Voices: Kit Connor and why accusing people of ‘queer-baiting’ is always problematic

Kit Connor was driven off Twitter by accusations of ‘queer-baiting’  (Getty Images)
Kit Connor was driven off Twitter by accusations of ‘queer-baiting’ (Getty Images)

Like his equally alliterative character Nick Nelson, Heartstopper star Kit Connor is bisexual. Unlike his fictional alter ego, Connor was not granted the grace to come out in his own time. Responding to months of online speculation about his sexual orientation — and accusations of “queer-baiting” fans, which drove him from Twitter — Connor returned to the social media platform yesterday to clear the air.

“I’m bi,” the actor tweeted. “Congrats for forcing an 18 year old to out himself. I think some of you missed the point of the show. Bye.”

That Connor felt the need to reveal his sexual orientation because of pressure from within our own community makes this all the more frustrating.

Accusing celebrities of queer-baiting has become increasingly common over the past several years. As far back as 2014, folks were criticizing Nick Jonas for playing up to the gay male gaze. More recently, Anna Marks of the New York Times has discussed accusations that Harry Styles “appropriates the imagery of” the LGBTQ community, suggesting that in her view, his “use of our symbols with such dexterity, consistency and precisions” is “evidence that he is one of us.”

I would contend that it doesn’t matter one way or the other. Yes, having openly LGBT role models for children and adolescents to look up to is important. Yes, having openly LGBT teen idols for LGBT teens to, well, idolize is a pleasant change from when my generation aspired to be Britney Spears so that we could date Justin Timberlake. (Neither of those things appeal to me anymore, for what it’s worth.) The Troye Sivans and Jack Dylan Grazers of the world should be celebrated not only for their talent and their courage, but for the progress we can measure by their very willingness to come out — and the way it has not affected their careers.

But that progress does come at a price. Part of what made LGBT culture so unique in decades past — even in the early 2000s when I was coming out — was that it was forced underground by a homophobic and transphobic society. When Madonna brought voguing to the masses in 1990, RuPaul’s eponymous MTV show was another six years away. Ellen DeGeneres wouldn’t come out for another seven. Queer As Folk wouldn’t premier for another decade. And gay marriage being legalized across the nation was still a quarter-century away.

In that quarter-century, though, something amazing happened. LGBT people broke into the mainstream as never before. We had our own network sitcoms (Will and Grace), our own dramas (The L Word), our own big-budget Hollywood films (Brokeback Mountain), and even our own teen idol (Lance Bass). In 2009, RuPaul’s Drag Race premiered. The rest is history.

Kit Connor turned five during Drag Race’s first season. In the 13 years since then, LGBT culture has gone mainstream. That can only be a good thing. The fact that our culture has permeated so much that the biggest pop stars in the world are emulating it is incredible. One of the most celebrated teen shows in years stars two young LGBT boys playing two young LGBT boys — that was unimaginable to me when I was Connor’s age. We couldn’t even get a gay sex scene in a movie about Alexander the Great!

The mainstreaming of LGBT culture has led to greater acceptance for our community, with 71 percent of Americans now supporting equal marriage. That’s a good thing! But this increasing acceptance and visibility also means that straight people are going to do some queer things. I think it’s a price worth paying for greater acceptance. If Harry Styles wants to wear a dress or paint his nails or dance around with a rainbow flag, I’m very much okay with that.

What I am not okay with, however, is being angry at him for not coming out — just as I was not upset that Kit Connor had not felt the need to come out simply because he played an LGBT character and then did some interviews and photoshoots for LGBT media. That’s a predictable thing for someone starring in a major LGBT show.

For as much as things have improved, some things are still just as scary as they were 21 years ago when I came out. More American state legislatures are debating anti-LGBT laws than ever before. The old homophobic trope that LGBT people are “grooming” children has surged more than 400 percent across social media platforms following the passage of Florida’s odious and homophobic “Don’t Say Gay” law. Earlier this year, a gay bar in New York City was set on fire.

Clearly, we still have a long way to go. That’s why someone deciding when and if they come out remains such a personal choice. To have that agency stripped from you — or to feel that the backlash against you is so overwhelming you have no choice but to come out even before you’re ready — is a terrible thing. It is made even worse when the people stripping you of that agency are your own siblings in the LGBT community.

You never know who those siblings might be, either. Despite having been married to a woman for nearly three decades, This Morning presenter Phillip Schofield came out as gay in 2020. There is no sure-fire way to tell if someone is LGBT other than hearing it from their own mouth. Speculating about someone’s sexuality can be not only counterproductive, but even harmful. Accusing them of queer-baiting is even worse, because it assumes malicious intent where perhaps they were just working through things on their own time. We all have our own journeys.

Unfortunately for Kit Connor, his journey included an online peanut gallery which he felt forced him to take a road he might not have been ready for. That’s upsetting to me, as no one — but especially no teenager — should ever feel bullied or pressured into coming out. We’ve seen the consequences of that too many times; the It Gets Better project was founded because an outed teenager killed himself, and he was far from the only one.

My heart goes out to Kit Connor. If he ever reads this, I want him to know I am impressed by the dignified and principled way he has handled this. He has my full support.

I also want him to know that I am sorry it happened, because the truth is if anyone was queer-baiting, it was those using that accusation to bait Kit Connor to come out. The community that should have protected him and welcomed him when he was ready to join us. Instead, it turned hostile and compelled him to action before he was ready.