* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.Star of the Netflix teen drama, Connor announced recently that he had been forced to out himself after accusations of queerbaiting
Paul Burston is a writer, journalist and broadcaster and founder of LGBTQ+ literary salon and book awards, the Polari Prize.
When I heard that Kit Connor had come out as bisexual, my first thought was “good for him!” The world needs more young LGBTQ+ role models, and who better than this young actor? Then I saw Connor’s tweet saying he’d been forced to out himself and reminding people that he’s only 18 years old.
Connor is one of the stars of “Heartstopper”, the Netflix teen drama based on the book by Alice Oseman. In 2020, the book was long listed for the Polari Prize, which I founded a decade earlier.
At 18, Connor is above the age of consent but below the age at which many of us feel ready to declare our sexuality. I was 19 when I first came out, and that was to a handful of friends. I didn’t tell my parents for another five years. The thought of being compelled to tell the whole world would have terrified me.
There weren’t books like “Heartstopper” available when I was a teenager. For too long, our stories simply weren’t told – and for all the talk of equality and diversity in publishing, tokenism is still an issue today. Sometimes a publisher will turn down a book because “we have something similar” – meaning another book by a gay author. Meanwhile, countless books by and about straight white people are published every week.
This is why books and television series such as “Heartstopper” are so important. They show young LGBTQ+ readers and viewers that they’re not alone.
As a young gay man, I felt extremely isolated. I came out in 1985, the year Rock Hudson died of AIDS. When friends got sick, I became an AIDS activist. Back then, I was often in favour of outing. Desperate times called for desperate measures and those targeted were usually politicians who harmed the community by voting against gay equality or blocking funding for AIDS research. The argument for outing actors and entertainers didn’t sit easily with me then and it doesn’t sit easily with me now. As a rule, coming out should be a matter of personal choice.
The reason Connor was targeted is not because he was using his public platform to harm anyone. Quite the contrary. “Heartstopper” is a great series and a huge boost to young people discovering their sexuality. I wish there’d been a television drama like this when I was young.
No, the reason Connor was targeted is because he plays a bisexual character and hadn’t disclosed his own sexuality. For this, he was accused of queerbaiting. For those unfamiliar with the term, queerbaiting is when the creators of a drama hint at, but do not depict, same-sex romance or other LGBTQ+ representation. The aim is to attract an LGBTQ+ audience without alienating straight viewers.
There are times when queerbaiting needs calling out. But this isn’t one of them. Connor’s character appears in a TV series that doesn’t shy away from same-sex romance and LGBTQ+ representation but positively revels in it. There was no just reason for him to be forced to come out. Added to which, coming out as bisexual can be even more difficult than coming out as gay. Bisexual people experience prejudice from both outside and within the LGBTQ+ community.
There’s been a lot of talk recently about the casting of gay actors in gay roles. In an ideal world, there should be more opportunities for openly gay actors who may struggle to find work elsewhere. But if we go along with the argument that LGBTQ+ roles should only ever be played by LGBTQ+ actors, we’re asking an awful lot of the actors concerned – especially when they’re as young as Kit Connor.
For a young man to be forced to publicly declare his bisexuality at the tender age of 18 isn’t right. I only hope that he has the support he needs and will be left to explore his sexuality at his own pace.
Paul Burston’s memoir “We Can Be Heroes” will be published by Little A in June 2023. The Polari Prize 2022 is at The British Library on Nov 15.
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