Is queerbaiting a problem?
David Bowie. Catwoman. Call Me By Your Name. Sherlock and John Watson. Harry Styles. Rita Ora and Ariana Grande. Gay-for-pay adult actors on OnlyFans.
What do all these have in common? Critics say they're all responsible for "queerbaiting".
A few years ago, I wrote a column about gaybaiting. "Gaybaiting is the notion that somebody would put themselves out there in order to receive attention from the same sex, but only for the validation – not because they want anything sexual or romantic to follow. Put simply, it's for the 'likes'," I wrote. In 2018, with influencer culture peaking on Instagram, this seemed like an accurate description of the sexually-ambiguous social media stars who consciously targeted the gay community for its thirst for them.
"If you're a good-looking straight guy with six-pack abs and good hair, the quickest way you'll get your Instagram followers up is to target gay men. A shot in a pair of underwear here, a thirsty beach shot there... you'll confuse your audience and keep them lusting after you, which does only good things for your self-esteem."
As society's relationship with gender has developed, so too has the phenomenon of gaybaiting. In 2022, it can more accurately be described as queerbaiting. Wikipedia calls this "a marketing technique for fiction and entertainment in which creators hint at, but then do not actually depict, same-sex romance or other LGBT representation". Arguably, this is gaybaiting in its simplest form, not so much queerbaiting.
Queerbaiting, I would argue, does not need to depict same-sex romance or represent any kind of same-sex attraction. Playing with gender stereotypes – like a straight man wearing a dress on the cover of Vogue – has no allusions to same-sex relationships, but LGBTQ commentators still argue that it's "queerbaiting". It's putting a morsel of rainbow-coloured food on a hook for the queers to chomp, in order to sell your tat.
If a celebrity or other personality is disingenuous enough to queerbait simply to make money, that we can all agree is deceitful, and harmful to queer rights overall. Here, I'm specifically thinking of the incredibly-attractive straight guys and girls on Twitter, OnlyFans, et al. who post explicit and sexual photos and videos of themselves for a target audience of their own sex. This is very common business tactic in our influencer-driven world, and has only increased during the pandemic as people seek to make money from home.
Yet as someone from inside the queer community, I have no problem with many of the acts that define queerbaiting, when not done for marketing purposes.
For the same reason I don't take umbrage with straight actors playing gay roles, or Katy Perry singing about the one time she kissed a girl (and liked it). All of this is public representation of diversity that helps your straight, white, average Joe on his or her journey away from bigotry.
More problematic, I see, is the premature labelling of something as queerbaiting and subsequent cancel culture calls to shut it down.
In a Rolling Stone article, the author quotes a tweet which sums up the difficulties in crying "queerbait!" in uninformed online discourse. "The conversation around queerbaiting has reached a confusing place — on the one hand, we say don't worry [about] labels," they wrote. "and on the other hand, if an artist presents even remotely 'queer' we interrogate them [about] their sexuality?"
We (and by we, I mean netizens; the citizens of the internet who have appointed themselves as cultural police) don't just "interrogate" them. We actually bully them. Rip them to shreds online, read them for filth, tell them to go back to targeting heterosexual audiences and leave more space in mainstream media for "authentic" queerness.
However, do you know what the Q in LGBTQ stands for? Queer, yes, but also, "questioning". Trying to figure yourself out. A person could be questioning their sexuality and/or gender for their entire lives without ever "coming out". Who is to say that the celebrities and other public people aren't "questioning" when they do things quickly labelled as queerbaiting?
Isn't playing around with sexuality and gender, and not being so rigid about it, a good thing? Who are the netizens to say someone is fake and inauthentic when they could be experimenting and seeing what works for them?
Additionally, increased and varied representations of queerness signal to young queer people that they are normal. Harry Styles might not be queer himself, but if a queer teenager feels more comfortable in their personal gender-bending using him as a style icon, is Styles doing a disservice to them?
Or, if a young girl hears Rita Ora and Ariana Grande singing, "Sometimes I just wanna kiss girls, girls, girls", and it gives them the confidence to, well, kiss a girl for the first time ... is that a betrayal on the part of those singers?
Not really. This, I see, is the "queering" of mainstream media. A communal effort to break down ideals of heterosexuality. Society is making leaps and bounds in this area, and if a "straight" guy wants to wear nail polish and a cute frock or a "straight" girl wants to kiss another girl, I'd like to see the default assumption about them as "questioning" and not simply "con artists".