‘Young gay people being out and happy? It’s revolutionary!’ Meet the Heartstopper generation

From footballer Jake Daniels coming out to trans actor Yasmin Finney being cast in Doctor Who, it feels like there has been a turning point in Generation Z’s queer experience. But how much have things really changed?

Barely three minutes into the first episode of Heartstopper – Netflix’s new LGBTQ+ coming-of-age romcom series, which has been a knockout success with critics and viewers – I turned to my boyfriend, curled up next to me on the sofa. Aimed primarily at a younger audience, the show is about an openly gay male sixth former at an English comprehensive (played by 18-year-old Joe Locke) who falls in love with the school’s most popular rugby player in the year above. “There’s no way,” I declared to my partner with confidence, “that this is going to end well.” His love would go unrequited. We’d seen it all so many times before.

The idea that the show might end as it did – with a tear-jerkingly joyful celebration of young queer love in full bloom, depicted gorgeously – seemed impossible. My own similar experiences at school, I believed, had taught me far better; the notion that television executives would commission – or that British audiences would welcome – a mainstream, queer and adolescent happily-ever-after was firmly beyond the realms of possibility in my jaded millennial mind.

A Norwich City player wears a rainbow t-shirt reading “Jake Daniels, Norwich City are with you”
A Norwich City player wears a t-shirt supporting Jake Daniels earlier this month. Photograph: PA Images/Alamy

As the Heartstopper plot unfolded, however, so too did a real-life event. By the time – in episode eight – the two main characters had truly fallen for each other, teenage Blackpool FC footballer Jake Daniels had come out; he was the first gay male professional footballer to do so since Justin Fashanu in 1990. A week after Fashanu came out more than three decades ago, his own brother – fellow footballer John – all but disowned him: “John Fashanu: My gay brother is an outcast” read a headline in The Voice. Brian Clough, Justin’s manager at Nottingham Forest, meanwhile, described his star player as a “a bloody poof”. Fashanu tragically killed himself. Years later, John spoke about his regret over how he treated his older brother. In 2019, he and his daughter launched the Justin Fashanu Foundation to eliminate prejudice in football.

Thankfully the response to Daniels sharing his sexuality has been the total opposite: the FA labelled him an “inspiration”, while England striker Harry Kane tweeted: “Massive credit to you … and the way your friends, family, club, and captain have supported you” .

In the same week came the announcement that 18-year-old transgender woman Yasmin Finney – another Heartstopper cast member – had been cast as Rose in the upcoming Doctor Who series. These were, by no means, the first and only examples of recent milestones in LGBTQ+ visibility and representation. There’s the triumph of musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, first on the West End stage and now a feature film produced by Amazon; the runaway success of Netflix’s Sex Education, which is impressively LGBTQ+ inclusive; and Russell T Davies’ drama It’s a Sin about the Aids crisis, too.

And yet, something about Heartstopper, Doctor Who and this news from the world of football sat a little differently. These weren’t stories that centred on overcoming prejudice, like countless others. Each of these three was a positive presentation of a new generation’s queer experience, the angst and trauma that we’ve become so accustomed to witnessing taking a back seat. In Heartstopper, bigotry and prejudice are far from the primary focus, and the show has proved to be so wildly popular that it has already been commissioned for series two and three.

For Joe Locke, Heartstopper’s breakout star, this is precisely what he saw in the script from the outset. “It felt like an optimistic retelling of real life,” he tells me over the phone, squeezing in a few minutes to speak midway through his A-level exams. Stories like this one will and do occur in schools today, he believes, even if some of the challenges are more easily overcome in the show than in real life. “But I don’t think that’s a bad thing,” he adds. “If anything, it’s wonderful, because for so long queer people have had to read and listen to stories of which the only thing that happens is hardship. And it’s important we change that narrative – we need queer stories with happiness at the forefront, too. It’s a way to change realities in the real world.”

With recent polling showing that only 54% of generation Z are attracted exclusively to the opposite gender, compared with 81% of boomers, plenty of signs suggest this next generation of young LGBTQ+ people have never had it better. With these highly visible examples of queer teenagers thriving – and demographic shifts showing greater ease with sexuality and gender – could it be the battle for true equality has passed a crucial turning point?

