As the saying goes, when you accuse your fave celebrity of queerbaiting, they’re not going to see your tweet but your closeted bi+ friends will.
When 18-year-old Heartstopper star Kit Connor was forced to out himself as bisexual on Twitter earlier this year, the reaction was immediate. In a tweet on his now-deleted account, the actor wrote “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.”
There was a huge outpouring of support for a young person bullied into an impossible position accompanied by a wave of righteous anger that queer people – public figures or not – are still being outed, or forced to out themselves. Just a few months before, actor Rebel Wilson was similarly compelled to reveal that she was in a relationship with a woman before she had the chance to inform all of her family members.
It is always wrong to out someone. It’s wrong whether it’s done by malicious homophobes or by Overly Online social media users who think they are doing the right thing in the name of representation. That’s what happened to Connor: a vocal minority of alleged Heartstopper fans relentlessly accused him of ‘queerbaiting’, a term that has been legitimately used to critique television programmes and films and other storytelling media that flirts with queer vibes to hook in LGBTQ+ viewers but never commits to genuine representation. It cannot and should not be applied to people’s lives, and many writers have explained why in lots of detail – you can read all about it in the links at the end.
The whirlpool of discourse surrounding the teenager’s terse coming out tweet was overwhelming. There was plenty of heart-warming support, but the important conversations I saw about the pitfalls of applying a queerbaiting narrative to real individuals and its link to outing often seemed to gloss over the part that jumped out at me the loudest: the rampant biphobia.
Part of the issue for the ‘fans’ harassing Connor was that he was seen holding hands with a female co-star, Maia Reficco, and declined to answer questions about his sexuality when asked, saying, “We’re [the cast of Heartstopper] still all so young. To start sort of speculating about our sexualities and maybe pressuring us to come out when maybe we’re not ready… For me, I just feel perfectly confident and comfortable with my sexuality… But I don’t feel like I need to label myself, especially not publicly.”
Despite the fact that he plays an explicitly bisexual character who is incorrectly assumed to be straight, and the fact that him holding hands with a girl is a) nobody’s business and b) totally compatible with being bisexual, the charges of inauthenticity were relentless. Fans felt that by refusing to label himself he was benefitting professionally from playing a high profile queer role that could have gone to an out LGBTQ+ person, without being queer himself. Playing a bisexual boy who falls in love with a boy is “queer representation” but being a bisexual boy with a publicly-unlabeled sexuality holding hands with a girl somehow amounts to fraud.
Like many LGBTQ+ people, I love it when someone feels able to come out and claim a queer identity of their own free will, especially a bi+ one, because I know how much easier it made my own coming out journey to see other people publicly taking up that space. It’s a warm, communal feeling to know “one of our own”. I also love when out queer actors play queer characters, because often it can make a character feel more lived-in, perhaps the actor can bring their own experiences to the portrayal, and, crucially, it lets me trust that the show or film might do right by the character in a world of endless buried gays. With that being said, nobody, ever, owes anyone their identity. To come out is to let people in, and whether it’s celebrities or friends, if someone chooses to share that part of themselves with you, it is a privilege and an honour.
Playing a bisexual boy who falls in love with a boy is “queer representation” but being a bisexual boy with a publicly-unlabeled sexuality holding hands with a girl somehow amounts to fraud.
Bi+ people are the largest chunk of the LGBTQ+ community. We are everywhere. We exist, we’re real, it’s not just a phase – unless it is for you, which is also valid – and we walk among you every day. We’re also much less likely than lesbian and gay people to be out to most people in our lives, with only one in five out to everyone in their family, compared to three in five gay men and lesbians. As well as that, a series of studies have shown that the proportion of people who express attractions that are exclusively straight or exclusively gay is probably lower than you think. To make a sweeping generalisation, you could say that it’s almost a hallmark of the bi+ experience to fly under the radar at one point or another, either intentionally or not.
One of the most frustrating aspects of life as a bi+ person is the dominance of compulsory monosexuality, or the idea that people are either straight or gay. As a bi woman in a relationship with a woman, I often feel like I have to come out twice to new people: first that I’m in a same-sex relationship and then to clarify that I’m bi. It doesn’t matter to me if people assume I’m gay, which they usually do when they find out about my girlfriend, it’s just that it’s not the truth and the assumption erases an aspect of my identity. Similarly, many single bi+ people and bi+ people in different-gender relationships struggle with the same invisibility and erasure on a daily basis. You don’t stop and start being queer because of the relationship you’re in, or not in.
There is a time and place for critiquing media and its cynical hints of queerness (I’m looking at you, the Bridgerton season 1 trailer, Thor: Love and Thunder and Doctor fucking Who). I hope we never stop interrogating pop culture and pushing media gatekeepers to do better. We no longer need to put up with being an afterthought, a sensationalist ratings-grabber or killed off. We are free to choose what media we engage with and, happily, we are living in a golden age for work by out LGBTQ+ creators. We can watch a sweet, wildly popular mainstream show made by queer creators, filled with queer performers, where a trans girl gets to be the love interest, teenage lesbians go on cute milkshake dates and a fictional bisexual boy has a happy ending.
I got to 32 years old before I saw a character come out as bisexual to their parent on television. It was watching Kit Connor’s Nick Nelson breathlessly tell Olivia Colman that Charlie is his boyfriend, and that he’s bisexual, that gave me the nudge I needed to finally tell my dad about my girlfriend and my identity. Connor gave a nuanced and touching performance, one which is now Emmy Award-winning. It is heartbreaking that his beautiful work led to such a negative coming out experience for a real bisexual boy who wasn’t ready to let the world in, but was prised open anyway.
Every time a public figure – be it Connor, Harry Styles, Yungblud, Taylor Swift or Billie Eilish – is accused of queerbaiting, regardless of how they actually identify, it is harmful to queer people, particularly bi+ people. It is saying, loud and clear, that fluidity is not allowed. Wanting privacy is not allowed. Taking your time to work out how you identify is not allowed. And most of all, it is reinforcing the demonstrably incorrect notion that if someone hasn’t told you that they’re queer, or if someone’s apparent relationship doesn’t “look queer”, then they are straight. As the saying goes, when you accuse your fave celebrity of queerbaiting, they’re not going to see your tweet but your closeted bi+ friends will. And sometimes, as Kit Connor has made clear, your fave might even see it too.
A queerbaiting reading list:
The Queerbaiting Discourse Is Out Of Control
Kit Connor: Forced coming out highlights ‘queerbaiting’ problem
Heartstopper’s Kit Connor Didn’t Owe Us Anything
The Sexuality of These “Heartstopper” Stars is None of Your Business