By Ananya Devanath
Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, Betty Cooper and Veronica Lodge, or even Disney’s Luca and Alberto—every time two same-sex characters get a little too close for the “no homo bro!” jokes to be casually laughed off, the internet takes aim at studios with its latest popular accusation: queerbaiting.
The term queerbaiting originated in the 1950s, as a tactic of politicians who would imply that their opponent was gay by using negatively connotated euphemisms such as “weak” or “hairdressers,” to swing voters to their side. Today, the word is no longer associated with obvious attempts at slander. Instead, it points to profit-driven corporations that market a non-committal level of queerness without the intention of meaningful representation. The media attempts a Hannah Montana-esque best-of-both-worlds situation by attracting LGBTQ+ viewers through queer-coded imagery, plots, and characters, while side-stepping conservative backlash by avoiding explicitly queer storylines.
Companies are generally good at deflecting queerbaiting allegations, brushing off perceived queerbaiting relationships as outlandish fan projections and wild Wattpad fantasies. While these dismissals are presented in a way that may make them seem reasonable, the allegations are often warranted and the companies at fault. Media corporations could drastically reduce the number of queerbaiting accusations leveled at them by including well-executed LGBTQ+ characters and relationships in their media. As consumers, it is well within our right to protest queerbaiting and inaccurate representation, as oftentimes it is this protest that leads to meaningful change in writers’ rooms.
However, in recent times, the term queerbaiting has had its focus turned from fictional characters to real-life celebrities. Harry Styles, Billie Eilish, and Ariana Grande are among many big names accused of appropriating queer culture to entice a more diverse audience. Straight celebrities “acting gay” while maintaining plausible deniability in front of conservative fans is infuriating. There is so much history behind queer styles and slang, and so many hardships endured by those who explicitly identify with LGBTQ+ labels. When stars who are not part of the community profit off of the shiny, cherry-picked facets of queer culture they’ve adopted, it is unearned and dismissive.
But the whole argument against celebrities queerbaiting rests on the unreliable assumption that they are, in fact, not queer.
The underrepresentation of the queer community forces a harsh spotlight onto those who reveal that part of their identity. Because of this, a closeted celebrity might not want to immediately come out, instead dropping hints of queerness to gauge an audience’s reaction—a sort of testing the waters. This practice is commonly used in the LGBTQ+ community by those who only want accepting audiences to pick up on their true sexuality. However, onlookers turn these hints into weapons held at the throats of the figure in question, pressing for a confession.
Kit Connor, a teen starring in Netflix’s Heartstopper, was bombarded with queerbaiting accusations this April after portraying a bisexual character on screen. People claimed that it was unfair of him to play a bisexual character without being openly bi himself, that he wasn’t “feminine” enough to portray a queer character, and that him holding hands with a girl was damning evidence of queerbaiting.
Connor had never publicly labeled his sexuality, and might not have known it at the time. The assertion that he was queerbaiting because he did not look “gay enough” to be closeted assumes that everyone in the LGBTQ+ community must behave a certain way, or else their identity is invalid. The queer community prides itself on celebrating everyone for who they are, promoting freedom of expression, and providing a safe space with understanding allies. We can’t claim to be an open, welcoming community if it’s restricted to only those who fit certain stereotypes.
This overwhelming level of scrutiny explains why more celebrities aren’t willing to discuss their sexuality, as it invites even more unneeded speculation and judgment from bystanders. These objections are invalidating and hurtful, and incredibly difficult to dispute from inside the closet. Unfortunately, Connor, like other celebrities before him, realized that outing himself was the only way to adequately refute queerbaiting rumors. He did exactly that last November, turning what should have been a prideful and celebrated moment into a bitter refutation of online harassment.
The hyperfocus on celebrities and their sexuality is a result of the general public not seeing them as real people. We treat public figures as simply another form of entertainment, another money-chasing sell-out, another reputation-driven brand. But this doesn’t make their queer hinting the same as a popular show holding out on a queer relationship. A person’s life is
not a commodity for us to be entertained by, and someone’s sexual identity is never something we are entitled to, no matter how famous or “open” an online persona might be.
Sadly, all of this is the unfortunate result of a lack of mainstream queer icons. Representation-starved audiences flock to these unlabeled influencers and celebrities out of desperation, speculating about their sexuality, frantically overanalyzing every “hint,” and begging for explicit confirmation. Having superstars with direct ties to the community would certainly bolster LGBTQ+ representation, so it comes as no surprise that queer people are intent on finding someone with prominence who shares their experience.
However, instead of pushing celebrities who haven’t specified their sexuality to do so, or shaming them for not being open, we should embolden those who have, showing them our love and support, and advocating for genuine queer representation in the media we consume. Hopefully, by fostering a culture of acceptance and celebration, we can encourage more queer artists and entertainers to come out on their own terms, not because they feel pressured to, but because they desire to.
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