BREAKING NEWS: Harry Styles has done another magazine interview and said things that have annoyed some people.
Gracing the cover of Rolling Stone, he was asked about the “queerbaiting” accusations which seem to follow him around. Responding to the assertion that he has only ever “publicly” been in relationships with women, Styles, who is currently dating actor Olivia Wilde, said: “I don’t think I’ve publicly been with anyone. If someone takes a picture of you with someone, it doesn’t mean you’re choosing to have a public relationship or something.”
Styles also made some comments about gay sex in cinema. “So much of gay sex in film is two guys going at it,” he told Rolling Stone, in reference to his starring role in My Policeman, an upcoming film about a closeted policeman in the 1950s. “And it kind of removes the tenderness from it.”
Most people on social media have responded to these remarks with the amount of thoughtfulness and nuance that you would expect: virtually none. Responses to the interview and follow-up articles about it are full of people angrily calling Styles out for “cosplaying” as queer, while accusing him of profiting from queer aesthetics, or mocking his thoughts on gay sex.
Haven’t we been here before? It feels like every few months, as regularly as the seasons change, Styles gets dressed up for a photoshoot and is inevitably asked about his sexuality in the accompanying interview. Normally, he gives an almost identical answer: something about figuring things out on his own and not using labels. Like clockwork, this provokes a polarised reaction. His defenders support his right to define and explore his identity however he wants, while others consider his approach to be harmful or even exploitative.
Of course, social media discourse tends to go in waves. Usually, depending on the topic, one school of thought momentarily comes out on top. Then, something else happens and the dominant point of view is challenged. The cycle repeats until a consensus emerges. But when it comes to Styles, there is a particular staticness to it. The reaction to his interviews has become a predictable standoff.
Part of the reason why this topic never moves forward is because Styles isn’t saying anything new. It’s clear that a definitive “I identify as X” statement would move things along, but as is his right, he doesn’t seem to be giving us one. This ambiguity has created a vacuum where people project their own story of his sexuality onto him – usually, “he’s straight but pretending to be queer for profit!” or “he seems queer but doesn’t want to label himself, which is fine!”. Every word he utters is now viewed through either of these opposing prisms and dissected in detail.
The angry reaction Styles provokes in some quarters, particularly among queer people who consider themselves progessive, speaks to wider contradictions. In recent years, the belief that gender and sexuality are “fluid” and detached from one another has become popular. “GENDER IS A CONSTRUCT, TEAR IT APART!” and “THE FUTURE IS FLUID” are two phrases we often see on placards or printed on t‑shirts at Pride protests. But Styles is forcing some queer people to confront the reality that they are much more comfortable with these phrases in hashtag form, than personified in someone like him.
If gender really is a construct, with visual and sexual norms that restrict how many of us live our lives, then why should Styles – even if he is straight – be excluded from its abolition? We saw a similarly fraught reaction when Maddy Morphosis became the first heterosexual man to compete on RuPaul’s Drag Race last year. Straight men wearing dresses – on the cover of Vogue or on a drag show – does not automatically erase the queer people who have previously done so, or are doing so now, whether in the public eye, in a queer space or walking down the street.
In both cases, there is a lack of perspective. Even looking through the most self-interested lens, if it becomes slightly more normal for straight men to wear dresses, then surely that moves the needle. With Styles in particular, I can’t help but feel like the benefits of a cultural icon and role model expressing himself like this vastly outweigh the negatives – even if he is doing so with a safety which isn’t currently afforded to others.
There is also a distinct naivety in some of the responses to Styles. Can a world where the construct of gender is “torn apart” really be achieved without some situations which might, even for a moment, make some of us feel uncomfortable? Gender is embedded in virtually all parts of society. Change can make us (yes, even queer people) feel uneasy or annoy us for different reasons – and not all of them are bad. It’s only by challenging ourselves that individuals and societies can evolve. Queer people shouldn’t fall into the trap of assuming that everything which makes us uncomfortable is innately harmful or dangerous. We’ve been on the receiving end of that too many times.
Another problem here is that Styles is stuck in a place where some people don’t consider him “queer enough” to speak on LGBTQ+ issues, particularly when he talks in broader terms than his own specific experience. “The whole point of where we should be heading, which is toward accepting everybody and being more open, is that it doesn’t matter,” he told Better Homes & Gardens in April this year. “And it’s about not having to label everything, not having to clarify what boxes you’re checking.”
It’s understandable that people who have found a sense of security and identity in a label might be irked by blanket statements like this from someone who hasn’t confirmed what his sexuality is. (Labels work for some people, but not for others, it really is that simple). Styles’s most recent comments on gay sex in film have caused a similar discomfort, because he’s talking in quite sweeping terms about something that we don’t know he has experienced. (It also feeds into a wider debate about “gay actors for gay roles,” but don’t worry, I’m not getting into that here).
All things considered, though, I’m still not convinced Styles has said anything which merits the ferocious backlash. Can anyone, particularly LGBTQ+ people, honestly say we haven’t ever expressed ourselves clumsily, or changed our mind on issues relating to sexuality and identity? I certainly can’t. There is the lingering feeling that some of his detractors are just looking for something to pick apart in every interview he gives.
If Styles is queer, he is learning that LGBTQ+ people can sometimes be hardest on queer celebrities. In the book How To Be Gay, historian David Halperin wrote about the phenomenon of gay men in particular being “highly critical, if not contemptuous, of their own artists, writers and filmmakers.” He’s not wrong: we expect queer public figures to perfectly “represent” us and, when they mess up or don’t do so to our exact specification, we can often be unforgiving when “holding them to account”.
This harshness – often wielding the language of identity politics in its most binary, brutal forms to present a critique as righteous and progressive – can be full of contradictions. Polling suggests LGBTQ+ people reject the transphobic “gender critical” movement, which frequently accuses trans and non-binary people of “cosplaying”. Most of us deplore far-right politicians and commentators, many of whom want “boys to be boys and girls to be girls.” We reject the notion that heterosexual is the default sexuality and tropes which invalidate or erase bisexual people. But when it comes to Styles, I worry about how close some queer people come to embracing the logic and language of ideas we would usually abhor.
Perhaps contradictions are inevitable when discussing an issue which revolves around desire and “the closet” – concepts with very complicated, messy politics. Maybe some queer people can’t yet articulate exactly what makes them so uncomfortable, or irritated, about how Styles talks about his sexuality. But if that’s the case, we should just say so, instead of tangling ourselves in all kinds of contortions to explain how “problematic” he is.
Rather than asking Styles about his sexuality constantly, maybe we should now ask ourselves why so many people care so much about his answers, or why this conversation seems stuck in such a rut. And why people who claim to reject binaries are suddenly so fond of speaking in absolutes.