If you are a fan of Harry Styles, you’ve probably had a complicated couple of years. Styles contains multitudes, or at least he contains multiple narratives: at 29, he is the British reality-competition star made good, the style icon, the now-solo boy-band supernova, the “Saturday Night Live” host, the burgeoning movie star, the burgeoning movie actor (different thing) and the pop-cultural shape-shifter for whom everything is a lark, a laugh, a pose, an interesting new outfit to try on. This makes Styles the ideal choose-your-own-adventure celebrity for the first generation of fans to have grown up fluent in the syntax of the multiverse. You don’t have to love all the iterations of him, just the ones that resonate with you.
Styles’s fans are enjoying a relatively recent phenomenon: a version of stardom in which skins are constantly being shed to reveal new skins, and old powers keep giving way to fresh ones. He’s Madonna crossed with one of the X-Men. But recently, he and his followers have discovered something very old: sex complicates everything, and sexual identity even more so. Because among the many versions of Harry Styles that exist, at least one is very straight; the publicity campaign for the movie “Don’t Worry Darling” (2022) was overwhelmed by reports of the ripple effect on the shoot of his apparent relationship with the film’s director, Olivia Wilde. And at least one version of Styles is very maybe-something-else: the one posing in a dress on the cover of a women’s fashion magazine. The one who likes to flirt with nail polish. The one who brandishes Pride flags and who once told an admirer, “We’re all a little bit gay”. And now, the question of which Harry Styles is the real Harry Styles has run hard into a vexing new controversy: queer baiting.
A quick primer, for those of you who, like me, are over a certain age and may be more familiar with the term “gay baiting”: this is one of those squirmy evolving-language things in which, faster than you might ever imagine, a phrase comes to mean almost exactly the opposite of what it once meant. As recently as 10 years ago, gay baiting referred to the practice, especially in politics, of sneeringly insinuating that someone was gay via coded language in order to harm them while maintaining plausible deniability by never saying it directly. Today, however, queer baiting (the difference in designation is not incidental) is a celebrity culture term referring to performers and artists who slyly imply, whether by action, remark or passing behaviour, that they might not be a hundred per cent heterosexual in order to court an LGBTQ audience, but are actually either straight or, at the very least, determined not to get specific. For those who make the accusation of queer baiting, the argument against opportunism is simple: how dare you reach into our pockets and take our money when you’re only pretending to be one of us (or, in any case, when you’re not telling us who you are)?
The anger is understandable, since the history of gay representation in pop culture does not inspire much trust or confidence. That journey began with invisibility; it gave way to vilification and mockery; then, after decades of struggle, to a few carefully crafted gay characters made largely for straight audiences; then to a larger and more diverse range of characters, some created without the need to attract those straight audiences. But even in the past 15 years, an era with an unprecedented number of LGBTQ characters and out artists, tokenism is still an accepted norm — a gay kiss in a Marvel movie or in a cartoon, 12 seconds (literally) taken to show that Sulu is gay in a Star Trek film.
It can feel like teasing — and that, too, remains a norm. In pre-internet times, magazines like America’s Out (and, 20 years earlier, After Dark) would fuel the wishful thinking of gay men starved for gay stars by throwing a mix of definitely gay, probably gay, straight-but-gay-friendly, so-hot-we-wish-they-were-gay and it’s-anybody’s-guess celebrities onto their covers. Gay audiences are no longer content to take whatever we’re handed, but the old habit of wondering — “Is he or isn’t he?” — dies hard, and it has adapted itself to a world in which online communities can muse endlessly about both performers and characters and enhance their guesses and fantasies with fan art and fan fiction. Right now, the most charged queer-baiting discussion is about men — not a surprise, since any trace of sexual ambiguity in a male star has always excited an intense degree of interest, suspicion and paranoia about the perceived undermining of masculinity. Even so, it can be good business and shrewd salesmanship for the makers of entertainment to leave space in the conversation for a degree of mystery about sexual orientation, never affirming, rarely refuting.
The charge of queer baiting has flourished in that liminal space where speculation and hope meet mistrust and suspicion. Overcalculated playfulness about the subject can come off as a kind of self-marketing, as going there without putting anything on the line. The first queer baiter of our current era was probably James Franco, who played the gay activist Harvey Milk’s lover in 2008 and the gay poet Hart Crane in 2011, then put his own gloss on the 1980 film “Cruising” in 2013 before finally revealing himself as “gay in my art and straight in my life” in an interview with . . . himself in 2015, by which time the game playing had started to feel to some like a bad-faith sideshow.
