Kit Connor’s Forced Coming Out Is Internet Fan Culture at Its Cruelest

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty

This week, Heartstopper star Kit Connor came out as bisexual on social media. What should have been a positive thing in the life of the 18-year-old actor was tainted by the circumstances that caused him to take that public step.

After having previously deleted his Twitter account, Connor returned to the app on Monday to make the announcement and call out those who had forced him to out himself. “Back for a minute. I’m bi. Congrats for forcing an 18-year-old to out himself,” he tweeted. “I think some of you missed the point of the show. Bye.” That latter bit was a pointed reminder to fans of how Heartstopper encouraged true empathy, compassion, and grace—not to mention patience and patience—on the issue of coming out.

All of this happened because Connor, who, once again, is barely an adult, had been seen in public holding hands with a woman, the actress Maia Reffico. So-called fans took to social media to berate Heartstopper creator Alice Oseman for casting Connor on the show. The Netflix teen drama chronicles the experience of two boys in high school coming to terms with their sexual identities as they fall in love with each other, with Connor playing a jock who, eventually, comes out as gay.

Connor and Reficco, who is not on Heartstopper, were accused of "screwing up the show" and the hashtag #kitconnorgoawayfromheartstopper spread throughout the platform. The crime here, apparently: a teenage boy was profiting off of queer people by playing a queer character despite seeming to be straight himself. The term "queerbaiting" reared its ugly head multiple times. Again, we found ourselves in the midst of a tedious yet damaging cycle of bad-faith and queerphobia, where a person’s basic act of existing in their everyday life was declared to be a form of “bait.”

The discourse centering around the desire for more opportunities for out queer actors to play more roles, especially queer ones, has metastasized into something dark and toxic: a demand that an actor in a gay role be gay, out, and proud… or else. A push for equality and representation is now a menacing threat, all under the guise of representation and fighting for the community. That notion couldn’t be further from the truth.

Queerbaiting is a term most often used in fandom circles. It describes the practice of hinting at the possibility of a same-sex romance or LGBTQ+ representation in a story, only for that to never come to fruition. It’s like a tease. The idea is that, as a result of this manipulation, queer audiences are "baited" into latching onto a show or film or novel with the promise of inclusion.

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BBC’s Sherlock is frequently referenced as a prime example of queerbaiting, with endless jokes and hints about Sherlock and Watson’s relationship being more than platonic that never paid off. It's a helpful term that has its roots in decades of pop culture discourse, a long history wherein finding positive and realistic LGBTQ+ representation (or any kind of presence on-screen) was an arduous task. Yet this concept has been co-opted as a battering ram in ways that are unnecessary and even cruel.

Actors who are perceived to be 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 starred in The Prom. (Whether or not sexual orientation should play a part in casting, particularly of gay characters, is a constant, 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 noted on numerous times that she is bisexual.

Harry Styles has unwittingly become the poster boy for the queerbaiting conversation, with some claiming he is profiting from queer fans by styling himself in an androgynous manner and waving Pride flags on stage, yet never confirming any rumors about his sexual orientation. (For many years, Styles has also been the subject of a fan-driven conspiracy theory alleging a secret romance between him and former One Direction band member Louis Tomlinson. One can imagine how that pressure might make someone want to keep their private life further under wraps.)

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These conversations—and criticisms—take place regardless of how active a celebrity seems to be in committing these acts of supposed queerbaiting. There are people like singer Charlie Puth, who appears to eagerly engage with it, to the amusement of some fans and the ire of others. Katy Perry’s now infamous hit single “I Kissed a Girl” was like a queerbait anthem, with the straight singer treating a same-sex kiss as a titillating break from hetero life, and inspired a firestorm of opinions. Then there are the likes of Connor, who hadn’t publicly played up or tried to capitalize on any identity. He was just a teenage boy playing a role and living his life out of the headlines.

These stifling demands for total transparency over an individual’s gender and sexual identity are positioned as something positive by a contingent fans. It’s 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 widely defined by cishet figures, from Dog Day Afternoon to Basic Instinct to The Danish Girl. A straight actor playing a gay role was often heralded as a moment of immense bravery, and a magnet for awards—all while actual LGBTQ+ actors could never get an audition for the same part.

It can be tiring to have major corporations like Disney promise ground-breaking representation, only for audiences to get a half-second of two men looking at one another or a background kiss, as happened with Beauty and the Beast and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Yet there’s a world of difference from questioning how a media conglomerate tackles LGBTQ+ diversity and demanding that one or two people, some of whom are barely out of their teen years, define themselves to the world or risk being accused of baiting.

Charlie Puth Is the Latest Male Celeb to Queerbait for Likes

Fans are encouraged to latch onto people and IPs, to find comfort and a reflection of themselves in their idols. It’s a crucial part of the financial and cultural ecosystem. And it’s great that we live in a time where LGBTQ+ figures and stories are more plentiful than they were even a decade ago. Heartstopper is a prime example of this: a warm, inclusive, and optimistic series about queer teenagers finding a place for themselves in the world without judgment.

It’s no wonder so many young people feel such an intimate attachment to the series and its characters—even an ownership of it. That doesn’t mean that the actors owe anything to viewers. They are not their fictional counterparts. It’s unhelpful and, as we’re seeing, harmful to conflate gratitude for on-screen representation with an entitlement to know the details of a performer’s personal life.

Coming out should be a moment of celebration. Every LGBTQ+ person has their own journey to their true selves, especially in a society where homophobia and transphobia is still terrifyingly rampant. It’s still not safe to be out in many countries around the world, and the industry still struggles to make space for queer voices. Nobody benefits from forcing others to confine themselves to a specific binary of gender and sexuality. The whole point of queer liberation is to break down such restrictions.

It should be a sign of progress that men, regardless of sexuality, feel comfortable dressing in androgynous clothing and wearing make-up like Styles. Surely it’s good for everyone that we are moving away from defining basic commodities into a strict either/or of girl versus boy? If these are the ways with which we continue to measure sexuality, then we are no better than the homophobes who see us as threats to the world.

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It’s also pure biphobia in action, another way through which the spectrum of identity is seen to exclude voices outside of straightness. If Kit Connor is seen as queerbaiting because he stars in Heartstopper, yet was photographed with a woman, it implies that bi- and pansexuality don’t exist. How is one supposed to refute such a claim when the goalposts of verification are always moving?

Connor coming out didn’t satisfy the people who goaded him for daring to be a teenager with a private life. The same tweeters who demanded his cancellation are still declaring him to be an opportunist who uses LGBTQ+ identity for monetary gain. Some have even said they think he’s lying. Such callous voices are, mercifully, the minority, but they still wield too much power over conversations about the violent practice outing.

Many LGBTQ+ people know the pain of feeling like they have to prove their identity to the world. A person’s journey is their own, their path to autonomy and self-realization of their identity is one that nobody else can take. It’s a shame that Connor could not make that journey in his own way.

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