I think a lot of us have experienced this: you’re watching a show, movie, or play, and all of a sudden, you find yourself asking, “...Was that a little gay?” Maybe you second-guess yourself and move on. Maybe you hold onto it, waiting for the moment that character will find a partner. Maybe you accept it as headcanon and take it into your own hands (or the hands of other creatives; hello, fanfiction!). But as the story continues, it never goes past those longing looks or the couple of lines here and there. And when the story comes to an end, you can’t help but wonder…. What happened? Where did it go?
I can think up a bunch of stories that have put me through this. When I was younger, I thought I was just desperate for queer representation and reading too far into it. Or, at the height of my fanfiction reading phase, I thought maybe I just wanted to imagine those connections so the fanfiction seemed more realistic. But the more media I consume, the more frustrated I get. These aren’t accidental situations, it’s straight up queerbaiting. Queerbaiting is “a marketing technique for fiction and entertainment in which creators hint at, but then do not actually depict, same-sex romance or other LGBTQ representation.” Equally irritating is when writers try to go back, years after a story is over, and say, “This character was actually gay!” (I’m looking at you, JK Rowling.)
Like I said, a lot of stories fit the bill. But for the sake of this article, we’re going to look at a few stories that have stood out to me over the years.
We’ll begin with Scooby Doo’s Velma. In July, James Gunn said that he wanted Velma to be “explicitly gay” in the 2001 Scooby Doo movie. He claimed that his original script included a gay Velma, but the studio kept watering it down in the following drafts until she ended up with a boyfriend in the final script. Queer young adults will know that we’ve claimed Velma as a woman who loves women, and a lot of people were excited to know that we were right. When I heard it, though, I was more than annoyed. Why didn’t James Gunn fight harder to keep Velma gay if that was his original idea? He said it wasn’t his fault, that his producers were the ones who decided to take it out. And let’s face it, in 2001, the movie would have faced some backlash for making such an iconic character queer. But all I heard when James Gunn made his announcement is this: He didn’t care enough to fight to keep Velma gay.
Another popular example of queerbaiting has been happening since Castiel joined the Winchester brothers in Supernatural. In middle school, I was absolutely obsessed with Supernatural, and going into high school I spent most of my free time reading and writing Supernatural fanfiction. To this day, one of my favorite books is a Destiel (Dean/Castiel) fanfiction I read that absolutely wrecked me emotionally. There are a ton of examples of queerbaiting between the two characters, but one that stands out to me takes place in season 8, episode 17.
The episode opens with Castiel brutally murdering Dean. Then the audience discovers that Castiel is actually in heaven. Another angel enters the room, says, “No hesitation. Quick. Brutal. Everything’s back in order. Finally.” Castiel looks away from Dean’s lifeless body on the floor, and when we see what he’s looking at, it’s a room full of Deans, all murdered. We learn that the other angels have set up a simulation so that Castiel can practice killing Dean over and over again to get a tablet that they need. Castiel had to be desensitized to killing Dean because spending so much time on Earth with the Winchesters has made Castiel soft. He’s aware of his emotions now, and he has such strong feelings for Dean that he wouldn’t be able to kill him as easily as he would have been when they first met. When the moment finally comes to kill Dean, Dean recognizes that it isn’t really Castiel. “Cas… if you’re in there and you can hear me, you don’t have to do this.” Castiel, speaking to the other angel in his mind, says, “This isn’t right. I won’t hurt Dean.” And their argument continues while on earth, Castiel fights Dean. He’s winning, and the fight comes to a climax with Dean on his knees in front of Castiel, face bloodied, bones broken, Castiel holding a knife up, poised to kill. Dean says, “Cas, this isn’t you… Cas, I know you’re in there. I know you can hear me… Cas, it’s me. We’re family. We need you. I need you.” Castiel drops the blade, ultimately choosing Dean over heaven. It’s seen as the moment Castiel picks Earth over heaven, but that’s not the case. If Sam had replaced Dean in the fight, Castiel would have killed him and returned to heaven. It’s significant that it’s Dean there. Castiel picks Dean. Seriously, if you google “Destiel moments,” lists upon lists will come up of fans describing their favorite gay subtexted moments between the two.
