Somewhat late to the party, I’ve recently caught up with Heartstopper, the Netflix queer teen drama based on Alice Oseman’s graphic novels and original Tumblr comic series. The show is a glorious love story, with all the highs and lows of teenage drama and a wonderfully wholesome ending. I could review the show, but there are plenty of people better equipped than I, who did so at a time when it might actually be useful!
My viewing of the show came hot on the heels of finishing reading Out Of The Shadows1 by clinical psychologist Walt Odets, and the show could not have been more timely or illustrated more clearly something that Odets discusses at length in his book.
Rather than focusing on reviewing the show, critiquing its plot and examining the themes, I am instead going to talk about why it is so vitally, searingly important that it was made and is being seen by so many people. But first, I’ll set some context.
The shadow of a crisis
Out Of The Shadows is a book that covers Odets’ 40 years living and working in San Francisco as a gay psychotherapist during the AIDS epidemic. The book talks about the ways in which AIDS has thrown a dark shadow over not only the generation who lived and died with the disease in the 1980s, but also caused generational trauma for gay men right up to the present day.
That may sound like a miserable read and a strange thing to put next to a web comic about teenage queer romance, but it isn’t. The book is a testament to the endurance and strength shown by queer communities in general, and gay men in particular, in the face of this existential threat and the ensuing grief. But it also looks head-on at the ways in which gay lives and loves have been pathologised for decades and how that continues to impact how gay men of all ages live and love.
In 1973, around ten years before HIV/AIDS began to take hold in the USA, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) agreed to remove ‘homosexuality’ from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Being gay was no longer a mental illness. The gay liberation movement, whose campaigning had significantly contributed to the APA’s decision, hoped that this would pave the way for greater acceptance of gay people by wider society. But we still had a long way to go.
In Out Of The Shadows, Odets talks about how the spectre of ‘homosexuality’ has hung around gay men for decades. In one account, Odets shares the experience of a client telling his family about moving in with his partner of three years. In response to the news, his mother said she did not “want to hear the sordid details of your life in San Francisco.” Moving in with your long-term partner is an exciting relationship milestone if you’re straight, so why is it seen as sordid if you’re gay?
To help shed some light on that, we turn to a 2014 study2 that looked into attitudes and perception of opposite-sex and same-sex couples by straight and gay participants. Whether the respondents were straight or gay, they were all more comfortable with public displays of affection between straight couples, and least comfortable with gay male couples kissing or holding hands. The study authors noted “the findings suggest that people seem to think of loving relationships in a hierarchy, with heterosexual couples being the most “in love,” followed by lesbian couples and then gay couples.”
Even the terminology highlights a difference between how men and women are perceived. Women-Loving-Women (WLW) are categorised by their romantic and affectional attraction, but Men who have Sex with Men (MSM) are defined by who they prefer to have sex with. Odets presents many cases of men who were held back by their belief that their connections with other men were necessarily restricted to ‘sport sex’ – thrilling, often althletic sex with new partners focused on novelty. He talks about how important it has been for his clients to develop a ‘gay sensibility’ – a man’s internal experience of himself as a gay man combined with his expression of himself to others, and the way that makes him relate to others as a result.
The history of ‘homosexuality’ and its focus on a single aspect of connection with others has robbed generations of men of the chance of affectionate and romantic experiences with men, and many gay men who haven’t developed that gay sensibility acutely feel the absence of intimate emotional connection in their lives. So many of us of all sexualities and genders have been led to believe, as though it were a fundamental truth, that men are not capable of romance with each other.
The Beat That My Heart Skipped
Enter Charlie Spring and Nick Nelson; two teenage boys in year 10 and 11 respectively at Truham Grammar School. The story is queer in many ways, but I’m focusing on Nick and Charlie because their story holds the most important message for boys and young men in particular, and society at large.
Heartstopper isn’t a story about a hook-up. It’s not explicit. In fact, we see how sad and inadequate Charlie feels as a result of a series of clandestine meet-ups with one of his other classmates, where he’s nothing more than a dirty homosexual secret. But that’s not how things are with Nick.
In case you’re reading before watching or finishing the show, I won’t go into detail and spoil how it comes together. What I will say is how incredibly urgent and important it is right now, at a time when queerphobia is on the rise and people continue to believe that gay men are nothing more than two sex drives pointed at each other, to have a portrayal of gay romance in all its innocent sweetness.
The show isn’t unrealistic. It doesn’t hold back from showing the ways in which some people Nick and Charlie encounter demonstrate the same discomfort with same-sex affection as the people surveyed for the 2014 study I mentioned above. But it also shows more than that. Much more.
It shows that a boy who is attracted to boys can be good at sports. You see that it’s possible to be a good friend to someone you are attracted to. On mutiple occasions we see that being kind and thoughtful isn’t a ‘girl thing.’ We see that boys can feel nervous and excited and giddy about their crushes, and that they aren’t just motivated by sex. There’s a strong message that boys’ attraction to other boys can be romantic and affectionate and is not purely sexual. We see deep emotional connections. We see love and care and affection.
Romance is for everyone who wants it
On the one hand, I want to say that Heartstopper isn’t a gay romance; it’s just a romance full stop. But I don’t want to detract from how very, very important it is that Charlie and Nick are two boys who are innocently, sweetly, nervously, ecstatically into each other.
We need to spread the word that romance is an option available to everyone who wants it; not just the narrowly defined group of people so many of us – straight and otherwise – have decided are capable of it.
Charlie ❤ Nick
1Odets, W (2019).Out of the Shadows: Reimagining Gay Men’s Lives. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
2Doan, L., Loehr, A., and Miller L.R. (2014) Formal Rights and Informal Privileges for Same-Sex Couples: Evidence from a National Survey Experiment. American Sociological Review 79, no. 6: 1172–95.