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Netflix’s “Heartstopper” helped me face the unresolved trauma of life under “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

My husband and I recently finished the final episode of Netflix’s adorable LGBTQ coming out story Heartstopper, based on the graphic novel of the same name. Snuggled up on the couch with tears in our eyes, we watched as the two main characters, Nick Nelson and Charlie Spring, unabashedly explained their romantic feelings for each other. I wiped away tears of joy as the credits rolled and then went to bed, unaware of the impending storm.

It was still dark outside when I woke up early the next morning and I was sobbing uncontrollably for no apparent reason. The rest of the day was a bewildering rollercoaster of emotions, with feelings of crushing loneliness and depression. I felt physical pains in my chest. In the afternoon I started connecting the dots: This seemingly cute and funny TV show revealed something buried deep inside me. I was an emotional wreck for three days straight.

It eloquently captures the complex layers of what it means to be LGBTQ in today’s society, unlike any other TV show or film.

But why? It’s a mostly happy tale with a mostly happy ending, but it’s more than just a love story — it eloquently captures the complex layers of what it means to be LGBTQ in today’s society unlike any other TV show or any other Movie. The joys of first love are offset by the confusion of an unwanted sexual awakening, the fear of being rejected by family and tormented by peers, insecurity about who to trust, and that unshakable feeling of being unlovable. Despite this, the show draws an upbeat conclusion for its characters compared to what most LGBTQ people experience. In Heartstopper, the characters have accepting parents, openly gay teachers, and friends in similar situations. In reality, LGBTQ teenagers often engage in self-actualization in isolation, without the same support systems.

LGBTQ people around the world have similar emotional responses to Heartstopper.“The show has resulted in a cathartic release of suppressed fear and exposes the emotional damage caused by any number of traumas associated with being LGBTQ. It’s a shared mourning for the young gay life we’ll never have. My personal experience has been shaped by “don’t ask, don’t tell” — the 1990’s statute that barred gays and lesbians from openly serving in the US military.

I joined the Navy in 2003 when I was 17, just a year older than the Heartstopper characters. It would be two more years before I could even say the words “I’m gay” out loud, even though I’d known that all my life. Although I nearly resigned from the Navy at the time, I remained on duty while being forced to hold back until the discriminatory policies finally ended in 2011.

I survived those years in the closet by living two lives, pretending to be someone else and burying my true self. The damage of these repressed feelings is now clear to me. “Heartstopper” encountered many of the issues I faced with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” rooted in the pain of keeping a romance a secret and the constant fear of being outed, with the price of expulsion hung over my head.

We need more shows like Heartstopper that help foster positive dialogue, create more accepting communities, and give LGBTQ kids a relatable experience to say it’s going to be okay and it’s going to get better.

I met my first love when I was a sophomore at the US Naval Academy. We shared a front-row table in chemistry class, and it was love at first sight — like that scene straight out of Heartstopper when Charlie first sees Nick in class. My “Nick” and I stayed just friends for a whole year. We volunteered together for Habitat for Humanity on the weekends and texted about our favorite indie music bands on weekdays. In the days leading up to junior year, when I nearly left the Navy because I was gay, we finally connected on a long late-night walk across campus. I poured out my feelings to him, sharing how alone I felt and my plan to quit.

We found our way to the far corner of campus, behind the rugby fields and away from the crowded dormitories, and stopped to sit side by side on a picnic table under a gazebo overlooking the Severn River. I clearly remember a cloudless night in August and the reflection of street lamps shimmering in the waves. I turned to my longtime crush and told him I had never kissed another boy before. We memorably shared our first kiss on that beautiful starry night. It was a magical moment that deserved a TV show of its own.

I then decided that if I could have a secret boyfriend, maybe the Navy would work after all. Our relationship was ultimately doomed, full of pressure to be caught together. We were forced to act like platonic friends in the hallways we lived in while sneaking around for a minute of privacy. We broke up before the start of senior year.

It wasn’t long after the breakup that, despite all the warning signs, I found a new crush. Unfortunately, this persona was less like the white knight Nick Nelson and more like the antagonist Ben Hope in Heartstopper, who aggressively forces Charlie to kiss him in the first episode. On a late-night rendezvous in the Naval Academy dormitory, my new crush, despite my repeated requests to stop, continued with sexual advances that were beyond my comfort level. It took me years to recognize this for the sexual assault it was and years longer to share that experience with someone else. Because of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” rules, I didn’t have the opportunity to tell an authority figure at the time. Fortunately, this part of the story also has a happy ending. Like Charlie, my moment of redemption came with an opportunity to confront my abuser after the fact.

The end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was the military’s first step in the right direction, but military leaders at all levels must double down in support of their LGBTQ service members to ensure their safety and healthcare. This is especially true for transgender service members, who are now openly allowed to serve under the Biden administration, and to ensure sexual assault support for LGBTQ service members is encouraged due to increased vulnerability to attack throughout the community.

We’ve made great strides in advancing LGBTQ rights in the two decades since I reached the age of the characters in Heartstopper, but we must remain vigilant to sustain that stride and prevent backsliding. A Supreme Court willing to rule Roe v. Repealing Wade may also negate nationally legalized same-sex marriage. Discriminatory policies like what critics dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law on LGBTQ issues in kindergarten through third grade have encouraged conservatives to call for other discriminatory practices. A group of Republican senators wants to label LGBTQ television content as inappropriate for younger viewers.

This is an unnecessary act that teaches LGBTQ children that they do not deserve equal representation and how the Don’t Say Gay Act contributes to societal attitudes that lead to physical and emotional abuse. Rather than restricting this content, we need more shows like Heartstopper that help encourage positive dialogue, create more accepting communities, and give LGBTQ kids a relatable experience to say it’s going to be okay and that it will get better.

Watching events unfold for the young characters in the series arrives near home, and my visceral emotional response is a testament to the toll these suppressed feelings have taken on me over the years. My husband, family and many friends supported me during the emotional roller coaster ride. Loving my husband helped me through the pain. I’m so incredibly lucky to have my happy ending. My husband and I have been together for 10 years, happily married for four, with plans to expand our family through adoption. I have the life I’ve always wanted – one that so many young queer people hope to someday have. In our own lives, we must continue to live loud and proud, speaking about our shared trauma and educating our allies to create awareness and acceptance.

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