Sometimes you don’t realize what kind of medicine you’ve been needing until you get it.
My mom forced me to come out to her in 1997 after she found a copy of Best Lesbian Erotica of 1996 under my mattress. The ensuing conversation was excruciating. Coughing up the details she demanded about my fledgling first romance was like feeding freshly hatched butterflies to a Venus flytrap. My mom’s main concern was to police my girlfriend’s gender (“Why does she always wear those baseball hats? Doesn’t she know she looks like a man in those huge boots?”) and to inform me that bisexuality did not exist (wrong) , so I was gay (wrong), and this was going to make the rest of my life a terrible tragedy (wrong). Plus, if I was gay, she would never be a grandmother (wrong). The newest and most tender parts of my life were drowned in her wracking sobs and I entered a near permanent state of fight, flight or intoxication that lasted several years.
Fast forward to 2022 and I’m eagerly devouring Netflix’s new teen drama Heartstopping for the third time. (Spoilers ahead.) When 16-year-old rugby player Nick Nelson comes out as bisexual to his mom in the final episode, her response is to give him a huge hug, say “Thank you for telling me. I’m sorry if I ever made you feel like you couldn’t tell me that,” and to share how much she loves him. On first watch, I might have shed a few tears. By the third viewing, it’s just a huge grin. Apparently teenagers around the world have been using this scene to come out to their parents. So awesome.
I am pretty obsessed with Heartstopping.
This coming out scene is not the only thing the show gets right. And I’m not the only grown adult who is enamored with this milestone in queer media. But how important is my 42-year-old opinion here? This show also means a hell of a lot to queer and gender expansive teens and tweens all over the globe, and will give many of them a guidepost to honest communication, healthy relationships and joyful possibilities in their lives. I’m still pinching myself that it exists.
Of course, the show isn’t going to be everything for everyone. While it contains a lot of representation across identities (Smart and fabulous Black trans girl played by a Black trans girl, whose whole storyline doesn’t have to revolve around being trans or being bullied! Interracial lesbian couple who actually get to enjoy their relationship! ), the two main characters are middle-class, white cis boys. The whole show has no class or race analysis, and takes place at private British schools. It’s extremely vanilla—no drugs or alcohol, no sex, just sweet romantic kissing, which is pretty unrealistic for a lot of teens these days. Other than some bullying, the show lacks any grit—it’s definitely a utopian universe in a lot of ways.
But I would argue that this is also part of what is powerful about Heartstopping. In comparison to other currently popular teen shows with prominent gay leads, like Sex Education gold Young Royals, the show isn’t a sensational teen soap opera. The plot is not driven by betrayals, booze, lust or an obsession with dicks. The kids get to be kids. (And they aren’t all being played by 20-somethings.) Many teens these days actually aren’t doing drugs or getting laid. Many teens are too awkward or cautious to go there yet, and this show doesn’t pressure them to grow up before they’re ready. They get to see themselves reflected here, and get to take their time figuring out what love and consent are in a developmentally appropriate way. It’s pretty cool that you could comfortably show Heartstopping to your 10-year-old and it could open their eyes to what’s possible as they enter adolescence.
It’s also pretty cool that nothing tragic happens. When I was preparing to write this piece, I put up a post on social media asking my friends for their reactions to the show. The most repeated responses were all along the lines of, “I kept waiting for something terrible to happen and it didn’t;” or “I kept waiting for a gay-bashing or a suicide but it never came;” and “The characters actually got to be happy in the end, when does that ever happen in a show about queer youth?”
I don’t think I can overstate the significance of this. Even in current shows, like Netflix’s I Am Not OK With This, characters are still forcibly outed as a traumatizing form of revenge. Back when I was coming of age in the ’90s and early aughts, the consequences for being queer in cinema were much more violent. The most prominent movies featuring queer or gender non-conforming young adults were often labeled euphemistically as “tragic romances.” Movies like Boys Don’t Cry, which ends with the rape and murder of the trans lead, or Brokeback Mountain, which ends with the closeted gay lovers estranged and one dead from a presumed gay bashing, broke our hearts. And don’t even get me started on The Crying Game. Plus, the year I came out was the year gay college student Matthew Shepard was murdered in a repulsive hate crime in Wyoming that dominated national news. In short, it was a terrifying time to come of age as a queer teen. I think it’s no accident that so many of us kept our romances secret, leaned heavily on getting wasted in order to get intimate with anyone and had no idea how to have healthy, lasting relationships. Those with financial access moved thousands of miles away from our disapproving families, and many who couldn’t leave remained depressed and closed for years.
I can only imagine how encouraging it would have been to watch something like Heartstopping at that time. In this show, you get to see the queer characters doing the most basic teenage things—going bowling, drinking milkshakes, having a snowball fight—while a really well-written, slow-burn love story unfolds, intertwined with a sensitively rendered coming- out journey. It shouldn’t be a big deal that this exists, but it is, especially in our historical moment where conservative legislatures across the country are targeting trans youths’ basic human rights and access to health care; where states like Florida are banning books and prohibiting the use of the word “gay” in classrooms; and where conversion therapy remains legal. It’s a big deal to see queer teens get to be joyfully, openly in love. Happy Pride Month. I hope you find some heart medicine here, too.
Jacks McNamara explores queer issues, liberatory politics, magical creatures and other relevant topics. Learn more at jacksmcnamara.net