I remember hearing that at a Comicon, one of the writers said that Dean Winchester is bisexual, but they wouldn’t write any kind of coming out for him because it wasn’t the most important part of his story. I don’t think this ever happened, because I can’t find any evidence that someone who works to create the show actually said it. However, they’ve definitely written enough evidence into the show, which means fans have taken it upon themselves to write and talk about it. Even if the writers intended for Dean to be 100% straight, they’ve created a whole lot of evidence to the contrary. Queerbaiting has been used for about 13 seasons in Supernatural, and despite some fans and even the actor who plays Dean, Jensen Ackles himself, refusing that Destiel is real, we have collected so much evidence that it doesn’t matter what they say anymore. And at the end of the day, why are they so afraid to make him openly bisexual? It wouldn’t make him any less manly or any less badass, it would simply answer the question many of us have been asking for the past 13 years and validate a lot of queer viewers.
In 2005, Lin Manuel Miranda released In The Heights, which has since gone on to be made into a movie that will be released next year. I didn’t listen to In The Heights until summer 2018, but I’ve been in love with it ever since. I got to see it performed live in December 2018 and I’ve watched bootlegs and listened to the soundtrack too many times to count since then. Right off the bat, I was taken by Sonny’s character. He’s different from the people around him. He doesn’t want to leave Washington Heights, he wants to stay and fix the education system and make it a better place to live. He’s kind to everyone, even people others treat poorly, like Graffiti Pete. When I saw it performed live, during the song “Blackout,” I found myself thinking that golden thought: Was that a little gay? “Blackout” is a very chaotic song, performed with the lights off and just a faint blue light and the light of the characters’ cell phones on stage. Vanessa is looking for her date Usnavi; Usnavi is desperate to get to Abuela Claudia to make sure she’s safe and taken care of; Abuela Claudia just wants to look at the stars now that the city lights aren’t in the way; Benny is looking for the girl he loves, Nina, who is trying to make her way home, but she’s lost because of how much Washington Heights has changed since she left. Everyone is looking for the people they love, and Graffiti Pete? He goes to the bodega where he knows he’ll find Sonny. Graffiti Pete tells Sonny people are now “lootin’ and shootin’” and that they have to leave and get inside, somewhere safe. Sonny says he can’t leave and that they need to stay there and guard the store, to which Graffiti Pete replies, “They gonna bombard the store until you ain’t got a store!” Sonny tells Pete he has a baseball bat somewhere in the store, Pete says he has a couple of Roman candles and that they can try to distract the vandals. Sonny sees some people running towards the store and gets really nervous, but Graffiti Pete says, “Give me a light, I’ll be right back, back up!” On stage, the vandals have made it to Sonny’s bodega, and while he tries to pull down the grate to keep people out, Pete single handedly fights the vandals to keep them away from Sonny and keep him and his bodega safe. I love the song for a lot of reasons, but Pete immediately going to Sonny has always been my favorite part of it.
Later in the play, Sonny hires Pete to paint a mural, which I won’t describe so I won’t spoil it for anyone who doesn’t know yet. It’s a small scene and with everything else going on, it isn’t the most significant thing going on onstage. However, it should have been. On October 5, 2014, Lin Maneul Miranda tweeted: “GP: ...I can hook you up. But it’ll take me all night. / Sonny: no one knows about this except me & you, ok? / [they kiss.] - early Heights draft.” When I saw this a couple years ago, my first thought was, “I was right!” But now, as I think about it more, what I see is that Lin Manuel Miranda decided to take out explicitly saying Sonny and Graffiti Pete are in a relationship because In The Heights is about a neighborhood of immigrants struggling to pay rent and dreaming about leaving Washington Heights, and their relationship wouldn’t further the plot.
Here’s the thing: queer characters should exist in stories without furthering the plot. I love a good coming out story, but writers seem to think that the lived queer experience begins and ends with the coming out experience. In reality, queer people live the queer experience everyday. I came out in 2016, but I’m still living the queer experience because I’m queer everyday of my life. Having a queer character doesn’t mean the story has to revolve around their queerness, it just means that the characters more accurately reflect real life. When writers make the conscious decision to take it out of their story or let it be taken out of the story, they make it clear that representation isn’t important to them. Queer people deserve to see themselves onscreen and onstage, whether it’s a coming out story or a story about fighting monsters or fighting the gentrification of their neighborhoods. Queer representation is always important, having queer characters always matters, regardless of how much it plays into the story. To say that a character was supposed to be queer after something has already been released, or to deny the queerness of characters despite the use of queerbaiting for over a decade, is a slap in the face to queer fans and in the case of the former, performative activism at best.