This week Kit Connor, the young star of Heartstopper, Netflix’s dreamy LGBTQ romance, came out as bisexual – but not by his own choice. “Back for a minute,” he tweeted, referring to his self-imposed break from Twitter due to previous harassment. “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”
A feverish entitlement to details of celebrities’ sexualities has been growing online for years, with celebrities being increasingly called on by fans and media to “come out” and confirm rabid speculation. Harry Styles, Taylor Swift, Jameela Jamil, Rita Ora, Billie Eilish, Yungblud, Shawn Mendes and most recently Connor have all been pestered to confirm their sexualities amid obsessions over the most spurious of clues – a paparazzi photo, a music video, a choice of role. Connor faced a storm of scrutiny when pictures emerged of him holding hands with Maia Reficco, a costar in a new film. For touching a woman, after playing a bisexual character in Heartstoppper, Connor was accused of “queerbaiting”, a criticism levelled against stars who are believed to be “performing” queerness for clout.
It is this same kind of thinking that leads to arguments that Harry Styles shouldn’t be allowed to wear a green feather boa until he confirms how he identifies, or Billie Eilish being criticised over mildly sapphic scenes in a music video, followed by demands that she “come out” in order to justify them.
Queerbaiting was originally a criticism directed at films and shows that would hint at LGBTQ+ representation without actually depicting it, in order to attract LGBTQ+ audiences without having to lose the straight ones. Think of when the directors of Avengers: Endgame spoke publicly and loudly about having queer representation in the film, only for it to turn out to be a single line spoken by an unnamed secondary character.
But the extremely media-literate young people who make up online fandoms have weaponised and debased the term, levelling it at any celebrities they believe are performing queerness to curry their favour and and earn the “pink dollar”.
Unlike in the past, when public scrutiny of sexuality was mostly driven by homophobia, this new entitlement seems to be mostly couched not just in acceptance but an intense support for queer identities. While this sounds nice, the problem lies in the fact that celebrities have no say about whether they want this “support” or not. It also perpetuates regressive attitudes around performative queerness for straight audiences, where certain “types” of identity are seen as more valid or real than others. It also doesn’t acknowledge the very real dangers that still exist for people who make the choice to publicly come out. In the end, it all becomes just more content for us to measure, judge and consume.
The “pressure” that Connor wrote of is not a few scattered trolls or the odd thinkpiece. We’re talking about giant, engaged fandoms across multiple social media networks that might be invisible to you but are of real and pressing concern to anyone in those spaces. Heartstopper’s surprise success stemmed from support from a passionate fandom, which he couldn’t really afford to ignore. These fandoms have a terrifying ability to exert pressure online: they are numerous and vocal, and everyone working in culture right now, from executives to actors, knows that courting them can mean success.
While both Connor and his Heartstopper costar Joe Locke have deactivated their social media accounts, that Connor felt “forced” to return and come out shows the pressure is both toxic and real. Connor’s character Nick is also on a journey of discovering his sexuality, which is treated with incredibly moving respect and love in the show – but it is something many of the show’s fans clearly misunderstood.
Coming out is a personal journey, but it is one that’s been policed by people both inside and outside of the queer community for a long time. Rebel Wilson recently saidshe also felt “forced” to come out when a gay Sydney Morning Herald gossip columnist threatened to write about her new relationship with a woman. “There are levels to telling people,” she said. “You tell your close family and your friends and not everybody. Across our two families, not everybody is as accepting as what you’d hope for, and we were trying to be respectful to those people and tell them in our own way.”
Connor is a young man, bullied into reckoning with all the complications, joys and confusions of his sexuality in the public eye. Even if you don’t care about celebrities, such entitlement among the public is emblematic of a wider issue – celebrities aren’t the only ones suffering. Such binary attitudes have made their way into the queer community, where there are arguments about who is “allowed” to march in Pride or enter queer spaces. It all leads to a situation where there is a “right” or “wrong” way of being queer, where coming out and performing is expected, rather than a choice. Nobody’s sexuality or gender identity needs to be offered up for other people’s consumption – no, not even a celebrity’s.