Photo by: Sophie Emeny on Unsplash
The term queerbaiting, as it was originally intended to be used, describes a marketing technique wherein a piece of fiction seems to hint at or promise a depiction of queerness that it never ultimately delivers upon.
Media properties, especially network television shows, engage in queerbaiting to attract an LGBT+ audience while not alienating homophobes. It’s a marketing practice that preys on a marginalized community’s desire to see themselves represented in the media that they consume. It was useful to be able to name it and call it out.
Recently though, the term has been borderline weaponized against everyone from Taylor Swift to straight men who like to paint their nails.
The argument is that anyone who is perceived to stand to gain something from the performance of the aesthetic of queerness, without actually themselves being queer, can be accused of queerbaiting. For celebrities this means waving a pride flag, being vague about their own personal sexuality or dressing “a certain way,” in order to make money off of a queer fanbase. For the aforementioned straight men who like to paint their nails, the argument is often that they’re doing it to somehow trick women into going out with them.
This new use of the term exists primarily in online spaces, but it has a very real impact on people who live in the real world.
Recently, Kit Connor, an 18-year-old actor who played a bisexual teenager on Netflix’s Heartstopper, took to Twitter to say that he is actually bisexual. This was after months of speculation by fans of the show who felt that they were owed information about his identity. When he was spotted holding hands with Maia Reficco, he was accused of queerbaiting. Not only did he play a bisexual character, but he did things like go to London Pride and dare to be a man who enjoys things like fashion. After being pretty much constantly harassed as people demanded an answer to their “are you gay or just pretending?” question, Connor felt forced out of the closet.
There are two big issues with the way that queerbaiting has become a hot button issue. The first is the most obvious,. In simplest terms, real people aren’t commodities. A real person isn’t tricking you by being vague or ambiguous about their sexuality and they certainly don’t owe you any explanations. Pop culture makes us all far too comfortable consuming the personal lives of public figures as if they were a new season of a network TV show. However, there’s no team of writers deciding to trick the viewers at the Harry Styles concert into thinking that he’s going to come out.
The other issue is in the refusal to accept ambiguity, especially ambiguity in queerness. Not coming out isn’t the same thing as lying, but too often it’s seen that way.
The term “coming out,” didn’t always refer to someone announcing their identity to the entire world. It’s a term adapted from the elite tradition of debutante balls, where young women “came out,” into high society. Gay men would “come out,” at drag balls modeled after the debutante balls, introducing themselves to gay society, not society-at-large. The tradition has changed and morphed over the years, now coming out can refer to simply announcing one’s identity. It wasn’t always like this, the act of coming out was not meant to be a set in stone, concrete assertion of who a person was, but rather an introduction to the community to which they belonged.
Ambiguity is inherent to humanity. Everyone is constantly trying to figure out who they are, where they belong, and what they want. Those things change and the way one identifies is no exception. The process of finding who you are is something that every human being has in common. For queer people, that process often includes making art, experimenting with the way they dress, and the people they see. But every person deserves the chance to do that, regardless of how in the public eye they may be.