What do Heartstopper (2022), Young Royals (2021) and Red, White & Royal Blue (2023) have in common? Besides being charming narratives of queer love between a blond, golden-retriever type (Nick, Wilhelm, Henry) and his dark-haired boyfriend of Latino descent (Charlie, Simon, Alex), these three stories unpack the complexities of coming out of the closet in their own lovely ways. Coming out is typically seen as the logical conclusion to queer love stories on screen. We start with one or both the characters in the closet, and by the end, they are invariably out of it. Heartstopper, Young Royals and Red, White & Royal Blue fully lean into this device, but make a point of imbuing their narrative with nuanced, empathetic and authentic conversations about coming out of the closet and everything that it brings with it.
The final scene of Netflix’s Heartstopper Season 1 saw Nick Nelson (Kit Connor) coming out as bisexual to his mother (Olivia Colman). Buoyed by her loving acceptance of his sexuality, Season 2 kicks off with Nick gearing up to come out to everyone else in his life. Coming out in Heartstopper — as indeed in the real world — is a constant and messy process. Nick comes out of the closet multiple times through the course of the second season, and not always of his own volition. Sometimes it goes perfectly, like when he blurts it out during a sleepover with their friends. Sometimes the reaction may not be ideal but you can tell it comes from a good place. Sometimes, though, what's supposed to be a liberating moment is suffused with vitriol — like when Nick’s older brother David finds out about his sexuality. “I should’ve always known [Nick] would turn out to be gay,” he says, to which a furious Nick retorts, “I’m bi, actually, and so what?”
At one point, Charlie gently points out to Nick, “I think there’s this idea that when you’re not straight, you have to tell all your friends and family immediately. Like you owe it to them. But you don’t.” It takes the better part of the second season for Nick to finally get over the anxiety of coming out, and settle down to the idea of letting the world know whom he loves — not because it’s a statement, but because it’s simply how he feels. ("I'm doing this for me.")
In the last episode, Nick and Charlie attend prom together, where they come to the realisation that coming out to the public isn’t everything they thought it would be. “We’ve been so obsessed with the idea of coming out, it’s like we’ve forgotten why we wanted to do it in the first place,” says Charlie. What the two boys wanted was simply to exist as a young couple in love, but the centering of other people and their potential reactions ended up causing Nick and Charlie more stress than joy.
That you don’t owe anyone your identity is a recurring theme in Heartstopper. Nick’s experiences feel particularly poignant in light of the fact that Kit Connor, who plays Nick, was relentlessly harassed online by people who didn’t want a “straight” actor playing a queer character. After months of queerbaiting accusations, Kit came out in a blunt tweet: “I’m bi. Congrats on forcing an 18-year-old to out himself. I think some of you missed the point of the show.” As such, the second season’s insistence that no one owes anyone their identity feels like a pointed message to its own audience. While Kit’s right to come out on his own terms may have been taken from him, Heartstopper makes sure that Nick and Charlie get the happy ending they deserve.
The stakes are significantly higher in Netflix’s Young Royals, a Swedish show about the fictional prince Wilhelm (Edvin Ryding), whose life changes when he meets spirited and openly gay scholarship student Simon (Omar Rudberg) at their elite boarding school. The show — whose third and final season just wrapped production — deals with a number of themes, from mental health issues to class conflict, but Wilhelm’s decision to come out is central to the narrative.
The pressure mounts on Wilhelm when his elder brother dies in a freak accident, making Wilhelm the Crown Prince. His position makes it near impossible to come out to the public, not least because of the pressure he feels from his mother, the Queen. After all, Sweden has never had a(n openly) gay prince. Things get worse when a video of Wilhem and Simon in a compromising position is leaked on the internet.
Wilhelm is pulled from school and asked to issue a denial about his involvement in the video, in which only Simon’s face is clearly visible. Unable to see a way out, Wilhelm issues the statement (against Simon’s wishes) and hopes they can continue their relationship in private. “This doesn’t have to change what we’ve got,” he tells Simon. “We’re still us. It’s just that we can’t be seen together.”
Simon understands the consequences Wilhelm will face if he comes out publicly, and he doesn’t want to force him into doing something he doesn’t want. However, he refuses to be anyone's secret, hidden away in the shadows. The first season of the show ends with Simon breaking off their relationship and Wilhelm’s heart in the process. The time apart allows Wilhem to process his emotions over the course of the second season. In the season finale, he finally confesses that it was in fact him in the infamous leaked video. The season ends with Wilhem turning back to look at Simon, who smiles back with pride on his face. Although circumstances forced his hand, Wilhelm owns his truth and does what feels right to him, royal authority be damned.
Queer royalty is also at the heart of Red, White & Royal Blue, the Amazon Prime Video film adapted from Casey McQuiston’s bestselling novel of the same name. The story follows Alex Claremont-Diaz (Taylor Zakhar Perez), the son of the US President who falls for Prince Henry of England (Nicholas Galitzine).
In the film, Alex takes his newly-discovered bisexuality in stride, but Henry is held back by his association to the Crown. (“I can’t afford to be reckless. I have centuries of history bearing down on my shoulders.") As much as Henry wants to love Alex freely, he does not wish to live with the whole new set of restrictions that will follow if he comes out publicly. He emphasises that he is allowed to make that choice. It does not make him a liar or a coward: “It makes me a man with some infinitesimal shred of self-preservation.” Henry implores Alex to have patience with him while he figures himself out.
Things come to a head when Alex and Henry’s private emails are leaked. Their relationship becomes breaking news, which soon spirals into a political scandal. In a powerful public speech, Alex says, "Every queer person has the right to come out on their own terms and on their own timelines. They also have the right to choose not to come out at all. The forced conformity of the closet cannot be answered with the forced conformity of coming out.” Eventually, Henry is able to stand up to his grandfather, the King of England (a cameo by Stephen Fry). Emboldened by the crowds that gather outside the royal palace waving rainbow flags, Henry says, “Starting today, the world will know me for who I am. Not who you want me to be.”
Coming out has traditionally been depicted not only as a difficult exercise, but also an isolating one. Take, for example, how Karan (Arjun Mathur), the queer hero of Made in Heaven, is forced to come out when his privacy is brutally violated, and the way his mother rejects him because he’s gay. The fictional worlds of Heartstopper, Young Royals and Red, White & Royal Blue offer an alternative worldview. These stories imagine a world in which coming out may be difficult, society may be disapproving, but there is always hope of acceptance. They afford their queer characters the assurance that coming out is not an obligation, but a choice for each queer individual to make, at their own pace and in their own time.