“I'm bi. congrats for forcing an 18 year old to out himself,” tweeted Heartstopper actor Kit Connor on Monday, coming back to the app after deactivating his account due to a storm of scrutiny from his fans and the media around his sexuality.
Connor played the role of Nick Nelson in Heartstopper, a young school boy sorting through his feelings for his friend Charlie, and ultimately discovering that he himself is bisexual. When Connor was recently spotted holding hands with Maia Reficco, his costar from a new film, that scrutiny turned into accusations of queerbaiting. Fans suspected that he had been somehow performing his queerness; that his role as a young bi man in Heartstopper and his viral video of him and his castmates at Pride were all done in some way to dupe his fans into believing he might be queer – and that his potential relationship with a woman was the proof.
Queerbaiting is not a new term, but the use of it as a kind of weapon to use against celebrities is a relatively recent trend. Along with Connor, actors, musicians and online personalities are regularly accused of it: Shawn Mendes, Taylor Swift, Billie Eilish, Timothee Chalamet and Yungblud have had the accusation recently levelled at them. Jameela Jamil and Rita Ora have both said that they felt pressured to come out after being accused of queerbaiting. Harry Styles can’t even sneeze in a slightly flamboyant way without having the accusation levelled at him.
Considering the consequences – a young man forced to out himself – it may seem like “queerbaiting” has become a weaponised term, used online to police celebrities’ sexuality. The interesting thing is that the term used to mean something almost completely different.
Queerbaiting as a term has only been in use for the last decade or so, though the criticisms that it seeks to address have been around for much longer. Essentially, queerbaiting is the tactic of media creators deliberately hinting at, or touting, LGBTQ representation to entice viewers and gain their investment, without ever actually following through. TV shows, movies, books, plays, advertisements, brands – anything where a queer audience can lead to views or positive criticism or money.
It’s a case of having your gay cake and eating it too – by hinting, teasing and tantalising queer representation, they’re able to court queer audiences, but by leaving it vague they won’t lose the important homophobic audience (which is larger, and I assume, stinkier).
“These early criticisms of media creators wanting to capitalise on the appearance of subtle or implicit queerness without running the risk of being ‘too queer’ were important,” explains Dr Michael McDermott, an academic specialising in the study of queerbaiting. “They were a way for queers to demand increased awareness and support for their liberation, rather than sanitising and folding queerness into consumerism.”
Think Marvel’s Thor: Love and Thunder (2022), which Natalie Portman described as “so gay”, but only depicted a flicker of a chaste scene where two aliens made of rock got married, or JK Rowling trying to court the LGBTQ community by promising that Dumbledore was gay – but having absolutely no depiction of that in books or film until recently.
The problem with the overactive use of queerbaiting is that it’s shifted from a criticism of content and the decisions made around how to promote that content, and onto celebrities and other real people.
The impulse to treat celebs like content isn’t new – gossip and tabloid journalism has dehumanised them for a very long time. Speculating about a celebrity’s queerness used to mostly be rooted in homophobia and scandal. Now it’s shifted to the other side, with an almost rabid and unasked for support from queer and queer-supporting audiences.
There is an “impulse to know, see, and celebrate queerness at the centre rather than at the margins”, Dr McDermott explains. “Celebrities are at the centre of the mainstream, of popular culture, particularly celebrities that are perceived as heterosexual. There is an excitement to see queerness at this centre, whether it be a celebrity or the main character of a TV show.”
This rabid speculation about sexuality, at its best, looks to celebrate queerness and the growing acceptance of it. At its worst, it devolves into conspiratorial thinking, like the hordes of One Direction fans who seem to truly believe the conspiracy that Louis Tomlinson’s real baby is actually fake, to deflect from his gay relationship with Harry Styles.
The impulse when talking about queerbaiting as a new toxic trend, is to blame all this on fandoms, who seem to wield a kind of mysterious yet undeniable power at the moment.
But Dr Hannah McCann, a senior lecturer in cultural studies at the University of Melbourne who researches queer fandoms, points out that fandoms are anything but monolithic: “Fandoms have been around for decades, but have more notoriety and visibility today because of the internet and social media platforms which facilitate fan connections and expressions.”
She explains that there are often huge divisions within fandoms, and debate around issues like queerbaiting and sexuality can often turn fandoms into toxic spaces. Dr McCann raises the the Taylor Swift fandom as an example, where the “Gaylor” faction (fans dedicated to queer readings of her songs) would butt heads with the straight “Hetlor” faction. When Swift released the song “Betty” in 2020, this became such a heated issue that Gaylor fans were doxxed and outed as a response to the schism.
McCann tells me that it’s easy as an outsider to look at a group of fans and see them as a single entity – and while some voices within the Heartstopper fandom might have accused Connor of queerbaiting, many have been equally as critical of that pressure.
“We can’t say the pressure came from Heartstopper fans in a blanket way,” she says. “As well as from some Heartstopper fans, some of the pressure may also have just come from other queer – or straight – people online who were less concerned with the show than with ensuring a general alignment between the representation of sexuality and celebrity identity.”
The academic notes that the media also has a part to play in this, often reporting on and amplifying the loudest and most negative – and also fringe – voices and representing them as those of the entire fandom. “Some of the recent criticism around Kit’s coming out makes it sound like all fans are bad,” McCann says, “and the implication falls on this group of imagined young queer fans of the show.”
Whether or not the queerbaiting accusations levelled against Kit Connor were from a small, terminally online and unnaturally amplified fringe, the fact is that the actor still felt enough pressure to initially deactivate his social media accounts and later out himself as a response.
By policing whether or not Harry Styles is “allowed” to wear a green feather boa on stage, or Billie Eilish can include sapphic themes in her music videos, or Kit Connor can play a bi teenager without explicitly confirming that he himself is a bi teenager, we create a hierarchy of queerness – a right or a wrong way to actually be queer.
There are all sorts of reasons why someone might not want to explicitly out themselves – safety, privacy, internal confusion – but in the end, it doesn’t actually matter. Coming out is entirely about choice. Being out and proud is a choice that many people make, but shouldn’t be seen as being more valid or worthwhile than anyone who doesn’t choose that path. It creates regressive ideas of ways of being queer.
“While it is easy to be critical of the people who demanded Kit come out, it’s important to understand that they’re coming from a place where queer characters have been relegated to the sidelines, been tokenised, ridiculed, and queer actors have been forced to stay in the closet for fear of not getting work,” reminds McDermott.
“The impulse to remedy this is noble, but demanding every actor publicly come out in order to grant the character authenticity is problematic and unproductive. Instead, supporting a diversity of queer stories and storytellers would create a landscape where it is easier for the celebrity in question to come out in the first place.”