This week Kit Connor, the young star of Heartstopper, Netflix’s dreamy LGBTQ romance, came out as bisexual—but not by choice. “Back a minute“ he tweeted, referring to his self-imposed suspension from Twitter due to past harassment. “I’m bi. Congrats on forcing an 18 year old to leave himself. I think some of you missed the point of the show. Bye”
A feverish right to details about celebrity sexuality has been growing online for years, with celebrities increasingly urged by fans and the media to “come out” and confirm rabid speculation. Harry Styles, Taylor Swift, Jameela Jamil, Rita Ora, Billie Eilish, Yungblud, Shawn Mendes and most recently Connor have all been bothered to confirm their sexuality amid obsessions over the most false of clues – a paparazzi photo, a music video, a casting . Connor faced a storm of scrutiny when pictures emerged of him holding hands with Maia Reficco, a co-star in a new film. For touching a woman, after playing a bisexual character in Heartstopper, Connor was accused of “queerbaiting”, a criticism leveled at stars who are believed to be “acting out” queerness for influence.
It’s the same kind of thinking that leads to arguments that Harry Styles shouldn’t be allowed to wear a green feather boa until he confirms how he identifies, or Billie Eilish being criticized for mildly sapphic scenes in a music video, followed by demands that she “came out” to justify them.
Queerbaiting was originally a criticism directed at films and shows that would imply LGBTQ+ representation without actually depicting it, in order to attract LGBTQ+ audiences without having to lose straight ones. Consider when the directors of Avengers: Endgame spoke publicly and loudly about having queer representation in the film, only for it to turn out to be a single line spoken by an unnamed secondary character.
But the extremely media-savvy youths who make up online fandoms have weaponized and debased the term, leveling it against any celebrity they believe is doing queerness to curry favor and earn the “pink dollar.”
Unlike in the past, when public scrutiny of sexuality was mostly driven by homophobia, this new right seems to be mostly concerned with not just acceptance but intense support for queer identities. While this sounds nice, the problem lies in the fact that celebrities have no say in whether they want this “support” or not. It also perpetuates regressive attitudes around performative queerness for hetero audiences, where certain “types” of identity are seen as more valid or real than others. Nor does it acknowledge the very real dangers that still exist for people who choose to come out publicly. In the end, everything just becomes more content for us to measure, judge and consume.
The “trinket” that Connor wrote about is not some scattered trolls or the odd piece of thought. We’re talking about gigantic, engaged fandoms across multiple social media networks that may be invisible to you but are of real and pressing concern to everyone in those spaces. Heartstopper’s surprising success came from the support of a passionate fandom, which he couldn’t quite afford to ignore. These fandoms have a frightening ability to exert pressure online: they are numerous and vocal, and anyone working in culture right now, from executives to actors, knows that courting them can mean success.
While both Connor and his Heartstopper costar Joe Locke have deactivated their social media accounts, the fact that Connor felt “compelled” to return and come out shows that the pressure is both toxic and real. Connor’s character Nick is also on a journey to discover his sexuality, which is treated with incredibly touching respect and love in the show – but it’s something that many of the show’s fans clearly misunderstood.
Coming out is a personal journey, but it’s one that has been watched by people both inside and outside the queer community for a long time. Rebel Wilson recently said she also felt “forced” to come out when a gay Sydney Morning Herald gossip columnist threatened to write about her new relationship with a woman. “There are levels to telling people,” she said. “You tell your close family and friends and not everyone. In our two families, not everyone is as accepting as you’d hope, and we tried to be respectful of those people and tell them in our own way.”
Connor is a young man, bullied into reckoning with all the complications, joys and confusions of his sexuality in the public eye. Even if you don’t care about celebrities, such rights among the public are emblematic of a broader issue – Celebrities aren’t the only ones suffering. Such binary attitudes have made their way into the queer community, where there are arguments about who is “allowed” to march in Pride or enter queer spaces. It all leads to a situation where there is a “right” or “wrong” way to be queer, where coming out and performing is expected, rather than a choice. No one’s sexuality or gender identity needs to be offered up for the consumption of others – no, not even a celebrity.
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