Love, Simon meets the Cass Sexual Identity Formation Model
Updated: Nov 6, 2020
Coming out … for the first time … to your best friend … to your parents …
If you’ve ever had to think about, let alone actually do it, these words probably set off some butterflies in your stomach and raise your heart rate.
Or maybe you've been on the receiving end of a disclosure from a friend or a sibling or a child. Hearing something perhaps suspected or maybe out of the blue. Anxiety and awkwardness leaving you perplexed as you search for the best words to respond.
Add memories of High school into the mix and, like me, you could be reaching for the paper bag with all that hyperventilating.
Yet despite the idea of coming out giving me the nervous sweats I’m always drawn to films and books that depict these stories.
How is this person going to manage it?
How was it for me and what does this person’s experience tell me about my own.
I’m trepidatious too.
Will they be ok? And as the viewer (or reader) will I be OK?
Safe to say my trepidation was set aside viewing Love, Simon – a warm, gentle, at times cheesy take on coming out. This movie has definitely made it’s way to cult classic for me. It’s full of symbolism, humour, warmth, and relatable content – regardless if you’re straight or gay or in between.
Watching it I wanted to explore this journey of sexual orientation identity formation and the process people take from awareness of same sex attraction in a heteronormative world to acceptance and expression of this identity.
Using Vivian Cass’ Sexual Orientation Identity Formation Model we’ll break down the stages and apply them to the film to explore how relatable this model is, or isn’t, to a modern day coming out story.
Based on Becky Albertalli’s young adult novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda (great title BTW Becky!) the film Love, Simon, released in 2018 and directed by Greg Berlanti, is a coming of age (and coming out) love story about high schooler Simon Spiers (played by 'straighty 180' Nick Robinson) and his online anonymous love interest ‘Blue’. On discovering Simon’s secret gay identity Martin (Logan Miller) blackmails Simon into setting him up with the unattainable Abby (Alexandra Shipp) leading to a chain reaction of events resulting in Simon being outed to the school online, his friends disowning him (temporarily) and Blue blocking him.
We ride the emotional roller coaster with Simon as he comes to terms with his identity, navigating friendships and chasing love. In an elaborate, all-or-nothing, romantic gesture Simon, under the pen-pal name 'Jacques', invites Blue to the carnival to join him on the Ferris wheel. It’s a hold-your-breath moment but like his classmates there cheering him on, so are we. And we’re not disappointed when Blue arrives (at the last moment) finally outing himself as Bram (the gorgeous Keiynan Lonsdale).
They share a Ferris wheel ride and a kiss as everything comes full circle.
Love, Simon has generally been well received and with good reason. For some hard hitting and emotional content it’s pretty warm and gentle. I definitely had the ‘warm and fuzzies’ after watching. Here’s what I think it did and didn't do well:
It was chock-full of gorgeous visual symbolism and was enriched with circular themes.
The story begins and ends in much the same way - with Simon picking up his friends on the way to school. In the beginning we get clunky, dorky, clutsy Simon, trying to hit on the gardener across the road. But in the end we get confident, settled, accepted Simon whose friends make room for his new boyfriend in the car and add his coffee order to the daily pick up.
The Ferris wheel was a great visual symbol in the film – it held status in the story line for Blue and Jacques as well as providing hidden meaning.
For me the Ferris wheel represented the constant turning of time.
Life, moving ever forward.
Whether we’re ready or not.
And we know Simon doesn’t feel ready to come out – he's:
“not ready for my whole life to change”
He wants to put it off to college – where we get this somewhat fascinating fast forward to what Simon imagines ‘gay life’ in college to be like … and to be honest it didn't seem all that gay (a criticism of the film overall). A Whitney Houston song, a rainbow flag and some dancing (I use the term loosely!) in a montage does not make it ‘gay’ especially if our protagonist isn't embracing it ... sorry Whitney.
But in the film, as so often in life, the choice to come out is taken away from Simon and he’s forced to push ahead. I loved that they used the Ferris wheel as the meeting point for Blue and Jacques' rendezvous. It tied in with Blue’s email to Jacques where he said:
“Sometimes I think I'm stuck on a Ferris wheel. One minute I'm on top of the world the next I'm at rock bottom.”
It’s the perfect meeting spot for our lovers, adding some beautiful suspense at the final story arc, allowing privacy so we can finally see them interact face to face, whilst providing space for their peers to cheer them on. A heart warming scene.
There's a lot of funny moments in the film but they also seem distracting. We get the most comedy from the caricature school faculty. Principal Worth (Tony Hale) gives us a great, albeit embellished, parody of a middle aged man clinging to youth. And I think we all could have used a Ms Albright (hilariously played by Natasha Rothwell) during high school.
