Image via Taylor Swift's Instagram

why we're now obsessed with queering our fave celebrities

From Taylor Swift to Harry Styles, there’s a reason why we find ourselves speculating about people’s sexualities.

by Alim Kheraj
29 August 2019, 7:00am

Image via Taylor Swift's Instagram

For months, people have been speculating about Taylor Swift’s sexuality. Ever since the singer launched her current era with the rainbow hued “Me!”, a bombastic, kid-friendly romp aided by Panic! at the Disco’s Brendon Urie, Swifties have been attempting to decode every miniscule detail in Taylor Swift’s vast musical universe.

This excavation by fans has been encouraged; Swift is famous for leaving clues and hints in her songs and music videos for people to discover. But unlike the usual Swiftian Easter eggs that relate to song titles and possible collaborations, beady eyed sleuths were deep diving in search of confirmation that Taylor Swift was coming out as bisexual.

Much of the #Gaylor speculation stems from the singer’s friendship with the model Karlie Kloss. Back in 2014, someone captured and shared an apparent kiss on social media (it was denied by Taylor’s rep), but as Buzzfeed’s Shannon Keating pointed out, there are numerous reasons why fans think Taylor could be more than just down with the rainbow.

Taylor herself hasn’t done much to quash any chatter about her sexuality. In the VMA-winning video for “You Need To Calm Down”, the second single from her new album Lover, she donned a wig with the colours of the bisexual flag, while that song’s lyrics -- pro-LGBTQ, anti-hate -- seemed to hint at a closer understanding of her own sexual identity.

However, Taylor Swift is not a lesbian or bisexual. In her recent Vogue cover interview, the singer clearly placed herself outside of the LGBTQ community by labelling herself an ally. “I didn’t realise until recently that I could advocate for a community that I’m not a part of,” she said about “You Need To Calm Down” as well as her petition to pass the Equality Act in America, which would provide federal protections for LGBTQ people in the United States.

Swift’s courtship of the LGBTQ community, while seen by some as opportunistic, clearly comes from a place of sincerity; it doesn’t stink too badly of queerbaiting, especially when you look at her track record of supporting LGBTQ causes. Nevertheless, her vocal support of the LGBTQ community and her love of leaving Easter eggs incubated a perfect storm for speculation. Unwittingly or not, Taylor Swift and her work became another example of mainstream culture with a LGBTQ subtext. She was queer coding.

"Tyler, the Creator has heavily coded his recent output. In fact, his record Flower Boy barely conceals its gay subtext."

Queer coding is a term traditionally utilised when discussing television and movies whereby a character is given traits or behaviours that divert from the cis-heteronormativity, usually without explicitly confirming said character’s queerness. This can be anything from men exhibiting feminine traits to prolonged gazes between same-sex characters, and even fashion choices. Similarly, queer subtexts are LGBTQ narratives or themes that aren’t explicit and hidden. It’s a practice that can often be contentious, leading to accusations of queerbaiting. However, it has a rich and important cultural history, too, allowing for LGBTQ people to see themselves in art they’ve long been excluded from.

Swift isn’t the only artist subliminally or overtly queering her narrative. Tyler, the Creator has heavily coded his recent output. In fact, his record Flower Boy barely conceals its gay subtext. “Garden Shed” is filled with an extended metaphor pertaining to hiding one’s sexual identity as he raps, “I didn't wanna talk and tell 'em my location/ And they ain't wanna walk/ Truth is, since a youth kid, thought it was a phase/ Thought it'd be like the phrase; ‘poof,’ gone.” Here, Tyler’s lyrics not only play with the idea of gay hook-up apps and location sharing, but utilise the British pejorative term for gay, “poof”. Elsewhere, Tyler is clear about his past, bragging about “kissing white boys since 2004”.

Tyler’s case is unique as the lyrics of Flower Boy are at odds with his earlier material, which often teemed with explicit homophobia. But as Benjamin Lee noted in The Guardian, fans were moved to start diving into Tyler’s past comments, social media posts and even songs to see whether he’d been dropping clues about his queerness. Yet like Taylor’s sudden cries of “gay rights”, Lee noted that Tyler’s seeming change of heart echoed his “fetishistic” feelings about homosexuality. “Is this a young man’s earnest struggle to come to terms with his sexuality in a public forum, awkwardly using humour as a defence mechanism to protect himself from a potentially unforgiving rap community?” Lee asked. “Or is this just another example of a button-pushing attention-seeker, ridiculing the gay experience for puerile effect?” To this day, that distinction remains unclear.

Speculating about the sexuality of celebrities or people in the public eye is not something that should be endorsed. However, the way that ‘celebrity’ is packaged through tabloids, social media and art opens those who find themselves in the spotlight up to queer coding.

