How My Trans Daughter Taught Us That Queer Rom-Coms Are The Best Rom-Coms

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Queer Rom-Coms

“They don’t ever need to make any more straight rom coms,” my 17-year-old told me. “It’s enough.”

The kids these days: they are harsh. But fair.

My daughter is trans and nonbinary (he/she/they), and most of her friends are also trans or queer, and they are all sick of heterosexual romance stories in which Hugh Grant (or the equivalent) meets Julia Roberts (or the equivalent) and heterosexual heterosexing commences. 

So over the last year, as we’ve been stuck inside contemplating the pandemic and our navels, we’ve tried to watch some cheerful fluffy romantic comedies in which it’s not just boys and girls, but boys and boys, or girls and girls, or various other permutations. 

This hasn’t been a hardship — my wife is bi and nonbinary, and has been reading gay romance detective stories for some time. Still, as the boring cishet dad, I was surprised to discover just how right my daughter was. I like straight rom-coms well enough (Bringing Up Baby 4evah!) But queer rom-coms really do tend to be better.

Rom-coms can be fairly formulaic. You have your meet-cute, you have your getting to know each other build-up, you have your third act break up, you have the reconciliation with some public declaration, often in a transportation hub. When I’m in an airport, I tend to wish for death and better dining options, but Hollywood writers hear, “flight delay and uncomfortable chairs” and think, “romance!” I don’t know why.

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Queer rom-coms aren’t immune to the odd allure of airports (see the conclusion of 2004's Saving Face).

Still, because they have a smaller audience, or perhaps just because all those old rom-coms weren’t quite directed at queer people in the first place, queer rom-coms are often willing to scramble the tropes in interesting ways. 

As a result, though you’re still guaranteed a happy ending in a queer rom-com, you don’t always know exactly how you’re going to get there. Imagine Me & You (2005), for example, starts with the wedding — and then the marriage unravels as our protagonist realizes she’s actually in love with the flower girl. In the wonderful The Half of It (2020), the happily-ever-after involves lots of love but doesn’t include any of the protagonists starting to date each other. In The Wedding Banquet (1993) the wedding and climactic sex scene are between the wrong people; the drama and the comedy are in sorting that out.

And then there’s But I’m a Cheerleader (1999), which follows the normal plot beats, but whose tone is extreme camp. A young Natasha Lyonne is sent off to a reorientation retreat by her very Christian parents. Girls wear pink and are taught to vacuum, and boys wear blue and are taught to fix cars and clutch their crotches in a masculine manner. The movie is an over-the-top satire of the way that romance enforces gender roles, complete with practice sex scenes with everyone wearing literal fig leaves. And then it celebrates romance that (metaphorically) tears the fig leaves off, and goes in other less conventionally-validated directions.

Another important advantage of queer rom coms is that they can have believable conflict while still engaging your sympathy for both protagonists.

Once straight rom coms get their leads together, they often have to scramble to figure out why the movie doesn’t just end there. You’re in love, you’re in love, go be in love together! What’s the problem? A common way of resolving this is to make one of the leads — generally the guy — into a horrible person. Sometimes the man will cheat, and the woman has to forgive him, as in 1992’s Boomerang or 1989’s Tall Guy. Or else the two leads just have incredibly poor communication skills, which leads you to wonder whether they should ever have been together in the first place. Netflix's Bridgerton miniseries is an example here. (It also, rather horrifically, expects you to give the female lead a pass on a sexual assault.)

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Again, queer rom coms aren’t completely immune to these problems. Harper (Mackenzie Davis) in 2020’s Happiest Season is clearly a nightmare closeted control freak and Abby  (Kristin Stewart) should clearly run away from her as quickly as possible. Ideally into the arms of Aubrey Plaza.  

Queer people, though, still and in many communities face serious social stigma. Protagonists can be unsure of their love, or of how or whether to pursue it, without being commitment-phobes or assholes. In Imagine Me & You, Rachel (Piper Perabo) is married when she realizes she’s a lesbian. It makes sense that it takes the length of a movie, at least, for her to resolve her feelings and commit to Luce (Lena Headey.)

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Similarly, in Saving Face, Wil (Michelle Krusiec) is reluctant to be seen in public with her girlfriend Vivien (Lynn Chen.) But it’s not hard to understand why she’s leery of doing so given her mother’s intense homophobic reaction when Wil tries to come out.

Big Eden (2000) doesn’t focus on homophobia; it’s set in a kind of semi-mythical Montana, in which everyone in rural America is enthusiastic about queer romance. But even so, the knowledge of stigma makes the lead’s shyness, and eventual connection, feel less like stalling, and more like a triumph. It has taken a long time for gay romances to be even provisionally accepted. So it feels right when a movie takes a little while to bring its gay lovers together.

Not every queer rom-com is great. My daughter hated Boy Meets Girl (2014), one of the few trans rom-coms ever filmed, for the reasons that one generally hates rom coms: the guy is kind of a jerk and you feel like the girl isn’t actually going to be happy.

But the fact remains that when you acknowledge a broader range of romance, you end up with more stories to tell and more ways to tell them. That’s something everyone can love.

Not every single queer rom-com is going to be great but acknowledging the range of romance gives us all more stories of romance to tell. That’s something everyone can love.

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Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer. He lives in Chicago.