There’s a moment in the Netflix coming-of-age drama Heartstopper that sums up the spirit of the show. Two young women are at a party, head over heels in love. They kiss on the dancefloor in front of all their school friends — and no one makes a fuss. Another teenager, Nick, who is coming to terms with his own bisexuality, watches on with silent admiration. There is confetti and a euphoric song by Chvrches. It’s an unapologetic celebration of young, queer joy.
Based on the web comics by Alice Oseman, Heartstopper follows a set of mostly LGBTQ+ friends in a British secondary school as they navigate crushes and relationships. We spend most of our time with the openly gay Charlie (Joe Locke), who falls for rugby-obessed Nick (Kit Connor). There’s that kissing couple, Tara (Corinna Brown) and Darcy (Kizzy Edgell), and one of the characters, Elle (Yasmin Finney) is a young trans woman. It’s a warm, inclusive, funny and down-to-earth look at life for young LGBTQ+ teens today.
And yet, if you are an adult like me watching Heartstopper, these exhilarating plotlines of first kisses and new love may leave you with a strange, unexpected melancholy. As I came to the end of the series, I slowly realised why. LGBTQ+ people my age didn’t get to have these experiences of queer joy. The first dances, the hand holding, the ability to be as open about your crushes as your heterosexual peers. These moments were robbed from us, by homophobia and the rotten legacy of Section 28, which prevented “promotion” of homosexuality in schools.
I came out at 14. I was comfortable with my sexuality, and naively thought that telling others about it would be no big deal. So in French class, I decided to tell a friend in French — literally: “Je suis homosexual.” “Vraiment?!” “Oui!”
Then things got out of hand. A peer overheard, told everyone he knew, and the rumours spread like wildfire. After the bell rang for lunch, I felt there was no turning back, and told a few more friends. By the time I was in the changing rooms for PE that afternoon I heard my first homophobic slur. It was spoken by someone I hardly knew.
Those slurs continued day after day, until I left school. What stings, looking back, was not just what was said, but the fact that the school stood idly by. My teachers must have heard the abuse directed at me, but only one teacher ever did anything about it. My house was egged. I knew who did it, and the school did nothing.
In Heartstopper we see a network of LGBTQ+ students who do still experience homophobia from the outside world, but are able to find comfort in each other. I didn’t have that. I encountered no other openly gay students at my school until I turned 17. The environment made it impossible for people to be themselves. Who else would come out, after my experience? I stood out like a sore thumb, when all I wanted was to blend in.
The lack of young queer people in the popular culture I was consuming only compounded these feelings. I was too young for Queer as Folk. There were LGBTQ+ characters on screen in the early Noughties, especially in soaps, but for the most part these were explored as illicit affairs — there was almost nothing aimed at teenagers presenting queer feelings and relationships as normal and positive, like Heartstopper. My coming out roughly coincided with Coronation Street’s first gay kiss, which was watched by 14 million people. It was representation, but it also resulted in a national debate about whether two men kissing should be shown before the watershed. It made me come to believe that my life was debatable and controversial.
After finishing Heartstopper, my melancholy was soon replaced by anger. If there had been a show like it on TV when I was younger it would have told me that I was not alone, that everything was going to be OK.
I spoke with a friend, an actor called Ben, about the mixed emotions the series had sparked within me. He told me something that made me feel hopeful. “You know, our generation is making the television that we wish we could have watched when we were younger.”
He’s right. That’s exactly what Heartstopper is. And perhaps the greatest thing we can give the next generation of LGBTQ+ youth is the very thing we didn’t have ourselves.