It's like bear baiting.
Only it's not just limited to these folks:
(You didn't think I meant the non-human kind, did you?)
Queerbaiting is the term for a recent trend in tv, books, and movies where the potential for a non-heterosexual couple is teased to draw an audience that the creators have no intention of actually representing.
To be honest, when I first heard the term I thought it was made up. Why would anyone think something like that would work? And certainly, it's not like media creators are sitting in a room somewhere conspiring to find new ways to mess with the LGBT+ community. But there are actually a lot of examples that suggest this trend is both real and here to stay.
Queerbaiting vs. Subtext
Because of industry pressure and censorship, for a very long time it was impossible to depict non-heterosexual couples (or if they were depicted, they either needed to be "cured" or destroyed). Thankfully that culture is changing, but a lot of popular media is still lagging behind. The success of shows like Glee and Orange is the New Black demonstrates that people are interested in new, more diverse stories. When a piece of media hints at the potential of an LGBT+ character or relationship, it's trying to look progressive without actually committing to that progress or contributing to more positive media representations for marginalized people.
Why does it matter?
Because while the world is slowly changing for the better, a lot of LGBT+ people (particularly kids and teens) face an incredible amount of stigma in their communities. Just this year, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that the 1964 Civil Rights Act applies to sexual orientation- before the ruling there were still twenty-seven states where you could be fired for being LGBT+. And according to the CDC, LGBT+ teens face a higher risk of dating violence and suicide due to bullying and ostracization from their peers. Even though only 5-10% of young people identify as LGBT, about 20-40% of the homeless youth population is LGBT+ (via).
Legislation matters, but so does representation.
We are conditioned to believe that there is something unnatural about being gay, transgender, asexual, or any other identity on the LGBT+ spectrum. Some of this comes from our families or peer groups, but the media is also responsible. Our cultural identity is formed through the stories we tell. So when our heroes all look a certain way, live a certain way, and love a certain way, the message we're being given is that it's the ONLY valid way to be. Queerbaiting treats the needs and identities of LGBT+ people as a joke, something that doesn't need to be taken seriously.
It's only baiting as long as it's not canon.
This is one of those issues that seems to cycle back around once a year or so. Last year it was Teen Wolf, before that it was BBC Sherlock, and before *that* it was Supernatural. It makes sense that Marvel's taking a turn. Seeing the article above, it was obviously meant to be a joke. But the joke isn't funny when it's at your expense. Ha-ha, wouldn't it be just hilarious if Captain America wasn't heterosexual? How wild.
In all honestly, that would be awesome. I'd love to look up to a hero who was a little more like me. What's so funny about wanting that?
"It's just television."
Tell that to the lonely kid who thinks that there's no one else in the world like them.
Tell that to the parent that thinks that "curing" their child is the best thing they can do.
Tell that to the person who thought they were crazy because they'd never heard of anyone identifying like they do.
Our entire culture is based on the lie that being heterosexual is more desirable, more natural, more normal. It's not. It's just more common.
So if it's really 'just television', who will it hurt if it's more diverse?
Ditto for movies, books, and whatever media the future holds.