I haven’t thought much about the two decades I spent hiding in the closet. I came out and didn’t really want to think about what it was like before. That changed nearly seven years later when I first watched “Heartstopper” on Netflix.
Memories and a mix of emotions came flooding in while I watched sparks literally (yes, in the literal sense) appear on the screen in this fantastic story.
I am not someone who can watch a movie or TV show more than once, but I have watched this show more than a few times.
- A young LGBTQ+ person feeling comfortable enough, or using the show, to come out to their family and friends
- The parent using it to show their kids that they’re accepting
- The family member who is gaining insight into what the LGBTQ+ experience is like in high school
For me, it unlocked repressed memories of the shame and fear of being in the closet.
I desperately needed a show like this when I was growing up.
“Heartstopper” balances a beautiful escape from reality and real LGBTQ+ youth issues
“Heartstopper” is a coming-of-age life and love story presented through the eyes of Charlie Spring & Nick Nelson—two examples of a more accepting generation.
The uplifting LGBTQ+ series is a beautiful escape from the painful realities of life in the 2020s—yet not afraid to confront the issues of coming out, bullying, and mental health.
“Heartstopper” was a win for Netflix, highlighted in the company’s earnings report released in July, showing 67 million view hours in its first month.
It spent three weeks on the Global Top 10 TV list. “Heartstopper” posted in the Top 10 in 54 countries (same-sex marriage is legal in 32 countries).
The eight-episode first season even broke the Top 10 list in three countries where same-sex relations are illegal.
Yet, as bright and happy as this show is.. it first left me feeling very somber. And, I’m not alone in this reaction.
“A strange, unexpected melancholy”
BBC TV Critic Scott Bryan described a similar feeling in a recent episode of BBC’s Must Watch podcast.
“It’s a Must Watch. This show has left an impact on me in a huge way,” Bryan said, explaining how he felt mesmerized by the joyful scenes.
Yet, in the end… he felt the same. Sad.
“When I’ve spoken to friends who have seen the show, there is a weird melancholy after you finish watching this,” he said in the podcast. “Even though I had friends and family who were accepting of me, I came out when I was 14, having that media representation was lacking. I never really saw myself on TV.”
Neither did I.
Representation and visibility have been lacking in media.
This melancholy response to an otherwise heartwarming show appears to be a common emotion, especially for those in their mid-twenties and older. But, of course, the world was a different place 10 years ago when author and creator Alice Oseman and I were a similar age as the main characters of the show.
Heartstopper creator Alice Oseman
- Creator of LGBTQ+ YA romance webcomic, bestselling graphic
- Writer, creator, and executive producer, “Heartstopper” TV adaption
- Bestselling author of four YA contemporary novels about teenage disasters: Solitaire, Radio Silence, I Was Born for This, and Loveless
After feeling sad, I then went through a brief period of frustration and jealousy.
My school experience didn’t match the world depicted by this incredible cast, led by Kit Connor (Nick) and Joe Locke (Charlie). I didn’t have my first boyfriend until after I was out. I couldn’t act on a crush without fear of being bullied or losing a friendship.
My journey to accepting myself
On the morning of June 26, 2015, news interns ran from the Supreme Court to the reporters standing outside to deliver the results in the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges marriage equality case.
I was also an intern, sitting in a Chicago newsroom, silently overwhelmed with emotion.
With most people, I was still in the closet. But the energy in that building and watching the country react to this decision shocked my world.
Until that point, I wasn’t super comfortable with my sexuality. I had come out to my parents a few months earlier.
Like Bryan, I was fortunate. My family was wonderful. I was never concerned my parents would be anything but excellent—yet I was terrified.
I grew up in the Midwest. McHenry County, Ill. has only once voted for a Democratic presidential candidate.
After graduation, I moved to conservative South Dakota for a college scholarship and stayed for my first full-time job in TV news.
I didn’t see much representation during that critical period of my development. And I definitely didn’t feel confident or proud.
Yet, I felt like I was watching myself on TV when one of the characters in “Heartstopper” is seen on Google taking BuzzFeed-like quiz about his sexuality, reading about Stonewall and conversion therapy. It was the most realistic fictional moment I’ve ever seen.
That’s not to say that queer representation in media was zero, but stories ended in tragedy, or the character provided comic relief. It was neither very accurate nor uplifting.
That experience of hiding in the closet and coming out may not have been so lonely had I seen a moment like that on TV.
Subtle moments of self-acceptance
While I may not have had that media visibility, I recall moments when people around me helped me feel safe and hopeful for better days ahead.
A few weeks ago, I saw a “Heartstopper”-related column written by someone who impacted my own journey of self-acceptance.