Heartstopper’s Truham Grammar School for Boys might well be fictional, but many schools across the country have been through radical changes recently. When I left school, just over a decade ago, LGBTQ+ societies were incredibly uncommon: my secondary education began only a year after section 28 was repealed, legislation which banned local authorities and schools from “promoting homosexuality” in any form. Today, from Wolverhampton to north Wales, Brighton to Bristol, there are plenty of examples of educational institutions boasting a pride group. And at Impington Village College – a state secondary school with 1,300 students on the outskirts of Cambridge – spaces like this have proved invaluable for LGBTQ+ youth.

Impington Village College students, Cambridge, with a teacher
Impington Village College students, including Amy (far left), Ada (seated on left), Greg (seated on right) and Milo (on floor), with teacher Matt Mabbott (centre). Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

When I meet a group of Impington pupils, it’s immediately obvious just how far better informed and equipped they are compared to so many queer kids who came before them. During introductions, it’s the students who instigate the sharing of preferred pronouns. Within minutes, one sixth-former, Ada, is telling me how in a heteronormative society, spaces run by and for queer people – such as their school’s active Gay Straight Alliance – are important places for self-expression and personal growth.

Each student shares reflections on their own experiences: 18-year-old Greg recounts his discomfort in his previous education setting, a faith school, while holding hands with his now boyfriend; Milo, a non-binary sixth-former, was readily accepted by most corners of the school community with little second thought.

Head shot of Amy
Amy. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

“I had a really positive experience of being queer when I was younger,” says Amy, a final year pupil. “But I never felt like I had anyone to look up to outside of school. I’d avoid romance on TV or in books, because there was no story I could connect with. Even though in this environment I’d been accepted, I just assumed I’d be straight when I grew older, because there were no reference points.” The night Heartstopper came out, Amy watched it all in one sitting. “I cried so much,” she says. “Young, British gay people being out and happy? I hadn’t seen it. It took me a long time to feel comfortable using the word ‘lesbian’ to describe myself; I’d never heard it. But in the show there were these two girls happily calling themselves lesbians and in love. It’s revolutionary for younger people like me.”

Of course, each student still had their own barriers to acceptance. But these teenagers having the language to describe them, and a space to discuss them, is no doubt testament to a changing world.

Sarah Lancashire and Max Harwood in the film Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.
Happy families … Sarah Lancashire and Max Harwood in the film Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy

This, however, doesn’t come without its own set of challenges. The safety these teens experience in the classroom, most say, feels at odds with what they think might await them in the outside world. Many millennials didn’t come out at school: the prospect of doing so felt far too dangerous. Surviving the secrecy was made bearable by clinging on to the idea that things could get better in later life. For these young people at least, there is a real fear that the opposite might be true. It’s not always comfortable to be so informed.

Digital natives, they have not been shielded from the struggles facing LGBTQ+ people in Britain: the backdrop of increasing LGBTQ+ hate crimes, a crisis in the mental health of trans people and the government’s continued refusal to ban traumatising conversion therapy. Talk of higher levels of LGBTQ+ homelessness came up repeatedly, as did the knowledge that their school experience wasn’t necessarily the norm. A report by Just Like Us, a British LGBTQ+ youth charity, last year found 42% of LGBTQ+ school pupils have been bullied in the past year, double the number of their non-LGBTQ+ peers.

Sue Sanders – emeritus professor at the Harvey Milk Institute, co-chair of charity Schools OUT UK, and LGBTQ+ History Month co-founder – believes there are real risks in being seduced by the idea that the outlook is singularly rosy for young people. She says, “LGBTQ+ children’s experiences at school are a postcode lottery. What we see are some schools doing the work brilliantly, but plenty of others refuse.” Too often, she says, support for LGBTQ+ pupils relies on the efforts of a single teacher, later collapsing without them. “Others do nothing, or continue to illegally tell their LGBT teachers not to come out.” To this day, only around half of Britons are supportive of LGBTQ-inclusive sex education in schools.

Katie Slee, head of academy at Leeds United FC, sees the same contrasts in the world of football. Having spent 14 years working at the club in various capacities, she has seen huge shifts in the way inclusivity at the club is implemented: at every level, players and staff have attended Football v Homophobia sessions and training, and in 2018, Leeds United was the primary sponsor for the city’s Pride events. “One of the biggest shifts has been in language,” she says. “I’m not having to challenge young players as much as before. Staff never use homophobic language, when at one stage they might well have done without thinking about it.”

