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LGBTQ Issues

Coming out can be messy. 'Heartstopper' on Netflix gets real about the process.

Joe Locke, left, as Charlie and Kit Connor as Nick on the second season of "Heartstopper."

Coming out is the quintessential queer milestone, but the latest season of "Heartstopper" bursts open the closet door for a more honest look at this rainbow-tinged rite of passage.

The Netflix coming-of-age drama about teen lovebirds Nick (Kit Connor) and Charlie (Joe Locke) tackles the complexities of coming out with its second season (now streaming). Nick struggles with wanting to have a public relationship while not yet being out to everyone in his social life; Charlie is optimistic he can help Nick avoid the emotional pitfalls he suffered when he was outed at school, but his rocky coming out looms over the couple's romantic bliss.

"We just want people to know we’re together. I'm going to do everything I can to make sure Nick doesn’t have to deal with what I did," Charlie tells concerned older sister Tori (Jenny Walser) in the season's first episode. "I can protect him. I can make sure that he never feels pressured or stressed or scared. Everything's going to be perfect."

It's not.

The show's second season highlights that coming out is never a perfect process — and that’s OK.

Coming out is not a one-time process and it can have lasting impacts

Rather than a simple declaration to his loved ones about his bisexuality and relationship with Charlie, Nick encounters a series of coming out experiences throughout the season, from a sweet slumber party confession to a tense dinner party conversation.

This multilayered depiction of Nick's coming out journey — and the dilemmas that emerge — reflect the reality that coming out is a lifelong process for every queer person instead of a one-and-done revelation.

"It really is almost like a matrix or a cycle, in terms of the process of coming out, which happens in so many different ways across our lives," counseling psychologist T.M. Robinson-Mosley previously told USA TODAY.

Meanwhile, watching Nick come out brings up feelings of turmoil for Charlie, who is still struggling with the trauma of his own coming out experience. Charlie copes by skipping meals, and his strained relationship with food offers a powerful portrayal of the destabilizing impact coming out can have.

These moments in 'Heartstopper' are important because they are realistic

For many members of the LGBTQ community, concerns about body image range from general dissatisfaction to body dysmorphia to eating disorders, and these can be further complicated by the added stressors associated with queerness. In some cases, an eating disorder can surface as a coping mechanism for managing the stress of coming out.

The way coming out looks for Nick and Charlie is important for young people to see, especially today, GLAAD noted in its annual report that assesses the state of LGBTQ representation on TV.

It's messy and complicated. But ultimately, the most important thing for people to see in "Heartstopper" is Nick and Charlie's loving relationship.

"Popular culture becomes a place where people look to find livable versions of themselves," Hollis Griffin, author of "Television Studies in Queer Times," previously told USA TODAY.

Griffin explained seeing characters come out is especially critical: "It's important for LGBTQ kids to have readily available scripts with which to model themselves because when you grow up with heterosexual parents in heterosexual culture, those things are not available to everybody in the same way."

Experts say the lingering impact of heteronormativity – the attitude that heterosexuality is the predominant norm – means coming out is likely to remain a fixture in queer people’s lives. They note LGBTQ people should never feel obligated to come out, especially when their safety is at risk.

Coming out isn’t actually over.Here’s why.

"Ideally, we are working to create a world without boxes or closets to 'come out of' because we would never be expected to be anything other than who we say we are," Moe Ari Brown, a licensed marriage and family therapist, told USA TODAY in June. "Until that shift happens, we must intentionally choose who we wish to invite into a celebration of our identities."

Perhaps the GLAAD report best sums up the importance of shows like "Heartstopper," which may have a bigger impact today than ever: "As anti-LGBTQ rhetoric has spread in the past two years with record breaking anti-LGBTQ legislation being proposed – much of it directly aimed at access for LGBTQ kids to schooling, facilities, and education systems – it is more important than ever to have content made for kids and families that depict the LGBTQ community in a positive and empowering way."

Review:'Heartstopper' Season 2 is the beautiful and flawed queer teen story we need

Contributing: David Oliver, USA TODAY

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