The pressure for 18-year-old actor Kit Connor to come out had been building on social media for months.
Connor, a star of Netflix’s teen romcom, “Heartstopper,” said Monday that he felt he was being forced out of the closet — a concerning new development at the intersection of cancel culture and identity policing.
In the coming-of-age series with a refreshing, queer-forward plot, Connor plays a British high school rugby Nick Nelson, alongside classmate Charlie Spring, played by Joe Locke, who falls in love with him. Over the course of the eight-episode series, adapted from the graphic novel of the same name by Alice Oseman, Nick starts to question his own sexuality amid his growing feelings for Charlie.
The show was so well received when it launched this year that it’s already been renewed for two more seasons. It is one of the first to center LGBTQ characters — both Nick and Charlie, as well as others in the main cast — geared towards a teen and young adult audience. Unlike shows like “Sex Education” and “Euphoria,” which, while also wonderfully sexually and gender diverse, are more explicit.
Calls for Connor to address his own orientation started this spring with taunting on Twitter, which he addressed in a tweet, saying, “twitter is so funny man. apparently some people on here know my sexuality better than I do…” Still though, that pressure did not abate, and Connor became a target of what social media mobs dubbed “queerbaiting,” with claims the show was attempting to reel people in with broader LGBTQ-inclusive themes without being deliberate in revealing his character’s identity — and perhaps that Connor was doing the same.
The truth about Nelson’s character, as well as Connor’s real-life identity, may be much more nuanced. Nonetheless, Connor, who clearly felt backed into a corner, tweeted on Halloween to his 1 million followers that he was bisexual: “back for a minute. i’m bi,” he wrote. “congrats for forcing an 18 year old to out himself. i think some of you missed the point of the show. bye.”
There is a lot to unpack in this story, not least of which is that a young adult has been forced to share very publicly parts of his own identity that are very private — and may still be in flux.
Connor felt the pressure of a moralistic social media mob, a force quick to attack and slow to forgive, that demands you answer its questions immediately and with no room for nuance or context. It is not the way we ought to be operating as a culture.
Sometimes the Twitter mob forces real issues into the light and brings them to favorable outcomes more quickly. Other times, it just blows everything up and walks away, not caring what casualties it leaves in its wake.
Connor’s outing is the latest in a string of celebrities recently forced to out themselves, lest tabloid media exposes or “leaks” do so for them, and stands in contrast to the long history of Hollywood celebrities forced to remain in the closet or else risk their careers.
From closeted actor Rock Hudson in the 20th century to the openly trans actor Elliot Page today, performers have long had to live double lives and hide their true identities to remain on the A list – even to remain safe and alive. It took Ellen DeGeneres decades to rebuild her career after she came out on the cover of TIME magazine in 1997, at the same time as her character in the eponymous ABC sitcom.
It’s true that many LGBTQ characters in contemporary media have evolved — from murderers, murder victims, sex workers and one-dimensional characters who provide a punchline — into actual human beings, including those who aren’t just the sidekick but the leading roles.
They include Michaela Jay Rodriguez, Billy Porter, Dominique Jackson and Indya Moore on FX’s “Pose”; Sara Ramirez as Callie Torres on “Grey’s Anatomy” (and, yes, as Che Diaz on “Sex and the City” spinoff “And Just Like That”); the casts of this year’s movies “Fire Island” and “BROS”’ and Zendaya as Rue Bennett from HBO’s “Euphoria,” to name just a few. We’ve come a long way in a short time in terms of representation in media.
(HBO and HBO Max are both owned by CNN’s parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery.)
Now LGBTQ audiences are rightfully asking the hard questions about who gets to play LGBTQ characters. Does a cisgender person playing a transgender character amount to a White actor in blackface, or playing a role of a BIPOC person, or is there a different litmus test? Does acting mean playing a character distinct from the actor’s personal identity, or are there rules we have yet to adequately draw and maintain?
Cisgender actors like Eddie Redmayne, who was nominated for an Oscar for his role playing a transgender woman in “The Danish Girl,” later said he regrets stepping into the role and that it should have been reserved for a transgender woman. But other casting choices, like Cate Blanchett or Mara Rooney playing lesbians in the stunning 2015 movie, “Carol,” feel more forgivable. Perhaps casting someone to play a character they do not identify as in their personal life is more palatable if they were cast by a director, producer or writer who does inhabit that identity authentically.
Who gets to create queer art and media — and what qualifies as accurate representation? Would a television series or movie get attention if a star-studded cishet cast was replaced for the sake of aligning representation? What if the show’s writers or directors are queer, but the actors aren’t?
While it’s progress that openly queer actors are being cast in leading roles, weaponizing criticisms of queerbaiting and appropriation as an excuse to force a teen or any actor out of the closet is not the answer. Those conversations have reached a fever pitch, and the result is hurting people who should be allowed to make their own decisions when and how to come out, if at all.
For thousands of years, humans have felt the need to categorize things in the world in order to make sense of them. Younger people are disrupting that rigid framework with more fluid gender identities and romantic expressions. That makes some people uncomfortable (read: the current culture wars targeting trans kids, LGBTQ rights, literature and school policies, among other things). But many of those disrupters are also demanding people like Connor now put themselves a box with a label slapped on the front — and share it with the world in short order.
Coming out is not a one-time act, or something that remains fixed, and why should it be? Identities are malleable, and many young people are still on the journey to find themselves. What we shouldn’t do is publicly shame someone into disclosing a part of themselves they may not be ready to or want to share.
With LGBTQ rights under heightened threat across the US and around the world, coming out involves a whole different assessment of risk and repercussions. There is only person who should drive that decision, and no, it’s not a Twitter troll.
Note: There are plenty of resources available for those who want to learn more about how to best support those who are coming out as LGBTQ, and for people who are exploring the queer corners of their own sense of self.