Image courtesy of 21st Century Fox

'love, simon' captures the power of online anonymity for queer teens

In light of Craigslist's "personals" section closing, a look at the role online chatrooms, messages, and sex ads play in the queer coming-of-age story.

by Adam White
06 April 2018, 5:25pm

Image courtesy of 21st Century Fox

For queer youth in the fledgling years of social media, anonymous chat rooms and message boards provided a safe space to talk openly and discover, without the pressures of identification. Democratic in a way sites like MySpace couldn’t be, they weren’t home to people you knew IRL (at least not publicly), and were an easy means to hide yet be open. We were all ostensibly there to discuss other things, pop culture for the most part. But in truth many of us benefited from talking about ourselves.

These chat rooms and message boards were spaces for kids dancing around the edges of shared otherness, all gently suggesting of a queer bond that was at first largely unspoken, but eventually deepened into something far more significant. We never shared our locations or what we looked like, let alone our real names. Yet protected by our collective anonymity, we were more honest with each other than anyone we knew in reality.

Over a decade later, the queer romcom Love, Simon proves that the household computer may have been replaced by a Mac and a smartphone, and that the message boards of old may have been usurped by memes and anonymous, Gossip Girl-style blogs, but that the feelings remain the same. A gay teenager writing under the pseudonym “Blue” reveals his sexuality on a secret-sharing site maintained by the students of an Atlanta high school, sparking the closeted Simon (Nick Robinson) to reach out in response via email.

Assuming the name “Jacques,” Simon is otherwise devoid of hesitation in his own correspondence. He opens up about his earliest memories of feeling different to his peers, those secret crushes that became all-consuming, and the unfairness of having to conceal parts of yourself in ways that aren’t expected of others.

For both characters, there is a radical freedom to their mutual anonymity. Email ensures them a safe, sincere interaction where any potential threat is off the table. They have nothing to lose by talking to each other, public exposure prevented by the absence of names and faces.

Anyone who is queer and grew up or began to explore their sexuality in the digital age will recognize the allure of such anonymity, and its importance in sexual development. It’s a need to know that you’re not alone in your feelings, while protecting yourself from any potential harm — a luxury that is as beneficial for queer youth today as it was in years past, even in the post-Glee, largely liberally-minded high school that Love, Simon takes place in.

For many, like “Jacques” and “Blue” in the early stages of Love, Simon, it’s conversation of the most aimless kind, with no clear objective other than fostering a connection. Popular message boards in the mid-2000’s were full of this sort of thing, so much that they often ended up resembling queer-tinged digital skate parks, where directionless kids could fight and laugh and compare, but also be open with their feelings.

My personal favorite was the now-defunct boards of the IMDb, where kids posted messages of support, shared emotionally revealing DMs, and nudged at secret inclinations. I specifically remember kids talking about gay crushes they had, or hesitantly talking about their turn-ons. One guy, who must have been 15 or so, posted a message about a forthcoming HIV test, seeking from the numerous faceless teens in his friends list a kind of comfort that he presumably couldn’t get in reality. He had met a guy on Craigslist, that other means for mid-2000’s queer kids to explore, but those a little braver when it came to acting upon different urges.

For the ones far too scared to contemplate doing anything for real, it was easier to lie about it instead. Anonymity allowed many of us to describe fictitious scenarios that seemed back then far more alive and interesting than any of the ones we were really experiencing. I remember parroting words I didn’t understand, writing of the sex I hadn’t had and the drugs I hadn’t used, all in the hopes of painting a picture of a life I at that point in time hoped to lead, or at least felt I ought to lead. They were untruths that could be so easily exposed if spoken out loud, but the internet allowed them to briefly become legit.

It’s a kind of interaction that has become polarizing in the age of social media and personal accounts that link your Instagram with your LinkedIn. Regardless of the panic over corporate ownership of private data in the wake of Cambridge Analytica, online anonymity remains synonymous with trolling, Catfish, or cheating spouses. They’re gross exploitations of a digital life revolving around innocent idealism or exploration, distorting what for the most part were kids merely discovering who they were meant to be. And they appear to be falling even further out of favor.

Craigslist this month purged its personal ads section in response to a new bill that holds sites liable for hosting sex trafficking content – valid in theory, but a move that has been accused of slipping online censorship in through the back door, and by proxy endangering the lives of sex workers. A 2017 study found that female homicide rates fell by 17 percent in the wake of Craigslist founding its “erotic services” section.

It also means a valid, important link to any kind of sexual otherness has been curtailed. While apps have maintained the ability for queer teens to experiment, the closure of their predecessors means that an important gateway has been sealed for those still using the site for anonymous hookups, or alternately beginning to explore a world largely kept under wraps.

Even for those once more reluctant to go all the way, there’s long been an erotic charge to merely scrolling through the adult classifieds, discovering the kinks usually only explored incognito, or recognizing the local landmarks that are apparently occupied by exhibitionists and thrill-seekers after hours.

Nothing opened your eyes to the spectrum of human sexuality faster than a scroll through Craigslist, where users would write of the queer encounters they were hoping to explore, bisexual couples would be on the hunt for a third party, or somebody would be turning their fantasy into reality. Whatever the extent of the ad, we suddenly knew we weren’t alone in wanting something different.

Love, Simon doesn’t venture into such subjects, taking up residence in the cleaner, more wholesome corners of queer self-discovery instead. But it does nod here and there to Simon’s sexual longing, giving the impression that he would be perusing apps and the classifieds (if maybe not using them) were the film to be rated R. Regardless, Simon’s self-actualization through the use of a secret identity, bringing to a wide audience the kind of queer specifics rarely explored in film, will likely be recognized by many.

Where Love, Simon diverges from reality, in that most blissfully fantastical of ways that only a big-budget studio romance can, is in its climax, where online anonymity inevitably evolves into cutesy real-world meetups and making out. For many who found solace in anonymous online interaction, few digital friendships had such cozy endings. Instead emails often wound up unanswered, responses took longer to arrive, and connections drifted.

But for those of us who’ve grown into well-adjusted adults confident enough to live and breathe our true selves IRL, they remain a fond memory, of a time in which excitement and freedom came through the use of an alter ego, and how important it was to be sat up in your bedroom and living vicariously through the fantasies of others, even if just for a moment.

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