I Wish ‘Heartstopper’ Existed When I Came Out. I’m So Glad It’s Here Now.
You say sorry a lot. Don't say it.
Spoilers for Heartstopper season one
Last year I discovered Alice Oseman’s graphic novel series Heartstopper, a story about two wholesome boys who go from being classmates, to friends, to liking each other “in a romantic way and not just a friend way.” I soon learned that it was set to become a series on Netflix, and as soon as I got the chance, I binged it about as quickly as I did the graphic novels.
I can’t help but think back to my own coming-out story when I watch a series like Heartstopper. My options were so limited back in 2001 and I wish I could’ve had something that didn’t solely focus on heartache, fear, and endings that made you think that it’d be much easier if you weren’t gay. I didn’t need constant reminders that being gay was hard, I needed reassurance that being gay was okay—and not just in the last five minutes when the rest of the runtime focused on the hard shit I was already stressed about.
That’s not to say Heartstopper is 100% colorful leaves appearing on screen to express absolute joy. The series has its serious moments, but at the heart of it is a story that makes sure to treat its queer characters with care. The bullied gay kid has friends. The Black transgender girl isn’t forced to stay at the all-boys school. The parents and siblings are supportive. And words like “bisexuality” are acknowledged as a legitimate option instead of a fork in the road between gay and straight.
Heartstopper is a story that not only shows the audience that there can be a happily ever after for queer kids, but it shows that they are worthy of one.
And there’s no better example of that than Charlie Spring.
You don’t have to accept the first sign of affection you receive
When we first meet Charlie he’s in a relationship with a boy named Ben Hope. It’s not much of a relationship, though, as Ben is only interested in making out behind closed doors and won’t even acknowledge Charlie when they see each other at school. It’s easy to see that Charlie needs to stop seeing Ben, but we find out Charlie was bullied pretty badly during the previous school year, and Ben’s kinda taking advantage of it.
Charlie still has a good group of friends (Tao, Elle, and Isaac), but Ben is someone who showed him physical intimacy and even called him brave for being out at school. Even if Charlie knows he should want more than to be Ben’s little secret, he’s been made to feel like this is the only way he can have a relationship with a boy. Charlie thinks this is all he deserves.
Heartstopper allows Charlie to learn that it’s okay to want more than that. Even if his relationship with Nick starts out as a secret, it’s done in a way that shows Charlie that he doesn’t have to settle on someone like Ben. Nick’s genuinely trying to figure himself out. Arguably, Ben is too, but he uses that as an excuse to be nasty toward Charlie while also pulling him back in for their meet-ups. Nick, on the other hand, still has a friendship with Charlie and treats him like a person.
You’re not to blame for how others react to you being queer, so stop apologizing
The arc Charlie goes through reminds me of the way I felt when I started dating the girl I’d go on to marry. I remember having moments where I’d blame myself for the distance she put between herself and her family, who were perfectly fine with my existence as long as I called myself their daughter’s roommate. At one point I told her she could go to holiday gatherings alone and I could stay home so that they wouldn’t be forced to dance around our relationship.
Even if I knew I did nothing wrong, I offered that option because they were her family, and my relationship with her created tension between them. Despite my best efforts, I would find myself thinking that things would be easier if I were a white boy instead of a Black girl, because yeah, as if sexuality wasn’t enough of a hurdle, we’re also an interracial couple.
This is extremely similar to the way Charlie feels about, well, anyone who cares about him, often treating himself like a burden because he’s gay. Charlie is quick to blame himself for the way Nick’s friends act toward him and the way Ben treats him. He’s internalized the belief that it’d be easier if Nick didn’t like him, going so far as to apologize for fights that Nick’s friend, Harry, starts. Heartstopper’s depiction of that kind of mentality is painfully honest and all too relatable, but what’s beautiful about it is the fact that Charlie isn’t left to feel that way.
You’re worth fighting for
While it is important to teach lessons of self-love and standing up for yourself (which Charlie does with Ben in the end), what I really appreciate about Heartstopper is how it shows Charlie that he’s worth fighting for. He doesn’t have to accept the homophobia he deals with, more importantly, others are allowed to have his back and be there for him.
Charlie is the “I’m used to it” guy. When someone makes fun of him, he brushes it off because that’s what he’s come to expect. When people defend him (like Nick or Tao), he tells them not to, because he thinks it’ll cause more trouble than it’s worth. He goes so far as to consider breaking up with Nick because he doesn’t want Nick to lose his friendship with Harry—even when Harry calls him a slur.
Charlie has to learn that it’s not okay that he’s used to being bullied. It’s not okay that he’s used to the hate people like Harry fling at him. More importantly, he has to learn that him being close to someone isn’t going to make their life more difficult. It’s okay that Nick decided that Harry and his friends weren’t good people, because they’re not. It’s not worth keeping a friendship with someone who enjoys dealing in cruelty and who labels toxic behavior as a joke.
Watching a queer kid learn that his sexuality isn’t a burden is exactly what I needed in 2001. While that’s not exactly what was being offered in entertainment back then, I managed to figure it out in other ways (namely, a lot of fandom circles and a damn good mom). Seeing stuff like Heartstopper makes me happy that queer kids have something like this that they can point to, and I hope more stories like this are released.
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