Ley David Elliette Cray
Published in
7 min readSep 2, 2022


“Don’t Let Anyone Make You Disappear”:

Heartstopper and the (Re)Discovery of Queer Youth

Elle Argent (portrayed by Yasmin Finney), a teenage Black trans girl with shoulder-length hair and glasses in a school uniform, makes eye contact with Tao Xu (portrayed by William Gao), a teenage cisgender boy of Chinese descent in a similar school uniform and with dark hair poking out of a beanie. Illustrated flowers and leaves blow across the frame.

[Spoilers for Heartstopper (both the comic and the Netflix adaptation.)]

The first time I came out to another human being — intentionally, backed by whole heart and full throat — I ended up apologizing to them. They were tired, they said, stressed out about something else that was going on in their life at that moment. It was just a “bad time” for them to talk with me about my gender identity, in the sense of bad that translates roughly to inconvenient. Stepping back and down, I apologized and we went on to talk instead about the struggle weighing on their mind. I smiled and wept as I held back every tear, so as to not inconvenience them further.

Queer joy is undeniably real, but so is queer resentment. I was a relatively late bloomer, publicly claiming my affirmed gender for the first time only after I hit my mid-30s. Looking back among my selves — my child self and teenage self, neither of whom were informed that they were, in fact, little girls — I often encounter a lingering and stinging sense of missing out. Had things been just a little more right in the world, that little girl could have grown through her teenage years into a young woman who knew she was a young woman. She could have consciously been a sister to her sister, a daughter to the people who once were her parents. She could have kissed her first girl while knowing full well that she was a girl, too. I missed those chances, and settle now instead for diligent and hopefully healing inner-child work with my fantastic therapist.

Anyway, to put the matter quite simply: Heartstopper has been one of the most effective supplements to that inner-child work I’ve found to date. Through two iterations now, across two different mediums, the story has both lifted and fortified the heart of that teenage girl who never got to be. It’s led to her contorting with delight and both giggling and gasping at the elusive feeling of being authentically encountered. It’s helped her find permission to let those held-back tears flow out and down, saturating and soaking through panel and page.

Alice Oseman’s central characters, Charlie Spring and Nick Nelson, entered the world as supporting characters in her debut novel, Solitaire (HarperCollins, 2014). The two received an additional look in the aptly-titled follow-up novella Nick and Charlie (HarperCollins, 2015) before moving even more into the spotlight in Oseman’s ongoing web comic, Heartstopper (2016 — present). With four collected volumes of the comic now in print and a fifth and final volume on the way, along with a more recent and widely successful Netflix adaptation directed by Euros Lyn and written by Oseman herself, it seems likely that the hype surrounding Heartstopper in all of its narrative forms is still in its early stages. That hype, though, is most certainly well-deserved, and I’ll be here for it as it continues to grow.

One might look at Heartstopper in its comics form and assume that Oseman wrote it because she just really likes to draw boys kissing. That certainly does seem to be true, as can be confirmed by what memory suggests was every few pages of the comic, but there’s more to tell. In the author’s note at the end of the second collected volume (Graphix, 2019), Oseman states that she “aims to write the sort of story [she] would have loved to see when [she] was a teenager.” Assuming Oseman’s teenage self had similar longings as my own teenage self-who-never-was, I have to say that her aim was true.

What’s so powerful about Heartstopper — captured by both the comic and the television adaptation — is its embodiment of unapologetic queer love. Oseman’s story could have easily fallen into tired tropes of LGBTQIA+ suffering, centering the trauma both ambient and acute faced daily by many or most among our communities. But it doesn’t. While homophobia and other oppressive attitudes are certainly tangible throughout the story, the driving narrative and emotional force emerges from the combined power of the subtler moments: the giddy nervousness of writing and rewriting a flirty text message, the awkward comfort of barely-there touch, the affirmation of being genuinely seen by your big sister who wants nothing more than for you to settle into yourself and find your own happiness, even if she doesn’t quite say it out loud.

