Earlier this week, actor Kit Connor was forced to come out on Twitter after allegations of queerbaiting. The Heartstopper star and his costar Joe Locke (who is publicly out already) have both been struggling with fans analyzing their every move since the series premiered. Neither felt safe on social media anymore due to the rage, pettiness, and fetishization of online fans that led them being harassed online. While they both have taken extended breaks from social media, Connor finally reached his breaking point when fans attacked him over the fact that he was caught holding hands with actress Maia Reficco. That’s when he, against his own will, came out as bisexual.
The pain that Locke and Connor are going through runs deep, a result of the fetishization of many MLM (man loving man) couples by mass media, and especially by straight women. What forced Connor to come out specifically is something that has affected countless stars in recent years: allegations of queerbaiting. So let’s talk a little bit about what queerbaiting is, and who can do it.
What is Queerbaiting?
Queerbaiting: a marketing technique for fiction and entertainment in which creators hint at, but then do not depict, same-sex romance or other LGBTQ+ representation. The purpose is to attract a LGBTQ+ or straight ally audience with the suggestion or possibility of relationships or characters that appeal to themWikipedia
I’m going to break this definition down into a few parts, each of which is equally important to think about when considering if something (yes, something, not someone) is actually queerbaiting.
“hint at, but then do not depict”
This is the part of queerbaiting that most people think of when they hear the term. In fact, much of the problem that we find ourselves in today can be related back to people only using this phrase as their definition. Queerbaiting is when something hints at queerness, but then there is no actual queerness in the material.
The most egregious example of this in recent memory is perhaps the Pitch Perfect trailers, where they strongly hinted at a relationship between Becca and Chloe in the sequels and then never delivered. Both Becca and Chloe remained as (presumably) straight women in the films themselves. Many people also feared that Killing Eve was queerbaiting the Eve and Villanelle relationship in the first season and the marketing for the next, with posters clearly pointing towards a romantic relationship while nothing had actually happened onscreen. Of course, Killing Eve did become explicitly queer, but many fans were still worried between seasons.
“to attract a LGBTQ+… audience”
If queerbaiting attracts such wrath, why do companies do it? The answer is simple: it helps attract an LGBTQ+ audience. Take Killing Eve for example. While the queers of the internet bemoaned the odds that the show was merely teasing a sapphic relationship, they were also watching the show in record numbers. “Villaneve” became an official ship name and everyone was talking about it, causing even more people to watch.
Queerbaiting generates buzz in a community that is desperate for representation. These fans are loyal to their shows, as can be seen by the campaigns to bring back Batwoman, The Wilds, Paper Girls, and other recently cancelled sapphic shows, as well as the record breaking first week that First Kill had on Netflix (not that this prevented it from also being cancelled). Queerbaiting is explicitly done to draw in this audience, without regard for the harm that is done once this community is let down.
“a marketing technique for fiction and entertainment”
You may be wondering why I put this sentence last when it is the first phrase in the definition. The reason for this is that I believe the nuance here is the true reason why there has become ambiguity in who can queerbait recently. As recently as 5-10 years ago, human beings did not market themselves. TV shows, movies, books, and other fiction did, but human beings did not. With the advent of Instagram, Youtube, TikTok, and other social medias, human beings have become brands. Once you start getting paid to post about your real life, the line between person and brand blurs, and thus it becomes possible for a human to need to use marketing techniques.
The grandest example of this would be to look at Taylor Swift. There are hundreds of conspiracy theories about Swift fueled by her propensity to drop easter eggs in her music, clothing, and talk show appearances. The grandest of these is the one that divides the fandom into Gaylors and Hetlors: the former adamant that Swift is queer, the second demanding that she is straight (of course, the majority of people fall somewhere in between).
When Taylor Swift writes sapphic references into her songs and dyes her hair the colors of the bisexual flag in her “You Need to Calm Down” music video after explicitly saying that she leaves easter eggs in her wardrobe choices, she is performing a marketing technique. She is putting on a public display of queerness in order to attract LGBTQ+ supporters to her music. With the prevalence of Gaylors and their vocal presence on social media, it is reasonable to assume that Swift and people on her PR team know enough to be aware of what they are doing.
On the other hand, when Taylor Swift, for example, travels to Big Sur with Karlie Kloss and posts photos of the two of them together, this is not queerbaiting. This is merely a human being living their life. She is not under an obligation to censor the way that she interacts with people in her life simply for the comfort of others.
In the same way, Harry Styles wearing dresses and not conforming to traditional gender norms is not queerbaiting if this is actually who he is. Whether he is straight, gay, or something else entirely, it is entirely acceptable for him to behave how he wants to. A more accurate case of queerbaiting would be Madonna (who came out on TikTok recently!) and Brittney kissing at the VMAs in 2003. The difference? The latter is done as a performance, and the former is a person being himself.
This is a distinction that is necessary to make! Human beings can market themselves, but queerbaiting only comes into play when they are marketing “fiction and entertainment” directly. Just because a human is also a brand does not negate their existence as a person as well. This subtle distinction is so often missed, and it means that people such as Kit Connor are attacked for living their lives.
Why Queerbaiting Hurts
As I said earlier, the LGBTQ+ community is starved for representation. There is a dearth of shows featuring queer people in happy relationships, which is part of the reason why Heartstopper became so popular in the first place. When representation is teased and then taken away, it further emphasizes the untrue belief that it’s impossible to be happy and exist as a queer person. Even more so than not having any representation at all, having representation teased for attention and then taken away harms people who thought they would finally see themselves on screen. A viewer may have heard that their favorite character could be gay, and believed that was possible for themselves, only to realize that it wasn’t actually the truth.
Queerbaiting is normally not done with malicious intent, but this is the result. With as much information as there is nowadays about the dangers of queerbaiting, it’s hard not to think negatively about a marketing team that didn’t have enough queer people on their team to tell them that wasn’t okay.
The Dangers of False Accusations
While queerbaiting can be harmful to the community as a whole, accusing individuals of queerbaiting can be extraordinarily harmful for that person. As we saw with Kit Connor, he was forced to announce his bisexuality before he was ready to because of the vitriol he was receiving on the internet. Nobody should be forced to come out before they are ready. The process of coming to terms with yourself and your identity can take time, and being in the public eye can make it even scarier.
It can be fun to speculate on famous people’s sexualities, but doing so online can make people uncomfortable and make the community an unsafe place to be. Connor and other people like him should be free to live their lives however they choose without being treated badly for who they’re seen publicly with– and that isn’t even getting into the biphobia. In the future, closeted or questioning individuals will be discouraged from joining a franchise such as Heartstopper because the “fans” will force them out of the closet prematurely.
Treat people with kindness, and remember that human beings cannot queerbait. So stop accusing them of doing so.