Take the friendship between radio host Nick Grimshaw and Harry Styles, who through his art, self-presentation and non-committal but pro-LGBTQ stance has resulted in people peering between the lines for queer subtexts. Their relationship, the ins-and-outs of which we aren’t privy to, was often presented in a way by the press (and perhaps the pair themselves) that encouraged a queer reading. They would swap clothes and get papped out on the town having the time of their lives. It all seems fairly innocuous, but there’s enough space in the details to fill in the gaps.

In the past, more coded language was used by the media when discussing the private lives of celebrities assumed to be queer, and looking back at stars who later openly discussed their sexual identities, such as George Michael, Boy George and Elton John, it was in their art where much of their subtext was found. The video for Elton’s 1982 hit “I’m Still Standing”, for example, was deeply homoerotic, but released at time when the singer was not openly out as a gay man and before today’s more liberal attitudes to LGBTQ representation in the media. In 2019, though, this can feel more like queerbaiting than legitimate coding. Why, after all, is there a need for subtle signifiers in the media when it’s okay to be gay, right?

Aside from the obvious arguments that it’s actually still pretty hard to be LGBTQ in 2019 and the fact that specifically queer media doesn’t always sell that well, queer subtexts aren’t always coded by those creating the medium. For example, it’s very possible that Taylor Swift, despite her breadcrumb trails, didn’t realise the implications of wearing a bisexual wig. As queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick wrote in her book Tendancies, many LGBTQ people interacting with art and culture are attempting “to make invisible possibilities and desires visible; to make the tacit things explicit; to smuggle queer representation in where it must be smuggled and… to challenge queer-eradicating impulses frontally where they are to be so challenged”. For LGBTQ people, she writes, attaching a queer narrative or subtext to culture is “a prime resource of survival”.

This practice has continued even though we have more LGBTQ visibility in the media. Quoting from David M. Halperin’s book How To Be Gay in his essay “In Defense of Gay Subtext”, writer and critic Manuel Betancourt notes that young queer people still had no problem attaching queer meanings to non-explicitly queer content. “Queer reading thus has a little bit in common with queer fan fiction writing,” he writes, “where queer artists must also get creative to incorporate their community into beloved franchises.” There is, therefore, an inherent creativity when it comes to decoding queer subtexts from our culture. Because of this, Betancourt argues that “the act of responding to characters who identify differently [to oneself] is a culture to be preserved”.

"While social media has given society unprecedented access to famous figures, when it comes to prescribing queerness to an individual or speculating about someone’s sexual identity, it can have a detrimental effect on someone’s well being."

Of course, much of this theory is applied to film and literature. But in the world of celebrity, the headlines and stories constructed by the Mail Online and TMZ do, in a way, offer up their own realm of fictionality. They mutate from a human being’s real life experience into entertainment, the stories of someone’s lived experiences commodified for clicks. Social media has only complicated this dynamic, providing audiences with a 24-hour stream of content, the lives shared becoming as addictive and digestible as a show like Love Island.

What matters is how people respond to celebrity. While social media has given society unprecedented access to famous figures, when it comes to prescribing queerness to an individual or speculating about someone’s sexual identity, it can have a detrimental effect on someone’s well being. Shawn Mendes has previously spoken about how policing his own femininity amid gay rumours actually exacerbated the internalised homophobia he had. Mendes has repeatedly said he’s not gay. Likewise, Louis Tomlinson said that fans’ intense scrutiny of his relationship with Harry Styles and the ship Larry Stylinson actually impacted his relationship with his bandmate during his time in One Direction.

Not every famous person minds, however. Styles, who has previously refused to label his sexual identity, has never commented on any of the rumours that have followed him. Likewise, Taron Egerton, while explaining that the fanfiction about him is sometimes difficult to digest, has said that he doesn’t necessarily see the speculation about his sexuality as a big deal, although he did tell British GQ that he didn’t want to deceive people who may assume that he is gay. (Egerton is straight).

The problem is that queer readings are not necessarily a representation of reality. Taylor Swift, intentional or not, may have invited that reading with her Easter eggs, colour palettes and bisexual wig, but the mediums that she presented those things within -- a music video, an Instagram post, even the red carpet -- aren’t her reality. Signposting one’s queerness is something that occurs in everyday life, and there is a rich history of queer specific language. But with the blurring of reality that social media has caused, as well as the commodification of celebrity lives, we need to tread carefully in how we categorise things. For example, there’s something inherently queer about a video of Lindsay Lohan dancing on a beach in Mykonos, but does that mean that Lindsay herself is queer. Rather, in her dancing LGBTQ people are able to glean some aspect of their own identity, whatever that may be.

Speculating about people’s sexuality is cut from this cloth. A gesture here and there, a GIF cut to highlight some form of heightened masculinity or feminity (although, one might argue that it’s the GIF itself that’s queer rather than the person in the GIF) or even sharing another man’s clothing (thereby creating the question of how the items became exchanged) allow us to see ourselves. And as LGBTQ people, we’re practically conditioned to search for these aspects in popular culture, even with increased visibility. We just owe it to celebrities and ourselves to engage with those readings responsibly.

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