Everyone Is Gay on TikTok

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Connor Robinson, a 17-year-old British TikTok star with rosy cheeks and a budding six-pack, has built a large following by keeping his fans thirsty. Between the daily drip of shirtless dance routines and skits about his floppy hair, Mr. Robinson posts sexually suggestive curve balls that, he said, “break some barriers.”

In an eight-second video set to a lewd hip-hop track by the Weeknd, he and a fellow teenage boy, Elijah Finney, who calls himself Elijah Elliot, filmed themselves in a London hotel room, grinding against each other as if they’re about to engage in a passionate make-out session. The video ends with Mr. Robinson pushed against the tiled wall.

But as racy as the video is, fans are under no pretense that the two are in the throes of gay puppy love. Mr. Robinson and Mr. Finney identify as heterosexual, but as some TikTok influencers have discovered, man-on-man action is a surefire way to generate traffic. Uploaded in February, the video has gotten more than 2.2 million views and 31,000 comments (lots of fire and heart emojis).

“Normally, I do jokey dance videos and stuff like that, but it seems like things have kind of changed now,” Mr. Robinson said from his bedroom in Cumbria, England, which is painted forest green to stand out on TikTok. He estimates that 90 percent of his nearly one million followers are female. “Girls are attracted to two attractive guy TikTokers with massive followings showing a sexual side with each other,” he said.

Josh Richards, 18, one of the group’s breakout stars, has posted videos of himself dropping his towel in front of his “boyfriends” Jaden Hossler and Bryce Hall; pretending to lock lips with another buddy, Anthony Reeves; and giving his roommate, Griffin Johnson, a peck on the forehead for the amusement of his 22 million followers.

It certainly hasn’t hurt his brand. In May, Mr. Richards announced he was leaving the Sway Boys and joining one of TikTok’s rival apps, Triller, as its chief strategy officer. He also hosts two new popular podcasts — “The Rundown” with Noah Beck and “BFFs” with Dave Portnoy, the founder of Barstool Sports — and is the first recording artist signed to TalentX Records, a label formed by Warner Records and TalentX Entertainment, a social media agency.

“These boys feel like a sign of the times,” said Mel Ottenberg, the creative director of Interview magazine, which featured some of the Sway Boys in their underwear for its September issue. “There doesn’t seem to be any fear about, ‘If I’m too close to my friend in this picture, are people going to think I am gay?’ They’re too hot and young to be bothered with any of that.”

As recently as a decade ago, an intimate touch between two young men might have spelled social suicide. But for Gen Z, who grew up in a time when same-sex marriage was never illegal, being called “gay” is not the insult it once was.

Young men on TikTok feel free to push the envelope of homosocial behavior “because they’ve emerged in an era of declining cultural homophobia, even if they don’t recognize it as such,” said Eric Anderson, a professor of masculinity studies at the University of Winchester in England.

As a matter of fact, his father has called his videos “really weird” and “gay.” His mother was also taken aback by his public displays of affection with male friends, but now appreciates the pressure that high school boys are under to stand out.

“If you are just straight-up straight now, it’s not very interesting to these kids,” said his mother, Virginia Van Lear, 50, a general contractor. “If you are straight, you want to throw something out there that makes people go, ‘But, he is, right?’ It’s more individual and captures your attention.”

Parents are not the only ones perplexed; these videos confound some older gay men, too.

Ms. Van Lear said that one of her gay male friends came across a TikTok video in which her son joked about a man crush and told her: “You know, if Foster ever wants to talk to me if he’s gay …” She had a good laugh. “People of my generation don’t get these boys are straight,” she said. “It’s a whole new world out there.”

But there’s no confusion among the mostly teenage fans who can’t seem to get enough of these gay-for-views videos.

Whenever Mr. Robinson posts videos of himself getting physical with another male friend, he is deluged with feverish comments like “Am I the only one who thought that was hot”; “I dropped my phone”; “OMG, like I can’t stop watching.”

Even so, some of them can’t stop watching, regardless of whether they deem these videos homophobic or progressive.

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