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Opinion – ‘Queerbaiting’ creates unfair pressure on young celebrities

18-year-old actor Kit Connor announced he was bisexual this week, claiming that pressure from fans and the media had forced him out of the closet. 

Are we forcing celebrities out of the closet? It sounds like a bizarre question. Just a few years ago, being queer in the public eye was considered career ending. 

Now, fans of stars like Harry Styles and Taylor Swift are so desperate for their idols to announce they’re queer that any suggestion to the contrary signals accusations of ‘queerbaiting’. 

Queerbaiting is a relatively new term, describing a Hollywood marketing tactic in which LGBTQ+ culture is co-opted to boost fanfare. 

This process often entails hinting at queerness just enough that a celebrity or film’s appeal widens, but not so much that the queerbaiter in question has to deal with any of the negative experiences of actually being queer. 

While queerbaiting certainly exists (and is nothing new), the discourse surrounding it has reached fever-pitch in the past few years. 

As celebrities and popular media become more diverse and inclusive, fans are more critical of authenticity. 

Take Harry Styles as a prime example. The singer has eschewed normative constructs of masculinity for the majority of his career. 

Styles wears skirts, feather boas, paints his nails, and even launched a makeup line in 2021. His music often uses genderless terminology, and he has refused to disclose his sexual identity for as long as he’s been in the public eye. 

In the era of #MeToo and toxic masculinity, you would expect this subversive attitude toward sexuality to be celebrated. And it is, for the most part.

Styles’ fans range from queer kids to elderly men. His shows are bastions of self-acceptance and freedom, where audience members are known to adorn themselves in glitter and feathers. 

But as this image of ‘difference’ – signposted by many of the markers of queer culture – has grown, Styles has faced increasing accusations of queerbaiting from both fans and the media. 

It’s understandable, to some extent. Queer audiences, who have found solace and belonging in Harry’s music, may find it frustrating that Styles’ himself doesn’t openly identify as queer. Either because he isn’t, or because he doesn’t want to.

But it ultimately shouldn’t matter. Nobody should have a monopoly over how another person chooses to present themselves, and certainly not over how they announce their sexuality. 

This week, the queerbaiting conversation reached a heart-breaking new low. Actor Kit Connor, who has starred in the Netflix hit series ‘Heartstopper’, tweeted that he was bisexual. 

‘Back for a minute’ he wrote, alluding to a self-imposed twitter hiatus. ‘I’m bi. Congrats on forcing an 18-year-old to out himself. I think some of you missed the point of the show. Bye.’

What should have been a cause for celebration left many outraged on Connor’s behalf, including his castmates who have since rallied around in support. 

Heartstopper catapulted Connor to global fame with its sweet portrayal of a gay high-school romance. But with this success has followed pressure on cast members to disclose their sexuality. Of course, they are under no obligation to do so.

There are countless reasons someone may want to keep this information private. Our sexuality is deeply personal, and often complex. 

In Connor’s case, coming out as bisexual speaks to the constant pressure to define our sexual identity into neat boxes. ‘Gay’ or ‘Straight’ are archaic binaries which dismiss the many different versions of queerness that exist beyond and between. 

Young people, like Connor, are also often figuring things out themselves, and may not be ready to divulge information to others. Especially when those ‘others’ are millions of eagle-eyed fans and journalists they don’t know. 

After being seen with members of the opposite sex, rumours emerged that Connor was ‘queerbaiting’ fans by remaining vague about his sexual identity. 

As Patrick Lenton points out, Connor didn’t owe anyone, least of all the entitled public, a detailed explanation of his personal life. But queerbaiting discourse demonizes those that its purveyors seek to protect. 

Attacking someone for not coming out is just as dangerous as attacking them for doing so. It also reduces queer identity to visual markers. 

By suggesting individuals like Harry Styles or Kit Connor can’t wear makeup or kiss boys on TV unless they’re ‘really’ gay, we assume sexuality can be defined so simply. In doing so, we stray into dangerous territory that seeks to define people by preconceived ideas of what sexual identity should look like. Sound familiar?