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Kit Connor starring in 'Heartstopper'

Please, for the love of god, stop accusing people of queerbaiting

Once a reasonable term to describe dishonest marketing campaigns, it is now being used to harangue people into coming out

Terrible news: the debate around “queerbaiting” has reared its ugly head once more. Yesterday, Heartstopper actor Kit Connor tweeted, “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.”

This is not the first time Connor has complained about fans’ attempts to force him to come out, but this time, it seems what brought the issue to a head was the emergence of photographs which showed him holding hands with actress Maia Reficco – which many people took as evidence he is straight. The ensuing furore has prompted some soul-searching on social media about what “queerbaiting” actually means, and whether it’s causing more harm than good.

One thing is clear: the way the term is used on social media now is increasingly divorced from its original meaning, which was never about the individual behaviour of real-life people. Media Studies academic Dr Joseph Brennan has offered three related definitions: “Media producers’ publicly pledging of some sort of allegiance to LGBTQ+ causes without delivering on that allegiance”; ”Courting queer viewers, for example via paratexts, such as trailers that imply queer characters and/or relationships, then not fulfilling those expectations”; and “Unsatisfactory representation, such as needlessly killing off queer characters to avoid resolution to their stories.” So, as per these definitions, it’s more about the way the media is marketed: if the advertising campaign for Heartstopper led you to believe it was a heartwarming celebration of adolescent queer love, but it turned out to be a sitcom about a group of straight people – in which the only gay character gets killed in a car crash in the first scene – you would be entitled to complain about having been queer-baited. But when it comes to the sexual identity of its leading actor… not so much.

Part of the problem is that “queerbaiting” has merged with a different and distinct concept: the idea that straight actors shouldn’t play queer roles. Given the disadvantages that LGBTQ+ actors face within the entertainment industry, there is some merit to this idea – it’s true they are less likely to be cast as straight or cisgender characters, and there’s hardly an abundance of queer roles available. Simply as a workplace issue, it does seem unfair if straight actors are hogging all the gay parts, and wanting to remedy that isn’t unreasonable in and of itself. But if you turn this idea into an absolute, prescriptive rule, what this means in practice is that only out queer actors can play queer roles, and that everyone who plays an LGBTQ+ character is liable to face demands that they disclose their sexuality in public. This is where a kind of entitlement comes into play: people believe they have a right to know about the intimate lives of public figures, which is an ugly impulse in most cases but particularly tawdry when the individual in question is only 18. Even high-profile celebrities (never mind young actors so early on in their careers) deserve to have some say in what they choose to disclose about their private lives.

There are some cases in which outing a public figure is justifiable, and this tactic has historically played a role in queer activism. In the 80s and 90s, gay protest groups in the UK and US adopted a policy of outing closeted politicians and religious figures – but this was almost exclusively reserved for those who were pushing homophobic legislation or, in many cases, stigmatising people with AIDS. The idea was that being in the closet afforded these figures a form of power, which they were using to target other queer people, and outing them was a means of removing that power. This strategy was controversial at the time, but the rationale behind it does make sense. What we’re seeing now is essentially the reverse: it’s more about outing people as straight rather than gay. But it’s similarly intrusive – and for what? What harm was Kit Connor’s hypothetical ‘queerbaiting’ actually doing that would justify such a response? 

As we have also seen in the queerbaiting furore around Harry Styles, the idea can easily become a way of policing gender expression. Rather than thinking that it’s OK or even a good thing if cis, straight men wear make-up or feminine clothes, some people are quick to interpret this as a form of appropriation – the idea being that gender nonconformity is the sole preserve of certain demographics. This is a mean-spirited and limiting way of thinking about gender: surely part of the point of queer liberation politics is that it affords people – anyone – greater freedom to present however they want. While the queerbaiting debate is dressed up as progressive, it often ends up reifying the most conventional norms of how heterosexual straight men should present themselves. As media scholar Judith Fathallah argues, “if we can neatly decide what kinds of queer activity count as gay, and which don’t [...] it is much easier to maintain the boundaries of normal and abnormal and assign individuals to those boxes.” Rather than viewing it as an attempt at deception, we should welcome it when straight men act a little fruity – as something which could lead to more freedom for everyone. 

So much of the conversation around queerbaiting seems to express an anxiety about being exploited, pandered to, or taken for a ride. I don’t think that applies in the case of Kit Connor – who really does just seem like a teenager doing his own thing – but more broadly, yes: these suspicions are well-founded. The entertainment industry is trying to manipulate you into consuming media, and it will resort to all manner of marketing malarkey towards this end. This seems like a fact so obvious it’s not worth getting riled up about. While it’s wise to be sceptical about the motives and machinations of major corporations, when it comes to individuals – their private lives and identities – we need to start operating on the assumption of good faith. Otherwise, more young people in the public eye will be forced to out themselves before they’re ready – and that won’t make things better for anyone.