Television

Heartstopper Captures the Parts of Adolescent Queerness That Aren’t Just About Sex

The Netflix series gives LGBTQ viewers everything we deserve in a coming-of-age story.

A teenage boy in a school blazer, surrounded by pink light and cartoon flower petals.
Heartstopper. Netflix

Queer media has grown a big heart, and nothing embodies it more fully than Netflix’s Heartstopper. I put the series, based on Alice Oseman’s graphic novels, on in the background while assembling furniture (very gay, I know) and I was transfixed. I watched the whole season in one night, chairs in pieces on the floor around me, as I fell head over heels for the teens on my screen. The next night I did it again.

Heartstopper is pure high school romantic fantasy, a story in which the L, G, B, and T are not only represented but joyfully so. Unlike the queer stories of yore in which LGBTQ+ characters were marginalized—either never named as such, leaving hungry audiences to squint in search of queer subtext, or openly identified as queer, only to meet a grisly and untimely demise (everywhere from The Children’s Hour to Buffy the Vampire Slayer)—Heartstopper sets queerness at the center.

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Across social media and a wide range of reviews, Heartstopper has been hailed for its unbridled joy, an unusual tone among queer narratives for any age, let alone youthful coming out stories. However, more unique than that is its overwhelming focus on tender romance with minimal sexual content.

The series wraps us in safety and reassurance that can be hard to find for queer folks, especially in our early forays into coming out. These characters are neither alone nor just out for themselves—neither their own sexual gratification nor zero-sum ascension in the high school pecking order. They crave community and, amazingly, they find it. The path from “I’ve only ever met one openly gay person before” to planning a triple date is swift.

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I was fortunate to grow up around many same-sex couples, with the understanding that families take myriad forms. I now live in a major city with a robust and varied LGBTQ+ community. Frankly, I sometimes drift into thinking that I don’t need more queer representation, not personally anyway. I may want it, may support it wholeheartedly on principle, but do I need it? My life is already saturated with vibrant queerness. How could I be left wanting? Nevertheless, despite my best attempts to stay chill (not my forte), I was suddenly tearing up over a box of seat cushions.

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The show features 14-year-old Charlie (Joe Locke), a British student at the fictional Truham Grammar School for Boys. Charlie was outed the previous school year, but has now come into his own and claims his gayness comfortably. Assigned a seat next to rugby star Nick Nelson (Kit Connor), Charlie feels sparks fly with the hunky schoolmate whom his friends describe as a “ginormous heterosexual.”

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With the past as prologue, I was sure I knew how this would unfold. Popular jock is aggressively homophobic and bullies feminine gay boy, all while sexual tension simmers. Finally, they find themselves alone and the attraction explodes in an illicit sexual escapade, in which the outwardly straight athlete turned sexual aggressor reveals himself to be secretly gay. (See Drew Boyd in Queer as Folk or Glee’s Dave Karofsky, among a litany of others.) This pattern is not only endemic among portrayals of queer people on screen; it seeps into our assumptions about internalized homophobia in real life. Whenever we speculate that a homophobic politician is actually closeted and will one day get “caught,” we play into this. Beyond the dark humor, this archetype keeps queerness tied to shame, self-hatred, secrecy, and the eventuality of a dramatic reveal. It also affirms that pent-up sexual frustration followed by a shocking sexual conquest are prerequisites to coming out.

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[Heartstopper spoilers follow]

Wryly compared to a golden retriever, Nick Nelson offers us something different. Nick doesn’t skip a beat when befriending Charlie. This is not a jock who needs to bolster his masculinity by surrounding himself with fawning girls or distancing himself from his effeminate classmate. While Charlie’s friends are wary of the “giant moronic rugby lads” hurting him, their skepticism is largely, miraculously, unwarranted.

Charlie is smitten with Nick, who in turn is drawn to him. When Charlie falls asleep during a movie, Nick apprehensively reaches out for Charlie’s hand, only to pull away. In a clever homage to the tale’s roots as a graphic novel, animated stars, hearts, birds, and leaves flutter around the characters during upswells of emotion. We feel Nick’s intrigue and hesitation as heat literally crackles between his and Charlie’s fingers. This is where Heartstopper excels: capturing the electricity of longing for someone and being unsure of how to act on it, let alone whether your feelings will be reciprocated.

