A Sign on the Door
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A Sign on the Door

Stranger Things and the Struggle of Gay Isolation

Stranger Things is finally on the horizon again after two long years of waiting. Season four is likely to hit Netflix this summer, and based on the stinger at the end of “The Battle of Starcourt” (season 3, episode 8), the writers appear to be dipping into the notorious Satanic Panic of the Reagan era for the upcoming season. As this period of panic in the 1980s coincided with the American AIDS epidemic, many politicians treated homosexuality as a moral failure to justify government inaction on “the gay plague,” contributing to thousands of preventable deaths. Unfortunately, the plot of the season will probably reflect today’s atmosphere of intense Right-wing paranoia, QAnon conspiracy, and apathetic response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic; however, if the writers are wise, Stranger Things may be able to provide some insight into the effects such a hostile climate has on the development of LGBT youth.

For those unfamiliar with the 1980s Satanic Panic, it was a period during which unsubstantiated claims of mass child abuse and ritualistic, “pagan” murders were rampant. Thousands of accusations targeted child care centers, heavy metal bands, and yes, even the geeks who played Dungeons and Dragons.

Recently, rapper Lil Nas X was credited with bringing the Satanic Panic back due to his campy Montero music video, but heightened consciousness of the so-called moral depravity of today’s youth was already in place. Paranoia about morality seems to pop up like clockwork in response to social revolution, and today, that revolution has been spurred by the ubiquity of social media — an irreversible resource for knowledge. Parents and other older relatives have a harder time controlling what their kids know, and if the information kids have gained access to inspires them to stand up against homophobia and transphobia, then that is terrifying to those who want heterosexuality and cisgender identity to remain the oppressive norm.

So, let’s return to Stranger Things. We won’t have much to work with in terms of analysis until the new season drops, but we can go back through what’s already available to trace the undercurrents of what feels like an inevitable direction for the plot.

Season three made headlines for introducing the first confirmed lesbian character in the series. Robin Buckley (played by Maya Hawke) became an overnight fan favorite as the show set up a refreshing resolution to what looked like a run-of-the-mill, will-they-won’t-they dynamic between Robin and the recently heartbroken Steve Harrington (played by Joe Keery). After seven episodes spent establishing a begrudging respect and fondness for one another, Steve admits he’s developed romantic feelings for Robin, and Robin struggles to tell him that those feelings can’t be mutual because she has a crush on a female classmate.

The scene’s script is acted beautifully. Hawke captures total dread while Keery’s character pours his heart out. As the scene begins, Robin and Steve are in separate bathroom stalls, having just puked out the last of the truth serum forced on them by Soviet operatives. We watch Robin go through this emotional journey behind a wall, and as her new friend expresses regret that he hadn’t approached her in high school due to their mismatched social status, she smiles, then winces, then lets her head fall into her arms — silent struggle that prompts Steve to ask, “Did you just OD in there?”

We never get too in-depth with Robin’s backstory; she’s a gay, soccer-playing, bandgeek polyglot who’s jealous of the popular kids. But we can guess that it must be incredibly isolating to be a lesbian living in a small Midwestern town during the 1980s. The blocking of this scene reflects that, boxing her off from Steve as she is hit with a wave of fear and impending loss. Before she has had the time to decide how to respond, Steve slides beneath the partition between them and sets himself up in her space. Robin has already resigned herself to the fact that they may not walk out of this bathroom with the same friendly dynamic they’d had when they entered.

“The Bite” — Stranger Things: Season 3, Episode 7

“He doesn’t even know this girl,” she says. “And if he did know her, like really know her, I don’t think he’d even want to be her friend.”

Though the show has so far suffered its own case of every-female-character-is-someone’s-love-interest syndrome, this scene subverts that impulse. We can see Robin making the calculation in her head: Am I going to lose this friendship because I couldn’t like him back? Once Robin tells Steve that she’d been jealous of him for catching the eye of her crush, Tammy Thompson, he takes a moment to process the news, and then starts to joke about Tammy’s singing skills. He accepts Robin, turning the conversation to something light-hearted. This is the best possible outcome, and to some, it may even read as too optimistic for 1985.

Despite Steve’s growth over the course of the series, the last time we saw him address the topic of sexuality, he was insulting Jonathan Byers (played by Charlie Heaton), saying, “I always took you for a queer” during an alleyway fight. Of course, the scene between Steve and Robin in the bathroom ends favorably, but the stakes are high. The audience, like Robin, has no guarantee that this will go well. Steve may even be the first person she has come out to.

After this conversation, outsiders still assume they’re romantically involved. In a flash-forward to October, Robin and Steve approach Family Video to seek employment, and Keith, the manager, asks if Robin has “a thing” for Steve, which she denies. Viewers watch our own assumption — that she would be Steve’s love interest — reenacted, but this time, we know these are false expectations, and a new precedent for relationships on the show emerges. Such a precedent is vital when we turn to look at somebody we’ve known two seasons longer: Will Byers (played by Noah Schnapp).

