Pressure for 18-year-old actor Kit Connor’s exit had been building on social media for months.
Connor, a star of Netflix’s teen rom-com “Heartstopper,” said Monday he felt like he had been forced out of the closet, a troubling new development at the intersection of cancellation culture and the identity police.
In the coming-of-age series with a refreshingly queer-forward storyline, Connor plays British high school rugby player Nick Nelson, alongside classmate Charlie Spring, played by Joe Locke, who falls in love with he Over the course of the eight-episode series, adapted from Alice Oseman’s graphic novel of the same name, Nick begins to question his own sexuality amid his growing feelings for Charlie.
The show was so well received when it premiered this year that it has 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, aimed at a teenage and young audience. Unlike shows like “Sex Education” and “Euphoria” which, while wonderfully sexual and gendered, are more explicit.
Calls for Connor to address his own orientation began this spring with taunts 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, that pressure didn’t abate, and Connor became a target of what the mobs from social media called it “queerbaiting”, with claims that the show was trying to attract people. with broader LGBTQ-inclusive themes without being deliberate about 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. However, Connor, who clearly felt backed into a corner, he tweeted on Halloween to her 1 million followers that she was bisexual: “Come back a minute. I’m bi,” she wrote. “Congratulations on forcing an 18 year old out. I think some of you missed the point of the show. Bye.”
There’s a lot to unpack in this story, not the least of which is that a young adult has been forced to very publicly share parts of his own identity that are very private and may still be in flux.
Connor felt the pressure of a moralistic social media crowd, a force quick to attack and slow to forgive, demanding that you answer their questions immediately and with no room for nuance or context. This is not the way we should operate as a culture.
Sometimes the Twitter mob brings real issues to light and brings them to favorable outcomes more quickly. Other times, he just blows everything up and walks away, not caring what victims he leaves in his wake.
Connor’s outing is the latest in a string of celebrities who have recently forced themselves to come out, lest tabloid media or “leaks” do it for them, and contrasts with the long history of Hollywood celebrities forced to stay in the closet or risk it. races
From closeted actor Rock Hudson in the 20th century to openly trans actor Elliot Page today, performers have had to live two lives and hide their true identities to stay on the A-list, even to stay safe and alive. It took Ellen DeGeneres decades to rebuild her career after appearing on the cover of TIME magazine in 1997, alongside her character on the ABC sitcom of the same name.
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 focal point—to real human beings, including those who aren’t just the sidekick. but the main roles.
They include Michaela Jay Rodriguez, Billy Porter, Dominique Jackson and Indya Moore in FX’s “Pose”; Sara Ramírez as Callie Torres on “Grey’s Anatomy” (and, yes, as Che Diaz on the “Sex and the City” spinoff “And Just Like That”); the casts of this year’s films “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 media representation.
(HBO and HBO Max are owned by CNN’s parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery.)
Now LGBTQ audiences are rightly asking the hard questions about who can play LGBTQ characters. Does a cisgender person playing a transgender character equate 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 other than the actor’s personal identity, or are there rules we have yet to properly draw and uphold?
Cisgender actors such as Eddie Redmayne, who was nominated for an Oscar for his role as a transgender woman in “The Danish Girl,” later said he regrets playing 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 film “Carol,” feel more forgivable. Perhaps casting someone to play a character who doesn’t identify with their personal life is more palatable if it was cast by a director, producer, or writer who inhabits that identity authentically.
Who gets to create queer art and media, and what qualifies as accurate representation? Would a TV series or movie stand out if a cishet star-studded cast were substituted in order to line up the cast? What if the show’s writers or directors are queer, but the actors aren’t?
While it is progress that openly queer actors are being cast in leading roles, criticism of appropriation and appropriation as an excuse to force a teenager or any actor to come out of the closet is not the answer. These conversations have reached a fever pitch, and the result is hurting people who should be able to make their own decisions about when and how to get out, if at all.
For thousands of years, humans have felt the need to classify things in the world in order to make sense of them. Younger people are breaking this rigid framework with more fluid gender identities and romantic expressions. This makes some people uncomfortable (read: the current culture wars targeting trans kids, LGBTQ rights, literature, and school policies, among other things). But many of these disruptors are also asking people like Connor to now put themselves in a box with a label on the front and share it with the world in short order.
Dating is not a one-time act, or something that stays fixed, and why should it be? Identities are malleable and many young people are still on the road to finding themselves. What we shouldn’t do is publicly shame someone into revealing a part of themselves that they may not be ready or willing to share.
With LGBTQ rights under greater threat in the United States and around the world, coming out involves an entirely different assessment of risk and repercussions. There’s only one person who should drive that decision, and no, it’s not a Twitter troll.
Note: There are many resources available for those who want to learn more about how to better support those who come out as LGBTQ, and for people who are exploring the queer corners of their own sense of self.