In 2016, Alice Oseman began posting a series of webcomics across Tumblr and Tapas — a webcomic platform — named “Heartstopper.” Following the story of two teen boys in love and the happenings of their friends, the story has garnered 52.1 million views. While still remaining free to read online, the series has become a franchise of graphic novels and, as of recently, a Netflix original series. I myself binged the entire available comic series and the first season of the show over the summer, and I now find myself impatient for a final book and a season two.
Ahead of production for the second season, Kit Connor — who plays main character Nick Nelson — was accused of “queerbaiting” by Twitter users after he was seen holding hands with “A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow” costar Maia Reficco. Following this social media storm, Connor decided to leave the platform, tweeting, “this is a silly silly app. bit bored of it now, deleting twitter :).”
For anyone outside of this internet loop, this fiasco can come off as quite the mystery, leaving questions as to what queerbaiting even is, why Connor was accused of it and why the situation motivated him to leave Twitter altogether. Given that Connor is 18 years old, and this is an issue commonly found in online Gen Z-centric spaces, I took to questioning students on campus around the same age.
LSA freshman Rami Mahdi thinks of queerbaiting as when “in a piece of media, writers present someone as ‘Oh, maybe they’re Queer. Maybe they’re gay. I don’t know,’ to draw in the LGBTQ audience, and then it turns out they’re probably not.” This definition is fitting for where the term “queerbaiting” came from in the first place: fan communities. From Dean and Castiel in “Supernatural” to Betty and Veronica in “Riverdale,” franchises have historically drawn larger audiences in by hinting at a possible Queer relationship without ever delivering.
Like internet slang often does, the term “queerbaiting” has reached a wider audience and has thus taken on a broader meaning. LSA freshman Gabrielle Tilli said that “Queerbaiting is when people who are not Queer or refuse to identify in any way with the Queer community act in a way that’s very Queer-coded, and typically do it for some sort of social status.”
This definition is much more reflective of the accusations being hurled at Kit Connor. After portraying a bisexual character and appearing at Pride events, Connor’s critics seem taken aback by his holding hands with a female costar. But given that “queerbaiting” originated in discussing written media, can it really be applied to people in real life?
For some, it can. “I think actually you could (queerbait),” said LSA freshman Rijul Mehta. “I think it’s less common to see in normal life. You see a lot of celebrities do it because they’re trying to attract a new audience or gain some sort of publicity.” Fellow LSA freshman Natalyn Kapner said, “Yes, especially when company-related. A lot of people, their motivation is capitalizing off of things. I feel like that’s very possible.”
Kit Connor is far from the first celebrity to face accusations of queerbaiting. Musician Billie Eilish faced similar backlash when she posted behind-the-scenes photos to Instagram for her “Lost Cause” music video with the caption “i love girls.” Responding comments read, “Bestie idk if you’re queerbaiting or not but I’m really hoping you aren’t because it’s really rude,” and “queerbaiting is bad enough … but during pride month!? i’m sorry but no.” It’s of course hard for a follower to know what to make of this; is posting pictures of oneself with women with a simple three-word caption inherently Queer? And if so, does that automatically make Eilish a queerbaiting offender?
Fellow musician Harry Styles has long faced bouts of backlash similar to Eilish’s. Though he hasn’t labeled his sexuality, he’s faced chants of “bring back manly men” by the right for his refusal to dress in a strictly masculine manner. In a recent Rolling Stone interview with Styles, Brittany Spanos writes, “One feeling he needed to shed was shame, the kind of shame that comes from having your sex life scrutinized while you’re still just trying to make sense of it. Over the years, he learned to stop apologizing for it.”
These two pop stars share more than just the public eye with Kit Connor. Like Connor, both Eilish and Styles entered the spotlight as teenagers, Styles especially so under the eyes of conspiracy theory-level “Larries” who speculated about a relationship with former One Direction bandmate Louis Tomlinson.
Queer fashion, slang and culture as a whole have faced centuries of demonization until it only recently became “cool” across internet spaces like Twitter, TikTok and Tumblr, the original home of “Heartstopper.” It is understandable that Queer fans and allies alike may act reproachful when yet another celebrity claims aspects of Queer culture without making any claim of Queer identity.
When more fans, more support and more money can be found in using Queer identity as a mask, a Queer fan faces being treated as yet another customer by their idol.
At the same time, some sympathy should be given to those under queerbaiting scrutiny. Celebrities inevitably give up some privacy to live in the public eye, but things can get dicey when strangers on the internet begin speculating about your sex life and those you love.
Tilli’s perspective aligns more with this sympathetic approach, claiming, “I don’t think real people are capable of queerbaiting. I don’t think it’s as nefarious as people want to make it out to be. A lot of people are just being themselves.” Mahdi similarly said, “I don’t think anyone needs to label their own sexuality. Everyone has their own paths to discovering who they are and constantly forcing someone to define and redefine that is just an unneeded pressure being put on people.”
Adolescence is a time for discovering oneself, something that becomes significantly more awkward with millions of eyes on you. In a time where we’ve encouraged breaking gender boundaries and being oneself, it feels like more of a step back to say an unlabeled man can’t wear a dress à la Harry Styles or hold a woman’s hand à la Kit Connor. Even grown adults can still be unsure of their orientation; criticizing experimentation places us back into the gay-straight binary we’ve worked so hard to break from. Instead of working to weed out the snakes in the grass, the Queer community should work toward fostering a welcoming community for anyone to come out to at any stage in their lives.
As Nick Nelson’s P.E. teacher Miss Singh says in the original Heartstopper comics: “You can’t tell whether people are gay by what they look like. And gay or straight aren’t the only two options. Anyway, it’s very rude to speculate about people’s sexuality. Go home, lads.”
Well said, Miss Singh.
Audra Woehle is an Opinion Columnist & can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org