Queer Screenwriters On Why Inclusive Coming-Of-Age Stories Are Needed Now More Than Ever

HuffPost talked to four writers behind stories centering LGBTQ+ youth of color about why on-screen representation is essential to queer joy.
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"The Half of It," "Pure" and "Love, Victor"
"The Half of It," "Pure" and "Love, Victor"
Illustration: HuffPost; Photos: Netflix/Hulu/Khalea Ross Robinson

In recent years, we’ve seen new takes on the classic genre of the teen coming-of-age rom-com, flipping the script on what were once traditionally cisgender, heterosexual narratives. But even as strides are made depicting queer teen representation on-screen, the United States has taken several steps back.

With the passage of anti-gay mandates and anti-transgender legislation across the nation, the next generation is facing the threat of having to suppress their queerness and stifle their authentic selves. Nearly half of LGBTQ+ youth considered attempting suicide in the past year, according to a survey from the Trevor Project published in May 2022.

Additionally, the report found that “rates of suicide attempts were generally higher among LGBTQ youth of color, and particularly among Native/Indigenous LGBTQ youth — 21% say they attempted suicide in the past year.”

One glimmer of hope: In the survey, respondents listed their sources of joy, many of which came from entertainment: Lil Nas X, BTS and seeing representation of queer youth of color in media.

“In a way, it seems better to grow up in the LGBTQ community now, but at the same time, not so much. Politically, it’s a very difficult time. People can’t say gay in schools, there are all these attacks on trans youth,” said screenwriter and director Natalie Jasmine Harris, whose short film “Pure” premiered on HBO Max.

“Having films that speak to your existence in a way that is happy and joyful can really help remedy if everyday life isn’t always looking like that. It really can help LGBTQ+ youth to see themselves and see that joy, because I know that it’s kind of hard right now when you’re being attacked just for being who you are.”

For HuffPost, four screenwriters talked about creating the stories they wish they had growing up and how crucial it is to depict queer youth of color, front and center, in coming-of-age projects.

Alice Wu

Alice Wu, writer and director of "The Half of It."
Alice Wu, writer and director of "The Half of It."
Netflix

Alice Wu is the producer, director and writer of the 2020 Netflix movie “The Half of It.” The film star Leah Lewis as Ellie Chu, a bright Chinese American student hailing from the quaint town of Squahamish. There, her single widower father works as a station master while she makes extra money doing homework for other students. But the story evolves once resident himbo and jock Paul Munksy (Daniel Diemer) begs Ellie to write love letters to Aster Flores, who she secretly also has a crush on.

Wu, 52, said that growing up in an era where the word “gay” had such a negative connotation, the film was something she had never dared to dream of. Wu, a self-described “very ’90s dyke” who was born in San Jose, California, and bred in New York, came out during her senior year of college.

“I often think that when you come out later in life ... I feel like that next decade is like puberty. What I’ve learned through my life is that we just constantly come of age,” said Wu. “When so much of the world or one’s upbringing is telling you that [queerness] can only lead to tragedy, there’s something important about putting out this content. If I could have had that when I was a lot younger, I probably could have believed a lot sooner that I could genuinely have love in a sustainable way.”

Leah Lewis in "The Half of It."
Leah Lewis in "The Half of It."
KC BaileyNetflix / KC Bailey

In retrospect, Wu said that when she watched heteronormative rom-coms, she often unconsciously self-identified with the role of the male character. However, it was through literature such as “Rubyfruit Jungle” by Rita Mae Brown that she finally felt seen as a lesbian woman. Upon releasing her first film, titled “Saving Face,” in 2005, Wu recalled that the criticism was that it ended happily.

“While I creatively stood behind the fact that I did believe for those characters that could happen, realistically, I understood that it was not something that we commonly necessarily saw or felt in our lives,” Wu said. “I remembered saying at the festival when asked, ‘If I can’t see that on-screen, how can I ever believe I could have that?’”

Wu’s aspiration is that as the genre of queer youth rom-coms expands, creators will be able to tell their stories with specificity and emotional realism. The throughline driving the work that she produces and will continue to produce is fostering human connection.

