Opinion writer

(Credit: Paramont Pictures)

There are a lot of ways to define a generation: the range of years into which you were born, major news events like the assassination of a president or an attack on American soil, or the introduction of a technological innovation like the car or the smartphone. Another is the pace of social change. Among the many things that I think distinguish people my age — I’m 32 — is the victories the movements for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender equality have racked up in our lifetimes. We witnessed the passage of the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 and the state-by-state spread of marriage equality across the country culminating in a 2015 Supreme Court decision. We saw the aftermath of Matthew Shepard’s 1998 murder and the expansion of LGBT representation in pop culture, from “Modern Family” to “Moonlight.”

In that context, I’ve been thinking a lot about “In & Out,” Frank Oz’s 1997 movie about Howard Brackett (Kevin Kline), a midwestern English teacher who is outed — even to himself — after a former student (Matt Dillon) credits him as an inspiration at the Academy Awards.  The plot was inspired by Tom Hanks’ 1994 shout-out to Rawley Farnsworth and John Gilkerson, respectively his high school drama teacher and former classmate, “two of the finest gay Americans, two wonderful men that I had the good fortune to be associated with,” when he won best actor for his performance in “Philadelphia“:

Released 20 years ago today, “In & Out” feels both like a slightly embarrassing artifact of its time and an ultimately correct argument for how (lots if not all of) America would change in the decades since its release.

When “In & Out” begins, Howard is a beloved pillar of his community who is finally set to marry his long-suffering fiancée, Emily Montgomery (Joan Cusack) when beloved hometown boy Cameron Drake (Dillon) tells a national audience that Howard is gay (unlike Hanks, who checked in with Farnsworth and Gilkerson before his acceptance speech, Cameron is going on instinct). Drake’s declaration sets off a shockwave throughout the town. Emily is (understandably) rattled. Howard’s parents (Debbie Reynolds and Wilford Brimley) want to be reassured that he’s straight. His friends awkwardly try to reaffirm his heterosexuality. His students (Lauren Ambrose, Zak Orth and Shawn Hatosy) are confused. And his principal (Bob Newhart) fears a scandal. Meanwhile, an enterprising TV journalist, Peter Malloy (Tom Selleck) has come to town intent on proving that Howard really is gay, and landing the scoop that will revive his flagging career.

Here’s the point where I pause and note that if “In & Out” were released today, it would be drowned in an actual flood of think pieces. Most of them would focus on the fact that the movie treats Howard’s fondness for Barbra Streisand, his neat appearance, his dance moves and even his slightly limp wrist as irrefutable proof of his sexual orientation. They might also go on to note the fact that though Howard eventually realizes that he is gay, these cultural signs are literally the only clue that Howard himself has to his sexual orientation; the extended smooch Peter plants on him appears to be the first time Howard has real sexual feelings for anyone at all. This isn’t even to mention the fact that “In & Out,” being a comedy, depicts homophobia only in its mildest form, suggesting that bigotry can be overcome with the application of just a little mild social disapprobation.

And yet, despite these potential objections, I still love “In & Out” for its wicked humor and prescient optimism. The movie skewered everyone: do-good Hollywood liberals who were more interested in signalling their own virtue than in the actual lives of the people they’re using as symbols; prudish administrators who worried that gay teachers would some how mysteriously “turn” their students; coastal liberals who insist that coming out is no big deal and are eager to shove other people out of the closet for their own gain; parents who are desperate for their children to have cookie-cutter weddings; and hucksters who insisted they could cure people of their homosexuality.

Despite all of that, though, “In & Out” is a fundamentally kind comedy, one that argues that everyone is capable of adapting to new realities and that everyone is better off for being honest. Getting married to Emily might have been what everyone expected Howard to do, but it wouldn’t have been good for him or Emily, much less for Howard’s parents to invest in an unsustainable relationship or for Howard’s students, who eventually would have had their image of him as a role model shattered in a way far more consequential than his coming-out.

America hasn’t always exceeded the bar Howard’s small, Indiana town set in “In & Out.” After all, we’re still litigating whether a Colorado baker has a First Amendment right to refuse to bake a cake for a gay couple’s wedding, transgender women of color continue to be murdered at disturbing rates, and the vice president of the United States is a man who said that federal “Resources should be directed toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.” But if progress is a process rather than an ultimate destination, “In & Out” is still a reminder that when it comes to equality and acceptance, the joke is on the people who are afraid of gay people.