But whilst I enjoyed their performances I wondered how relevant they were to the film? They definitely added warmth and light moments and proved some points around homophobia and bullying (I mean that lunchroom scene!). But did the humour detract from the message? For me, a little bit. I think the audience was ready for some harder hitting scenes. Retaining the humour kept the ethos of the film light and fluffy but a few less giggles and a bit more grit wouldn't have hurt.
(Sidebar: we will definitely be doing some
Golden Girls blogs in the near future)
The biggest criticism of the film has been that for a movie with a gay plot and main character it's just ... not that gay. Personally I wasn't too bothered by this. As we'll explore below it's pretty normal for high schoolers questioning their sexual orientation to engage in behaviour more reflective of their straight counterparts. The exception in this film is Ethan (Clarke Moore) who expresses himself as he likes and stands up to his bullies fiercely. This is heavily juxtaposed with Simon, desperately clutching onto his heterosexual public identity, who even says (about Ethan getting bullied):
"I wish Ethan wouldn’t make it so easy for them"
Keeping in mind this is the FIRST major film with a main gay character and plot I think we have to be realistic to our expectations around how much producers will be willing to challenge the heteronormative envelope (considering heterosexuals are always going to be your main audience statistically speaking).
The real shock should be that it took until 2018 for this type of a movie to be made at this level.
And now let's turn our attention to the juicy stuff. How does coming out actually work? and what happens in the crucial stages beforehand? To help us work it all out we're going to apply Cass' Model to Simon's journey - implementing theory to practice to illustrate an example.
Vivian Cass, an Australian psychologist (great to celebrate a fellow Aussie’s work) developed a theory of sexual identity formation for same sex attracted people in the 1970’s. Basically the model spells out the different steps that people take from realising they are same sex attracted to accepting, promoting, and integrating this into their daily lives. It was originally titled the Homosexual Identity Formation Model - we’ll have to excuse the name, given the era it was created, and look past that to the theory itself which has 6 stages. We’ll apply these stages to this film to see how the theory stands up and where Simon and his fellow peers sit.
But before we get into that, to give some context to the theory, we’ll let you know about some of it’s pros and draw backs. It’s been around for a while which has given researchers and theorists lots of time to apply and critique it.
And it sure has gotten some critiques in its time. Here’s a few:
It’s from the 1970’s – as the former name suggests it’s a bit dated. In my opinion old doesn’t mean bad but the model could do with a spruce up to reflect more current language and diverse orientations.
It’s not inclusive enough – the model only explores gay and lesbian identity formation (and some have argued that even lesbian identity formation might follow a different track altogether). The model doesn’t account for more diverse identities like bisexuality, pansexuality or gender identities like trans identity. Also, the model has really only been tested on gay white men and women and there’s definitely more opportunity for it to be applied to people of colour to see if aspects like minority stress and culture fit within the current framework.
It’s a linear model - Cass argues some people stop at certain stages and never get to the end and there’s little room for regression which I think is short sighted. Some people might make it to Stage 6 during their adult life but head back down to Stage 3 depending on environmental factors, e.g. change in work place, moving into a nursing home, etc. Also, a linear model suggests that someone should get to the end for success. Everyone's journey is different. I've met clients at each of the different stages. Some are quite comfortable and have no desire to move forward whereas others need help to move through the model to feel self-actualised.
It doesn’t include adjustment to identity if outed – how do people cope if the choice between moving stages is taken away from them by someone else? I can’t wait to explore how Simon goes moving through the model under his less than ideal circumstances.
Despite the critiques the model still has value. It’s the most applied model that defines the progression of gay identity that there is and all other models follow similar, if not shorter, trajectories. We still live in a heterosexist society, i.e. it’s the norm and expectation that everyone is heterosexual, leading to the importance of a model of identity formation when you sit outside the norm.
So! Now that we know a bit more about the model and it's history let’s define the stages and explore how they do, or don’t, apply to Simon and his peers throughout the film.
Pre-stage: We’re all straight right?
Stage Breakdown: Cass defined a Pre-Stage which stipulates we all think we’re straight until this is challenged by our thoughts, feelings or behaviour. So basically heteronormativity at it's finest. Straight is the ‘norm’ and gay is the minority.
Film: We don’t really get a glimpse of this in the film - from the get go we know that Simon is at least same sex attracted, if not quite comfortable with this realisation yet. But the Pre-Stage is important as it really sets the tone as to why it might be difficult for Simon to come out once he’s accepted himself. Simon, like us, lives in a heterosexist world. And the film sets up this really well with the 'cookie cutter' nuclear family mold – it uses lots of family kitchen time, family dinners, family handy cam videos, and lots of jibes and jokes from dad that reinforces the heterosexist, if not homophobic, nature of the world and what Simon risks as he explores his minority status within it.
