Kit Connor Was Forced To Come Out Because Everybody Is Using “Queerbaiting” Wrong

Feature image of Kit Connor by by John Phillips via Getty Images

In September, fans accused Kit Connor of “queerbaiting” after a video surfaced of the 18-year-old actor holding hands in Paris with actress Maia Reficco, his co-star in the upcoming film A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow. It’s a nonsensical accusation, of course: it betrays the actual definition of “queerbaiting,” a term intended to critique fictional narratives, and it assumes that Kit could not possibly be both queer and in a relationship with a girl. But Twitter is a dedicated incubator of nonsensical accusations, and eventually the harassment grew so extreme that Kit left Twitter altogether.

Then on Monday, he came back, briefly, to share only this: “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 show in question is Heartstopper, in which Kit Connor played Nick Nelson, a sweet rugby player who realizes he’s bisexual after falling for Charlie, the nerdy and recently outed gay boy he’s seated next to in form class. It’s one of my favorite shows of the year, and the genuinely heartwarming adaptation of Alice Osemon’s beloved graphic novels turned Kit Connor into a bit of a star. This thing happens when an actor plays a queer role wherein everybody wants to know if that actor is queer themselves, and he was asked directly about this on a podcast and declared that, “for me, I feel like I’m perfectly confident and comfortable with my sexuality. I’m not too big on labels and things like that. I’m not massive about that, and I don’t feel like I need to label myself, especially publicly.” This did not abate the public’s desire for Kit to label himself, publicly. The queerbaiting accusations raged on.

Again it is worth remembering that Kit Connor is simply 18 years old.

What “Queerbaiting” Actually Is

Rizzoli and Isles: two lady detectives looking serious

It’s this, this is what it is

What is queerbaiting, exactly? When we first covered it in 2013, Rose wrote that it was a term that had likely originated on forums like Livejournal and Tumblr and defined it loosely as “when [tv shows and movies] give us just enough to keep us interested, but not enough to satisfy us and make us truly represented.” They quoted a writer from Isis Magazine who defined it like this: “the practice of television shows and movies putting in a little gay subtext, stirring up interest with queer fans, and then pulling a NO HOMO, MAN on the viewers.”

Some of the more legendary examples of lesbian queerbaiting include Once Upon a Time and Rizzoli and Isles. Like many critiques of how gay narratives are handled in mainstream media, such as Bury Your Gays, queerbaiting is informed by a legacy of neglect and mistreatment of queer narratives in film and television.

The social and economic pressure to erase queer stories also muddled narrative choices: Were these two Very Close Female Friends not girlfriends because that’s what the writers genuinely felt made the most sense for their story? Or were they not girlfriends because the writers or the network were homophobic or afraid of backlash from viewers and sponsors?

But even in 2013, debating the definition and application of queerbaiting in fictional works was already complicated. How do we apply it to older media, when gay and lesbian subtext was all a creator could get away with without losing their right to tell stories at all? Xena the Warrior Princess may feel like queerbaiting to a modern audience, but it felt like a revolutionary step forward towards visibility for lesbian audiences at the time. Even today, there are specific markets where minor queer acknowledgements or subtext remain relatively revolutionary and worth celebrating.

Ultimately, the definition of “queerbaiting” as it applies to fictional works does generally involve some degree of malicious intent. It involves a deliberate withholding from storytellers — whether that withholding is informed by their own (conscious or unconscious) homophobia, network or production pressures, concerns about losing a straight audience or a personal disinterest in actually telling queer stories.

How does this apply to an actual human boy? Well, it simply doesn’t. As Drew Gregory recently tweeted, “accusing individual people of queerbaiting is like getting mad at your friends for not passing the Bechdel test or going to a funeral and blaming it on Bury Your Gays.”

When Did Queerbaiting Become About Real People?

In 2018, after Rita Ora’s song “Girls” inspired a bevy of backlash that forced Ora to come out as bisexual on the public’s timeline rather than her own, Out Magazine offered a different definition of queerbaiting: “making specific overtures to queer communities as if to be of the same experience [and/or] giving vague answers or in some way being ambiguous about their desires as to not turn off fans who hoped to find a thread of commonality.” They cite celebrities like Katy Perry and Nick Jonas as some who’ve “used queerness and queer audiences as a way to galvanize support and launch into mainstream.”

While that phenomenon is real and worth unpacking, it’s not “queerbaiting.”

But “queerbaiting” is a heavy term that introduces a specific historical gravity to a conversation, so I get why it’s tempting to use it instead of simply attempting to explain why a situation is upsetting using a series of words strung into sentences and paragraphs.

