“WILL BYERS, 12, is a sweet, sensitive kid with sexual identity issues.”
In the Duffer Brothers’ pitch for Stranger Things, this is the very first sentence we read about Will. He’s recently come to the realization that he’s not “normal,” the pitch reads, by the standards of semi-rural suburbia. He is bullied for his “innocent choices,” like colorful clothes. He escapes through Dungeons & Dragons, into fantasy worlds where he can be himself, without inhibition.
A few details shifted around between that original pitch and the final product. The show moved from Montauk to Indiana. Lead character Mike Wheeler was meant to have a large, unsightly birthmark on his left cheek, but Finn Wolfhard played him with porcelain skin. Their friend Lucas, originally intended to be the “angry and destructive” child of wealthy, divorcing parents, instead became the group’s mellow voice of reason.
But for all these changes, Will Byers has remained a sweet, sensitive kid with sexual identity issues. Nobody talks about this, which is confusing to me: it is right there in the text of the show, on the surface, not hiding. In the very first episode, Joyce Byers chain-smokes her way through a missing persons’ report, telling Chief Hopper that the other kids say Will’s queer, that her former husband thinks he’s a fag. “Is he?” says Hopper, and Joyce spits back, “He’s missing, that’s what he is.”
When the news spreads, Will’s classmates gossip about what might have happened to him. One bully speculates that he was beaten to death by “some other queer.” Another kid calls him a fairy, jeers about him prancing around “with all the other fairies, all happy and gay.” (For this transgression, Eleven nails the little homophobe with her telekinetic powers, forcing him to pee his pants in full view of the other students; we love an ally.) When Will is rescued, when he returns to Hawkins and to normalcy, he attends a school dance, and a girl with rainbow barrettes in her hair invites him out to the floor. He accepts, but the shooting script clarifies: “His eyes aren’t on the cute girl. They are on Mike.”
Again, for all the perpetual hype swirling around Stranger Things, nobody ever talks about this. When I mentioned that sentence from the pitch, briefly, in an article for Vanity Fair, one commenter was baffled that I’d included Stranger Things as an example of queer representation. Another person got angry with me, tweeting that Stranger Things shouldn’t get cookies for subtext, that Will Byers should be out and proud, and have a boyfriend; they were not moved by my response, which is that Will Byers is twelve years old, and he lives in small-town Indiana during the Reagan administration, and he needs time.
That, actually, is the thing I want to talk about, the thing that most endears me to Stranger Things: they are giving Will Byers his time. They are allowing the story of a gay child to unfold at the pace of an epic, over the course of years. They are not, like so many of their contemporaries, rolling out shiny P.R. campaigns to announce the existence of a gay character, to congratulate themselves on their progressiveness. They are quietly, deliberately allowing this aspect of Will’s identity to bloom.
Will is, of course, missing for most of the show’s first season, trapped in the Upside Down. He emerges in the second season, returning to school as an even greater pariah than he was before his disappearance. The kids call him “zombie boy.” The girl who asks him to dance says, “Hey, zombie boy, wanna dance?” He is worse than diseased, worse than untouchable: he’s been marked by death.
When I think about Will, I think about Ryan White, the little boy who contracted HIV from a blood transfusion and was refused the right to enrol in school. The year was 1985; he was 14 years old. 117 parents and 50 teachers from his Indiana middle school signed a petition asking the school board to ban him from the campus. His parents mounted a lengthy legal challenge, but on his first day back at school, 151 of Western Middle’s 360 students stayed home. The administration forced him to eat with disposable utensils and use a separate bathroom. He worked as a paperboy; families along his route canceled their subscriptions. Kids would scream we know you’re queer at him when he walked down the street. A bullet came through his family’s window one night, and that was the final straw, the thing that made them leave their little town.
The HIV/AIDS metaphor is so deeply, firmly present in the second season of Stranger Things, and again, nobody talks about it. Will spends much of the season in a military hospital, while Reagan-appointed doctors debate about the mysterious virus that’s ravaging his body and eating his brain. They tell his mother that it would be more convenient to simply let him die. They don’t want to find a cure. They don’t care about him. When his family and friends spring him from the hospital, they circle him and tell him stories about himself, about the person he used to be before the disease took hold. His mom talks about the drawings he used to make: rocket ships made out of rainbows. “I was so proud,” she says, and she has tears in her eyes.
