We need to talk about queerbaiting. The term has come up a lot in public discourse recently, being paired with the likes of Harry Styles, Billie Eilish, and now, Kit Connor: the young star of Netflix series Heartstopper. In the hit TV series, Connor plays Nick Nelson, a student at Truham Grammar School who tentatively comes to terms with being identified as bisexual after falling in love with classmate Charlie Spring and embarking on his first-ever same-sex relationship.
Both the TV series and original webcomic handled the notion of coming out sensitively. In the series, when Nick realised he was bisexual, we watched him carefully navigate a whole menagerie of emotions and identity issues before deciding to come out, on his own terms, to his mother in the series finale.
Nick’s journey to becoming comfortable with his identity doesn’t happen overnight, and Charlie and the rest of his friends understand this, and keep the details of his relationship private as he processes this very big and life-changing revelation.
The sad irony is, this sensitivity and support that is at the heart of this show failed to be extended to very the 18-year-old who portrayed all of this on-screen. Ever since he shot to fame playing Nick Nelson in the drama series, Connor has been subject to intense scrutiny, pressure, and even harassment to put a label on his sexuality.
The teenager first spoke out about the problem nearly six months ago, writing, “Twitter is so funny man. Apparently, some people on here know my sexuality better than I do.” But despite his clear discomfort with disclosing his sexuality online, followers and self-professed “stans” of the show were adamant that, by not publicly disclosing his personal sexuality, he was “queerbaiting.”
This harassment escalated further across the autumn months — with Connor committing the cardinal sin of allegedly holding hands with a female co-star — and came to a head on October 31, with the Nick Nelson actor tweeting, “I’m bi. Congrats for forcing an 18-year-old to out himself. I think some of you missed the point of the show.”
In the tweet, Connor, who is currently filming Heartstopper season 2, makes two things clear. Firstly, he didn’t feel ready to come out and share his sexual identity with the world. Secondly, he felt “forced” into doing so by the Twittersphere, as he appears to address fans of the show directly.
He doesn’t mention the queerbaiting accusations directly, but the implication, at least in my opinion, is clear. But the most absurd part of all of this is that the “queerbaiting” he is being accused of doesn’t even exist in the way large numbers of the Heartstopper fandom clearly think it does.
twitter is so funny man. apparently some people on here know my sexuality better than I do…
— Kit Connor (@kit_connor) May 2, 2022
This is because queerbaiting doesn’t apply to people. Human beings can’t queerbait. As defined by Dr Judith Fathallah, a new literacy and cultural studies researcher, queerbaiting is “a strategy by which writers and networks attempt to gain the attention of queer viewers via hints, jokes, gestures, and symbolism suggesting a queer relationship between two characters.”
In other words, queerbaiting is a marketing strategy adopted by writers of various TV shows and movies — and queerbaiting, in this sense, definitely exists. Doctor Who, Sherlock, Supernatural, and Riverdale are just a handful of countless shows wherein the writers fail to commit to queer relationships/characters after building them up across various seasons in order to entice an LGBTQ+ fanbase. It’s a cynical and morally corrupt means of maximizing viewers by dangling the carrot of queer representation in front of them until they no longer need our support.
But, despite celebrity culture telling us otherwise, Kit Connor isn’t a product to be marketed or an object of consumption. He’s just a kid. The truth is, his personal life is none of anyone’s business, and starring in a series about queerness and identity doesn’t mean that he is obligated to share every single detail about his own identity with audiences. As he points out himself, that is completely antithetical to Heartstopper.
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
This leaves us with two options when it comes to the queerbaiting accusers. They either see Connor as a product to be consumed rather than a person, or are deliberately misusing the term in order to justify their own nosiness and invasive behaviour. Irrespective of these accusers’ thought process behind harassing Connor is the fact that “queerbating” was never really the problem here: a lack of boundaries was.
Since these accusers love chronically online terminology so much, I want to present another concept to them: “parasocial relationships.” When a fan has a parasocial relationship with a celebrity, it means that they’re essentially having a one-sided relationship with them. They believe that, in virtue of that person being in the public eye, they’re entitled to the same level of emotional intimacy and information about that celebrity’s private life that would usually be reserved for close friends.
Ultimately, when you wade through all the straw-man arguments and incorrect definitions of queerbaiting that attempt to justify what happened to Connor, that’s all comes down to. For these harassers and members of the Heartstopper fandom, there’s this belief that they’re entitled to deeply intimate and personal information about Connor’s life even if he, himself, hasn’t come to terms with it. I don’t need to tell you how wrong that is.
im just gonna leave this here, since some people are lacking critical thinking pic.twitter.com/MZB1DipSRD
— mars (@krecekposel) May 2, 2022
Hopefully, if there’s one good thing that comes out of this, it’s that the members of the fandom who harassed Connor realise the damage they have done and learn a lesson. But they also might benefit from going back to the Heartstopper webcomic itself, which clearly states, “It’s very rude to speculate about people’s sexualities.”
“Go home lads.”