In a them dot us piece in October, James Factora noted that queerbaiting was increasing in popularity as a term to describe real people” who look or act queer without explicitly saying or coming out as queer.” Examples of those impacted by this illogical shift in definition included Harry Styles but also Cardi B, who Factora notes is very out as bisexual but apparently not out enough  to stave off accusations of queerbaiting following her appearance in a sexy Normani music video.

The lines between “person” and “brand” are increasingly blurry, and perhaps often fans do feel like they are indeed critiquing a deliberate fictional narrative when they’re challenging a celebrity’s social media presence, artistic output, or simple existence. And in a few small cases, they’re right — sometimes a grown adult is so famous and successful and powerful that it’s not necessarily wrong to conceive of their narrative as a that of a brand (e.g, Taylor Swift) and to analyze their output from that vantage point.

But, in most cases, as Factora concluded, “queerbaiting accusations strip public figures of their humanity and complexity and turns them into characters for our consumption.”

Young People Deserve Privacy, Even The Famous Ones

Maybe a decade ago, I was talking to then-editor Laneia about Kristen Stewart, one of those celebrities the lesbian community had fixated upon as potentially one of our own. I wondered aloud why she wasn’t out, and Laneia said “I don’t think she knows she’s gay yet.” That possibility had never occurred to me — Kristen Stewart was famous, and everybody thought she was gay, so certainly she would’ve done whatever soul-searching was required to validate those claims, right? But she was 21 years old. When I was 21 years old — despite growing up in a liberal gay-friendly town, despite having a lesbian Mom, despite having hooked up with multiple girls — I still thought was straight.

As the discourse around queer actors playing queer parts heats up (for the record I am in the “an actor doesn’t need to be gay to play a gay role” camp), there is increasing pressure on actors with queer parts to come out. It’s fantastic when they do — and so many are! our internal database has 658 out queer women and/or trans actors in it right now! — but they shouldn’t feel they must do so to stave off accusations of dishonesty or betrayal. This is particularly true when the actor is a kid or a teenager.

Furthermore, making art or participating in its creation is often a crucial part of one’s journey of self-exploration. Those who are part of creating art that engenders a wide audience on Netflix could be having the same internal journey as those who discover their sexuality by playing Joanne in a high school production of Rent. When we pressure young actors in queer roles to come out or to state any sexual orientation at all, we’re denying them that journey. It’s also that same pressure that might make a young person hesitant to come out until they’re sure of what they are.

The thing is you never know. For years, Daniel Sea was widely cited as an example of a cis actor playing a trans role on The L Word, simply because at the time he hadn’t yet figured out his gender or how to articulate it. “When I opened that first article in Wired Magazine and it said that the problem with TV is cis people playing trans roles and Daniela Sea is a perfect example of this, it really hurt,” he remembered in an interview with Drew Gregory last year. The author of Love Simon came out as bisexual in 2020 in an essay where she recounted being labeled as “a straight woman writing shitty queer books for the straights, profiting off of communities I had no connection to.”

The problem with accusing a person of queerbaiting is that it is indeed an accusation of negative behavior. It’s not the same as speculating about whether a certain adult female celebrity is dating a girl or non-binary person because they appeared together in a context that would inspire speculation had it been an opposite-sex pairing.

It’s an accusation of betrayal and duplicitousness. It’s also most often levied against bisexual people, who usually are already contending with those stereotypes being used against them.

The market usually continues to value straight cis voices over gay and/or trans voices, continues to privilege and uplift their versions of our stories over our own. But those forces aren’t the fault of the individual teenager, and it’s not on them personally to compensate for decades of puritanical, profit-driven corporations shortchanging queer audiences.

Kit Connor is just a teenage boy who’s in a really cute Netflix show about young love and milkshakes and holding hands in the snow. As Heartstopper itself so clearly declares: “there’s this idea that if you’re not straight, you HAVE to tell all your family and friends immediately, like you owe it to them. But you don’t. You don’t have to do anything until you’re ready.”


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Riese

Riese is the 40-year-old Co-Founder and CEO of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, video-maker, LGBTQ+ Marketing consultant and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and now lives in California. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2986 articles for us.

