This story contains spoilers for season one of “Heartstopper.”
It was sophomore year of high school (or as the characters in Heartstopper would say, Year 11). A freshly out gay boy with dark, curly hair sat next to a cool kid in math (“mafs”) class. They got closer and closer as the year went on – hanging out every week gradually turned into hanging out every day. The curly-haired kid was smitten, and their relationship was only getting closer the more time they spent together. The cool kid frequently joked about them making a cute gay couple, and they each helped each other with their respective traumas. Finally, the cool kid invited the curly-haired kid to spend the night after a hangout.
But fear of the cool kid’s possible heterosexuality took over and the curly-haired kid hesitated. After that, the cool kid began to hang out more with his friends who were homophobic, and he got a girlfriend. The math class friends grew apart.
If you haven’t guessed already, I was the curly-haired kid, and I haven’t stopped wondering what would have been had I just said yes.
Netflix’s new queer coming-of-age original series Heartstopper let me peer into the alternate reality where I did. Its plot is eerily similar to my own experience, up until about episode three, where Heartstopper’s lucky couple achieve their happy ending.
From TikToks (so … many … fancams) and the general buzz surrounding the show, I already knew how similar the premise was to my own life, so naturally I avoided the show like the plague. I thought it would be a thoroughly unpleasant experience that reopened old wounds. I saw the show as another piece of gay media made for a straight audience (see: Love, Simon).
But there I was, scrolling through Netflix late on a Saturday, when the show began autoplaying (the Netflix algorithm knows I’m gay). I figured one episode wouldn’t hurt. Smash cut to me roughly four hours later, sitting in a puddle of tears after binging the entire show.
I have wondered a lot about what drove me to finish the show in one sitting. There were no big plot twists or huge cliffhangers at the end of each episode. Every time I thought the plot would go left, it went left. Even before starting the show, I knew that Nick and Charlie’s budding romance would be successful. Each time I thought there was a chance to deepen the material or add real stakes, that didn’t happen. But I kept watching (and crying).
Perhaps it was wish-fulfillment. Living vicariously through these characters in this make-believe world is so enjoyable. Nick’s genuine compassion and Charlie’s realistic insecurities that bubble up throughout the show give Heartstopper a real enough feel for me to plausibly insert myself and enjoy the fantasy. There is something incredibly powerful about a story that embraces queer love in a way that straight people have gotten to see countless times on the big screen. Not every story needs to tackle the full grit of queer identity and the trauma that comes with it. We live that – we don’t need to see it constantly in the media.
But I think my inability to turn off the show comes from something deeper than that. Like many queer kids, I had to sit and watch nearly every heterosexual in my life go through first kisses and all the pageantries of young love while I sat bitterly from the sidelines, giving advice. Because of this, I felt isolated. There weren’t many gay kids in my high school, so very few could truly relate. On top of that, I had no representations of healthy young gay love when I was growing up, so there was no blueprint for me to base my fantasies off.
So, I turned to The Apps (Tinder, Gindr, Scruff, Bumble, etc.), an incredibly common gay response. To gain access to these transactional, sex-based “communities,” I had to give up judgment of my body and my self-worth as a person. The first people I met who shared my queer identity were trying to solicit sex from me. It’s an incredibly confusing experience that is all to0 common in the gay community.
On top of this, I saw my peers starting to have sex and begin relationships rapidly, increasing the pressure to act, and fast. I rushed into sex, trying to act mature, but I overshot and harmed myself in the process. I may have caught up to my straight peers in terms of sexual maturity, I may even have experienced more than them – but at what cost?
Heartstopper rejects this grim reality and shows another alternative to queer love. Charlie begins the show in a secret situationship with a questioning boy, Ben, who only sees Charlie as an object to explore his sexuality. The show frames this as unequivocally bad, but, thankfully, it doesn’t dwell on the situation. Again, we live it, we don’t need to see it over and over again on screen. Instead, we focus on the kindhearted Nick who loves Charlie as a person.
For a lot of the show, I still worried about Ben coming back, or Nick turning out like Ben or so many other realistic, bad outcomes. Endings like these are far too common in gay plotlines and real gay dating life. But once I was able to set my worries aside, sit with these characters and enjoy the first love I never got to experience, I learned more about queer love than any number of hookups could have taught me. (Cue “Mystery of Love” by Sufjan Stevens.)
Thumbnail graphic by Trent Brown.