For the youngs arguing about the plausibility of ships on Stranger Things: yeah, it's a science fiction that need not be historically accurate at all, but also, I grew up in a small Midwestern town, like Hawkins, in the 80s, and I knew queer adults. It's true that far fewer were out then, but they were there, and some were out. My mom regularly played cards with some gay male friends, the adult daughter of one of her other friends left her husband for a woman, and my aunt had a favorite coworker who was part of a long-term lesbian couple. All of these people lived in my small town or the surrounding county. As an old, I assure you, we existed in the 80s, even in a place like Hawkins.
One of the reasons I believe a lot of people are so aggressively threatened, freaked out, and even offended by the concept of a gay or bi Mike is because then they’d have to face the fact that queer people are just people. Which, duh. Of course, they are! But Mike Wheeler, at least in the first season (and sorta the second season), is THE main character. He’s THE guy.
It’s what turned Finn Wolfhard into a heartthrob and fast-tracked him to starring roles in movies like It and Ghostbusters: Afterlife. For people who grew up loving 80s childhood adventure movies, on which the Duffers based their show, Mike Wheeler is Elliot from E.T. He’s Mikey from The Goonies. He’s Marty from Back to the Future. He’s Luke from A New Hope. In other words, he’s the kind of young sci-fi hero every boy dreamed of becoming. I mean, who wouldn’t want to find out that magic/the supernatural is real, go on an insane, life-changing adventure with their friends, stand up to bad guys, and fall in love with a girl with superpowers in the span of a week?!
Other than being nerdy/into D&D (which is honestly not that far from being a theatre kid, tbh)/hj, kinda melodramatic, and somewhat unathletic (affectionate), there’s nothing about Mike Wheeler that radiates gayness on the surface. Plus, he’s the protagonist! In Season 1 we experience most new things through his eyes. That makes him the audience surrogate character, so how can the audience surrogate character be (gasps) GAY?! That’s OBviously impossible. He’s just a guy. He’s just a dude. He’s just a person. He’s just the boy next door.
And if queer people are just people, then that means ANYONE could potentially be queer. Even your younger sister. Even your best friend, who has no stereotypically gay traits, plays football, and has a girlfriend. Even your children (gasps). Even you (am I gay quizzes? were born from fears like this). That’s terrifying for people who expect the world, and the media they consume, to be black-and-white.
People like boxes. They like things that are safe. Every time general audiences are introduced to a new character they fully assume the character is straight, even if they aren’t shown to have any interest in girls (like Will) unless they are an obvious stereotype, say the words, “I’m gay,” or explicitly make out with a boy (even then, some people will still try to claim they’re confused or simply “struggling with their sexuality”).
Kevin Keller from Riverdale. Kurt Hummel from Glee. Patrick in The Perks of Being a Wallflower (as much as I love that movie). Carlos in HSMTMTS. These are all characters that are Gay™️. They are almost always the comic relief sidekick, or the gay bestie for the main female character, or some variation of common tropes. Audiences (even homophobic ones) are increasingly used to seeing these types of characters on their screen, but a gay Mike Wheeler would be a different type of character entirely.
“Mike being gay or bi would just be OUT OF NOWHERE and would be bad writing done just for woke points.” Okay. Aside from the fact that it would simply NOT be out of nowhere (gestures wildly at the Byler Proof Slides), let’s unpack the phrase “out of nowhere” for a second. Why is something only considered “out of nowhere” when it’s gay and never when it’s straight? Was it out of nowhere for Dustin to find a girlfriend while at camp? Is the resurrection of Stancy out of nowhere? And to the people who are still somehow convinced that Will Byers isn’t gay, just “maturing slower than his friends,” I guarantee you they wouldn’t call it “out of nowhere” for Will to suddenly have a female love interest, even though it clearly would be. They would encourage it, even if it was someone especially ridiculous like El, who is literally his sister, or Max, with whom he’s had almost no on-screen conversations. This is why you see people on TikTok and YouTube who genuinely believe Will’s painting is for the random girl he danced with at Snowball. Talk about out of nowhere!
“But Mike just isn’t gay. Don’t be delusional. Don’t be unrealistic. He is straight. He has only been shown to like El and has one of the most extreme cases of romantic tunnel vision in fiction I’ve ever seen.” Okay, let’s push aside the constant lip stares, the romantically charged conversations with his best friend, the fact that he can’t say or even write, “I love you” to his girlfriend, the ways the Duffers have consistently framed the Will/Mike/El dynamic with love triangle imagery and drawn our attention to this for the entire show, and more (gestures wildly at the Byler proof slides once more!!) for one second.
The emphasis on “just isn’t” betrays them and their underlying perspectives. Let’s be clear. You can say Robin just isn’t straight because she’s been explicitly confirmed in show and out of show to be lesbian and into girls. You can say Will just isn’t straight because his sexuality has been all but confirmed as well. But you can’t say Mike “just isn’t” gay if the only concrete “proof” you have for this is his (turbulent) relationship with Eleven. Keep in mind. Without Vecna, we don’t have access to the innermost thoughts of any of the characters. All we have to go by is their actions, their words, and the intentional ways the Duffers have coded their characters. Ultimately, people who say this are saying that Mike Wheeler “just isn’t gay” because he doesn’t fit their pre-conceived, ignorant, myopic notions of what a gay person is. Mike “just can’t be” gay in these people’s minds because he hasn’t done any gay “actions,” whatever that even means (that’s why they believe Will- sweet, innocent Will- is a predator/homewrecker because they associate gayness with freakish deviance and see it as something inherently sexual, whereas if Will were a girl with the exact same feelings towards Mike, they’d never in a trillion years see it this way).
In both real life and in fiction, despite all the progress we’ve made as a society, straight is something you’re allowed to just be, by default, regardless of whether you’re dating someone. Gay is something you have to PROVE or “fall into,” and even then it’s treated with incredible suspicion (this is why people who ship Stobin believe Steve can “fix” Robin and make her into boys). Bisexuality is tragically either erased altogether, treated as a joke/a phase, or completely misunderstood (I heard someone say Mike could never be bi because he’d never date Will and El at the same time - what?! That’s not how bisexuality works). And comphet is something entirely baffling to straight audiences. You might as well be saying 2+2 equals armadillo.
They’d rather believe that he’s just become an asshole, or that Finn Wolfhard has suddenly become a bad actor. Because accepting that Mike Wheeler isn’t straight means accepting that he can be the cool, brave, valiant, kind, caring protagonist of seasons 1 and 2, AND also be madly in love with his best friend. That feels like a bait-and-switch to some people because they don’t see queer people as “normal,” even if they claim they aren’t homophobic. They see queer people as “the other,” as something alien. [Insert Visibly Stereotypical Character Here] can be gay, not MY Mike Wheeler. He’s straight. STRAIGHT. He’s madly in love with El. He and Will are just friends. JUST friends. Sound like someone?
That’s one of the reasons that Byler will be such powerful, meaningful, representation (aside from just being the only logical explanation for Mike’s weird actions). Byler becoming canon will give hope and provide a voice for the millions of LGBTQ+ kids out there who don’t fit a stereotype or society’s pre-conceived notions but who just happen to not be straight. Mike Wheeler will join Nick Nelson as one of the best LGBTQ+ teens EVER on screen. It will be a cultural reset. And it will hopefully open people’s minds to the beautiful tapestry of humanity. A love story so pure, so beautiful, and so overwhelming that the boy who tried so hard to be “normal” and to deny his feelings for his best friend and the boy who survived bullies, a week in a hellish alternate dimension, and a possession that took over his mind and body had no choice but to go crazy together.