“I’m having a proper full-on gay crisis.”
So shares Nick, one of the protagonists in Netflix’s beautiful “Heartstopper,” a tale about Charlie, a gay high schooler, who falls in love with his classmate Nick. I’m 32, and this show is definitely about teenagers but brought me to tears as I clasped my fiancee Jessica’s hand as we cheered together, “It’s so gayyyyyy.”
The delight in “Heartstopper” touched me irrevocably. One reviewer calls the joy in “Heartstopper”“unbridled queer joy at its purest.” Literal sparks fly between Nick and Charlie. When Charlie falls asleep on a couch watching a movie, Nick looks down at Charlie’s hand, grappling with whether to hold it, before reaching to hover his hand over it. Tiny graphic fireworks shoot between their untouching palms. When Charlie looks at Nick, small graphic hearts dance around them, a throwback to the graphic novel. Nick has no idea what his sexual identity is, and his relationship with Charlie deeply confuses him. Still, through all the confusion, gentle bliss and happiness infuses every moment.
Joy was not part of my early queer experience. Raised in an evangelical Christian home, I was bombarded with the belief that being LGBTQ+ would damn your soul. Being homosexual was a “choice,” and a sinful one at that. When I first began feeling attracted to women, I was stunned and confused: Why was I finding women more attractive than men? Was I somehow choosing this? I didn’t think so. It took several years of desperately trying to focus on men before I admitted to myself that, like Nick, “I like boys — but I like girls too.”
I still didn’t know if this queerness that seemed in my bones, like the biblical wheat and chaff, would damn me to hell or not, but admitting it caused acceptance. It was clearly not a “choice."
The first time I kissed my best friend, it was precisely the opposite experience that Tara (who comes out as lesbian during “Heartstopper”) tells Nick about their childhood kiss: “Kissing you was one of the things that made me realize I don’t like kissing guys.” Kissing my best friend was one of the things that did make me realize I like kissing girls.
The first queer identity I embraced was bisexuality: I had (and continued) to date men, but now I wanted to date women. Eventually I learned about and deeply identified as demisexual, but only with men. I was attracted to women fairly quickly, but sometimes it took years of friendship with a guy before being attracted to him. In some distinct ways, I definitely preferred women.
It made me wonder: How gay on the Kinsey scale am I? Am I actually a lesbian? Have I been societally conditioned into finding men attractive? Is the fact that my deminess only happens with men indicative of being more lesbian than straight? At the end of the day, does it actually matter, since, however I may have been born, I find some men attractive (...eventually)?
Watching Nick go through his “proper gay crisis” felt so relatable. He Googled, “Am I gay?”, and when that yielded confusing results emotionally, he Googled, “Am I bisexual?” When he tells his mom that Charlie is his boyfriend but that he still likes girls too, his mom lets him know it’s OK to just like boys, to which Nick says, “No, I definitely still like girls.”
I felt affirmed watching Nick try on and discard different identities to see what makes the most sense. Having began my queer exploration so late, in my 20s — well past the formative sexual and individual identity stages — I, now 32, find myself still questioning and being confused. Am I non-binary? Am I pan? Am I trans? Shouldn’t I know by now?
In "Heartstopper,” Charlie absolutely knows he’s gay, and feels very comfortable with it. Nick has absolutely no idea what he is, but he knows he loves Charlie. That’s all he needs, and he’s OK with discovering the rest of his identity along the way; and so is Charlie, who provides gentle support and affirmation that wherever Nick is right now, that’s where he is, and that’s OK. If he wants to come out as gay, or bisexual, or not at all, or maybe later, all of these things are a valid part of being queer. And through all these unknowns and questions, the joy of Nick’s experience comes through: Maybe he doesn’t know if he’s gay or bi, but he knows he loves this person right here, and whether that love has a label doesn’t change its beautiful existence.
I wish I knew everything about myself now, but I don’t. I only felt safe to start exploring when I was 25, and there’s still so many unknowns in my own identity and gender expression. Would I like to know all the names for all the things I am? Hell yeah. I love labels and lists. But the unknowns, the “here be dragons” and “X marks the spot” discoveries, the fluidity and different paths taken — are these all meant to be part of this journey? Hell yeah. There’s no journey (queer or otherwise) if I just start at the end. And the joy that comes with discovery, and the growth, is contained in every bit of “Heartstopper” right alongside the confusion and trepidation. It inspires me to find joy in the process while the product is still unknown.
So, like Nick, I’m Googling “Am I ____?” while surrounding myself with people who all appreciate that fluidity is part of the journey. I talk to my queer friends about their experiences, and I try on expressions and identities that resonate, and I discard the ones that don’t. Sometimes, like Nick, I think: “I wish I knew then what I know now. I don’t even know what my sexuality is.” And then, like Tara, I think: “I don’t have to come out before I’m ready.” There is joy in the process, in discovering new things, in sharing what I want, when it feels safe. There’s no rush. Even if we’re not highschoolers, we still have the rest of our lives to become ourselves.