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Queerbaiting and the Outing of Kit Connor

By Avery Benbow

Thank you to Rose Cunningham for all your awesome guidance and support in writing this article!

Note: The term “LGBTQIA2S+" which I will be using in this article stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning, Intersex, Asexual/Aromantic/Agender, 2 Spirit (“encompassing of cultural, spiritual, sexual and gender identity” [Provincial Health Services Authority, 2022] used by some Indigenous communities) and + (for all other identities not included in the acronym).

On the 31st of October, 2022, after seven weeks of avoiding Twitter, the 18-year-old actor Kit Connor released a tweet, reading, “back for a minute. 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.” The young actor is known for his roles in numerous productions, such as Rocketman, Little Joe and Get Santa. However, his recent increase in fame and popularity, as well as his online and in-person harassment related to his sexuality, has mainly stemmed from his role as protagonist Nick Nelson in Netflix’s Heartstopper, which was based on the Heartstopper comics by Alice Oseman.

In Heartstopper, which has a 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes after exploding in popularity after its April 2022 release, Kit Connor plays a “rugby lad” whose story is one of understanding and coming to terms with his bisexuality. This is something he was not perceivably aware of or fully open to prior to his meeting, befriending, and eventual dating of the other protagonist Charlie Spring, who is openly gay, played by Joe Locke.

Heartstopper advertisement, containing Nick Nelson, played by Kit Connor (left), and Charlie Spring, played by Joe Locke (right)

In taking this role of an LGBTQIA2S+ character, Kit Connor was driven to out himself because of accusations of queerbaiting, a term which has come into usage in the past couple of decades. But what is queerbaiting? And why did people drive Kit Connor to out himself in its name?

Wikipedia (please forgive me) defines queerbaiting as “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 an LGBTQ+ or straight ally audience with the suggestion or possibility of relationships or characters that appeal to them,” without facing the possibility of losing conservative audiences.

But why is this an issue? Queerbaiting presents problems because, “we’re talking about communities that maybe don’t see themselves reflected back a whole lot” [Dr R. Hill, 2021] in the media, and it implies “that there is something not valid about these expressions and these identities,” [Dr. R. Hill, PhD, Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing, North-western University Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago, 2021].

Commonly accused culprits include Marvel and Disney, with a somewhat disputed example of queerbaiting being the 2021 movie Luca. This is due to the main characters, “Luca and Alberto forming a close achillean relationship (a masculine attraction that may or may not include romantic or sexual feelings),” [The Conversation, 2021] and having “to hide their identities from the human world. Luca faces heavy judgment from his parents for wanting to live more openly,” [Medium, 2021] speaking to some in the LGBTQIA2S+ community’s experiences of being closeted and coming out.

Luca poster

However, while the movie ends with the moral of living “among your chosen family, regardless of the hatred that might bring” [Medium, 2021], it also “reasserts the heteronormativity ingrained in Disney’s traditional storytelling,” [The Conversation, 2021] with Luca leaving Alberto to go to school with Giulia. While everything is open to interpretation, this example hopefully provides an understanding of what queerbaiting refers to, and how it might present itself, with no confirmation of any LGBTQIA2S+ representation so corporations such as Disney can maintain the conservative “family-friendly” images they’ve curated.

Therefore, when sticking to the proper parameters of the definition, queerbaiting is not something an individual can do, as one’s personal expression doesn’t have to be justified by aligning in a particular way. This is because even if there is still a long way to go in terms of acceptance and equality, the world is changing, and as this happens, people shouldn’t have to act within the outlines of how they identify, as “the need for [personal] disclosure becomes smaller and less significant,” [Spacey Aces, 2022] especially related to one’s sexual and gender identity.

