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Why we need to stop weaponizing queerbaiting

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(l) Kit Connor — Photo by Vianney Le Caer / Invision / AP, (r) Omar Apollo — Photo courtesy of the artist
(l) Kit Connor — Photo by Vianney Le Caer / Invision / AP, (r) Omar Apollo — Photo courtesy of the artist

If recent online debates, legislative trends, and hate crimes remind us of anything, it's that authentic representation matters. The number of anti-LGBTQ+ bills filed since 2018 has passed 650. The recent shooting at Club Q in Colorado Springs killed five people and left the rest of the community concerned for its safety. Even with record levels of support and visibility for Queer people, we are still fighting for our rights. That means that even today, coming out is a calculated risk.

This brings us to an issue seen across the internet every day: queerbaiting as a weapon. Dozens of celebrities over the past few years have dealt with users of social media demanding that those in the spotlight publicly disclose their sexual and gender orientations. A new rule has effectively been put into place: label yourself for the world if you want to avoid social persecution and keep your community.

This needs to end soon.

The queerbaiting conversation
The term "queerbaiting" was originally used to describe the ambiguous representation of LGBTQ+ characters in books and movies, where writers allude to queerness without explicitly affirming these identities. In a broader sense, it can be understood as inauthentic representations in an attempt to exploit audiences.

In recent years, however, the term has been used to "call out" celebrities, which is where things can get messy. Users all over the internet constantly scrutinize song lyrics, fashion choices, and celebrities' social media presence to determine whether or not they "really are" LGBTQ+ and, by extension, whether or not they are guilty of queerbaiting.

Eighteen-year-old actor Kit Connor, who currently stars as Bisexual Nick Nelson in the Netflix original series Heartstopper, recently took to Twitter to write: "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."

A few weeks later, musician Omar Apollo also announced his sexuality (albeit in a much more casual manner) in response to an accusation by another Twitter user who wrote: "Is Omar Apollo another queerbaiting singer? Like those type 'I don't label myself, let me wear cropped [crop tops] and paint my nails and I say I find another guy hot' cuz I like his song but I don't like supporting straight men doing queerbaiting." He replied with a simple: "no i b sucking d**k fr."

Connor and Apollo (and every other celebrity who has dealt with these accusations over the years) should not have had to answer these questions in the first place. Yes, authentic representation matters. Creating roles and maintaining space for LGBTQ+ artists and creators is as important as ever, but there is still a fine line between upholding these standards of inclusion and gatekeeping their access to the support and acceptance of the community.

The issue of Queer safety
Close to 240 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been filed in 2022, and the number will continue to grow. Gender-affirming care for youth has been criminalized in several states, and discourse on gender and sexuality are now banned from schools in some places. Beyond blue bubbles, Queer people continue to fight for basic rights and equal protection.

The anti-LGTBQ+ danger isn't limited to those in power — we are also at risk in day-to-day spaces. For the last few weeks, members of the community have mourned the five victims murdered in the Colorado Springs Club Q shooting on November 19. The attack left residents there with one less space for social connection, and on a national level reminded Queer people that our safety is still fragile.

I have had the privilege of living in large, progressive West Coast cities for most of my life. I have had relatively minimal contact with homophobia, and my journey with sexuality and gender binaries has benefitted as a result. But attacks like the Club Q shooting are a painful reminder that our identities and spaces are vulnerable. It's also a reminder that queerness is still inherently dangerous and that coming out is still a big deal.

In an era of unprecedented LGBTQ+ representation, we see proud displays every day both in person and online, but we still need to remember the weight of what it means to come out in the current political and social landscape. Public queerness is a privilege and choice for people to make on their own time; it's not the threshold for validity.

To clarify: Queerbaiting happens when writers and creators develop stories that tease LGBTQ+ experiences without confirming their existence in order to gain diverse viewership but avoid potential backlash. It's not when someone uses nail polish or wears a certain kind of shirt.

LGBTQ+ existence is not monolithic. When we give a pass to accusations of celebrity queerbaiting, we continue to operate from a specific definition of how to be Queer and create conditional standards of acceptability.

Personal exploration is important. Questioning binaries and trying on different labels should be encouraged. Forcing people, celebrity or not, to label themselves or come out publicly is emotionally cruel.

Let's not police people's expression of queerness. There's enough room for all of us.