What’s the Deal With Queerbaiting?
BEN RICHMAN // MARCH 8, 2019
My first experience with queerbaiting was with Finny, the hot stud (as imagined in my head) antagonist of John Knowles’ novel A Separate Peace. Set during World War II at an all-boys school, the novel, which I was forced to read in my high school English class, tells the story of two straight boys who become obsessed with each other. As I lay in my bed alone reading about their adventures riding their bikes to the beach where they would sleep together beneath the sunset, I couldn’t help but think, These kids are definitely super gay. But no, the homoerotic undertones were never developed, or even discussed in my English class. Knowles himself rejected any queer readings, but that didn’t stop my hopeless romantic highschool brain from placing myself in the novel. I imagined camping out on a secluded beach with a seemingly straight friend. Eventually in my fantasy after tossing and turning next to each other Brokeback Mountain-style, he would admit that he was also secretly gay. Of course, just like the characters in the novel, the seemingly straight characters in my life turned out to actually just be straight.
If you don't know, queerbaiting describes the practice within popular culture of hinting at a queer relationship between straight characters in order to attract a queer audience without ever delivering on the romance. This can be seen through homoerotic jokes, flirtation, and seemingly queer relationships between close friends that reveal themselves to have only been figments of the queer viewers' hopeful imagination. Our popular culture is filled with homoeroticism that is merely for the sake of attention—or worse, for an easy punchline. There are countless comedies that revolve entirely around two straight characters being mistaken as gay. Almost every sitcom has had this moment and the two characters are always comedically revolted by the confusion. For female characters, this often takes the form of queer relationships that are purely for the male gaze, as seen through Betty and Veronica’s kiss on Riverdale. As queer relationships are belittled and trivialized in mainstream media, so are queer aesthetics used by straight celebrities to help their careers. From Katy Perry to Miley Cyrus, artists often hint at queerness to show their edginess, despite the fact that once they are in a heterosexual relationship their supposed queer explorations become a distant memory, never spoken of again.
Queerbaiting is not isolated to entertainment. On our own campus many straight people engage in similar behaviors; flirting jokingly, getting intimate with their straight or gay friends and taking on queer aesthetics for the social capital. There is nothing wrong with a joke here or there or an intimate moment with a friend; I would, however, advise straight people to be conscious of how they interact with their queer friends. For someone that has not experienced the isolation and shame that can often come with queer identities, these flirtations and jokes seem harmless yet can come off as mocking, misleading, and simply annoying. Sometimes, without realizing it, straight people’s good intentions can play into larger trends.
Even after I came out I still found myself encumbered by my malfunctioning gaydar. I continually confused gaydar for wishful thinking. I would let myself develop crushes on straight boys, pining that maybe they secretly felt the same way. Spoiler: that never ended well. The more I talked to queer friends the more I realized this wasn’t a unique experience. Specifically, in gay male culture, often white, masculine men, are seen as most desirable. On Grindr, this trend shows its ugly face through the many “masc looking for masc” bios, as well as bios which specify “No fats, no fems, no Asians.” There is also the overflow of gay porn, which have the words “straight jock” in the title. This toxic straight white fantasy doesn’t translate well to the real world and isn’t helped by misleading homoerotic intimacy from straight friends. This is complicated even more as people explore their identities and experiment with their sexuality.
On this campus especially, it can be confusing to navigate queerness as we all try to suss out our continually changing sexualities. Oberlin should be a place where people feel comfortable exploring their sexualities and discovering who they are; however, if it’s not for you, then don’t pretend like it is. Queerbaiting can be more than moments of intimacy or inappropriate jokes, it can also be moments of exploration without proper communication. I don‘t want to discourage anyone from exploring their sexuality, but it is important to be conscious of how the other person feels about the interaction and to be communicative if it’s not something you want to explore further. No one wants to feel like a special moment for them was just a validation of their partner’s “wokeness” and free spirit, and no one wants to feel that a meaningful relationship they had was just an experimental phase for their partner. On this campus there is a definite social capital attached to queerness and queer aesthetics. Queerness is validated and supported here in a way that is starkly different from the world outside Oberlin, which allows for free sexual exploration and safety, yet this is diminished when straight and questioning people use queerness to gain social capital. Navigating the hookup scene as a queer person can be frustrating, disappointing, and to be honest kind of dry. Finding someone who is genuinely interested in you and capable of building a relationship can be extremely challenging in a sea of people who present as queer but seem to always return to the comfort of their straightness.
Looking back now, I have begun to realize that my straight crushes of the past were more about my own insecurities and fears than about the queerbaiting done by others. That high school boy who interpreted any prolonged smile or intense eye contact as a sign that an obviously straight guy was secretly gay seems like a distant stranger from who I am today (okay, maybe not so distant, but we’re all works in progress). It’s easy to find safety in unrequited crushes on people who can never like you back. Unrequited crushes are not something unique to gay people, yet I’ve noticed a trend of queer friends falling into this trap with an unsuspecting straight person. It is clear that this trend is not coincidental, yet what do we do about it? To be honest, I’m not sure. Like most issues on campus, this is more complicated than it seems. It’s impossible to always be aware of how your actions affect others, yet it is important to be aware that intimacy, jokes, and flirtations, even if they’re coming from a place of genuine experimentation and exploration, can be interpreted differently by people who have different identities from you.