However, this is not the way some people interpret it, with celebrities, in particular, being subject to accusations of queerbaiting. This is supposedly for the same purpose of creators; in order to gain support from LGBTQIA2S+ and ally audiences, without providing confirmed representation and with it, proper recognition of the community. Celebrities who have been accused of this include Harry Styles, Ariana Grande, Nick Jonas, Billie Eilish, Taylor Swift, and of course, Kit Connor. Outraged people, especially online, believe these celebrities have hinted at or are presenting themselves in a way that people would interpret to mean being part of the LGBTQIA2S+ community, without direct relationships or labels to prove it.

Some celebrities who have been accused of queerbaiting include (left to right) Kit Connor, Taylor Swift, and Harry Styles

But how does queerbaiting relate to Kit Connor, and why was he accused of it in the first place?

Well, though Kit Connor had acted previously, the huge Heartstopper fanbase “propelled him into a new level of stardom, and all of his co-stars as well” [Brennen Beckwith, 2022], with his Instagram increasing from approximately 200,000 followers from before Heartstopper’s release to 4.7 million followers currently. The show came to mean a lot of things to a lot of people, and the cast grew in popularity as a result, with Connor capturing the hearts of many with his widely acclaimed portrayal of Nick Nelson, a character who encouraged many with his story, and who many more resonated with, feeling a reflection of him and his journey in their own subconscious.

Heartstopper S1 E8: when Nick Nelson comes out as bisexual to his mum

The large audience that Kit Connor and the other cast members gained has been positive for their careers but has also led to some issues relating to separating the characters from the actors. A contribution to this was that the Heartstopper team put lots of effort into finding a cast that “represented the characters authentically” [Director Euros Lyn, 2022], with strict rules when it came to “matching the characters’ sexuality and race” [Capital, 2022]. This has been extremely beneficial for representation, however, has meant that some people have found it difficult to separate the actor Kit Connor from the character Nick Nelson.

The main cast of Heartstopper after filming

This has resulted in quite a large amount of speculation surrounding Connor’s sexuality in real life, as many of the other Heartstopper cast members are openly LGBTQIA2S+, and he plays a bisexual character. However, Connor had been quite firm about maintaining his privacy related to his sexuality, remarking in an interview that “I’m perfectly confident and comfortable with my sexuality… and I don’t feel like I need to label myself, especially not publicly.” This is because he “completely understand[s] that many fans want queer representation to be authentic and they want to know whether it is authentic… [however] you shouldn’t make someone feel uncomfortable to the point where they have to tell a stranger about their sexuality” [Kit Connor, 2022].

However, the questioning continued, and tensions came to a head when a video was released of Kit Connor holding hands with Maia Reficco, the lead actress in Netflix’s A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow, a filming movie in which Kit Connor co-stars with Reficco as the love interest. Consequently, after this video was released, online chatter arose regarding their possible romantic relationship, which still has not been confirmed by either of them. However, Connor was still accused of queerbaiting, due to his suspected heterosexual relationship, even though Nick Nelson, who the “fans” were comparing him to, was bisexual, and in Nick Nelson’s personal context, this meant attracted to males and females, though being bisexual can encapsulate attraction beyond the two binary genders.

A snippet of circulating video of Kit Connor and Maia Reficco holding hands

Though these accusers were a minority, their huge outrage compensated for their lack in size, making comments such as, “@AliceOseman please remove @kit_connor from heartstopper, we don’t want to see him anymore!!! @maiareficco and him are screwing up the show, get him out before people start cancelling the show for them,” and, “I must say what a s**t job @AliceOseman did putting kit connor in the cast, how could you be able to find a perfect actress to represent elle but couldn’t find a blonde queer actor”. They threatened not to watch the new seasons of Heartstopper if Connor didn’t come out, creating #kitconnorgoawayfromheartstopper, claiming that he had stolen the role of an LGBTQIA2S+ actor who could’ve both portrayed Nick Nelson and provided authentic representation.

Now, while it is important to have LGBTQIA2S+ actors in LGBTQIA2S+ roles to represent their own experiences and community, “nobody needs to prove that they are queer… [as this] undermines the very core values of the queer, LGBTQIA+ community,” [Spacey Aces, 2022]. If only confirmed members of the LGBTQIA2S+ community can play these roles, then actors and actresses who may be in the closet for numerous reasons, including the possibility that it could torpedo a career in particular environments, as “there is still a huge stigma for queer actors in Hollywood” [James Somerton, 2022], could be denied the opportunity of being cast in these roles.