We’re moving now into the first era where characters are allowed to be openly gay, to be out and proud and loud about it. You can find LGBT characters in everything from Grey’s Anatomy to Supergirl to Sabrina the Teenage Witch. The film journalist Mark Harris has written at length about how the TV format is better equipped for LGBT representation than film: on TV, viewers can grow with characters over the course of years, watch them ease — and then expand — into their identities, explore new facets of the gay experience with each passing season. But lately, TV isn’t doing that. Lately, I’ll see a press release ahead of a premiere announcing the existence of an LGBT character, and I’ll tune in to find a half-baked token, or a supporting character spitting sassy lines. TV has seized so much cultural capital from film in recent years, and auteur directors and A-list actors are choosing miniseries over movies. We should be swimming in elegant, subtle LGBT storylines; we’re not, with a few exceptions.
Stranger Things is one of those exceptions. And while I wish it got more credit for what it’s doing, while I wish more people were talking about Will Byers, part of the show’s magic is that it doesn’t announce Will’s queerness through a megaphone. It doesn’t ask for cookies. It doesn’t go for Very Special Episodes. Will’s truth simmers on low every time he’s in frame, a quiet but inescapable presence. When I was a kid, I knew, on some level, that I was gay; I also knew that I would be fine so long as I never acknowledged it. I feel, watching Will, like I felt then. Like: this is here, and it matters, and it’s dangerous. Like: I don’t want this, and I can’t get rid of it. Like: “His eyes aren’t on the cute girl.”
In the second season, Will asks his mother’s new boyfriend, Bob Newby, for advice on dealing with bullies. Bob’s an angel. He tells Will about how he was teased when he was younger, and how he’d stand up to bullies, how he’d shout, Go away! Will takes this advice. He doesn’t know that what he’s up against is a completely different entity from the kind of bullying Bob had to deal with. He stares into the eyes of the monster and bellows Go away! and the monster swallows him whole anyway. In the end, the thing that saves him is love: the love of his mom, his brother, his friends. They fight tooth and nail to save him from isolation. They want him to know that he belongs in their world, that he is a valuable, indispensable part of it.
The third season of Stranger Things will see the kids hitting teenhood in earnest, exploring love and stuff. Mike and Eleven are holding hands on the poster; Lucas and his new girlfriend, Max, are still an item. One of the executive producers, Shawn Levy, has said, “We’re going to give Will a break. We’re not going to put Will through hell for a third season in a row. He’ll be dealing with stuff, but he won’t be at rock bottom.”
Reading that, I just feel… happy. Like, stupid happy. This is what I want for Will Byers, more than anything. I want him to have a break. I don’t want him to be put through hell. I want him to deal with stuff; I don’t want him to be at rock bottom. After all the violence he’s been through, the notion that this season, this teenaged summer of love, could be a break for Will — it feels like a quiet bit of reassurance. If the writers do take this opportunity to let Will explore his identity, there is an understanding that the experience won’t be traumatic; it will be healing. It won’t be rock-bottom tragedy; it’ll be dealing with stuff, the banal stuff of growing up.
I don’t know if I want Will Byers to go out and net himself a boyfriend. In fact, I’ll go ahead and say I don’t want that, not just yet. I spent half a decade volunteering at a hotline for LGBT youth. In so, so many of those calls, kids would tell me that they dreamed of moving out of their parents’ homes, and living on their own, and maybe, finally, having a boyfriend or a girlfriend — knowing, as well as I did, that these goals were years and years away. I just want those kids to know that high school isn’t a miserable stretch of nothing before their real lives begin. I want Will to learn this thing about himself, and then tell his friends and his family about it, and I want him to know that they love him anyway, that they’ll always love him, no matter what.
Stranger Things has given us this marvelous, understated story of growing up gay, layered in complex folds of sci-fi and historical fiction. It is a rare and precious thing. I hope they know, on some level, what they’ve created in the character of Will Byers; I hope they’re committed to keeping him safe.