The story can be an odd kind of perplexing at times, frustrating in that it actually gives you what you want. In my case, there is no more powerful example of this than the character Elle Argent, a transgender teen girl portrayed in the adaptation by transgender actor Yasmin Finney. The history of transgender representation in mass and popular storytelling has not been kind. (See director Sam Feder’s 2020 Netflix documentary Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen for elucidation). As a trans person, it’s quite easy to get so used to being the villain, the victim, or the butt of the joke in any given narrative that we come to expect it. With Elle, Heartstopper frustrates that expectation, offering a trans character who’s trans-ness is clearly present and influential on the character’s experiences, but is not the front-and-center, all-encompassing and defining trait.

Throughout her appearances in Heartstopper, Elle is neither demonized nor fetishized, neither chased by chasers nor chastised for being a trans girl at an all-girl school. My favorite part? Another subtle moment: Tao Xu (portrayed in the adaptation by William Gao), the cisgender male character toward whom Elle catches reciprocated feelings, is briefly mentioned as being straight. During both my read and my watch alike, I waited with gritted teeth for the inevitable arrival of the subplot in which Tao’s feelings for Elle are complicated by the fact that she’s a trans girl and he’s straight boy. I waited for it not because I wanted that subplot, but because I dreaded it.

It never came. It wasn’t inevitable after all — neither the show, nor the comic, nor Oseman went there. Instead, the audience is presented with the dramatic tension of an unfolding romance between two people who genuinely see each other as they are. Transphobia is without a doubt a factor in Elle’s life, but its relative absence in her romantic arc with a cishet boy is delightfully and welcomely present. What we’ve been given is not the tired and predictable subplot of a trans woman who can find neither love nor acceptance, but instead that of a trans woman who finds both.

This is just one instance among many of these subtleties serving as sources of both joy and pain. Charlie and Nick’s growing love is beautiful to behold. Seeing Elle and Tao together just feels good. And, I can’t lie: I want — no, need — to find a way to make every parent of every queer kid in the world sit down and watch the scene in which Nick comes out to his mother, and say to them, this, parents, is how you do it. This is how you love and support your child during the moment that they courageously invite you in to this vulnerable and sometimes scary but still magical part of their life. And then I’ll wallpaper their homes with the corresponding panels and pages of the comic, just to reaffirm and emphasize the point.

Why is all of that painful? Heartstopper shows younger queer kids that they really can find and experience unapologetic joy. They’ll struggle, sure — it would be grossly dishonest to deny or downplay that. But there is love, too, just as there is friendship and acceptance and affirmation. For us older queer folk, especially the late bloomers, it shows us a youth we likely didn’t get to have. A youth of boys excitedly second-guessing themselves as they text boys about kissing them repeatedly. Of mindful and supportive mothers and older sisters and bisexual rugby players who punch the schoolyard homophobe after seeing their boyfriends bullied for being gay. A youth of trans girls who get to be girls.

And all of that in a world where homophobia and adjacent oppressive forces certainly exist, and palpably so, but also aren’t centered and built up as some sort of Thanos-level threat that leaves no room for innocent meditation on youthful queer love and connection, romantic and otherwise. In positioning queerness as truly magical rather than pitting it solely against trauma, Heartstopper makes my teenage self-who-never-was feel truly and authentically encountered — an experience, due to its jarring rarity, awkward to the point of pain. That pain? It’s the sensation of processing a deeply and long-held grief, a nervous but oh-so-needed exhale by my inner child.

To my queer little soul, Heartstopper is perhaps most comparable to a good but long-overdue cry. So, thank you, Alice Oseman: I — all of me, including the parts that never got to be — needed it.

Heartstopper is streaming on Netflix and available to read on Tapas, Tumblr, Webtoon, or at your local bookstore.



Ley David Elliette Cray
Editor for

She/they. Sexologist. Feral academic. Professional nerd. Instagram: @transentience.coaching / http://www.transentiencecoaching.com