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Here, the pining is the point. Daydreaming is deemed intimate on its own, not merely a prelude to some greater intimacy. We have always accepted that heterosexual relationships comprise more than simply sex, and allowed straight people to have emotionally rich and varied experiences. Heartstopper offers queer kids the same chance. The lack of sex—or even allusions to it—is notable because the series is not ashamedly avoiding a topic that’s historically been stigmatized as inappropriate or deviant, but rather leaning into the lush emotional landscape of young love and all the non-sexual aspects of queer relationships.

I’ll be the first to say that sex is a fun, healthy, and hopefully hot part of many people’s lives. I have no patience for respectability politics that dictate queer people must desexualize ourselves to appear palatable to a homophobic society. Still, as state legislatures across the US attempt to ban discussions of LGBTQ+ identities, conflating our very existence with sexual predation, I am wearied. Are these our only options for representation: semi-closeted portrayals in which we deserve nothing more than furtive glances or raucous and exploitative hypersexuality devoid of any emotion?

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Heartstopper is populated by LGBTQ+ young people who get to be just that: young. They inhabit the early adolescent phase of budding romance and attraction, wearing their gushy hearts on their sleeves. While this is a very real part of development—a rite of passage for straight youth—it is often glossed over in shows that are ostensibly about teens but that cater to an adult audience (e.g., Gossip Girl, Euphoria, Sex Education). Heartstopper’s charm is that it makes no attempt to be sexy. Charlie and his peers are not adultified or sexually mature; they long to hold hands, and kissing feels monumental.

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This tenderness rebukes the homophobic notion that queerness is an “adult” topic not fit for kids or teens. Particularly against the onslaught of homophobic and transphobic politicians asserting that coming out as anything besides straight and cisgender catapults youth into adulthood and makes them predators, I was surprised by how much I relished a world in which queer characters get to thrive in their earnest, flirty crushes. When was the last time our TVs witnessed two gangly, unsure of themselves, yet disarmingly sweet 15-year-old boys kissing under an umbrella in a Sunday morning rainstorm? They painstakingly compose texts to one another, then delete and rewrite, in pursuit of the perfect phrase. Be still, my heart.

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Watching these grinning teens throw themselves into love with abandon prompted a twinge of melancholy. Was this even a possibility for me at that age? Would I have jumped at this opportunity like they do or was I too tied up in self-conscious knots to let myself leap?

Part of Heartstopper’s success relies on the lack of juxtaposition of overt straight sexuality with chaste queerness. The characters are overwhelmingly queer—shout-out to the highly accurate portrayal of a queer friend group having one token straight friend, rather than the inverse—but even their straight peers seem to abide by the same developmental milestones. When lesbians Tara and Darcy are seen “properly kissing” (in the words of their presumably straight classmate) at a party, it’s big news at school. Even the will-they-won’t-they flirtation between the show’s only straight pair—trans girl Elle and cis boy Tao—lives in the realm of blushing smiles and breathless awareness of the diminishing distance between their cheeks as they rest side by side.

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Heartstopper’s focus on the emotional dimensions of relationships allows it to plumb the characters’ interiority, delving into their confusion without leaping to despair. A series of montages tugged at my heart and my own recollections of coming out to myself: Nick searching the internet for clues about his sexuality. “Am I gay?” he Googles. He scrolls through articles about same-sex marriage opposition and conversion therapy, then tearfully processes the result of an online quiz: “62% Homosexual.” In a poignant moment, a timid Charlie asks “Would you kiss someone who wasn’t a girl?” and Nick seems at a loss for words before whispering “I don’t know.” Far from censoring queer intimacy, Heartstopper lingers in the unknowingness of growing into sexuality of any type. Nick confesses to a friend that he’s “scared to change … or do something that might confuse or surprise people? Your real personality has been, like, buried inside you for a really long time.”

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Eventually, Nick discovers a bisexual vlogger and subsequently comes out as bisexual. This too is handled remarkably, as Nick’s bisexuality is readily accepted without a whiff of disbelief or pressure to “pick a side.”

Ultimately, Heartstopper is a warm, hopeful, and self-assured love story, fleshed out by an endearing cast—any one of whom you would root for as a future lead. The characters’ bliss might seem too good to be true—fantasy is, after all, a hallmark of the romance genre—but the result is a liberating expansion of queer storytelling and a powerful statement about queer and trans people’s humanity and desire for love.

Far from thinking that I don’t truly need more media representation to reflect my queerness, I found Heartstopper deeply compelling precisely because it shook my confidence—confidence that I am sated, that I have enough inspiration to sustain me, that I defiantly don’t seek external validation. Heartstopper reminded me that there is no reason to measure “enough” queer love and community. We should always want, dream of, and indeed deserve more.

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