After season three dropped, Will became the subject of several online articles, almost all of which are titled some variation of “Is Will Byers Gay?” Stranger Things die-hards debate the question on Reddit, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube comments, and the two major positions are, “Yes, he is” and “No, he feels left out when his friends get girlfriends because he’s traumatized.” These arguments aren’t mutually exclusive, but they’re usually treated as such. After all, isn’t it traumatizing to grow up as a gay kid in the 1980s among the AIDS epidemic and all the homophobic backlash which followed 1970s gay activism? In his piece, “Long-Term Survivors Day and the Stranger Things HIV Connection,” blogger Shawn Decker writes the following:

By the way, Stranger Things is totally about HIV. […] In Season One [Will] disappears. He’s isolated from his friends who continue to go to school — they have no other option. It turns out he’s in another realm, being tormented by a looming monster of some sort. He eventually gets rescued, but in Season 2 there are doctor’s appointments. They don’t know how to really treat Will. They just observe. There’s talks of trying to cure the virus. There’s talk of the virus replicating in his system.

Decker points out that he, as well as Ryan White — one of the first hemophiliac children diagnosed with AIDS after a blood transfusion — was kicked out of school following his HIV diagnosis. White lived five years past what the doctors expected, and he and his mother advocated for his right to learn alongside his peers at school. In August 1990, months after his death, Congress passed the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act, the biggest federal program providing HIV treatment services to low-income and uninsured people.

Though Will Byers does not have HIV, he has experienced trauma that separates him from his peers and forces him to come to terms with a life span that may be shorter than most people expect. Will is lucky to have friends and family who care deeply about him in times of crisis, but season three introduces a new kind of isolation: that of the gay kid left behind, or the euphemistic “late bloomer.” As all of his friends get girlfriends, Will has trouble keeping their attention.

In a scene which is incredibly understated for all its heartbreaking potential, he tells his mom, Joyce (played by Winona Ryder), “I’m not gonna fall in love.” Later, when he finally snaps at his best friend, Mike Wheeler (played by Finn Wolfhard), Mike throws it back in his face, shouting, “It’s not my fault you don’t like girls!” The camera lingers on Will, who is too shocked to respond. Both are aware that the bullies in school have used this very insult against him, and Mike has crossed a line. However, in regular Stranger Things fashion, personal quarrels give way to looming supernatural threats, and this argument falls to the wayside. At the end of the season, they seem to have patched things up, but any further apology seems to have been left on the cutting room floor.

If there is a perfect time to reveal Will’s sexual orientation beyond coding and euphemism, the season during which our characters deal with conservative outrage and paranoia may be it. Now that the writers have seen such a positive audience response to the introduction of Robin, they have no reason to hold back with Will. In the most recent trailer (004), he appears holding a poster for a project on personal heroes which reads “Alan Turing” — the famous WWII code breaker, mathematician, and AI “founding father” who was convicted for homosexuality, forced to undergo hormone therapy, and died under questionable circumstances. This may suggest that Will is proud of what people like him have accomplished and is beginning to accept himself.

Since the Byers have moved to the Californian suburbs, Will may finally have a bit of breathing room from his old town, but homophobia (like the Shadow Monster) persists everywhere. Furthermore, someone or something is always out to get his new housemate, Eleven (played by Millie Bobby Brown). Maybe we’ll be lucky enough to see Will acknowledge this part of himself before everything goes haywire.

Stranger Things 4 | Welcome to California | Netflix

Robin Buckley and Will Byers are especially refreshing lesbian and gay representation on television because stories of middle and high school-age LGBT youth during the ’80s are practically unheard of in popular culture. Much of contemporary mainstream television has started sprinkling in LGBT characters only to pair them with boring love interests, force them through predictable, concerning storylines (such as the bully romance), or kill them off altogether. So far, Robin and Will maintain relevance to the plot outside of their sexualities and offer a glimpse into the lives of those who grow up feeling isolated, anxious, and left behind because of their position outside of the hetero norms of the dominant culture. Such an experience was widespread during the AIDS crisis and the 1980s moral panic, but as we move toward increasing political polarization and backlash against the progress LGBT people have made over the past few decades (particularly for transgender people), Robin and Will’s stories become only more salient. The bigotry which they faced then — and we face now — is arguably more terrifying than any D&D monster gone rogue.



A Sign on the Door aims to ignite conversations centering intersectional identities and stories. LGBTQ+, feminist, anti-racist, empowering narratives from anyone wanting to share a little piece of themselves or an example of real-life learning are welcome.

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