There are few elements of the online conversation that irritate me more than the discussions around queerbaiting. Put simply, queerbaiting is pretending something is queer by loading it up with coded, meaningful symbols, then making it straight. It’s a useful term for discussing television or films – Disney, in particular, has tried to ensnare queer audiences (and their queer little dollars) by hinting at representation or empowerment, only to trim content for less tolerant audiences, look away at a decisive moment, or leave everything implied with plausible deniability. When the eighth character in a row can be touted as Disney’s first gay character, yep, that’s queerbaiting. But because everyone lives on the internet and everyone is a character in everyone else’s lives, we’ve started applying this term to real people, and it’s having real consequences: just ask Kit Connor.
Kit Connor is best known for his role in Heartstopper, where he plays a teenager coming to terms with his bisexuality as he falls for a boy in his class. Many of the cast are openly queer and gender non-conforming. Due to the popularity and general positivity of the show, many of the cast have used their platform to boost the profile of Pride events and other queer causes. Connor was not openly queer and, in our heteronormative world, assumed to be straight. Because of the twisted logic of online activists who see everything in clearly defined black or white terms, and derive their self-worth from publicly being a more ‘woke’ person than their peers even if this involves bullying and belittling people to prove it, Connor was labelled a queerbaiter. He had never said he was queer and so must be straight. Following the most extreme interpretations of every rule of queer spaces, by uplifting queer causes while being straight, he was queerbaiting. He, a disgusting, vile straight man, was being so disgustingly vile as to care about gay people while not being one of them, and thus was a disgusting, vile queerbaiter.
Of course, being ‘woke’ simply means being aware of the various injustices in society, and the ways they impact both yourself and those around you. Unfortunately, it has turned into a contest where wokeness can be won, and that means making up false rules that others cannot conform to. These too-online activists cast themselves as winners in a game no one else is playing, yet end up losing anyway when our online culture is made so much worse by rampant toxicity.
For now, let’s ignore the logic of how ridiculous it is to think straight people can’t use their platforms to help out vulnerable minorities when queer communities, particularly trans people in Connor’s native Britain, are under attack. This week, Connor (with a huge dose of righteous anger) came out as bisexual, and announced he was leaving his entire online presence behind. Connor was almost entirely known for Heartstopper, which features a heartwarming, beautiful scene where his character comes out as bisexual after a lot of soul searching and is met with love and positivity. In real life, the same fans who fell in love with Connor’s acting, have forced him to publicly out himself into a pool of bile in order to stop the harassment.
It’s important that Connor is bisexual, because it shows how nonsensical the queerbaiting argument is, but ultimately in the grand scheme of this conversation, it does not matter. Even if Connor were straight, that he attended Pride festivals with his queer friends as a representative for one of the most popular queer shows on television is not a sin. Connor is an 18 year old kid (17, when he first found fame) who, like most kids, had some shit he had to figure out. Some kids know they’re queer, some know they’re straight, and some take a while to figure it out. Some of those take a while and realise they’re straight, others realise they’re queer. It’s entirely their business, and kissing a boy on television or supporting gay rights doesn’t mean they surrender their right to that privacy.
Connor’s case is currently a hot topic, mainly because it has just happened but also because he came out anyway, making the whole thing ridiculous. But the queerbaiting allegations against celebrities are incredibly far reaching and, almost always, just as vulgar. Take Miley Cyrus, Cardi B, and Megan Thee Stallion. Cyrus is pansexual, the two rappers bisexual. All three are highly sexually charged performers, and all three have been accused of queerbaiting for dancing with or kissing women while dating men. Openly queer women, kissing other women, described as queerbaiting. Who is being baited or lied to here? How are you the victim when Miley Cyrus kisses a lady on stage?
This has also been applied to celebrities who have left their sexuality unknown. Yungblud and Harry Styles both merge the masculine and the feminine together, performing in female clothing, make up, nail varnish, or just dressing with flourish. These are traditions which hail back to before either of them were born, with roots in glam rock, punk rock, funk, and whatever you want to call Prince’s whole deal. Styles has openly supported many queer causes, helped raise the profile of less toxic forms of masculinity, and has spoken up for minority groups and charities. Yungblud, meanwhile, has a whole song on his second album Weird! dedicated to trans positivity: Mars. But both singers have girlfriends, so in the eyes of far too many, they are queerbaiting liars who might as well call us all faggots and trannies.
The most interesting case in the great queerbaiting debate is that of Taylor Swift. As a major Swiftie I’m somewhat biased, but that also means I have the inside track on all of the fan drama. The basic facts are that Swift publicly dated several men, is currently in a seven-year strong heterosexual relationship with Joe Alywn, and has declared herself a straight woman (when asked about her queer-focussed You Need To Calm Down Video, she discusses “advocating for a community she is not part of”). These all sound very straight, but there is a subsection of her fans, who call themselves Gaylors, that believe Swift is secretly gay.
The proof is out there, if you look for it. There is a blurry (and possibly deceptive) photo of Swift kissing supermodel Karlie Kloss, dubbed Kissgate, which has since (maybe) been referenced in several songs, including two on her latest album. Cornelia Street, where Kloss and Swift allegedly shacked up, is named in the title of one of her most romantic ballads. The Very First Night’s AABB rhyme scheme changes to rhyme “picture” with “miss you”, when “miss her” actually fits the rhythm. There are plenty more examples, including adverts of bisexuality in her haircut, clothing choices, and even commercials for credit cards.
The worst part of this is there are pieces of this discussion which seem quite fun. Swift is a creative songwriter known for leaving Easter Eggs in everything from her lyrics to her music videos to her outfits, and the clues do stack up if you squint a little. It would be very cool if Taylor Swift were bisexual – it would surpass Elliot Page coming out as trans and then some for the most I’ve ever been personally affected by a celebrity joining our team. But it becomes a lot less fun and far more toxic and invasive when it moves from personal interpretations of lyrics to infighting with fans and declarations that Swift’s entire life is a sham, that she secretly resents Alwyn, and that her greatest desire in life is to run off and live in lesbian harmony with Karlie Kloss.
It has moved with Swift from being a fun headcanon and feeling a connection to the world’s biggest pop star into being a demand. Fans are already discussing throwing Pride flags on stage during her next tour to catch her out, one way or the other. It’s no longer enough that Swift might once have had feelings for a woman and still writes about them as she explores her life – she has to conform to this specific idea of queerness, one that backs up every Gaylor theory and leaves straightness, Alwyn, and everything else in her life behind – otherwise she’s a dirty rotten queerbaiter.
Kit Connor is not the first person to be forced out of the closet because of outside pressure (Rebel Wilson, earlier this year, outed herself before a tabloid could), and as the internet grows more toxic, parasocial, and frenzied about celebrity lifestyle and the need to prove one’s wokeness, he won’t be the last. He should be. And it’s a failing of ours collectively that he will not.
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