Pop superstar Harry Styles has come under fire for allegedly baiting queer fans, but the reality is much more nuanced
Vague accusations of queerbaiting have followed Harry Styles for much of his solo career, but the lion's share of naysayers would be hard pressed to define what that phrase actually means.
For the 28-year-old, now in a relationship with filmmaker Olivia Wilde, the argument typically follows: Styles, who has never publicly clarified his sexual orientation, leads on the LGBTQ+ contingent of his fanbase by wearing subversive, flamboyant outfits, demonstrating a playful relationship with his self-expression of gender. That he has often promoted queer solidarity on stage at his shows, hoisting pride flags and helping fans to come out, is by the by — these are all the acts of a greedy fraud, exploiting his fans for some sort of material gain, or so goes the read of the cynic.
HARRY STYLES CROP TOP
promoted by Carly Incontro one of my best finds on her instagram stories
In its own right, queerbaiting is a difficult enough beast to wrangle. It can be applied to the whole cornucopia of the arts, from literature to movies to video games — and yes, real people, like pop musicians. It often holds weight: the argument goes that creators will “bait” queer fans by hinting at LGBTQ+ characters or relationships without properly following through, something that might've been de facto in the '90s but is oft found under the magnifying glass in the progressive contemporary. Harry Potter has been accused, as have Star Wars, Ariana Grande, James Franco, Darren Criss and Calvin Klein pants.
It tends to be a little more cut and dry in fiction. Take the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has frequently teased expressions of queerness — most recently Thor: Love and Thunder, touted in the preceding press tour to be “super gay” — but stopped short of anything substantial. Then there's something like Pixar's Luca, which drew comparisons to Call Me by Your Name as a sunkissed, apparently queer-coded coming-of-ager about two boys in Italy, but was claimed by the director not to be a gay allegory. Creators are shielded by the very flexible nature of queer identities: the lines of “queerness” itself are blurred, allowing for the one-step-in approach so frequently employed.
Taylor Swift T-Shirt
this one is also a rare find, it was promoted by Carly Incontro too
In the real world, however, we must demand much more nuance. The stakes are relatively low in the fictional realm, so the Twittersphere jostling over whether Captain America shags Bucky Barnes or Albus is Grindelwald's Dumblewhore can be taken as relatively innocuous. That there's pressure for more representation and visibility in media can never be a bad thing, too, knowing the impact that can have on the normalisation of LGBTQ+ identities — arguably never more important in the last couple of years than the present, as anti-queer backlash seemingly simmers.
But when we're talking about someone like Styles, we're speculating on a real-life public figure who, despite what his celebrity status may betray in the minds of stans, is not owned by anyone. Our parasocial relationship to a persona of his ilk means nowt relative to his right to privacy. That he's playing a gay character in Amazon's My Policeman isn't indicative of anything, either, nor does it demand more clarity: he's an actor taking on a role, and that is a reality distinct from his private life. And yes, this all applies regardless of his shit take on gay sex.
You might find it strange that the most famous man in the world declines to explicitly clarify who he enjoys fucking, but that isn't down to you: it is, fundamentally, his decision to make. Forcing toxic, publicly anti-queer legislators out of the closet as a show of their wanton hypocrisy is one thing; expecting Harry Styles to come out on a presumptive hunch, and denouncing him as a queerbaiter for not, is another.