Harry Styles’ comments on gay sex and sexuality are frustratingly coy

Harry Styles’ comments on gay sex and sexuality are frustratingly coy
Harry Styles: ‘I think everyone, including myself, has your own journey with figuring out sexuality and getting more comfortable with it.’ Photograph: Jo Hale/Redferns

Harry Styles has spent a few years at that unfortunate stage of mega-celebrity when everything he says is subjected to forensic online scrutiny for intricate layers of meaning, implication and self-betrayal – so it’s just as well, for him at least, that he’s got very good at soundbites that, even when parsed to the nth degree, don’t say very much at all.

The singer-actor’s interviews tend to be rife with uncontroversially quotable statements on the value of kindness, creativity and following your own path. His latest spread in Rolling Stone largely follows suit, dropping such bombshells as “It’s okay to be flawed … I make mistakes sometimes,” “If I have kids at some point, I’ll encourage them to be themselves,” and, on taking up therapy, that “So many of your emotions are so foreign before you start analysing them properly.” Well, if you were Harry Styles, why would you go any deeper than that in a public forum?

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Yet again, the interview sees Styles sidestepping the matter of his own sexuality – a habit that has seen the star, whose preference for non-binary fashion keeps leading the media into chasing a more declarative statement of identity, accused of “queerbaiting” in more heatedly righteous corners of the internet. “Sometimes people say, ‘You’ve only publicly been with women,’ and I don’t think I’ve publicly been with anyone,” he says – a perfectly reasonable stance, even if some might argue that his apparent relationship with his Don’t Worry Darling director Olivia Wilde seems more or less public.

When the conversation shifts to his burgeoning film career, however, Styles is somewhat more drawn on the subject of sexuality – and does himself few favours. The occasion for his increased candour is My Policeman, a British prestige drama set to premiere at Toronto next month: Styles plays the lead role of a closeted gay cop in 1950s Brighton, who begins a relationship with a man while marrying the woman who has fallen for him. It’s a specifically queer story dictated by the UK’s criminalisation of male homosexuality. Its gay screenwriter, Ron Nyswaner, has specialised in LGBT+ narratives through a career that includes Philadelphia, Freeheld and Soldier’s Girl; its director, theatre luminary Michael Grandage is queer, as are Styles’s co-leads Emma Corrin and David Dawson.

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It’s disappointing, then, to read Styles downplaying the film’s queerness in a way that smacks of a past era’s panic: “It’s not like ‘This is a gay story about these guys being gay,’” he says, as the article stresses what a “very human story” the film is. “It’s about love and about wasted time to me.” This is an age-old tactic to make gay subject matter more appealing to timid, potentially prejudiced majority audiences; it’s the same mentality that has made “love is love” the standard slogan in bringing straight allies to Pride and queer-rights causes. Everyone likes love, right? Can’t we all be united on that front, and leave it there?

The more you stress love, however, the less you have to think about sex – which is, of course, the key sticking point for many an anti-queer bigot. Styles soft-soaps this point, too, in the service of playing up the supposed universality of this gay romance: “I think everyone, including myself, has your own journey with figuring out sexuality and getting more comfortable with it.” True enough, if you accept “sexuality” as a general catch-all term for sexual consciousness and activity, though the sense remains that Styles is using the language of empathy as an evasion: as long as My Policeman is presented as a film about everyone, the question of why he starred in it – and, from the growing faction of activists advocating for queer-identifying actors to be cast in queer roles, whether he should have done – can be largely avoided.

Still, Styles stumbles most when addressing the film’s actual sexual content: “So much of gay sex in film is two guys going at it, and it kind of removes the tenderness from it,” he says. “There will be, I would imagine, some people who watch it who were very much alive during this time when it was illegal to be gay, and [Michael] wanted to show that it’s tender and loving and sensitive.” Sure enough, in this regard, Styles is extending a line of conversation begun by his director: in a June interview in Vanity Fair, Grandage stated he wanted the sex scenes to “quite literally show something that was about ‘lovemaking’ in the broadest sense of the word, something that was choreographically interesting and not just some kind of thrusting sense of sex going on”.

Styles shouldn’t be pulled up too harshly for sticking to a tactful, tasteful party line, but there’s an implicit bias in his words that is surprising from a professed queer ally, not to mention – perhaps less surprisingly – an apparent lack of awareness of queer cinematic representation. What films has he been watching, for starters, to back his bold claim that “two guys going at it” accounts for the bulk of gay sex on screen? If he’s been binging on the explicitly sensual art cinema of Alain Guiraudie and Julián Hernández – or simply loading up on gay porn – fair play to him, but in the mainstream crossover bracket that My Policeman is targeting, frank gay sex scenes are a conspicuous rarity. Think of Call Me By Your Name, with its coy pan over to a breeze-blown tree when things get heated between its two male lovers, or Moonlight, a queer film most effectively built on the absence of sexual expression, or even the brief, shadowed “going at it” passage of Brokeback Mountain, and it’s clear gay films still have to play by strict rules of restraint to break through.

Is there something definitively un-tender about frank, thrusting sex between two men? Or is Styles simply falling unwittingly into an age-old strain of homophobia – the one that professes no issue with homosexuality as long as its physical realities are censored from view? My Policeman may yet prove to be as intimate and emotionally stirring as these early marketing feelers want us believe; Styles may well be terrific in it. But for Generation Z’s greatest pop icon to promote his first overtly queer work on such fusty, coyly old-fashioned terms is a letdown.

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