This week, Heart stroke Star Kit Connor has come out as bisexual on social media. What should have been a positive thing in the 18-year-old actor’s life was tainted by the circumstances that pushed him to take this public step.
After previously deleting his Twitter account, Connor returned to the app on Monday to make the announcement and call out those who forced him out himself. “Come back a minute. I am bisexual. Congratulations on forcing an 18-year-old out of himself,” he tweeted. “I think some of you missed the point of the show. Goodbye.” That last track was a pointed reminder to fans of how Heart stroke encouraged true empathy, compassion and grace – not to mention patience and forbearance – on the issue of coming out.
This all happened because Connor, who again is barely an adult, had been seen in public together with a wife, actress Maia Reffico. So-called fans took to social media to berate Heart stroke creator Alice Oseman for casting Connor on the show. Netflix’s teen drama chronicles the experience of two high school boys coming to terms with their sexual identities as they fall in love with each other, with Connor playing a jock who ultimately comes out as gay.
Connor and Reficco, who ain’t on Heart strokewere accused to “annoy the show” and the hashtag #kitconnorgoawayfromheartstopper distributed across the platform. The crime here, apparently: a teenager was taking advantage out of queer people by playing a queer character despite appearing to be straight himself. The term “queerbaiting” has cropped up several times. Once again, we found ourselves in the middle of a tedious but damaging cycle of bad faith and queerphobia, where a person’s basic act of existing in their daily lives was declared to be a form of “bait”. .
The discourse centered on the desire to have more opportunities for our queer actors to play more roles, especially queer roles, has metastasized into something dark and toxic: a demand that an actor in a role gay be gay, out and proud… or else. A push for equality and representation is now a looming threat, all under the guise of representation and struggle for community. This notion could not be further from the truth.
Queerbaiting is a term most often used in fandom circles. He describes the practice of hinting at the possibility of same-sex romance or LGBTQ+ representation in a story, only to have it never come to fruition. It’s like a tease. The idea is that, as a result of this manipulation, queer audiences are “encouraged” to cling to a show, movie, or novel with the promise of inclusion.
from the BBC sherlock is frequently cited as a prime example of queerbaiting, with endless jokes and allusions that Sherlock and Watson’s relationship is more than platonic and never paid off. It’s a useful term that has its roots in decades of pop culture discourse, a long history in which finding positive and realistic LGBTQ+ representation (or any kind of screen presence) was a daunting task. Yet this concept has been co-opted as a battering ram in unnecessary and even cruel ways.
Actors perceived as cisgender and heterosexual have been criticized by some for taking on queer roles, such as Andrew Garfield when he appeared in Angels in America or James Corden when he played in Prom. (Whether or not sexual orientation should play a role in casting, especially for gay characters, is an ongoing and complicated debate.)
Musicians like Cardi B and Billie Eilish have been condemned by fans for featuring queer content in their music videos, even though Cardi has repeatedly noted that she is bisexual.
Harry Styles has unwittingly become the poster child for queerbaiting conversation, with some claiming he takes advantage of queer fans by doing androgynous hairstyles and waving Pride flags on stage, never confirming any rumors about his sexual orientation. (For many years, Styles was also the subject of a fan-driven conspiracy theory alleging a secret romance between him and former One Direction bandmate Louis Tomlinson. One can imagine how that pressure might prompt someone who wants to keep their privacy more under control (envelope.)
These conversations – and critiques – take place regardless of how active a celebrity is in perpetrating these acts of so-called queerbaiting. There are people like lead singer Charlie Puth, who seems to be enthusiastically taking to it, much to the amusement of some fans and the anger of others. Katy Perry’s now infamous hit single “I Kissed a Girl” was like a queerbait anthem, with the straight singer treating a gay kiss as a titillating break from straight life, and inspired a storm of opinion. Then there are people like Connor, who hadn’t publicly performed or tried to capitalize on an identity. He was just a teenager playing a role and living his life out of the headlines.
These stifling demands for full transparency about an individual’s gender and sexual identity are positioned as something positive by a contingent of fans. This is seen as a way to rebalance the scales and bring the focus back to allowing LGBTQ+ voices to tell their own stories. It is true that, historically speaking, queer narratives in the mainstream have been largely defined by figures of cishet, dog afternoon at Primary instinct at The Danish Girl. A straight actor playing a gay role was often touted as a moment of immense bravery and an awards magnet, while true LGBTQ+ actors could never get an audition for the same role.
It can be tiring when big companies like Disney promise groundbreaking portrayal, only for audiences to get a split second of two men staring at each other or a background kiss, as happened with The beauty and the Beast and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Yet there’s a world of difference between asking how a media conglomerate is tackling LGBTQ+ diversity and demanding that one or two people, some of whom are barely out of their teens, define themselves to the world or risk d be accused of baiting.
Fans are encouraged to cling to people and IPs, to find solace and a reflection of themselves in their idols. It is a crucial part of the financial and cultural ecosystem. And it’s great that we live in a time where there are more LGBTQ+ characters and stories than there were ten years ago. Heart stroke is a prime example: a warm, inclusive and optimistic series about queer teenagers finding their place in the world without judgment.
It’s no wonder so many young people feel such an intimate attachment to the show and its characters, even an appropriation of it. That doesn’t mean the actors owe the viewers anything. They are not their fictional counterparts. It is unnecessary and, as we see, harmful to confuse gratitude for screen representation with the right to know the details of an artist’s personal life.
Coming out should be a moment of celebration. Every LGBTQ+ person has their own journey to their true self, especially in a society where homophobia and transphobia are still terrifyingly rampant. It’s still not safe to release in many countries around the world, and the industry is still struggling to make room for queer voices. No one benefits from forcing others to confine themselves to a specific pair of gender and sexuality. The goal of queer liberation is to break down these restrictions.
It should be a sign of progress that men, regardless of their sexuality, feel comfortable dressing in androgynous clothes and wearing makeup like Styles. Surely it’s good for everyone that we’re moving away from the definition of commodities to a strict choice between girl and boy? If these are the means by which we continue to measure sexuality, then we are no better than the homophobes who see us as threats to the world.
It’s also pure biphobia in action, another way the identity spectrum is seen to exclude voices outside of straightness. If Kit Connor is considered a queerbait because he plays in Heart stroke, but was photographed with a woman, this implies that bi- and pansexuality do not exist. How are you supposed to refute such a claim when the verification poles are still moving?
Connor’s exit did not satisfy the people who pushed him to dare to be a teenager with a private life. The same tweeters who demanded its cancellation still declare it to be a opportunistic who uses LGBTQ+ identity for monetary gain. Some even said they thought he was lying. These callous voices are, thankfully, the minority, but they still wield too much power over conversations about exiting violent practice.
Many LGBTQ+ people know the pain of feeling pressured to prove their identity to the world. A person’s journey is their own, their path to autonomy and the realization of their identity is a path that no one else can take. It’s a shame that Connor couldn’t make this trip his own way.