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Featuring Sam Tompkins and Victor Ray as our cover stars, as well as internal spreads from Girli, Jords, Mysie, Finn Askew, Kara Marni and Master Peace

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Harry Styles, Style: Queerbaiting or Paying Homage?

If you opened pretty much any social media app last month, it’s likely you found yourself face to face with Harry Styles latest Rolling Stone cover. Shirtless, adorned in a plush white fur and glittery pink short shorts, Styles is the definition of a modern day rockstar. While many of us find Styles’ fashion evolution to be a refreshing and entertaining interlude to the comparably unadventurous fits of most male icons, Gen Z Twitter does not, labelling Styles a”…Queerbaiter [nervous gasps].

Harry Styles, for Rolling Stone UK 2022

“What on earth is Queerbaiting?”  you might ask. No it is not the act of luring a member of the LGBTQ community to bait, as if they were a fish. To quote activist and film-maker Leo Hererra, queerbaiting is defined as when “a celebrity or a public figure capitalizes on the suspicion that they may be romantically involved with another same-sex person for the sake of publicity, promotion or a capitalistic gain.”

This issue first came to my attention in 2016, when Nick Jonas was promoting his soon-to-be-released album “Last Year Was Complicated”. During his press run, Jonas frequented gay bars and ambiguously toyed with the question of whether he had been experimenting with his sexuality. Later that year (post album release), he clarified the accusations in conversation with Complex, “as a heterosexual male, [I am] open and comfortable about loving my fan base, gay or straight, because to me there is no difference, it is my fan base. Your sexual preference does not matter to me and it shouldn’t matter to anybody.” Jonas further stated that “the goal is acceptance on all levels”” that should be the focus. I’ve gone to normal clubs, straight clubs, and I’ve gone to gay clubs, to party with my friends and fans. There’s no difference. I have nothing to prove. I’m very comfortable in my own skin and I’m thankful to have as many close gay friends as I have, people who have been so supportive in my life, and have always been there for me.” While Jonas’ loud and proud support of the LGBTQ+ community is important, many eye-rolled these comments away as too little, too late.

Clearer examples come from female artists, amongst whom fluidity has always been more celebrated (sexualised). A successful example of such is Katy Perry’s 2008 breakthrough hit “I Kissed A Girl”; a song about drunkenly experimenting with women even though you have a boyfriend. The song topped the charts in 16 countries, sold over 4 million digital copies worldwide and is certified multi-platinum in the US, UK, Australia, Canada and Denmark – all despite Perry being a self-admittedly heterosexual woman. While we cannot categorically say that Perry has never ‘kissed a girl’, we can be certain that, she was able to capitalise on the implication that she could potentially be bisexual. However, the seams of the music industry are bursting with less obvious yet equally questionable examples. From Rita Ora, to Victoria Monet, Ariana Grande and even Billie Eilish, many have tiptoed the delicate line of queerbaiting.

Katy Perry, 2008

But this issue has darker undertones than imaginary encounters with the same sex. When the openly queer actions of ‘out’ members of the community are less palatable to the public than the ambiguous mascerades of straight people, we have to draw serious issue. Madonna’s famous kiss with both Britney AND Christina Agulera on stage at the VMAs in 2003, only further cemented her as the century’s favourite controversial POP icon. Yet, when Lil Nas X echoed this controversy by doing the same with a male backing dancer at the BET Awards last year, he was met with a slew of backlash and was not invited the following year. Madonna herself took to instagram to post a collage of the two moments together captioned ‘#diditfirst’, before the fashion watchdog and social activism account Diet Prada and their tribe of socially aware followers dealt with her swiftly and accordingly.

Britney Spears, Madonna and Christina Agulera at the VMA’s, 2003

But is Harry Styles as guilty as the above? A brief look at his style evolution and examination of his comments on the matter tells me not.

First of all, Styles does not pick his fashion choices out of nowhere. Styles is, in my opinion, one of the smartest style reference-ers of our time. By carefully cherry picking the most iconic ‘rock stars’ of previous eras from whom to mimic, Styles is able to subtly align himself with them. And in doing so, aligns not only his music with them but his legacy as well.

When pressed by Vogue to name his key fashion inspirations, during a cover story interview in 2020, Style’s listed Prince, David Bowie, Elvis, Freddie Mercury and Elton John ”” “they’re such showmen, as a kid it was completely mind-blowing.” More recently, Style’s has set his sights on the chic and sexy style of Shania Twain, labelling both her music and fashion sense as simply “amazing”, before bringing her out to perform with him in coordinating sequined Gucci ensembles at Coachella earlier this year. While a handful of those listed above are actually queer, drawing such blatant lines to sexuality here feels tasteless and outdated.

Prince // Harry Styles
Rod Stewart // Harry Styles
Mick Jagger // Harry Styles
Elvis // Harry Styles
Elton John // Harry Styles

Is Styles to blame if his inspirations come from eras where to be an effeminately presenting man was simply fashionable, regardless of sexuality? Furthermore, is it not problematic if for a man to be inspired by a female fashion icon, it makes him automatically less masculine? Yet as women, we are able to wear men’s clothing on a daily basis without any impeachment on our femininity and without it even being any kind of fashion statement at all.

Since the 1960s, countless male artists have been photographed in femanine or flamboyant clothing and accessories – from Kurt Cobain to Young Thug. Are they queerbaiting or do they not count, because the jigsaw of their personal lives that the media has presented to us feeds our unconscious prejudice with far more certainty of straightness?

Kurt Cobain for The Face Magazine, 1993
Yung Thug ‘My Name Is Jeffrey’, 2016

While it is true that Styles has never stepped forward and outed himself as a queer man, or outwardly claimed the community from which critics say his fashion aligns, he also hasn’t not. Speaking with Homes and Garden Magazine in April, Styles branded the need to define his sexulaity “outdated”, adding that “it doesn’t matter, it’s about not having to label everything, not having to clarify what boxes you’re checking.”

When faced with the comment that he has only ever publicly been with women, Styles responds “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”. Considering Styles has been in the public eye since the age of 16, an age where many of us are still figuring this stuff out, you can’t help but imagine how these pressures could impact a young man’s journey should they be facing curiosity.

Do celebrities owe it to the public for their sexuality to be publicly categorised, simply because they are in the public eye? If you ticked yes, are you imagining it joining the pronouns sections of our social media accounts, or are we entitled to the vulnerability of a Tom Daley style YouTube confessional every time?

I would like us all to consider that for many, sexuality is both a spectrum and a journey, that many spend the best part of their lives discovering. For those who are openly queer, a pandoras box of hardships often accompanies the fact. From lack of acceptance from family to general homophobia within society, it is simply not the same as being straight and being presumed as such since birth. Therefore, to pressure a person to label themselves, when they are actively resisting, is a slippery slope that I vote not to play near.

I feel of this, the way I feel about many of these modern waves of cancellation activism: grounded in point, but diluted in execution. Queerbaiting is a real problem, but Harry Styles fashion sense isn’t it.

Words by Gracie Shepherdson

Posted On 4 October, 2022