Real people are not characters; they cannot queerbait

The Oxford dictionary defines “queerbaiting” as “the incorporation of apparently gay characters or same-sex relationships into a film, television show, etc. as a means of appealing to gay and bisexual audiences while maintaining ambiguity about the characters’ sexuality.” Producers have been known to lure LGBTQ+ viewers by teasing homosexual subtext without actually following through on such storylines, in fear of alienating heterosexual audiences.

From “Sherlock” to “Supernaturals,’’ many entertainment offerings have been criticized for falsely promising LGBTQ+ representation to viewers (usually in the form of implied romantic relationships), in turn compounding mental health issues in queer individuals, according to the website Health. Yet, that valid accusation against the media industry has been undermined by the public‘s use of “queerbaiting” to criticize some celebrities when the term doesn’t apply. From Harry Styles to Kit Conner, many argue that straight celebrities purposely present as queer without actually identifying with the LGBTQ+ community to appeal to and profit off of queer audiences. Yet, in directing this accusation toward real individuals – not fictional characters – the internet toes the line between advocating for representation and weaponizing the term “queerbaiting” to attack those who aren’t open about their sexuality. Ultimately, real people cannot queerbait, and claiming that they can is harmful to the LGBTQ+ community.

While individuals often look up to celebrities, this dynamic can quickly turn toxic when it comes to sexuality. One’s sexuality is a deeply complex part of their identity, one that is often hard to be transparent about publically. In fact, according to Stonewall, a charity that advocates for LGBTQ+ rights, only half of LGBTQ+ individuals feel able to be open about their sexuality or gender identity to anyone in their own family, much less countless followers across the globe. When fans demand transparency about celebrities’ orientation, it creates an incredibly damaging environment. At the end of the day, celebrities are people first, and no person owes anyone an explanation of their identity. However, when fans act entitled to such an explanation and go so far as to accuse celebrities of “queerbaiting,” such allegations only serve to create a highly specific definition of queer expression that the public deems acceptable, therefore creating conditional standards of acceptance. But unlabeled people and those who chose not to come out are just as valid as those who have the privilege to express their sexual identity publicly.

Furthermore, some of the rhetoric that surrounds queerbaiting allegations can perpetuate backward ideas. For instance, Harry Styles has continuously come under fire for his fashion sense — from wearing feather boas on stage to a dress on the cover of Vogue. Some claim that Styles is profiting off of queer expression even though he is straight. However, Styles has never explicitly defined his sexuality. Further, even if Styles is straight, calling him a “queerbaiter” only pushes the narrative that straight men cannot express femininity and reinforces the stereotype that gay men are inherently feminine, a stereotype that has been forced on the LGBTQ+ community for generations. Thus, those who accuse Styles of acting “gay” only hypocritically uphold societal norms that harm the community.

Finally, accusing real people of queerbaiting can lead to incredibly harmful repercussions when the public gets it wrong; often, the public criticizes celebrities for queerbaiting when they are in fact queer. Take Kit Connor, an 18-year-old actor who starred in the hit LGBTQ+ series “Heartstopper.” After being accused of queerbaiting by fans of the show, Connor came out as bisexual on social media, tweeting, “Congrats for forcing an 18-year-old to out himself. I think some of you missed the point of the show.” Forced outings like this are sadly common, with other celebrities like Dove Cameron and “Love, Simon’’ author Becky Albertalli outing themselves in response to queerbaiting allegations. Celebrities should not feel the need to prove themselves or their identities to millions of strangers, and fans forcing these admissions can lead to celebrities feeling ousted from the very community they privately identify with.

In essence, celebrities are not the same as characters on television. These are real people who have real, complex relationships with their gender and sexual expression. Thus, it is not viewers’ place to police how people identify nor force their perception ofcelebrities orientation when they do not have the full picture.
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