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'Heartstopper' helped me face unresolved trauma of life under 'don’t ask, don’t tell'

The popular Netflix series highlights progress toward LGBTQ acceptance, but it also reveals how far we still have to go.
Kit Connor as Nick Nelson and Joe Locke as Charlie in "Heartstopper" on Netflix.
Kit Connor as Nick Nelson and Joe Locke as Charlie Spring in "Heartstopper" on Netflix.Rob Youngson / Netflix

My husband and I recently finished the last episode of Netflix’s charming LGBTQ coming-out story “Heartstopper,” based on the graphic novel of the same name. Cuddling on the couch and teary-eyed, we watched as the two main characters, Nick Nelson and Charlie Spring, unabashedly declared their romantic feelings for each other. I wiped tears of joy away as the credits rolled and then went to bed, unaware of the impending storm brewing.

It was still dark outside when I woke up early the next morning, and I was sobbing uncontrollably for no obvious reason. The rest of the day was a confusing roller coaster of emotions, with feelings of crushing loneliness and depression. I felt physical aches in my chest. By the afternoon, I started to connect the dots: This seemingly cute and fun TV show unlocked something buried deep inside me. I was an emotional wreck for three consecutive days.

It eloquently captures the complex layers of what it means to be LGBTQ in today’s society unlike any other TV show or movie.

But why? It’s a mostly happy story with a mostly happy ending, but it’s more than just a love story — it eloquently captures the complex layers of what it means to be LGBTQ in today’s society unlike any other TV show or movie. The joys of first love are juxtaposed with the confusion of an unwanted sexual awakening, the fear of being rejected by your family and tormented by peers, the uncertainty about whom you can trust and this unshakable feeling that you are unlovable. Even so, the show paints an optimistic outcome for its characters relative to what most LGBTQ people experience. In “Heartstopper,” the characters have accepting parents, openly gay teachers and friends in similar situations. In reality, LGBTQ teens often deal with their self-realization in isolation without these same support systems.

LGBTQ people all over the world have been having similar emotional reactions to “Heartstopper.” The show has led to a cathartic release of repressed anxiety, and it reveals the emotional damage caused by any number of traumas associated with being LGBTQ. It is a communal grieving for the young gay lives we’ll never get to have. My personal experience was shaped by “don’t ask, don’t tell” — the ’90s-era statutory ban that stopped gays and lesbians from serving openly in the U.S. military.

I joined the Navy in 2003, when I was 17, only one year older than the “Heartstopper” characters. It would be two more years before I could even utter the words “I am gay” out loud to myself, although it was something that I had known my whole life. Despite almost quitting the Navy at the time, I stayed in the service while forced to stay in the closet until the discriminatory policy finally ended in 2011. 

I survived those years in the closet by living two lives, pretending to be someone else and burying my true self. The damage of these repressed feelings is now apparent to me. “Heartstopper” hit on many of the problems that I faced under “don’t ask, don’t tell,” rooted in the pain of keeping a romance secret and the constant fear of being outed with the price of expulsion hanging over my head. 

We need more shows like “Heartstopper,” which help to drive a positive dialogue, create more accepting communities and give LGBTQ kids a relatable experience to say it will be OK and that it gets better.

I met my first love as a sophomore at the U.S. Naval Academy. We shared a desk in the front row of chemistry class, and it was love at first sight — like the scene right out of “Heartstopper” when Charlie sees Nick in class for the first time. My “Nick” and I remained just friends for an entire year. We volunteered together for Habitat for Humanity on the weekends and texted about our favorite indie music bands on weeknights. In the days before junior year started, when I almost quit the Navy because I was gay, we finally came out to each other on a long walk at night around campus. I poured out my feelings to him, sharing how alone I felt and my plan to quit. 

We found our way to the farthest corner of campus, beyond the rugby fields and far from the crowded dorms, stopping to sit side by side on a picnic table under a gazebo overlooking the Severn River. I remember clearly a cloudless night in August and the reflection of street lamps shimmering in the waves. I turned to my yearlong crush and told him that I had never kissed another boy before. We memorably shared our first kiss on that beautiful starry night. It was a magical moment deserving of its own TV show. 

I decided then that if I could have a secret boyfriend, maybe the Navy would work after all. Our relationship was ultimately doomed, fraught with the pressure of getting caught together. We were forced to act like platonic friends in the halls where we lived while having to sneak around for a minute of privacy. We split up before the start of senior year.

It wasn’t too long after the breakup before I found — despite all the warning signs — a new crush. Unfortunately, this person was less like white knight Nick Nelson and more like the antagonist Ben Hope in “Heartstopper,” who aggressively forces Charlie to kiss him in the first episode. On a late-night rendezvous in the Naval Academy dormitory, despite my repeated vocalization to stop, my new crush continued with sexual advances beyond my comfort level. It took me years to recognize this as the sexual assault that it was and years longer to share this experience with anyone else. Because of the rules of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” I didn’t have the option to tell an authority figure at the time. Fortunately, this part of the story has a happy ending, too. Like Charlie, I got my redemption moment with an opportunity to confront my offender after the fact.

Ending “don’t ask, don’t tell” was the military’s first step in the right direction, but military leaders at all levels must double down to support their LGBTQ service members to ensure their safety and health care. This is especially true for transgender service members, who are now allowed to serve openly under the Biden administration, and to ensure that sexual assault assistance is promoted for LGBTQ service members because of the increased vulnerability to attacks across the community

We’ve made a lot of progress to advance LGBTQ rights in the two decades since I was the age of the characters in “Heartstopper,” but we must remain vigilant to maintain that progress and prevent any backsliding. A Supreme Court poised to overturn Roe v. Wade can also negate nationally legalized same-sex marriage. Discriminatory policies like Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law, dubbed by critics the “Don’t Say Gay” law, which prohibits discussion of LGBTQ issues in kindergarten through the third grade, have emboldened conservatives to call for other discriminatory practices. A group of Republican senators wants to label LGBTQ television content as inappropriate for younger viewers.

This is an unnecessary act that communicates to LGBTQ kids that they are undeserving of equal representation and, like the “Dont Say Gay” law, contributes to societal views that lead to physical and emotional abuse. Rather than restrict this content, we need more shows like “Heartstopper,” which help to drive a positive dialogue, create more accepting communities and give LGBTQ kids a relatable experience to say it will be OK and that it gets better. 

Watching the events unfold for the young characters in the series hits close to home, and my visceral emotional response is evidence of the toll that these repressed feelings have had on me over the years. Throughout the emotional roller coaster ride, I was supported with the help of my husband, my family and many friends. Love for my husband helped me through the pain. I am so incredibly lucky to have my happy ending. My husband and I have been together for 10 years, happily married for four, with plans to expand our family through adoption. I have the life that I always wanted — one that so many young queer people hope to have some day. In our own lives, we must continue to live out loud and proud, to talk about our shared trauma and to educate our allies to raise awareness and acceptance.