Why 'Call Me by Your Name' Has Earned a Place in Film and LGBTQ History (Guest Column)

Miikka Skaffari/Getty Images (Cruz); Photofest
'Call Me by Your Name'; inset: Wilson Cruz

"Finally, the lived experiences of some gay men is archived for history," writes Wilson Cruz, who plays one half of a gay couple on 'Star Trek: Discovery.'

I’ve always been drawn to love stories. Growing up, I would devour films like MoonstruckGhostLove and Basketball, and Love, Jones, replacing the lovers in my imagination with two men. I’d get lost in the meet-cute, the first time a couple locks eyes onscreen, the “getting to know you" phase, the moment of drama or heartache, and, of course, the happy ever after. I’d allow myself to go on that ride, all the while wondering if a love like theirs was possible for me.

I learned so much about love from the movies. For a couple of hours I would allow myself to dream about love and a life that, for me, ordinarily, felt out of reach. So, it was with deep gratitude that I watched the drama Call Me by Your Name, knowing what a beautiful teacher it would be for boys like me.

What makes this film, which is currently playing in theaters and makes its debut on digital platforms today, so powerful is that the love story — a simple plot involving a chance meeting that mirrors so many other critically acclaimed romance films — is between two men. I watched with a sense of euphoria as a story of love unfurled that reminded me of my own first love, knowing that all over the country and all over the world a young gay or bi man could watch this film and see that a love this profound was possible for him. Praise has seeped in for the film from around the globe from moviegoers straight and gay, man and woman and non-binary, young and old, and all races and ethnicities.

It’s about time that gay love got equal treatment. When I was first starting out in the industry in the early ‘90s, gay love stories were relegated to limited release films that were hidden deep in the back of Blockbuster video stores. Today, Elio and Oliver’s love story is being shown on The Tonight Show, in theaters in middle America, and it’s nominated for best picture at the Oscars.

And it’s not only the film that’s nominated. Timothée Chalamet’s performance is recognized because it is so nuanced, beautifully reflecting the innocence and complexity of gay adolescence and coming to terms with who you are. Elio is not defined by being gay — he’s a fully fleshed out young man who just happens to find love with another man. James Ivory has been honored for his adapted screenplay, and Sufjan Stevens has been honored for his song “Mystery of Love.” He’ll perform that ode to gay love live for the world on Oscar night.

Though Call Me by Your Name takes place in the ‘80s, when our community was savaged by the AIDS crisis and stigma kept closet doors bolted shut, Elio and Oliver’s love story exists in a safe space, a beautiful and fragile place where they don’t face harsh judgment from the people in their lives. Their romance transcends the internalized homophobia both characters grapple with. I found myself overwhelmed by the permission they were granted to simply love each other at a time in our history when we weren’t so sure about our right to love each other, but hung on to every hope that love would always win, as it did for Elio.

And “that monologue” — you know the one I’m talking about — the speech from Elio’s father, played by Michael Stuhlbarg. It is, quite simply, a scene that should be recorded in the record books of cinema history and become required viewing for any father or parent. For so many who have had complicated, and sometimes, painful, experiences coming out to our parents, it was cathartic and healing to hear a father so tenderly and completely embrace his child and use the moment to plead with him to remain ever hopeful and open to love. I sat gobsmacked in a puddle of my own tears, at once saddened I hadn’t had the same experience, and yet gratified to have heard those words and their healing power. It was a life lesson every LGBTQ person should be met with upon coming out to their parent. I have a feeling Mr. Stuhlbarg can look forward to a lifetime of gay men approaching him in the street with tears of gratitude.

The reminders of my own adolescence and coming out were sprinkled throughout the film by director Luca Guadagnino, an out gay man who also has a producer credit and who will take home the coveted trophy should the film win best picture on Oscar night. Guadagnino spoke to so many gay and bi men who viewed the film — using an innocent love story to remind us about our own histories. Finally, the lived experiences of some gay men is archived for history.

There has been criticism that the film is “not gay enough,” but I thought part of the power of the film came from it not taking place at a LGBTQ Pride March. Similarly, I currently play one-half of the first gay couple on TV’s Star Trek: Discovery alongside the talented Anthony Rapp. I play Dr. Culber as doctor and leader, not as a gay doctor and gay leader. I also served as a board member and staff member of GLAAD and still work with the organization to advocate for authentic LGBTQ images in film and TV. Last year, the GLAAD Media Awards only honored two films as nominees in the outstanding film – wide release category: Moonlight and Star Trek. When it came to LGBTQ images onscreen, we were still mostly invisible.

This year, Call Me by Your Name leads a slate of five worthy films nominated at the GLAAD Media Awards. And it’s a love story that doesn’t shy away from provocative scenes and overt sexuality. It doesn’t set out to represent the entire LGBTQ community, nor should it. It is one small story told by a gay director, and I’m hopeful it will inspire more of a beautiful future canon of diverse LGBTQ romances yet to be captured on film.

But I also know this film will inspire young Elios out there — who find themselves drawn to members of the same sex, but are uncertain about how to deal with their feelings. Call Me by Your Name does not have a political agenda. It is not a “cause” film. It is a simple and beautifully shot story about a same-sex relationship that exists in a very tiny Italian village. But young gay, bi and questioning men now have another character, alongside Moonlight’s game-changing Chiron, to relate to, knowing that our love stories can be as powerful, complex and all-consuming as any in Hollywood history.

— Wilson Cruz can be found on Twitter at @wcruz73 and at @glaad.