Kit Connor, the star of Netflix’s “Heartstopper,” came out as bisexual Monday in a tweet. In it, he condemned social media users for pressuring him to share the details of his personal life. Fans speculated that the post was penned in response to accusations of queerbaiting. This term refers to performing queerness, manipulating queer audiences or appropriating queer culture to gain the attention and favor of the LGBTQ community.
The word originally described the practice in books or movies of ambiguously alluding to characters’ queerness without explicitly affirming or revealing their queer identities. It can more broadly refer to inauthentic representations of queerness in media and marketing, calling out corporations and creators who exploit the queer gaze. But more recently, the term has been used against celebrities — which isn’t as straightforward.
Internet users scrutinize lyrics, performances and social media posts or stalk the personal lives of celebrities to determine whether they’re queerbaiting their fans. But there’s a fine line between accusing people of queerbaiting and gatekeeping their access to our support.
Before he came out, Connor, who just turned 18 this year, had been accused of benefiting from his portrayal of a queer teen on screen — as it led to his fame and a steadfast fandom. Some questioned whether he had a genuine connection to the community. Although that isn’t always viewed as controversial, it matters to some fans who want the entertainment industry to embrace more queer artists who have historically lost out on roles that depict their own experiences in favor of peers who aren’t queer.
Shortly after the series premiered in April, Connor avoided using labels to describe his sexuality after fans debated possibilities. He condemned attempts to stereotype him and his castmates based on voice and appearance, which he called a “problematic assumption.” He was right to remind fans that these surface-level details don’t point to or away from queerness. Queer men don’t owe onlookers flamboyance, femininity or other outward displays stereotypically associated with queer identity.
Accusations of celebrity queerbaiting operate from a specific definition of how to be queer and how to be queer in public, creating conditional standards of acceptability.
When Connor refused to publicly declare his sexuality, fans accused him of being purposely vague as a way to queerbait. He defended himself over the summer in an interview with Hunger Magazine: “I don’t feel like I have to tell the world about my sexuality.” Connor shouldn’t have ever been expected to. This kind of pressure is just as problematic as the queerphobic prodding and harassment LGBTQ people receive from those outside the queer community.
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“I completely understand that many fans want queer representation to be authentic and they want to know whether it is authentic,” Connor said. “But at the same time you shouldn’t make someone feel uncomfortable to the point where they have to tell a stranger about their sexuality.”
His words highlight our need to think critically about “Heartstopper” itself and consider the motives of its creator — not hyperfocus on the personal lives of its actors.
The LGBTQ community continues to fight for equity — including access to medical care, bathrooms and recreation. We’re ridiculed for using language and labels that affirm our identities, and it’s still unsafe for many of us to openly celebrate our love and our existence. At the same time, we’re starting to see queerness in mainstream commercials and media. While we in the community want to be recognized, we’re also wary of those who might take advantage.
Although discourse about queerbaiting can feel useful when we’re holding companies or figureheads accountable, current dialogues feel stuck in a paradox as we learn to navigate a shift in our relationships with marketing, media and celebrities.
As stars increasingly use their platforms for branding — maintaining highly strategic relationships with their fans to maintain their fame — people struggle to decipher the difference between posts made in the spirit of connection and those with masked motives. This makes it difficult to determine whom we can trust. But the pursuit of the truth can very quickly become bullying when we interact with celebrities like we would a brand instead of a person.
We should treat famous people like we’d treat others in our community — appreciating their willingness to share of themselves when they’re interested and able and respecting their boundaries when they’re not.
Although I’m not a celebrity, I understand what it’s like to seek privacy before coming out. When my wife first came out to me as trans, we didn’t know what exactly she wanted for her life or the direction those decisions would take us as a couple. People who suspected she might be trans pestered me with questions about her identity, but I knew she wasn’t ready to share that aspect of her life with them, so I lied. The ordeal was damaging to her mental health, and the persistent interrogation caused our relationships with friends and acquaintances to fracture.
As we distanced ourselves, she was granted space to discover her authenticity in private. This also gave us time to prepare so her coming out process could be a healthier one.
It’s our responsibility as a community to make sure all queer people — even those living in the public eye — are afforded that same right.