CNN Digital Senior Editor Katia Hetter may not realize that she and fellow co-chair ONA Student Newsroom Co-Chair Michelle Johnson were not just mentors. They were crucial representation for me- two strong and proud LGBTQ+ journalists living successful lives.
Hetter’s perspective on this show is a must-read for parents. She writes about her mother’s unconditional love and acceptance in a much less accepting era.
She reinforced that unconditional love by watching the show with her own children.
It’s a subtle act, but one that would likely make an impact if her child was struggling with their identity. A similar element was weaved in the show depicting how simple words and actions from the people around you can have an amplified effect during that journey.
These subtle, yet powerful, comments from people like Olivia Colman’s character saying her son seemed much more like himself appeared to shed bits of shame or fear from his face.
I wish I could recall a specific line or discussion with Katia or Michelle, but those memories, like so many from that time in my life seem to be repressed.
I do remember two great mentors who added the confidence I needed at that moment in my life. Six months after meeting them, I returned to the Chicago area and came out to my parents.
Rather than a story like “Heartstopper,” Hetter and I had fellow our classmates to lean on.
“I came out my senior year in college, surrounded by fellow students who had come out before me. They became my own #Heartstopper crowd — my Darcy, Tara, Tao and Isaac — and I loved them for supporting me and really saving my life.”Katia Hetter, CNN
Similarly, my close college friend Trent was the primary reason I was okay. I remember many late-night discussions in the student newspaper’s newsroom or campus hub. And I finally began to feel less alone.
My Heartstopper-like representation was YouTube
As each generation advances in LBGTQ+ visibility, I had YouTube.
I watched every coming-out video on YouTube. I vividly recall Connor Franta’s powerful video – viewed 12.4 million times. It provided me the self-acceptance and final boost of confidence I needed to tell family and friends.
Franta has a great reaction to “Heartstopper” too, where one of the characters also used YouTube to find self-acceptance.
As for the actual experience of coming out, it went pretty well. My immediate world was (mostly) loving and accepting.
While my memories may be fuzzy, Facebook has history recorded for me. Here are just a few comments that struck me as I was looking back to write this post:
My grandfather was my fiercest ally up until he died last year.
It wasn’t always rainbows and happiness.
Another comment was from a fellow high school classmate.
Like him, despite being in a school of nearly 3,000 students, I don’t recall being aware of anyone openly out.
I lost someone I was close to because she was not supportive of my “lifestyle.”
I experienced homophobia. And bullying.
There are many parallels between the challenges of being queer and young, as faced by Locke’s character Charlie in “Heartstopper.”
Flash forward seven years, and I am doing fine. Hiding and lying all those years made it feel liberating to come out and I never really looked back until now.
A Dose Reality of 2022
Watching “Heartstopper” and then observing the world over the last three months has been a little whiplash.
Last week, 157 members of Congress voted against codifying my right to marry. It’s unclear whether the bill has enough bipartisan support to get the needed 60 votes in the Senate. This could leave this right to the whims of the Supreme Court, where Justice Clarence Thomas signaled he’d like to overturn Obergefell.
A pastor in Texas is calling for the execution of “every single gay person in America.”
A bakery near my hometown is banned from holding events after they experienced an LGBT-related hate crime last month.
Why visibility matters so much
And a creator I follow on TikTok recently shared his concern about increased attacks on the LGBTQ+ community, especially surrounding marriage equality and a rapidly spreading stigma about Monkeypox, with echos of history.
All likely to add fuel to conservative media outlets talking points.
LGBTQ+ visibility in media has been the target of increased attacks and inflammatory rhetoric, especially when the intended audience is younger people (like “Heartstopper”).
“(A lack of visibility) has a negative impact on your own view of yourself and your worldview,” @JacketLunch on TikTok explained, sharing his experience growing up in a conservative area and attending Catholic school his entire life.
“If you aren’t a member of the community, you might not understand why visibility is so important, but as a person who had a very difficult time accepting my identity, it would have really helped me,” he said.
I couldn’t say it any more eloquently.
While this show may have reminded me of the loneliness of being a gay teen, none of that matters.
Why “Heartstopper” is more than just a comforting show
Because of the work of Oseman, executive producer Patrick Walters, and the entire “Heartstopper” team, young people have the incredible story of Nick Nelson and Charlie Spring to feel a little less alone.
I’m sure this show has and will continue to save lives.
It’s even showing the economic value of LGBTQ+ content to media executives.
For me, “Heartstopper” is healing wounds.
If you or someone you know needs help or support, The Trevor Project’s trained crisis counselors are available 24/7 at 1-866-488-7386, via chat at TheTrevorProject.org/Get-Help, or by texting START to 678678. The Trevor Project is the world’s largest suicide prevention and mental health organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer & questioning (LGBTQ) young people.