Additionally, to put this specific situation into perspective, Kit Connor is eighteen, and was still in high school when Heartstopper was released. Though being 18 years old is the age of adulthood, in the grand scheme of life, one is still a child, with Connor’s co-star Joe Locke himself saying in an interview, “I’m 18, I don’t know who I am yet.” It is perfectly normal for someone to still be figuring out their sexuality at this age, or at least not be ready to label themselves, especially in public space, where a label can define you for the rest of your career or life.

Despite all of this, and the basic premise that “nobody is owed an explanation of anyone else’s sexuality” [Spacey Aces, 2022], the harassment continued over Kit Connor’s sexuality. Comments appeared on any posts by or featuring him, and he expressed his discomfort with this online and in interviews, and eventually decided to leave Twitter for the sake of escaping the constant, “he’s queerbaiting, he’s queerbaiting, he’s queerbaiting.” Until, eventually, he returned to Twitter to answer the demands in the defining moment, tweeting, “back for a minute. 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.”

Kit Connor’s tweet

Twitter exploded with activity, and as expected, some of the reactions were pleased that they had forced him to take this step, with tweets such as, “Oh boo hoo you outed yourself. Next time don’t bait,” or, “you should’ve come out earlier, you have a duty of care to lgbt youth to show you can have a great life, be successful and not cowering in the shadows. grow up or go back to anonymity, you don’t have the right to privacy as a celebrity and you’ve let the lgbt community down.” Though these comments would suggest that Kit Connor coming out is positive for the community, forcing someone to come out prematurely isn’t how healthy role models and positive representation are created, instead, “this is how we create shame” [black and white thinking, 2022].

These comments and many more send the message that Connor was indeed queerbaiting, and that he owed it to his “fans” to share his sexuality with them. This is because despite the fact he is only eighteen, and his role and portrayal of Nick Nelson made many people feel seen and represented in a deeply positive way, because they believed he needed to “prove he was not exploiting a queer storyline by playing a bisexual character” [Spacey Aces, 2022].

Kit Connor’s assertion that he had been forced to come out was also contested, with articles written putting the word ‘forced’ in quotation marks, as if to indicate the whole occurrence was a ply for attention. Some of the comments of his tweet reflect this too, with one reply reading, “Seriously?? No one forced you to "come out". Sorry but that was you're choice. Didn't you deactivate "this silly little app"..or maybe not?? You def good at this game. .Maybe you shouldn't have taken a queer role if you weren't ready to deal with your sexuality.” This statement seeps with falsity, in both its grammar and messaging, because though Kit Connor himself came out online, the tweet itself made it obvious “this isn’t someone who was ready to come out publicly” [James Somerton, 2022], but was instead driven to it by meaningless bullying and harassment.

Headlines on Kit Connor’s outing

After all, even if Kit Connor hadn’t come out, there is “no way to suggest [he] is a bad casting for Nick Nelson” [Brennen Beckwith, 2022] and he “was not hurting the community… by not being out” [James Somerton, 2022].

However, the implications for not succumbing to these demands, whereby he was exposed to the mental degradation of being labelled an enemy of the LGBTQIA2S+ community, resulted in his privacy being violated by parasocial relationships on the internet. It was also possible that because of the queerbaiting allegations, there would’ve been a decrease in the viewership of Heartstopper’s later seasons, possibly leading to his castmates’ and his own early careers being compromised. This all demonstrates that he was indeed forced to come out by the “excessive media hype… that has essentially backed him into a corner” [black and white thinking, 2022], and it wasn’t a choice he made or a bid for attention.

Thankfully, the majority of those who have seen what Kit Connor was driven to have been outraged and expressed their support of him. There has been the creation of #weloveyoukit, focused on the idea that “it’s very rude to speculate about people’s sexuality” [Heartstopper comics], and that what Kit Connor had to go through was wrong on so many levels.

