At first glance, Matthew of “Big Mouth,” Netflix’s adult animated series about puberty, appears to be a gay stereotype, a queer foil off which the more important characters can play. He’s flamboyant, snarky and judgmental, even running a tabloid-like morning gossip broadcast at school.
But in its most recent two seasons the show has smartly expanded Matthew’s story line, depicting the life of a precocious queer adolescent who has a propensity for the dramatic and is almost entirely out of the closet. (The lone exception being what Matthew defines as the “don’t ask, don’t tell” détente between him and his father.)
In Season Three, which premiered this month, Matthew (voiced by Andrew Rannells) even pursues his first same-sex romantic relationship, with Aiden (Zachary Quinto), who is the same age. Matthew frets about Aiden with Maury the Hormone Monster — a character who embodies each child’s confused pubescent impulses — but the pair eventually become, well, a pair. Their relationship is quite sweet: Awkward courtship takes place over FaceTime; the two kiss for the first time after Matthew coyly yet confidently slides his hand into Aiden’s while an unimportant movie playing on a nearby laptop fades into the background.
I’m a gay man in my early 20s, so Matthew’s story line caught my attention, namely because his experience differs so substantially from my own lived analog. My queer friends and I all came out in our late teens or as adults and openly pursued our first same-sex relationships only in adulthood. This, queer people will tell you, is fairly standard. For L.G.B.T.Q. adults, Matthew’s subplot offers a glimpse into the childhood we didn’t have. But for those queers who will follow us, Matthew evinces hope.
Despite hailing from a progressive family and growing up in New York City, I didn’t come out as gay until I was 20. My fears of coming out were not of my family or friends disowning me, but of the promised societal sea change, a tidal wave of sorts I assumed would wipe out the structures upon which my most important relationships had been constructed and relied. Such a storm, I thought, would destroy these foundations. And if their post-coming-out reconstruction failed, certain hallowed relationships would be lost.
These fears were overblown, with no relationship loss coming to fruition, but similar anxiety appears anecdotally common among L.G.B.T.Q. youth.
In his piece on gay male loneliness, the HuffPost reporter Michael Hobbes briefly discussed James, an 18-year-old New Yorker who grew up in “a big, affectionate, liberal family,” “went to a public school with openly gay kids” and still has a story similar to mine: “James had convinced himself that he would never come out.”
“He knew rationally that everything was going to be fine,” said James’s uncle Perry Halkitis, who is gay and a professor at New York University. “But being in the closet isn’t rational, it’s emotional.”
This irrationality is perhaps why a 2013 Pew Research Center survey of L.G.B.T.Q. adults found that the median age at which respondents who had come out to family and friends did so was 20.
Most queer adults did not openly explore our sexuality as adolescents, instead secretly experimenting with same-sex partners, if at all. Most — myself included — did not engage in a healthy age-appropriate public relationship like Matthew and Aiden’s. (Queer people often overcompensate for this lack of experience as adults by behaving with the rebelliousness of adolescence: “When your teenage years aren’t yours to live, you’ll act like a teenager when you’re 30,” writes Tori Truscheit.)
Matthew’s character arc subsequently struck me as fantastical: Would a gay kid in 2019 really be so comfortable? Would he really be dating?
My cynicism was misplaced. The age at which queer people come out has continued to decline, dropping to the early or midteens. In 2015, San Francisco State University’s Family Acceptance Project reported that the average age for coming out was “a little over 13.”
Queer kids are coming out at younger ages because L.G.B.T.Q. people have increasingly normalized our identities, solidifying our place in society and subsequently mitigating some youth anxiety. In many (but not all) communities, there are fewer repercussions for coming out than there once were.
I began to further grasp the mainstreaming of queerness while listening to a recent episode of the sportswriter Bill Simmons’s podcast featuring Nick Kroll, one of the creators and stars of “Big Mouth.”
Mr. Simmons’s 11-year-old son, Ben, is an avid “Big Mouth” fan and interviewed Mr. Kroll near the end of the episode. The pair discussed the show, addressing its portrayal of sexuality — namely Jay, a bisexual character. (The elder Mr. Simmons and Mr. Kroll also discussed Ali, a pansexual character who has received mixed reviews.)
Jay’s bisexuality and Matthew’s open gayness sparked no disdain from this 11-year-old — an age at which my peers and I, blind to the importance of rhetoric, bandied about terms like “gay” and “faggot” for failures as minimal as losing a Madden NFL video game. These slurs, I gladly realized this past summer while moonlighting as a coach for the high school football team on which I used to play, are substantially less employed now than they were even a few years ago.
This all indicates to me that our imperfect world is becoming increasingly friendly to queer kids, allowing them, like Matthew, to come out earlier and pursue the relationships to which they are entitled.
For these younger queers, Matthew’s story line offers a road map, a necessary how-to guide. But for queer adults, whether they be millennials like myself or older, “Big Mouth” presents a glimpse into the childhood we did not have — but one in which those who follow us will rightfully revel.
Charles Dunst (@CharlesDunst) is a journalist based in London.
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