“For me, all I want at the end of a movie is that their next thought is they really want to call their best friend or mom,” Wu said. “Even if they’re in a theater, they suddenly feel a little more open to connecting with a stranger next to them.”

Natalie Jasmine Harris (She/They)

Natalie Jasmine Harris, director of "Pure."
Natalie Jasmine Harris, director of "Pure."
Desmond Picotte

“Pure” is 12-minute short film about Celeste (Mikayla Bartholomew), a young Black girl who has an epiphany about her sexuality on the eve of her cotillion ball. Cotillions are a tradition that stemmed from the British monarchy, said screenwriter and director Natalie Jasmine Harris, and upper-middle-class Black Americans adapted the practice to train their daughters for marriage and adulthood. Over the course of several months, Black girls learned skills such as fine dining, grooming and ballroom dancing; the training led to a ball, where the debutante would be escorted by a young man as she comes out to society. Hailing from Silver Spring, Maryland, the 24-year-old director said the creation of “Pure” mimics aspects of her own life when she was 17.

“I said no to doing cotillion when I was asked at 17,” Harris said. “So to me, the film is a reimagining of what I wish cotillion could be so that maybe I would feel comfortable doing it.”

While she didn’t have the vocabulary as a teen to pinpoint her discomfort, the heteronormativity of the tradition bothered Harris. Akin to the main character Celeste, the matriarchs in Harris’ family participated in cotillion when they were young. She had tinkered with the idea of creating a coming-of-age and coming-out story centered on a cotillion ball, but it wasn’t until she began writing the screenplay during her senior year at New York University — and diving into her teen diaries and journals — that it materialized.

"Pure."
"Pure."
Khalea Ross Robinson

“I was really inspired by Dee Ree and her journey behind making ‘Pariah,’” said Harris, referring to the coming-of-age story about a lesbian teen in Brooklyn, New York. “That was first a short film, and then a feature length film. I was like, ‘How can I kind of like do that same trajectory with making a short into a feature?’”

Filmed in November 2019, the short film was a success on the indie film festival circuit as early as February 2021. Harris said she was intentional in creating a story that showcased a vision of joy and Black love, as depictions of Black femmes in relationships are often opposite a white partner.

“I really wanted to have a story that can talk about struggles that you’re going through when it comes to sexuality, tradition and family — but also make it happy at the end,” Harris said. “That was really important to me to have the Black girl win and have her find love, even in a story that kind of has some ups and downs.”

Her hope is the film ignites conversation among Black folks in the cotillion community, encouraging them to think critically about the practice and making it more inclusive for LGBTQ+ youth. She also hopes “Pure” serves as a chance for queer youth to see themselves fully, especially in the current sociopolitical climate. “For Black girls, for LGBTQ youth, I hope they walk away with that sense of joy, of seeing themselves, seeing their friends on screen and to know that is possible for you, too.”

Brian Tanen (He/Him)

Brian Tanen, co-showrunner of "Love, Victor."
Brian Tanen, co-showrunner of "Love, Victor."
Courtesy Brian Tanen

Brian Tanen is one of the executive producers of the Hulu series “Love, Victor,” a television spinoff of the popular 2018 film “Love, Simon,” created by Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger. With the final season of the dramedy streaming now, Michael Cimino plays Victor Salazar, a closeted gay Puerto Rican and Colombian American teen from Texas who moves to a new city after his father gets a new job. Hoping for a fresh start as a new student at Creekwood High School in Atlanta, Georgia, he begins grappling with his sexuality — and reaches out online to famed school celebrity Simon for help.

Tanen said that he came to the project as a fan.

“There had been legitimate criticism of the film being a sort of idealized and very white-centered coming-out experience,” said Tanen. “Television would provide an opportunity to tell a coming-out journey that was more complicated, more nuanced, to show a different family with different pressures.”

The series infuses the personal experiences of the many queer screenwriters of color behind “Love, Victor,” from one parent being more supportive than another to Simon initially dating a female classmate, which Tanen did as a teen.