She adds, “That’s not consistent across every club. I know for a fact it’s not.” On multiple occasions, young Leeds players have reported homophobic language from opponents on the pitch to referees, who haven’t always taken any action.

“It’s a phenomenal shift,” Slee says, “but it’s not enough. I’ve not known a single player at any level who has come out while playing for the club. From the juniors right up to the first team. That simply doesn’t add up.”

Charlie Hunnam, Aidan Gillen and Craig Kelly in Russell T Davies’ series Queer As Folk.
Charlie Hunnam, Aidan Gillen and Craig Kelly in Russell T Davies’ series Queer As Folk. Photograph: Channel 4

Even cultural advances, Russell T Davies argues, need to be considered in their context. There’s no denying much has changed since Queer As Folk, the series he wrote about three young gay men living in Manchester, was first released in 1999. “When I think about writing Nathan – a teenage schoolboy coming out of the closet – it was like a lightning bolt, a meteor. It was an impossible thing to imagine on screen,” he says. “But I wrote it because I’d started to see it in the clubs in Manchester.” That certainly feels much more normal now. In the same way, shows like Heartstopper take the dialogue further: the mentorship depicted between an out gay teacher and a gay pupil feels firmly new territory; as in Sex Education, young gay male characters are finally shown to foster close friendships with their heterosexual male peers.

“Society is also splintering” Davies says. “There are examples of a marvellous gender fluid youth, but that’s certainly not universal. And in some ways, things are worse than before.” Consider, for instance, the treatment of trans people. Back in 2004, Nádia Almada – a trans woman – won Big Brother with a whopping 74% of the popular vote. “If a trans person won a reality show now, there’d be delight, but also backlash and uproar. These moments need to keep on happening; we need to keep knocking down those walls over and over again.”

The truth is, there’s no singular stream of linear progress. Matt Cook is a professor of modern history at Birkbeck University, with a focus on queer histories. He can track similar contradictions throughout the past 30 years and beyond.

“If we look to the 1980s and early 90s,” Cook explains, “there was a clear effort by gay and lesbian people to make themselves heard and visible. In the context of that upsurge of homophobia, section 28 and the Aids crisis, there was a fight against silence as so many were dying or having their voices sidelined.” What emerged was alternative theatre, queer cinema and more queer community spaces, all created by and for queer people. “These provided a lifeline and anchor for people like me coming of age,” Cook says.

What followed, according to Cook, was a shift in mainstream culture. Under Tony Blair’s Labour government, section 28 was scrapped, the Equalities Act introduced, the age of consent was equalised, and out gay men and lesbians could for the first time serve in the armed forces. Along came Queer As Folk, LGBT History Month, gay best friends in Sex and the City, and openly queer contestants on major shows such as Big Brother. “Suddenly,” Cook says, “there was LGBTQ+ representation everywhere. That was tremendous for people coming out, but there’s a parallel loss: gay bars closed, communities disaggregated. In some ways, isolation felt more acute, because there was a presumption that everything was fine.” A decade earlier, argues Cook, “it was easier for LGBTQ+ youth to articulate their struggle: in the late 80s to say, ‘I feel shit because there are endless tabloid headlines saying my life is worthless.’ Difficult experiences became harder to define in this later period.”

Lisa Power is a co-founder of Stonewall and an activist since the 1970s. She says: “I’m encouraged that we’ve started to learn from our history. It’s probably the first time we’ve had enough history to learn from, and that ensures we remain vigilant at times like this.” There are some people who love queer people, reckons Power; others who are hate-filled. “The vast majority are somewhere in the middle, and quite easily swayed. Some people are shocked,” she suggests, “that the natural progress they presumed would come towards the sunlit uplands for queer acceptance hasn’t materialised.”

Power knows representation matters: the fact Heartstopper can depict a blossoming young queer love story, a single male footballer feels able to share his sexuality, or a school adequately supports LQBTQ+ youth, are of course all worthy of celebration; they offer glimpses of a better future. And yet somehow, she believes, they also expose just how far we still have left to go. “There is a struggle ahead,” Power says, “and it will not be easy. But there are literally more of us – and with more tools – than there have ever been before.”

• Join Owen Jones as he chats to Alice Oseman and Joe Locke about the Netflix hit Heartstopper on Tuesday 5 July. Book your event ticket here.


Michael Segalov

The GuardianTramp

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