There was something particularly triggering for me in the recent Netflix show Heartstopper.
Initially, I couldn’t figure out why; the coming-of-age teen drama about two schoolboys who fall for each other is endearing and uplifting. It wasn’t sad enough to warrant my slightly confusing deluge of waterworks.
It starts in a refreshingly different place from any LGBTQI-themed drama I’ve seen: our young protagonist, Charlie, is out at school. His family, closest friends and an out teacher all fully embrace him for who he is. In episode one, he even has a boyfriend. Albeit a no-good one (we’ve all been there). It’s unlike other LGBTQI shows which have dined out on distress, tragedy, titillation, shock value and the closet. So why was I triggered into tears?
There was one particular moment when I began to understand my own emotional reaction to the show.
It’s when Charlie’s secret crush, Nick, longs to hold his hand on the couch. Cartoon animations fizzle and crackle around the two boys’ hands – a nod to its beginnings as a graphic novel, but also a remarkably effective way of conveying the emotional weight of that moment.
The scene was everything young love should be. Innocence. Care. Longing. And consent. Because Charlie is asleep, Nick opts not to hold his hand. Later, there’s the dream: reciprocation.
It’s the innocence that gets me. It’s an innocence that a whole generation of gay men like me were denied
From that moment on, as their affection towards each other grows, every time Nick intertwines his fingers with Charlie’s, my own heart stops, again and again.
It’s the innocence that gets me. It’s an innocence that a whole generation of gay men like me were denied. The first words I heard, upon leaving the closet, were: AIDS, predatory older men, drugs, phase, promiscuity and unnatural.
The idea of romance over luminous milkshakes or in the arcade of a bowling alley was unreachable for me. The minute you came out, you grew a thick skin to confront these scary adult issues. The one thing we didn’t try was a little tenderness.
I now realise those tears contain multitudes.
Some are tears of sorrow, of how I wish this had been my story, my adolescence, at such a formative age. And how I wish shows like this, depicting a quasi-utopia every queer teen deserves, had been around when I was 12, 13 or 14.
The first drama I remember depicting same-sex lives, Queer As Folk, featured an almost thirty-year-old promiscuous man rimming a 15-year-old school boy in episode one. Not to be prudish, but as a 15-year-old myself, this terrified me as much as it excited me. It sexualised gay teens my age before I knew how to handle it.
Heartstopper also triggered tears of longing. Once, gay and bi boys of my generation had to grow up fast. Ironically, this precociousness was accompanied by a parallel Peter Pan complex where we never quite grew up – never quite left the looping longing of our teens.
My schoolboy crushes could never know, for fear they’d out me, shame me and humiliate me. I attended a British school like Charlie’s, during a time when Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s Section 28 made it illegal to “promote homosexuality” in Britain’s schools. This made the innocent act of holding hands with the same sex in public not just fanciful, but a form of social suicide.
My mind also travelled very quickly to when I had my first boyfriend at 17, my second at 19 and almost every boyfriend since then. How some of my own boyfriends wouldn’t hold my hand in public for fear of ridicule
Then there are the tears of ambiguous grief. It takes me right back to being 15, lonely, petrified and full of self-loathing for being gay. It shows me how my life could’ve been in a world with more equality. My mind also travelled very quickly to when I had my first boyfriend at 17, my second at 19 and almost every boyfriend since then. How some of my own boyfriends wouldn’t hold my hand in public for fear of ridicule. How, sometimes, fearing stares, points, disapproving looks or even for my safety, I wouldn’t always hold theirs, though I longed to.
There’s something so poignant about the simple act of holding hands that’s both a political statement and an expression of affection.
Almost every depiction of male same-sex attraction I’d previously seen on screen featured lust. Lesser shown were the gentle actions of affection same-sex attracted boys could show one another: bear hugs, interlacing fingers, an arm slung warmly around a shoulder, kisses without tongues. These are gestures that show intimacy matters, and perhaps more importantly – we deserve it.
Finally, those tears were also of joy. Pure joy that we’re seeing, finally, what generations of queer men and women have fought for: the right to have our innocence, to have our childhoods – albeit vicariously. The heart-bursting joy we all deserve to be hugged or held hands with in public, not squirrelled away in private like a dirty secret. Not hidden under car dashboards, as I made my first boyfriend do with me. Not snapped away the second someone’s heard approaching, as my second boyfriend did. Not done only if we’re feeling courageous, as every boyfriend has been since. Out there on the rugby pitch, like Nick does with Charlie. It’s what we all deserved, but rarely got.
To be held, in this way, is to be loved without being a conquest nor a possession. I was asked if I was top or bottom before any boy asked if they could hold my hand, or hug me.
Interestingly, the emotional stakes of these small gestures of affection are higher: they require more vulnerability from both parties, but lead to a greater reward: validation, acceptance, intimacy. Nobody showed me those things could come before sex.
“I never thought this would happen to me,” Charlie says as he finally believes Nick reciprocates his feelings.
Those eight words will strike right into the core of the souls of so many gay boys who attended school under the dark clouds of homophobia. The sad truth is, it never actually did happen, for many of us. Not in this way. So excuse us as we sob watching it happen for Nick and Charlie.
Gary Nunn is a freelance journalist and author. Twitter @garynunn1