I was 14 when I first watched Janelle Monae’s unabashed, unflinching “Q.U.E.E.N.” Although the music video doesn’t make any explicit references to LGBTQ+ identity, its unapologetic flourishing of abnormal selfdom earned it the honor of being deemed “queer,” at least in my eyes. Certainly, it was the dose of queerness that my gay teenage self needed at the time. At last, here was a blackqueer proclamation of freakishness that disavowed efforts to silence with an equal degree of fun and funk. There was nothing like spiting the quiet – and its somewhat less stifling brother, solemnity – with a well-timed declaration that “the booty don’t lie.” I loved it. It was as though Monae was finally giving me the license to be me without any capitulation or accommodation, all the while making sure that I was having fun while I was at it. The line “even if it makes others uncomfortable, I will love who I am” was a defiant assertion that I played back over and over in my head, a rhythm that I kept under my tongue. I didn’t really know who I was, but I now knew that it didn’t really matter. “Would your God accept me in my black and white?” sang Monae, “Would he approve the way I’m made? Or should I reprogram the program and get down?” 

“Q.U.E.E.N” was loud, proud, and queer, so when I first watched Todd Haynes’ “Carol” a couple of years later, I was blessed enough to find it boring. When the film was first released, it was celebrated for its accurate portrayal of queer experience at a time when being gay meant either breathing through a straw or suffocating. It was only Oscar favorites Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara who could capably portray a romance between two women in 1950s New York that was at once subtle and coded and therefore easily stifled once the fire started to burn. The film was delicate and dull, and God, was I blessed: I was steeped in an age where queer art – like that of my beloved Janelle Monae – was just beginning to howl, and I’d nearly forgotten what the quiet felt like. “Carol” was almost unrecognizable to me.

But it was on the nose. It always has been. In an article for The New Inquiry, University of Virginia professor Ashon Crawley adeptly broke down this “silence,” this “ghosting” so characteristic of queer life into its component parts: The first silence is that of friends, family, and acquaintances, which coats our world in a metal casing and linearizes queer existence. It is a blunt unwillingness to acknowledge or address queerness, a decision to pretend that what is deemed disgusting or sinful is simply not there because dwelling on it is too painful and brings no easy answers. It is a “renunciation of the possible in the service of the coherence of normativity.” It is rejection. 

The second silence, the one of “Carol”, is nearly untraceable. It is that of queer desire, which takes place in the hollowed-out centers of our hard-edged reality. It is soft glances, gentle touches, carefully crafted words with double meanings. It is an “intimacy that is unnamed but certainly there, unnamed but certainly happened, unnamed and thus able to be denied at a moment’s notice.” It is an intimacy that functions within shame, within the fear of being found out and having to face the subsequent silence. It is an intimacy that is queer.  

Art, film, and literature has a way of dealing with the silence. On the way back from the movie theater after seeing “Love, Simon”, I had a sudden impulse to listen to “Q.U.E.E.N”. I felt in that moment that it was the antithesis, or rather the antidote, to the film I had just seen, and I wasn’t entirely sure why. It felt wrong to dislike something so pure in purpose. Was I being too picky? Too pessimistic? Why can’t I just take the film for what it was, a significant step forward for LGBTQ+ identity politics? “Love, Simon” is the first mainstream movie with an LGBTQ+ main character, and like its arthouse predecessors (e.g. “The Talented Mr. Ripley," “Brokeback Mountain," “A Single Man," etc.), it engages the silence, but rather than bringing attention to it, the film attempts to dissolve its external layer. 

But in ripping apart the outside casing, the film managed lose the “queerness” contained within. Simon’s coming out may not be on his own terms, but neither is the construction of his own story. The problem with “Love, Simon” is its backwards approach: It attempts to remotely alter our world just enough so that we might squeeze in a mere ounce of queerness, instead of allowing the queer to flourish on its own. The structure is retained, the queerness never claims center stage, and audience leaves the theater with the either bitter (if you’re queer) or paternalistic (if you’re not) implication that a queer person’s happiness and wellbeing is contingent on the world around them. 

That message is painful. Simon’s struggles for self-acceptance and his fear of being the outsider are quickly mitigated by the overwhelming support he receives from family, with so much time being spent on drawing parallels between Simon’s struggles and those of his friends that by the end of it all we know more about the people around Simon rather than Simon himself. These constant attempts to normalize Simon’s identity (even Simon’s first line is a reminder that he’s “just like you”) are disrespectful if not tone deaf. I don’t want the world to normalize me on its own terms, I want to alter it myself. 

And what if I hadn’t been me? What if I’d been 13, 14, 15, the target demographic for this movie? What does it mean if your role as an active player is stripped from you, when you’re told that you must wait for the world to change? When Daniel D’Addario of TIME Magazine claimed that “Love, Simon” was a “fantasyland” unfitting “in a world that’s constantly telling you that you don’t fit in,” he faced backlash from critics who swiftly reaffirmed the film’s romantic message that everyone is deserving of a love story. I have no issue with the film’s idyllic vision, but what “Love, Simon” presents is a straight utopia, not a queer one. Monae raps in “Q.U.E.E.N,” “They add us to equations but they’ll never make us equal,” and her defiant proclamation permits us to ask, at last, Who was “Love, Simon” made for, really?

I view queer art, queer bodies as a conscious and throbbing flow that breaks down and dissolves the silence that baits and extracts us. When we are allowed – and allow ourselves – to throb, our art bears that living force as well as the print of our consciousness, of our individually exacting ways of seeing the world. That art will necessarily overflow. It will necessarily plunder. It will necessarily challenge. We must flow from the inside outward. I had Janelle Monae, but who will we have next? 

When we make queer art for queer young adult audiences, we must make it as queer people, for when we live as ourselves, we allow others to reaffirm themselves by example. The request that I make is not an unreasonable one: in music, we currently see it with Troye Sivan and Hayley Kiyoko. In TV, we see it with Elena (Isabella Gomez) on Netflix’s “One Day at a Time.” When will we ask that of mainstream movie fare, too? When – and how – will we break the silence, and who will be the one filling it with loud, queer noise?