"Love, Victor."
"Love, Victor."
Hulu

As queer content was limited for Tanen, who grew up in Miami, he gravitated toward shows and films with queer subtext, like “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” But now, he’s able to tell romantic stories from a gay lens. Members of the “Love, Victor” writers room talked to queer youth in Los Angeles about their experiences navigating sexuality in high school. For some, they were the first out queer couple at their school, while for others, there was a strong, well-supported LGBTQ+ presence.

“We got a sense that ‘coming out’ is still sort of a big deal. As we told the story, the political climate has kind of shifted recently,” Tanen said. “It feels especially important to tell a story like this right now, in a world where the Florida state government is trying to make a queer topic somehow ‘controversial’ or not for kids.”

He hopes that as the queer coming-of-age canon progresses, there will be more depictions of the community and queer youth along the spectrum. Tanen also hopes that the onus of telling these stories will not merely lie on the shoulders of queer creators, but that straight creators will be challenged to do the same.

In addition, he wants “Love, Victor” to show that being your authentic self can make your life infinitely better.

“Victor had this fear that coming out would make everything worse, that it would make his life somehow harder. I think it’s a fear that a lot of queer young people had and I certainly had,” said Tanen. “When in fact, pretty much every element of my life that’s good has been enhanced by being my authentic self. Being gay isn’t just something to accept. It’s something to be proud of and to celebrate.”

Sammi Cohen (She/They)

Sammi Cohen
Sammi Cohen
Sela Shiloni

Los Angeles native Sammi Cohen, 33, is the architect behind rom-com “Crush,” starring Rowan Blanchard, Auli’i Cravalho and Isabelle Ferreira. Released in April on Hulu, the story centers on lesbian teen art prodigy Paige Evans (Blanchard) who is forced to join the track team after accusations of being the local campus graffiti vandal. When she becomes teammates with her longtime crush, Gabriela Campos (Isabelle Ferreira), and her bisexual sister, AJ Campos (Auli’i Cravalho), an unexpected love triangle ensues.

”As a queer kid in the closet, it’s the kind of movie that I really desperately needed growing up,” Cohen said. “And something that would have been pretty big for me, something I always wanted, and normalizing the queer experience in a way, telling real, human stories.”

At home, Paige is supported by her single mother Angie (Megan Mullally), who is a painstakingly and hilariously well-meaning ally. At school, Paige is an openly queer student and encouraged by her best friends, lovebirds and class president candidates Stacey and Dillon, to go after who and what she wants. Cohen said that growing up, most stories featuring queer characters were rooted in their trauma, ostracization or ridicule — whereas Paige is just another student at Miller High.

Auli'i Cravalho and Isabella Ferreira in "Crush."
Auli'i Cravalho and Isabella Ferreira in "Crush."
Brett Roedel/Hulu

“We need to continue to see more LGBTQ+ characters whose stories embody different aspects of the human experience and really contain multitudes,” Cohen said. “Being gay isn’t the singular thing about you. It’s exciting and important to make movies and tell stories that project a world where you can be queer and happy.”

The 1991 film “Fried Green Tomatoes” and the depiction of Idgie Threadgoode was one of the first and most memorable instances in which Cohen felt represented in media.

“It was the first time I was like, ‘Oh, my God, it’s me.’ There’s no feeling like it in the world,” she said. “It’s a breath of fresh air, and you’re not having to map your experiences to someone who doesn’t look or feel like you just to relate to the storyline.”

That feeling is something she hoped to replicate with “Crush” as it stars Cravalho, who is Pacific Islander, and Ferreira, who is Latina, as queer women of color.

“Even within the queer landscape, there are so many unique experiences and lenses. But the journey to get there, the background you’re coming from, there’s so much nuance to it. It was important to also have the ‘Crush’ world reflect the real world today, and that means being inclusive in a really real authentic way.”

Dedicating the film to the “baby queers,” Cohen hopes people feel seen and celebrated.

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