13 Comments

  1. There is absolutely nothing wrong with speculating about someone and it annoys me to no end when people act like you are being intrusive to wonder if someone is part of the LGBT community and treat it like an insult, when they have no problem assuming people are straight and wondering about their relationships. But there is a big difference between speculation and trying to make someone come out. People should come out when they are ready. Some people will never ever be ready. It may be easier to be out in the UK than in many countries, but bigotry most definitely still exists and is on the rise sadly. Kit may have been worried about his career, what bigots would say or he may simply not have been ready. He was never queerbaiting and Heartstopper fans should know that him holding hands with a girl doesn’t make him straight. People use the term in the wrong context so often. They forget that people not being out doesn’t mean they are straight and straight people aren’t going to gain anything by pretending to be LGBT, which the people accused don’t anyway. Sometimes people also don’t realise it themselves/aren’t ready to admit to themselves as you say. When people say certain actors shouldn’t play a role because they are straight, it’s like “how do you know?” Yes, some of them will be but people have played LGBT roles and then come out years after. They would have been considered straight playing LGBT. I feel so bad for Kit. Speculation is fine but pressure never is.

    • yes exactly!

      speculation is like, 25% of our celebrity content here. and i think it’s fair to speculate because straight people speculate about who famous straights are dating all the time!

      but pressuring or accusing someone of queerbaiting, unless you’re like an anti-gay politician actively harming your communities through legislation? No.

  2. I didn’t realize these accusations of “queerbaiting” had come from Kit being pictured holding hands with his female costar and having learned that it pisses me off so much. Bisexual people are real.
    On another note, young people are probably more likely to not have their sexualities figured out and all that but I think older people should be given the same exact leeway and time when it comes to realizing and coming to terms with their sexuality. People realize new things about themselves at all stages of life.

  3. this poor kid. one of the worst things social media has done is made us (the non famous of the world) feel entitled to every facet of a celebrity’s life just because we see an instagram story about them at the farmers market or a tweet that they’re watching the same movie we loved. the idea that everyone, even really really famous people, is entitled to privacy should not be controversial and yet here we are!

    i really love drew’s tweet because as a person who tends to describe my personal life like a tvtropes entry, it’s a good articulation of why i can do that for me but can’t/shouldn’t do it for random actors who are simply trying to exist

  4. The “is this a bird?” meme with the butterfly labeled “bi people being bi and telling stories about bi characters,” the person labeled “everyone else,” and the person saying “is this queerbaiting?”

  5. The Rizzles screencap had me rolling, because yeah. That’s queerbaiting. My first time on tumblr I saw some Rizzles manips and I was like “hell yeah, brother” and went to watch the show and I was extremely disappointed. I’d never encountered queer fandom before and had no idea what a manip was.

    Regular humans can’t queerbait and this insistence that we must tell people how we identify or we’re liars is one thing I was desperately hoping we’d grow out of as a community. But the new kids on the block feel very puritanical. I feel bad for Kit. Being a queer 18 year old is hard enough without people harassing you on the internet.

  6. Thanks for writing this Reese. I completely share your writing.
    I think there are several terms and ideas that are frequently misunderstood or misinterpreted in online environments. Sometimes it’s just young/naive/misinformed actors. But there is also the bad faith players that take advantage of the situations and make the noise much worse.
    Anyway, I agree with your poignant and well articulated piece.

  7. IMO a very real and very recent use of queerbaiting was season 1 of House of the Dragon. I was bummed after the first queerbait, but after the second? I was pissed.

    It seems like this issue was really created by lack of real representation in mainstream media. We’re sick of seeing white actors play BIPOC characters, straight actors play queer characters, and able-bodied actors play disabled characters. I get it. We need to be careful, though, about forcibly outing people (especially young people) trying to satisfy our need for legitimate representation.

  8. This is why we can’t have nice things. If every teenage queer character has to be played by a queer actor, it will get harder and harder to make media about queer teenagers. Clea DuVall wouldn’t have been allowed to star in But I’m a Cheerleader. (And neither would my dream wife Natasha Lyonne, who would deprive us of this?)

  9. Thank you for writing this Riese. I’ve been frustrated by the shift in what “queerbaiting” is taken to mean in online spaces for awhile but the recent harassment of Kit Connor made me really upset. I appreciate you addressing the nuance of what it means that the line between a person and their brand has gotten blurrier.

    Ultimately though, fixating on whether or not a person is queer as a way of deciding whether they should be “allowed” to play a queer role is actively harmful (and often ends up going after bi+ and trans people the most)

  10. well said Riese! no one owes you access to every single part of themselves, even people who have turned their person into their brand. everyone should have a part of themselves that’s theirs (esp. celebs!) to do with however they want. and Kit is only 18, he still has so much life to live. it’s a shame the way internet discourse does damage to real people’s lives.

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