Harry Styles, this summer’s prince of pop, has earned his crown by embodying the fantasies of millions of people and taking a seemingly innovative approach to the projection of diverse sexual identity. As he grows his kingdom and conquers pop culture, Styles has also been accused—on his last two record releases—of using queer identity to buff his fame without explicitly coming out as queer.
Talking about the identity of any person, even famous, is inherently delicate. Yet in a culture obsessed with identity politics and still plagued by homophobia, it’s inevitable that we look at our icons and wonder who they really are, especially when their style and mystique seem to invite questions.
Styles’ performances (and exorbitant ticket prices) make his identity a matter of concern to us. He takes the stage with what has become a symbol of resistance fit for big business: the rainbow flag. He also integrates less obvious symbols of his possible queer identity: sizable flowers on his lapel (like the ones Oscar Wilde wore ); a blue scrap dangling provocatively from a back pocket (like the pick-ups in New York’s Village); the words “ Never Gonna Dance Again ” tattooed on his feet (which was sung by George Michael , undeclared gay, first, and then proudly declared).
However, when he speaks, Styles tells us very different things. He has consistently refused to declare himself queer or attribute any other label when asked by the press. This year, in a profile published in Better Homes & Gardens magazine, he said of sexual orientation: “I’ve been very open with my friends, but that’s my personal experience; it’s mine”.
His desire to live away from prying eyes is not unusual at all. Tabloids and fans have told stories with varying degrees of credibility about Styles’ love life since he was a teenager, linking him to multiple women (and the occasional man). In a recent profile, Styles called speculation about his dalliances — and thus any clues they give about his sexual orientation — assumptions, saying, “I don’t think I’ve been with anyone in public.”
It’s hard, then, to reconcile Styles’ two seemingly incompatible public identities that break the hearts of many queer fans like me. In one, Styles, as a supposedly heterosexual, appropriates the imagery of a marginalized community. In the other, Styles, without coming out, adopts a queer attitude, presumably hoping that his community can ” give him the palm of the hand ” and welcome him.
In private, Styles could, of course, affirm any — or many — of the spectrum’s gender identities and sexual orientations. But the point here is that Styles asks us to enjoy his performances without giving us the key to unlock the true meaning of his performances. It is worth wondering why his door is locked.
If Styles is struggling with a closet, it was a homophobic culture that built it, and not any of his acts. Accusing him of exploiting the queer identity of his fans creates something of a trap: he can only seriously deny the accusations by coming out and identifying himself in a way that the public would not readily accept.
So let’s think about it for a moment: Is it really so inconceivable that one of the most famous people in the world could be trapped in the same closet as you or me?
As a queer person, it is impossible for me to look at the way Styles uses our symbols with such skill, consistency and precision and not see those symbols for what they surely are: proof that he is one of us. Perhaps I am not cynical enough to believe that anyone could dare to make so many millions by blatantly appropriating queer culture. Or perhaps I lack the imagination to guess some other meaning—solidarity as an ally, possibly—from his performances. However, even if Styles’ queer character turns out to be nothing more than a mirage, I can’t help but think that it’s better to be wrong being gullible and receptive than to be right being a cruel guardian of essences.
Styles walks a tightrope. He can send signals to those who understand them and, at the same time, build the myth of Harry Styles as a celebrity, a profitable and untouchable code designed to attract as many fans – and wallets – as possible. Celebrity is a study in contradictions: attractive, but not threatening; cordial, but unfathomable; heterosexual, but interpretable as queer. Styles offers a nice screen where a couple of generations can project their sexual, romantic or ideological fantasies. That celebrity would never dare to offend anyone by coming out of the closet.
I’m not entirely convinced that the public has a right to know how Styles describes his identity to his friends. But it doesn’t matter how Styles identifies himself, or whether he does or doesn’t; We must not look away from the uncomfortable truth about his public image: this celebrity has used queer symbols and dressed as an ambiguous icon, without addressing the murky and unpleasant political aspect of giving himself a public label.
By exhibiting queer symbols as he does, Styles could be trying to deal with a culture and his wardrobe as best he can. However, it also sends a message to young people, to questioning fans, that it is acceptable, perhaps even desirable, to reject the Harvey Milk mantra that has guided many in the LGBTQ community in our fight for collective freedom: “All gays should come out [of the closet]”.
In the Better Homes & Gardens profile, Styles omits the issue in one of his few revealing statements about sexual identity: “The important thing about where we should be going, which is to be accepting of everyone and to be more open, is that It shouldn’t matter, and that it’s not about having to put labels on everything, about having to clarify which boxes you tick,” he said .
These vague words, along the lines of varied sexual identity, cushion the danger of the tantalizing fantasy that Styles presents. Implicit in your fame is the idea that the most important struggles against antiquarian prejudice are over, and that it’s good—or at least good for business—to be elusive in order to arouse the interest of the masses, even those who would prefer to see you. dead before in love.
This stance is not up to the challenge posed by the notable rise in antiquarian opposition in recent years. In America, where Styles reigns supreme on the stage, anti-LGBTQ laws have become a constant fixture in many state legislatures . In Eastern Europe, where Styles toured earlier this summer, LGBTQ rights have seen pushback . And in many other markets around the world our existence is denied, if not outright outlawed. Faced with this hatred, Styles has not opted for open rebellion. He proposes an easily digestible call to “ treat people well”. It’s an off-key cliché, out of tune with the brand of bigotry we see in 2022.
If our community is seeking true liberation, Styles’ queer attitude—”don’t ask, don’t tell”—is not something we should aspire to. Rather it should be something we should regret.
Coming out should be an act of political resistance, but it is also a celebration. We exclaimed to the world: “I am here! I’m queer! You must accept me!” It may not always be an acceptable and marketable message, but if it offends those who hate us, then we should say it out loud.
Regardless of how he identifies, if Styles wants to dance with our symbols, he’d do well to pay more attention to their political meanings, whether or not he dreams of us for liberation.