One response to Kit Connor’s tweet, expressing disgust at what happened to him

Outing in itself is the act of someone’s gender identity or sexuality being revealed without their permission or having been forced to come out for other reasons, which can be done by the person themselves too. This is different to “coming out,” because the person reveals this information themselves, in a way they wanted to, when they wanted to. Outing can cause trauma as a result of a breach of privacy and discrimination, the fear of which causes 51% of LGBTQIA2S+ people to hide their identity in the workplace [Stonewall, 2022].

Following the incident, members of the Heartstopper cast and team, such as Alice Oseman, the creator of the Heartstopper comics tweeted, “I truly don’t understand how people can watch Heartstopper and then gleefully spend their time speculating about sexualities and judging based on stereotypes. I hope all those people are embarrassed as F**K. Kit you are amazing.” Joe Locke, who plays Charlie Spring in the show, tweeted, “You owe nothing to anyone. I’m so proud of you my friend,” and Kizzy Edgell, who plays Darcy Ollson, tweeted, “i love u kit im sorry this has been so disgustingly rough on you.”

This has undoubtedly been a horrific experience for Kit Connor personally, but how does this issue relate to the wider LGBTQIA2S+ community?

Besides the aforementioned issue of celebrities being accused of queerbaiting, the other issue shadowing over the lives of people like Kit Connor is the obsession with young LGBTQIA2S+ people coming out, especially in the public domain. People don’t have the right to someone’s sexuality, even if it might mean there is more representation, because they deserve to have autonomy over their identity, and “no amount of queer representation is worth outing a single queer person,” [Brennen Beckwith, 2022] considering the damage it can cause and the loss of control over how the world perceives them. Because now, no matter how much support he has received after the fact, Kit Connor will never be able to regain control of this aspect of his identity, which now everyone in the world has access to.

This event also speaks to issues within the acceptance of bisexual people as members of the LGBTQIA2S+, with a monosexist (only attracted to one gender) angle leading to “bi people [being] constantly outed” [black and white thinking, 2022]. Those who identify with bisexuality can often be misinterpreted as a heterosexual threat to the LGBTQIA2S+ community or someone who is only “gay and in denial,” which is why issues such as this one arise when someone doesn’t confirm that they are either straight or gay. Bisexuality is its own unique sexuality and bisexual people “don’t have to be a particular type of gay or straight to require acceptance” [black and white thinking, 2022]. However, all this pressure culminates with questions and comments, with many underestimating, “how much the double closet can affect you, and how much it hurts to believe someone should be your ally, to only find that they think that you are lesser than them” [black and white thinking, 2022].

So, what resolution is there to be made? A young man has been bullied into outing himself by people who called themselves his “fans,” and for what purpose? So that there is LGBTQIA2S+ representation through people that are simply trying to do their jobs and happen to be in the public eye? So Kit Connor’s depiction of a bisexual character was justified, despite the portrayal warming the hearts of so many without confirmation of the actor’s sexuality?

In the words of Kit Connor himself, “it’s 2022, it feels a bit strange to make assumptions about a person’s sexuality just based on hearing their voice or seeing their appearance. I feel like that’s a very interesting, slightly problematic, sort of assumption to make,” and right he is. “Young queer people deserve compassion… love, joy and community” [Brennen Beckwith, 2022], and they deserve to be able to live in a world that “allows space for personal discovery and diversity” [Spacey Aces, 2022].

Heartstopper cast members at London Pride March

Hopefully, we can live in a world like this one day, but for now, we’ll have to be content with knowing what queerbaiting is and is not; hoping that those who drove Kit Connor out of the closet have been enlightened; and learning, mistake by mistake, what can be done to move forward into a future where if Kit Connor had ever decided he wanted to come out publicly, it would be done in his way, in his time. It would be a cause for celebration, rather than a shadow over the light Heartstopper created… because above all else, he’d be ready.

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