Stage 1: Identity Confusion: Who am I???
Stage Breakdown: So this is the first stage – the questioning stage. Here the person realises through their thoughts, feelings or behaviours that they may not be so straight after all. This is usually pretty difficult as it challenges that pre-existing belief that we’re all straight.
Film: We’re granted access to this stage through the film when Simon is reflecting on when he first knew he was gay. He’s lying in bed and fantasizing about Harry Potter. We know he’s struggling here because despite his curiosity he ends up ripping the poster down to divert his gaze.
Stage 2: Identity Comparison: The lonely bit
Stage Breakdown: In the second stage the person is more accepting of their same sex attraction and identity as gay or lesbian and the reality of this is sinking in. They normally feel alienated, a gay in a heterosexist world, and their differences from their heterosexual peers is usually seeming more apparent.
Film: This is where we really meet Simon. He knows he’s gay. He’s in the closet. In his opening line he tells us “I’m just like you” – but on reflection I wonder if this is a genuine belief vs. a cry to fit in (and again in circular symbolism this line repeats itself throughout the movie as Simon progresses through the stages). He’s not ready for his world to change and, this is important, despite his supportive friends and family and knowing that it will probably be OK (come college at least) he’s not ready. Which brings us to…
Stage 3: Identity Tolerance: I got my all my sisters and me
Stage Breakdown: With increasing self acceptance, in this stage, the person seeks out connections with gay peers to reduce isolation and alienation from the straight world. This usually has social, emotional and sexual motivations. Connections with the gay world are likely not to be so ideal – they’re born out of a desire to connect and engage with other gay people (regardless of who they might be) but importantly this engagement is usually secretive and separate form the person's straight world. In this sense the person is walking the tight rope between their straight and public identity vs their gay and closeted one.
Film: Blue and Simon definitely progress through this stage in the film. Blue and Jacques share their gay secret with each other but continue to hide their private identities. We see Simon seek out, albeit unsuccessfully, other gay (or questionable) peers throughout the film – from the gardener across the street, to the piano player in the musical, to the server at the café, and eventually with Ethan – even though it took him being outed to do so. He doesn’t seek out openly gay Ethan as a peer initially because in some ways establishing a friendship with Ethan risks exposing his identity by association.
Stage 4: Identity acceptance: Opening the closet door
Stage Breakdown: So here the person moves not only from accepting themselves to telling others about it … well, a select few at least. In this stage we expect to see increased self-acceptance and comfortability with being gay, enough so to tell a few chosen friends and family about it. There’s usually more interactions with the gay community and the tight rope walk between gay and straight tends to shift towards the gay world and ‘passing’ in the straight one.
Film: This stage is fast-tracked for Simon in the film when he’s viciously outed by Martin. Although Simon does make a selective choice in coming out to Abby (and we’re comforted by her normalising reaction and support) Simon’s hand is really forced by Martin's actions.
The most poignant disclosure in the film must be Simon coming out to his parents and again reinforces him wanting to stop that ever turning wheel. He tells them:
“I'm gay … And I don’t want you guys to think anything different. I’m still me “
And their reactions are warming, accepting and unique to their own individuality and vulnerabilities. I loved that they left time to deal with Mum (Jennifer Garner) and Dad (Josh Duhamel) separately. It felt more realistic that Dad fumbled through the disclosure with bad jokes and difficulty and that there was time after for processing.
For me, Mum explaining her interpretation of what was going on for Simon was the best scene in the film:
Simon : Did you know?
Emily : I knew you had a secret. When you were little, you were so carefree. But these last few years, more and more, it's almost like I could feel you holding your breath. I wanted to ask you about it, but I didn't want to pry. Maybe I made a mistake.
Simon : No. No, mum, you didn't make a mistake.
Emily : Being gay is your thing. There are parts of it you have to go through alone. I hate that. As soon as you came out, you said, "Mum, I'm still me." I need you to hear this: You are still you, Simon. You are still the same son who I love to tease and who your father depends on for just about everything. And you're the same brother who always compliments his sister on her food, even when it sucks. You get to exhale now, Simon. You get to be more you than you have been in... in a very long time. You deserve everything you want.
And for Dad the realisation and ownership of all the bad jokes and jibes, as well as his acceptance and reliance on Simon, was beautiful to watch.
Parents of young gay kids take note! There's no perfect response - but supporting, reassuring unconditional love, and acknowledging and owning any past or current homophobia and heterosexism is a pretty good start. Make some space for that exhale for them and for you.
