Editor’s Note: Katia Hetter is CNN’s senior editor for science and wellness. She came out in 1991 and previously served as national secretary on the board of NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinion at CNN.
I am happily paired off with my partner, out to my family and in my workplace, and to you, dear reader. And yet I am sitting in my house with my family, holding back tears while watching “Heartstopper,” the queer teen love story I didn’t know I needed.
By now you probably know of Alice Oseman’s powerful Netflix adaption of her graphic novel, “Heartstopper,” which tells the story of two boys, Charlie and Nick, played by Joe Locke and Kit Connor, who fall for each other in the sweetest possible way in vaguely present-day Britain.
It’s an innocent love story that so many of my out peers and I wish we had had growing up. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, I didn’t know how to deal with what was inside me in the conservative California town where I grew up – even though I attended a performing arts school where many boys (but no girls) were out.
There were no Buzzfeed quizzes or social media influencers to tell me what I always knew to be true. Thankfully, there was always art and culture, and I eventually found the comics of Alison Bechdel; the books of Rita Mae Brown, Dorothy Allison and Armistead Maupin; the ache of “Brideshead Revisited” on PBS; and later, movies like “Go Fish” and “The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love.” I saw some aspects of my teen and young adult life in those books, shows and movies, and it showed me there was a world where I might fit in.
I came out my senior year in college, surrounded by fellow students who had come out before me. They became my own #Heartstopper crowd – my Darcy, Tara, Tao and Isaac – and I loved them for supporting me and really saving my life. They shared their wisdom and compassion and spoke up in their classes, despite physical threats and a lack of protections for their rights.
Although plenty has changed in the intervening decades since I was in college – marriage is legal in the United States (for now), modern television shows have out characters and most major metropolises have pride parades – the bullying can be just as intense for anyone who steps outside the norms of their school or community, as Oseman and her cast and crew know.
Some 45% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide over the past year, according the Trevor Project’s annual survey, which was released in May. But parents can make a difference: LGBTQ youth who felt high social support from their family said they attempted suicide at less than half the rate of those who felt low or moderate social support.
Luckily for me, I did have a supportive mother who embraced me when I came out to her, just like Nick’s mom did in “Heartstopper.”
Susan Nelson, played by the Oscar award-winning-actor Olivia Colman, reacts positively to the news and tells him, “Oh, baby. Thank you for telling me. I’m sorry if I ever made you feel like you couldn’t tell me that.”
That scene reminded me of my own mother, who told me, “I didn’t want it to be hard for you,” before noting her struggles growing up in 1940s Cuba as a bespectacled girl who wanted more and sharing her own journey immigrating to the US.
In that one conversation, my mother Rebecca Hetter jumped on board. Within a short time of me coming out to her, she was coming out for me everywhere, appearing on local Spanish language TV to explain loving her lesbian child. She even proudly outed me to fellow customers at the local car wash – where frankly, I didn’t see the need.
And that’s where parents and guardians come in. Throughout my life, my mom told me how much she loved me, “no matter what.” She marked my soul with her love from birth. I knew in my bones that I could do anything, and she’d still be there for me.
A research psychologist, she knew what love could do. She said the same thing to many of my high school friends, many of them straight, who struggled with abuse, absent parents and bullying. She loved them, too.
She’s 85 and still says it: Love your children and your children’s friends, and support them, even if you don’t get it at first. You’ll be saving their lives, and they will return the love to you and the world they inherit.
It’s what I think “Heartstopper” creator Oseman, director Euros Lyn, executive producer Patrick Walters, LGBTQ+ consultant Jeffrey Ingold and so many more people gave to the cast and crew of “Heartstopper” in all of their trans, lesbian, gay, bisexual, Black, Asian (and more) glory. And it’s what the entire “Heartstopper” team gave to all of us.
“Mom,” I said on a recent phone call. “There’s a mom just like you in this new Netflix show, and she’s played by Olivia Colman.”
Crickets. As it turns out, seeing someone play a great parent supporting her child wasn’t so interesting to her. (She prefers Tom Selleck in “Blue Bloods.”) Of course, you should love your children, she thinks, and support them.
So it goes, to my own child. “I love you as you are, and you don’t need to do anything to earn that love.” It’s something I’ve said for years and still say every chance I get. Cue the bored look from the teen (who did give “Heartstopper” five stars). But still, I wash, rinse, repeat. I hope what I say sticks.
Later, in an attempt to engage without making it so obvious, I say: “The blooper reel for ‘Heartstopper’ just came out. Want to watch it together?”
I’ve got my kid’s attention, so I open the laptop. It’s worth a watch – the joy and love that exudes even from that blooper reel is yours for free. However you identify today or tomorrow, you also deserve that love that my mom and Oseman and everyone involved in “Heartstopper” wants for you.