Do queer characters need a coming out in today’s media?

·6-min read
Queer Characters
Queer Characters

Evan Ross Katz is In The Know’s pop culture contributor. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram for more.

There’s a famous line from Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning when drag performer Dorian Corey is explaining what it means to throw shade. “I don’t tell you you’re ugly, but I don’t have to tell you because you know you’re ugly.” In short: What is known need not always be stated.

I got a familiar ping about 25 minutes into the Season 4 premiere of Stranger Things — that of the unspoken truth. A classmate of Will’s rubs her shoe up against his in an overt attempt at deskside flirtation. He looks at her meekly and quickly retracts his foot, turning his attention abruptly forward. “I immediately had gay panic vibes,” one viral tweet reads in response to the seemingly throwaway moment. There’s been rampant speculation about Will since a Season 3 scene in which his best friend Mike shouts, “It’s not my fault you don’t like girls!” (“It’s really up to interpretation,” actor Noah Schnapp said at the time when asked.)

There have been other hints in the latest season — such as Will choosing gay World War II codebreaker Alan Turing for a school project on historical heroes — but then came another coded admission in episode 5 when Will tells Mike: “Sometimes I think it’s just scary to open up like that, to say how you really feel, especially to people you care about the most because what if they don’t like the truth?”

Producers have made it clear that this ambiguity will be addressed in the back half of the season premiering in a few weeks, but Schnapp again addressed this in a new interview, reiterating what he’d previously stated but with amplified eyeballs on the conversation: “I feel like they never really address it or blatantly say how Will is,” he told Variety. “I think that’s the beauty of it, that it’s just up to the audience’s interpretation.”

This was met with backlash. “the beauty of never saying gay,” read one tweet.

“Leaving it up to the audience’s interpretation is manipulative, crass, and cynical exploitation for queer credibility while doing nothing,” read another.

The outrage may be less about Will Byers and Stranger Things and more around a trend in Hollywood. Take Disney and Pixar’s Luca, released in June 2021. The coming-of-age story centers around Luca and his newfound best friend, Alberto. Luca must conceal his true identity, that of a sea monster from another world, in order to (or so he thinks) stay safe in the human world. Safety resonates with the LGBTQIA+ community and is a reason why many don’t come out. Many were quick to examine the film as a queer allegory. Others wanted something more overt. “Luca proves Disney’s Pixar wasn’t brave enough to fully commit to its first queer animated film,” read one headline. In other words: Just say gay.

I’m reminded too of the controversy over what was promised as an “exclusively gay moment” in the 2017 live-action Beauty and the Beast film. “LeFou is somebody who on one day wants to be Gaston and on another day wants to kiss Gaston. He’s trying to figure out what he wants. He’s somebody who’s just realizing that he has these feelings.” The moment, in actuality, consisted of a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment of LeFou dancing with a man (by accident, no less) during the final ball sequence. Perhaps the outrage was less about the film and more about the contextualization of it as something bigger than it was.

But time and time again, even the best of intentions seem to fail. Star Trek Beyond creators, for instance, were eager to make their Sulu (a character first created by out gay actor George Takei) gay, but then edited out a gay kiss. Would we have known we’d been wronged had we not been hyped to anticipate more?

I’m reminded of a quote that director Roland Emmerich gave during a press round for Independence Day: Resurgence. “We have a gay couple in the film,” he said. “We don’t make a big deal out of it. You start small and then you get bigger and bigger and bigger, and one day you have a gay character as the lead and nobody will wonder at it no more. But we’re not there yet.” That was 2015, 10 years after Brokeback Mountain won three Academy Awards.

In the case of Stranger Things, the latest instance in the ongoing conversation, the issue seems to be less about the character’s sexuality and more about the task of asking queer people to discern queerness where it’s merely implicit, or in some instances, promised without follow-through. The former is fine! Just like queerness is not monolithic, nor is queer expression. Take Ben-Hur, for instance, in which actor Charlton Heston played a gay man without ever knowing it. But the follow-through is crucial, something Stranger Things producers seem keen to address.

Still, some argue that during a time when legislation is being passed nearly daily eradicating the rights of LGBTQ people, particularly trans youth, we need representation in our media that is overt. We need more shows like Heartstopper, which features lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender characters, all of whom, for much of the series, discuss their gender and sexuality throughout.

But another argument could be made that more is better. Yes, shows like Heartstopper and its depictions of queer joy can inspire, make people feel seen and create a pipeline of think-pieces while doing so. But queerness can also be intrinsic; it can be not yet known; it can be concealed for reasons of protection or not discussed because it’s simply not what the story that’s being told is about. No one here is arguing that more queerness isn’t better, but the idea that queer characters must operate a certain way only serves to limit queer visibility to fitting into a box, something that queer people have pushed up against always.

Take Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who didn’t come out until the show’s fourth season, or Callie on Grey’s Anatomy, who began the show as a love interest for George O’Malley before entering a relationship with Erica. Or even the Maya Hawke’s character Robin on Stranger Things, whose queerness has grown to become a central part of her character. Just because moments like these took place later in their time on the show doesn’t mean they weren’t previously gay or bisexual. All it means is that it wasn’t relevant to the story that was being told at the time. Perhaps the same can be true of Stranger Things… at least for now.

If you enjoyed this story, check out Evan Ross Katz’s interview with the creator of the new “Queer As Folk” here!

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