, queer teens appear in viral “promposal” videos and in TikTok’s coming out to the tune of Jason Derulo’s “Get Ugly,”, and they attend LGBTQ+ clubs and alliances sanctioned by their schools. While on-screen they’re jocks, love interests, drug addicts, nerds, rebels, party animals, cool girls, and introverts. Has it really changed as much as film and TV would like us to believe? Is high school no longer a place queers are traumatized by, or are films and shows like Love, Victor idealistic and more hopeful than truthful?
In the late 90s and early 2000s, gay teenage characters were practically non-existent, apart from Rickie on My So Called Life (a show that somehow escaped me back then). There was an old-movie-loving-Dior-wearing Christian in Clueless who was described as a “disco-dancing-Oscar-Wilde-reading-Streisand-ticket-holding-friend-of-Dorothy”. In Bring It On, there was Les, who spoke fag “fluently” and even had a tender, if sanitized, moment with another male cheerleader in the film’s final act. There was the campy, “too-gay-to-function” Damian in Mean Girls. These supporting characters are a far cry from the LGBTQ+ teens we see in movies today.
Today, queer teen characters are more central and are no longer relegated to the sidelines. They’re involved in narratives linked to self-discovery, exploration, alcohol, popularity, or sex. Ellie Chu is vying for a girl’s affections through letters while hiding being the heterosexuality of a sweet himbo in The Half It, Amy in Booksmart is seeking her first sexual experience alongside a night of long-overdue partying with her straight best friend, and Rue, in Euphoria, is a teenage drug addict who falls in love with the mysterious new girl. Alex Strangelove, Blockers, Never Have I Ever, One Day at a Time, High School Musical: The Series, and, now, Love, Victor are also prime examples.
This new trend of exploring queer teen experience on film shows no signs of slowing down. But if we use the film and television landscape as a barometer of the current climate, you would think that high school is no longer the battleground it once was. And you would be wrong. In 2016, Vice reported that high school students who identified as LGBTQ+ were far more at risk of physical violence and depression than their straight peers. Last year, The Trevor Project produced a report that found 39% of LGBTQ+ youth had “seriously considered attempting suicide in the past twelve months” and that 71% of LGBTQ+ youth felt they had been discriminated against based on their sexuality or gender identity. All this often manifests in higher rates of depression amongst LGBTQ+ people.
Brian Tanen, the showrunner for Love, Victor who previously worked on Desperate Housewives and Ugly Betty (both of which included gay teenage characters), told Gay Times that he wanted to introduce an LGBTQ+ teen protagonist to fight back against what kids are taught is “normal.” After all, if the dominant definition of “normal” doesn’t include you and you never see yourself reflected in film or on TV, why would you ever believe you have value?
The idea of “normal” might finally be blurring on screen as the queer high school experience is taking over. Now, films and shows engage with issues that resonate with queer teens like coming out, first love, familial strain, and navigating the dynamics of sexuality and identity in small towns. Homophobia is not non-existent in these stories, shame and rejection still loom large, but it’s often assuaged in the final act; the parents accept them, their crush returns the feelings, and fellow students cheer them on. After all, the world is changing, and the increase in output is likely a direct response to that. In 2018, a study found that Gen Z was far less likely to identify as “solely heterosexual” and was in contact more frequently with those who are not confined by the gender binary. Comparatively, an article in 2001 considered suicidal behavior a “painful but unavoidable rite of passage” for LGBT youth, who were twice as likely to kill themselves than their straight peers due to “the personal and interpersonal turmoil associated with coming to terms with one’s sexual identity.” This was only two years before I went to high school.
The teens on screen today have moved from the sidelines and into the spotlight. Sure, these films and shows might not represent our world with complete accuracy by portraying a more idealistic one than the statistics suggest. What comes first, the representation or the societal change? These films and shows are hopeful, choosing not to exclusively represent the sad queer experience which is so often monetized by Hollywood. Instead, they take a step in the right direction, letting young queer people feel seen and included. The rest of us have to catch up. They show queer teens as happy, confused, wild, anxious, and rounded people. They show teenage queers who fall in love, who are the center of their story, and feel valued. It’s not just the Hilary Duffs or Lindsay Lohans who have that luxury now.