Styles hasn’t done anything like that, but is he a queer baiter? Is the stylish, slender 27-year-old actor Timothée Chalamet, who is much beloved by the Community for his role in “Call Me by Your Name” (2017) and who dabbles in outré statements on the red carpet, a queer baiter? Is the 29-year-old rap artist Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio, aka Bad Bunny, who has reportedly dated a woman for several years but favours gender-vague fashion in his public appearances and also kissed one of his male backup dancers during a performance at the MTV Video Music Awards last August, a queer baiter?
The fact that these have even become urgent questions has to do, in large part, with the collision of Gen Z’s approach to sexuality, which is very flexible, and its approach to culture, which is not. Gen Z views sexuality simply: “You can be anything you want to be.” According to data collected by Gallup in the US in 2021, more than 20 per cent of Gen Z respondents identified as LGBT — a number that, for many older gay people, can induce a kind of bitter scepticism that’s our own problem: “Yeah, but how many of you mean it? How many of you know what that label cost people to obtain?” Not that the label itself carries much weight with Zoomers; the term “LGBT”, first coined more than 30 years ago, is now seen by many young people as a relic, little more than a makeshift beta test undertaken by their parents’ generation. Today, younger people who use “LGBT” or its longer variants do so primarily as shorthand for a range of options, from asexual to pansexual to questioning to intersex to trans-masc to bi-curious, among theoretically limitless other possibilities, the embrace of any one of which does not have to be a permanent thing. And in truth, “LGBT” has always been an imperfect portmanteau, since its first three letters are shorthand for “Who I’m attracted to” and its fourth is a shorthand for “Who I am”. Today, for many very young people eager to discover and announce their identities long before they’ve had any sexual experience with another person, the designation they select is much likelier to connote “This is me” than “This is what I do”. And the idea here is laudable: nobody should have to go through life, especially adolescent life, experiencing the loneliness that comes with feeling that there’s not even a word with which they can describe themselves. (If they don’t want a word, that’s also fine.)
But Gen Z (and some of its elders) also has a set of rules that it can enforce with doctrinaire strictness, especially when it comes to culture: “We need to tell our own stories. Appropriation is always wrong. All art is self-expression, with empathetic imagination a distant second. Nothing matters more than authenticity. There is no qualification for an artist greater than lived experience.” These bromides are much more likely to be accepted as canonical law by the young than by the not-young, and when they’re applied to openness about sexual identity, you get a paradox that I described in a tweet last year as the place “where a new generation’s golden rule — sexuality is fluid, you can choose from dozens of identities, etc. — crashes into an older rule: Tell us who you are so we can decide what we think of you.”
This is the juncture at which Styles finds himself, and at which the charge of queer baiting rears up. Consider, for instance, his appearance in a viral 2019 “Saturday Night Live” skit co-scripted by the gay writer-performers Julio Torres and Bowen Yang in which he played a social media brand manager for Sara Lee who kept posting his thirsty thoughts about gay threesomes on the corporate account. Under queer-baiting regulations, if Styles is gay, he was critiquing/spoofing from within, which is allowed. But if he’s straight, was he A) being a good sport and allowing “SNL” to play with his image? B) doing what actors do and playing someone unlike himself? C) treading onto turf that didn’t belong to him? D) making fun of us? E) being a big tease and profiting from our curiosity about him? And what about his role in last year’s period drama “My Policeman” as a gay British cop in the 1950s prevented from living his truth by a stultifying and bigoted world? Was playing that part a heartfelt attempt to explore a shared cultural heritage, or was it essentially a famous straight actor scoring points off the historical pain of a minority group to which he doesn’t belong — a kind of oppression tourism?
Related question: what does it matter? I should, at this point, out myself: I believe that personal experience is overrated as
a qualification for an artist; I think that, onscreen, straight can effectively play gay and vice versa; and I recoil from any definition of the relationship between artist and audience that is predicated on the audience claiming a sense of betrayal over who someone is or isn’t outside of the context in which they’re performing. What we know about an artist’s personal identity can be interesting and even illuminating; what we are entitled to know is . . . nothing, basically. (And what someone deciding whether to hire an actor is entitled to ask about that actor’s sexuality is, for very good reasons, also nothing.) The price of a ticket entitles you only to good work — if you’re lucky; it doesn’t buy you the promise that you’re going to be witnessing embodied personal history. Can performative sexual ambiguity by straight actors be a style gesture, an act of allyship rather than of self-identification? If sexuality really is fluid, then the answer has to be: yeah, it probably can. A same-sex kiss can happen under any number of identities. Moreover, it seems infantilising to paint the consumer of pop culture as someone in perpetual danger of being injured by having the “wrong” person make a certain kind of art.
