Queerbaiting Accusations: The Perils of Toxic Social Media Culture
Kit Connor, lead star of Netflix’s hit coming-of-age LGBTQIA+ series Heartstopper, recently came out as bisexual. But not in the celebratory way all members of the community wish for.
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— Kit Connor (@kit_connor) October 31, 2022
The show’s queer-forward plot focuses on a budding romance between classmates Nick Nelson and Charlie Spring—played by Connor and Joe Locke, respectively—with Nick questioning his sexuality amid his developing feelings for Charlie. While other shows like HBO’s Euphoria and Netflix’s Sex Education likewise center characters with diverse gender and sexualities, Heartstopper takes on the queer young-adult genre in a manner less raunchy and explicit. It comes as no surprise, then, that its heartfelt dialogues and doe-eyed representations immediately captivated viewers around the globe.
Unfortunately, there are viewers, especially those who make their opinions known online, who thrive on hostility. When Connor was cast in an upcoming romantic comedy, where he is set to appear as a straight character, so-called fans were even quicker to throw queerbaiting allegations. The public ridicule came to a boiling point when photos of him holding hands with a female co-star started circulating on social media. The problem is, Connor is actually bisexual. And the backlash he received from pitchfork-wielding Twitter users all but dragged him out of the closet.
The term “queerbaiting” was originally directed at film and television for hinting at non-heterosexual relationships that don’t actually depict them. It effectively generates interest without delivering on the promise of queer representations. In short, it’s a deceptive marketing tactic used to lure in queer people without losing the attention of straight audiences. Think, BBC’s Sherlock or even ABS-CBN’s Darna, which consistently suggest an attraction between its main characters (Sherlock Holmes and John Watson; Darna and Valentina) even though they never canonically become a couple.
In recent years, however, social media users have watered down the meaning of the word—as what often happens with concepts that lose much of their nuance and context when saturated by the internet. These days, the social media courtroom throws it at just about anyone who is believed to be exploiting LGBTQIA+ culture for fame and fortune.
It’s coming from a good place, obviously. There’s nothing inherently wrong with holding public figures accountable for using queer aesthetics for capitalistic gain, nor is it unreasonable to demand that queer roles be given to queer people. Consider, for instance, the way Harry Styles (a rich white man) is being branded as an LGBTQIA+ icon while the real front of the community remains largely disenfranchised. It’s problematic. But weaponizing criticism to force the hand of a teenager who might still be exploring his sexuality is hardly the right way to go about it.
Connor’s situation is only the latest in a string of celebrities forced to out themselves—Portia de Rossi, Neil Patrick Harris, and Rebel Wilson, to name a few—lest they risk being bombarded with online harassment, at best, and face the dangers of being exposed, at worst. Cancel culture and identity politics intersect here. It’s the textbook example of the pitfalls of social media culture. Coming out is a deeply personal and intensely vulnerable aspect of figuring out one’s identity. With the overwhelming flow of positive support for the LGBTQIA+ community in digital spaces—if you’re in the right echo chamber, that is—it can be easy to forget the consequences that still await queer people in the real world. It’s even easier to reduce celebrities to mere sources of entertainment.
But at the end of the day, people’s sexualities are not just content that we can consume, comment on, and gossip about. Neither is coming out an initiation of sorts that measures if someone is to be accepted in the community. For most, it’s still a step that could leave them vulnerable to discrimination and systemic marginalization, regardless of how much wealth or prominence they hold.
We cannot call for a society that is accepting of everyone while forcing people to declare truths they may not be ready to share, if at all. Why box people into the same gender roles and norms that you denounce? Why the obsessive need for labels? It’s retrogressive, plain and simple. Identities are malleable and being unlabeled is just as valid as any other form of queerness.
The bottom line is, celebrities are still human beings worthy of respect and privacy. They do not owe us their personal truths. Everyone, especially young people, is entitled to go on this journey of self-discovery at their own pace, within their sphere of comfortability, and most of all, without some moralistic, “woke” stranger telling them there’s a right or wrong way of being queer.