Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The damage of “queerbaiting” discourse on real members of the LGBTQ+ community

By Scott Hornell

There’s a difference between holding studios and executives accountable for lack of queer representation and leveling baseless accusations of queerbaiting at young actors – it’s time to re-evaluate.

There’s a scene in the final episode of Netflix’s coming-of-age hit Heartstopper in which Nick – having spent the entire day at the beach with his new boyfriend – returns home to finally tell his mother everything. His mother then responds, neither interrupting him nor letting any silences linger. 

“Oh, baby,” she says lovingly, jumping from her seat to hug her son, “thank you for telling me. I’m sorry if I ever made you feel like you couldn’t tell me that.” 

It’s an objectively touching scene, and presents an ideal scenario for any teen hoping to come out to their parents, not only due to the presence of the iconic Olivia Colman, but because of Nick’s mother’s wholehearted and unreserved acceptance of his sexuality. Crucially, Nick hasn’t been rushed into anything. He has taken the entire eight episode run to discover his sexuality and come to terms with it in his own time.

Kit Connor, the actor who plays Nick, hasn’t been so lucky.

What should have been a formative and cathartic experience for the young performer was tainted by the fact that Kit didn’t choose to reveal his sexuality. Instead, his hand was forced by a barrage of trolling and harassment, after pictures of the actor holding hands with A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow co-star Maia Reficco were released to the public. He posted this tweet in response to the rampant speculation:

“back for a minute. i’m bi. congrats for forcing an 18 year old to out himself. i think some of you missed the point of the show. bye.”

The vast majority of the alleged abuse levelled at Connor stemmed from the idea that he was “queerbaiting” his audience: essentially profiting financially and socially from public allusions to queerness, while operating as entirely heterosexual in his private life. You may be aware of some cases of queerbaiting in Film and TV: Betty and Veronica, Castiel and Dean from Supernatural, and the maddeningly obvious romantic tension between Finn and Poe in the Star Wars sequel trilogy. 

Queer people are regularly required to force so-called “ships” out of explicitly heterosexual characters simply to engage with media in the same way as straight people. Sometimes studios can even take advantage of this desperation: they toe the line by implying queerness without actually canonising the relationship, refusing to lose a small percentage of their viewership in the name of representation. Activists have been somewhat successful at increasing both the number of LGBTQ+ characters in media, and advocating for explicitly queer stories to be given equal funding and marketing as well. Just in the last couple of years, we’ve had It’s A Sin, Bros, The Boys in the Band (a personal favourite) and Uncle Frank – just to name a few. That’s not to say we’re supposed to be grateful for basic representation, and clearly there is still work that needs to be done to improve our situation, but it’s undeniable that the situation has improved, even in the last five years. That’s why what’s happened to Kit is killing me.

Even if we began with the admirable goal of preventing James Corden from taking every gay role in Hollywood, somewhere along the line we stopped holding studios and executives to account and advocating to see ourselves on screen. Instead, we’ve started attacking young celebrities for not fitting our idea of what queerness should look like. Assuming anyone’s sexuality, and treating them differently because of that, is always going to be dicey territory. As it turns out, Kit wasn’t queerbaiting anyone. He’s just a kid living out his dreams on the most public stage in the world, figuring out his identity in his own time, and we attacked him for it. 

I also can’t separate Kit’s predicament from my own as a bisexual man. As soon as the young actor was spotted with a woman, members of our community immediately began questioning his sexuality, even though he had never publicly stated anything on the matter. The prevailing opinion seemed to be, even amongst select members of the LGBTQ+ community, that an attraction to women somehow voids your queer status. Bisexuality is not a “pit stop” or “halfway house” for us, it’s part of who we are.

Kit isn’t some infinitely wealthy pop-star making millions of dollars from their queer fans (I’m looking at you, Harry Styles), he’s a young actor with the world on his shoulders, and we’ve now added to that weight. It’s okay to love fictional characters, in fact it’s crucial to some queer people’s survival, but don’t mistake the character for the human being underneath. Sever those parasocial bonds, ladies. You love Nick; you have no connection to Kit Connor.

I just wished someone had told Kit he didn’t owe us anything, especially that part of himself. He didn’t need to say anything.


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