But in fairness to the many who are troubled by this, we are still, historically speaking, in the infancy of an age in which gay artists are able to do their work without lying or hiding. In that context, the idea that a straight artist can cosplay homosexuality because of some notion that LGBTQ folks are in vogue now is pretty repellent. The idea that homosexuality can be teased in flourishes and gestures recalls a much more repressive era (five decades ago) in which gay performers like Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly couldn’t do more than occasionally throw a plausibly deniable smirk to their “if you know, you know” gay fan base if they wanted to remain employable. Until very recently, most gay performers couldn’t even afford that wink, and nobody should kid themselves that closeted gay actors are a relic of the past; the biggest difference is that, today, some of them permit themselves to play gay roles (about which they then give stoic, detached interviews). In that context, performers who think gay is a fun flavour can now come off as emblems of straight entitlement, indulging themselves in a luxury reserved for those with nothing real at stake and an option to out themselves as straight (but an ally, always an ally!) the minute things get too risky.
LGBTQ people, gay people. . . . As I write this, I’m aware that I have, so far, avoided the adjective “queer”. That is, in part, because the word itself — one that I use more casually than I used to when I’m talking to people like me — is at the root of the problem. “Queer” is tricky. It’s a category; it’s an umbrella; it’s a reclaimed slur; it’s a synonym; and in many cases, it’s a dodge. Imagine a census form you have to fill out with two options. The first is “Straight; heterosexual and cisgender; a Kinsey zero”. The second is “Anything other than that”. “Queer” has come to stand in for option number two, and it has created a tent so big that some of the people inside it aren’t completely comfortable with the company they’re keeping. “Queer” is used by some gay men interchangeably with “gay”, and you can just as easily identify as queer and lesbian, queer and bisexual, queer and trans. But crucially, you can also be queer and none of those things. Queer, in this era, means what you say it means: it can mean “I haven’t, but I’d try it” or “I don’t see myself as traditionally heterosexual” or “I don’t want anybody to think I lack imagination” or “My sense of my own sexual identity or tastes is that they’re out of the mainstream” or “I would, but only with Harry Styles” or “I don’t know yet”. “Queer” is one-size-fits-all; there is no entrance requirement. Everybody is welcome.
And yet, it’s not so simple to have a designation that can apply to everyone from sexual identity dilettantes to people who continue to suffer social, professional and familial consequences for being who they are and having the courage to say so. “Queer”, to some, is too free a pass. If, for instance, Styles were suddenly to say to the whole not-straight world, “I see myself as one of you,” it’s hard to imagine that there wouldn’t immediately be follow-up questions: “Which one of us — and how and why?” There are still many generations of gay men who grew up hyperconscious that our walks, our gestures, the pitch of our voices could reveal and endanger us, but many younger gay men dismiss that as either ancient history or, worse, as something rooted in self-loathing rather than in self-preservation. To see a young celebrity amusedly flirt with the same thing you tried to keep hidden can be wildly disorienting.
That fracturing of meaning even extends to coming out. Generational differences and changing times notwithstanding, coming out as gay, whether for a civilian or a celebrity, still has a specific meaning and tradition. It is owning something, and the meaning of making that statement publicly is widely understood. Coming out as queer is not quite the same thing — at least not yet. It settles things for some people and raises questions for others. It’s blurrier.
Some people navigate all this with hilarious nonchalance. When the singer-songwriter Omar Apollo, 25, was recently identified as a possible queer baiter in a tweet, he refuted the charge explicitly (in both senses of the word) with a concise reply saying, “No I b [participating in a common consensual same-sex activity described in two words that this publication would be perfectly OK with you Googling] fr [for real].” It’s great when it’s that easy. But it isn’t always. Last September, Kit Connor, the teenage co-star of Netflix’s gay romantic comedy series “Heartstopper”, became the target of queer-baiting accusations after fans saw a video of him holding hands with a female co-star on another project. The resulting commentary drove Connor from Twitter. “Back for a minute,” he wrote a month and a half later. “I’m bi. Congrats for forcing an 18-year-old to out himself. I think some of you missed the point of the show. Bye.” Connor could have chosen to stay silent — but perhaps, under the kind of social media pressure that can seem especially acute to a kid, he believed that choice had been taken from him. And the fact that it was taken by concerned trolls, not by straight homophobes, doesn’t seem especially meaningful.
As self-serving as some celebrity caginess can be, you can’t build a world in which everyone feels free to self-identify by ordering everyone to self-identify. In our desire to create a utopia in which nobody’s faves are problematic, it’s easy to forget that sexuality can be messy and uncertain and overwhelming — and that keeping that journey private is, no matter how frustrating, a right that’s still worth defending.