Stage 5: Identity Pride: I’m here and I’m queer
Stage Breakdown: So now that the person is self-accepting and disclosing to others they go on to develop loyalty to the gay community and a sense of pride in their gay identity. This can lead to an 'Us (gays) vs. Them (straights)' mentality with expressions of anger and acting out behaviour to counter heterosexism and homophobia.
Film: We don’t get a lot of Simon in this stage. I think the best example is where he googles how to dress like a gay guy and models clothes in front of the mirror – some evidence of conforming to community expectations and allowing himself to be seen as gay by others. He also defends his gay identity at times after being outed. We see this when his sister reassures him that the social media post outing him has been taken down and Simon says:
Simon: It’s true. I’m gay.
Sister: You could deny it?
Simon: I’m not ashamed of it!
Unlike Simon we definitely get a lot of Ethan at the Pride stage – he vehemently confronts his bullies, dresses as he pleases, and hangs out with his girl group despite the bullying he receives. He delivers some of the funnier lines in the film – having refined his wit as a defence response to homophobic bullying, a pretty classical feature of this stage. And whilst he makes it look effortless he shares some insights with Simon, as they wait to receive their apology from their bullies in the principle's office, that despite his public gay identity he’s not as supported at home as Simon is e.g Ethan's mum lying to his grandparents about all the girls he’s dating.
Whilst the film revolves around Simon it’s hard to ignore Ethan and in some ways Ethan’s experience seems a bit more realistic. Ethan gets bullied, his home life is less 'cookie-cutter' in contrast to Simon's, and he’s a person of colour potentially adding levels of minority stress to his situation. Ethan is also more flamboyant and femme and I’m glad there was some representation of this in the film because we get very little of this from our protagonist who is doing everything in his power to tow the heteronormative line. There's no right or wrong way to be gay but Ethan shows that it’s OK to embrace a bit of gay culture and in the first major movie of its kind this representation definitely enriched the film for me.
Stage 6: Identity Synthesis: Everything comes full circle
Stage Breakdown: The final stage of the model really merges the person’s private and public identities into one. The person is able to see, accept and present themselves as gay but recognises that being gay is only one facet of their identity – being gay is part of them but not all of them. To achieve this stage Cass argues that the person’s view of the 'Us vs. Them' dichotomy seen in the previous stage is challenged by positive experiences with straight people, e.g. a supportive family, and is no longer sustainable.
Film: It all comes beautifully full circle for Simon as far as synthesis goes at the end of film. In a nice cinematic way – we start and end in the same place, with Simon picking up his friends in his car.
But instead of the awkward Simon, from the start of the film, we get confident Simon with Bram, their relationship integrated and normalised into their friendship group as they head on to their next adventure. We’re definitely left with a sense that Simon has been accepted by his friends and family, that he’s open about his relationship with Bram and that he’s comfortable.
He’s gay and that’s OK because
“I’m just like you”.
He’s reached identity synthesis.
Summary and Ratings
Overall I think Love, Simon is a hit. It left my heart feeling warm and cozy. And whilst yes, it could have been more realistic, more intense, and definitely could have have pushed the boundaries around queer representation, it was definitely a good starting point for future, queer-focused, mainstream media. Simon's journey fit well within Cass' model and I think it still holds relevance today. It would benefit from further application to people of colour and diverse sexuality and gender identities as well as accounting for the many external features and systems in people's lives that impact on their capacity and choice to live an authentic identity.
Heart warming and feel good. If you haven't seen it do yourself a favour - you won't be dissapointed. For me this was 4/5.
A great exploration of the struggles young people go through, even in the most supported circumstances, to accept their gay identity and share it with their loved one. There's also a TV series out now so if you're like me and looking for something to binge why not check it out and see if you can apply the Cass Model yourself.
For Mum's response to Simon's coming out alone this gets 4/5.
Sources and additional reading
Cass VC. Homosexual identity formation: Testing a theoretical model. The Journal of Sex Research; 1984, 20(2):143-167.
Haley Jr JH. Love Simon as a modern, gay coming-of-age narrative: A new point of contention and engagement for queer and popular culture. Cinesthesia; 2018, 9(1).
Kennedy DA, Oswalt SB. Is Cass' model of homosexual identity formation relevant to today's society? American Journal of Sexuality Education; 2014, 9:229-246.
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Disclaimer: All material posted is the author's opinion and should not take the place of tailored advice, unique to your situation, from a medical or healthcare professional. Where information is sourced elsewhere it is referenced in the source list. All images and gifs are sourced through wix.com and the author's private photo collection unless otherwise stated.