Nobody Owes You a Coming Out: Unpacking the Internet’s Fixation With “Queerbaiting”
Art by Audrey Njo
Online discourse is overrun with suspicions of sexuality and accusations of “queerbaiting.” But, like many terms thrown around online, its meaning has become diluted and convoluted. While the exact origins of the term “queerbaiting” are not easily defined, it was previously primarily used to describe fictional characters who are teased as queer but are never explicitly or canonically queer, thus creating a false promise of representation that is never delivered. In this way, queerbaiting is a manipulative marketing strategy to bring in queer audiences without actually providing genuine representation. Some well-known examples of queerbaiting in popular media include TV shows Sherlock and Supernatural, as well as JK Rowling’s claims that Dumbledore is gay—even though this is not actively present in any Harry Potter content.
But now, queerbaiting accusations are directed not just toward fictional characters, but toward real people in the public eye, pivoting the discourse in a completely different direction than the previous meaning. This creates a whole host of complicated issues regarding gatekeeping identity, making assumptions about strangers’ queer identities, and essentially forcing people out of the closet—all of which seem antithetical to a radical approach to queerness that works to dismantle binaries and allows for diversity of expression. There seems to be a predictable disconnect between the online echo chamber and the more nuanced discussions put forth by queer activists and theorists.
A relatively recent and highly visible example of this phenomenon is actor Kit Connor’s online coming out. The 18-year-old starred in the popular Netflix series Heartstopper, which centers around the adorable romance between two queer teenage boys. However, some fans of the show questioned Connor’s real-life sexuality online, insisted he was straight and therefore shouldn’t be playing a queer character, and said he was “queerbaiting.”
As a result, Connor tweeted, “Back for a minute. i’m bi. congrats for forcing an 18 year old to out himself. i think some of you missed the point of the show. bye,” and then deleted his Twitter account entirely. This incident does not exist in isolation—other public figures such as Cardi B, Rita Ora, Jameela Jamil, and Becky Albertalli have previously had to defend their sexualities online against queerbaiting accusations—but the online bullying of Connor is a prime example of queerbaiting claims being weaponized, causing harm (to a teenager no less), and, not to mention, being simply inaccurate.
I would not be the first to point out that these kinds of accusations are rooted in part in biphobia and bi-erasure. Much of the queerbaiting accusations toward Connor came in response to a video of him holding hands with a female co-star—as if a man possibly being with a woman must mean he is straight, an especially ironic assumption considering Nick, Kit Connor’s Heartstopper character, is explicitly bisexual. This reductive view of sexuality furthers a binary gay/straight lens of sexuality which, frankly, one would assume we are past by 2023.
If we’re on the same page about the “default” not being straight and/or cis—and, for the sake of this argument, I will assume we are—then it does not make sense to assume a celebrity is cishet until “proven” otherwise. In the yearning for authentic representation and role models, it seems important ideas regarding the fluidity and social construction of sexuality are being lost. Simultaneously, we are forgetting celebrities are real people too, with potentially complex relationships with their own queerness. Or maybe, they just don’t feel the need to tell millions of strangers online everything about themselves.
I want to be clear that I do believe representation is important. When I personally see a queer character in a TV show or movie, I appreciate when I can look up that the actor and/or the creators are queer themselves, especially if I identify with the character. But at the same time, the desire for queer visibility and representation simply does not outweigh the fact that nobody needs to “come out” and nobody owes you a coming out.
I’m not naive enough to think that straight, cis celebrities never utilize ambiguous queerness in order to appeal to queer fans and consumers—and it’s valid for people to be upset or concerned about individuals profiting off queerness in this way. However, it’s wrong to assume that someone’s desire to not label their identity means they are inherently not queer. As is often the case with online debate, the nuance of the issue is lost. Twitter conversations about queerbaiting quickly turn hateful, accusatory, or overly simplified. At what point does it stop being productive to debate Harry Styles’ gender presentation or whether Billie Eilish is allowed to have sapphic themes in her music videos? Where is the line between a desire for authentic representation and individual agency? I don’t pretend to have a definitive or singular answer, but I caution against blanket claims of queerbaiting or gatekeeping of presentation—otherwise, the humanity of those in the public eye is disregarded, and queerness becomes just another binary.
I’ve focused this discussion around those in the public eye because that is often where online discourse centers, but this mindset on coming out extends to everyone. You don’t need to come out to everyone in your life, and nobody is required to come out to you. Many queer people—and I would include myself in this category—move through the world not feeling the need to formally “come out” to every single person. Some may assume or know that people in their life already understand their identities through social media, relationships, friends, and/or self-presentation—not to mention that many queer people, especially young people, are also in the process of figuring out or questioning their identity, feel their identity is fluid and shifting, or simply don’t subscribe to specific labels. Even for those who do prefer to use specific terms, labels don’t necessarily have the same meaning for everyone who chooses to use them.
The very concept of “the closet” runs the risk of sorting people into limiting binaries based on if they are “out” or not. Coming out is a constant process, not a one-time event. It evolves with meeting new people, existing in different environments, and/or changing identities. There are plenty of people who consider themselves “out” even if they never directly say they are queer. The trope of a singular event of a person sitting down with their loved ones and formally “coming out” is a limiting idea of how people should experience their queerness. Those subscribing to this idea assume the end goal is to be out to all, and that if someone is not, then they are repressed—but this is simply not the reality. Not explicitly stating one’s identity does not equal living “in the closet” or not “being out.” Even those who do desire a formal coming out should not be pressured into thinking it is the unilaterally “right” choice, as it is not always safe for everyone. To return to the case of Kit Connor: A pressured coming out does not automatically make an individual more liberated; in fact, the opposite can easily be true if one’s agency is effectively taken away from them.
Queerbaiting accusations applied to real people are a symptom of an overly simplified perspective on queerness that takes hold primarily online, with these claims furthering an out/closeted dichotomy that harms us all. It is reductive to view identity and coming out in such binary terms, and it is unfair to put this idea universally onto everyone—in the public eye or otherwise.