Harry Styles, boy-band-member-gone-solo, has been frequently accused of “queer-baiting,” of being a straight man trying to pander to LGBTQIA+ audiences with flimsy gestures. I can understand the basis for this argument. Styles, who was often portrayed as the leading man of One Direction before their split in 2016, was constantly immersed in the media’s hypersexual, heteronormative narratives about five boys in a squeaky-clean, heartthrob band surrounded by females.
The issue with this? Harry has never labeled himself. He doesn’t feel the need to attach a sexuality to his name at this point in time. No one can say exactly how he identifies.
What many are quick to forget is that Styles’ actions and freedom of expression were extremely limited during his time with One Direction. In the corporate clutches of Simon Cowell, he was part of a carefully-crafted machine designed to put out music that didn’t necessarily talk about hard-hitting subjects but appealed to the average pop music listener. His image mattered. The way Styles could be marketed mattered. In a band that made its money off of its sex appeal to female listeners, being upfront and open about his own sexuality would have been severely frowned upon. If he is truly a queer man, writing songs about this under One Direction’s name wouldn’t have been ideal for management.
However, since going solo, Styles has been more overt in his support of the queer community and his expression of his own sexuality. He has become known for waving pride flags at his shows. He values his ability to create a space of inclusivity, if only for a few hours. At a solo show in Nashville, he even brought a pride flag out on stage that had been confiscated by venue security. He created rainbow-colored limited-edition shirts for Pride Month with the profits going to GLSEN, an organization that supports LGBTQIA+ students. He’s helped fans come out, including Grace, a fan whose story went viral after Harry announced her bisexuality to her mother, Tina.
Harry made his biggest waves after the live debut of his unreleased song, “Medicine.” Performed live during a show in Switzerland, the song explicitly describes a same-sex encounter. The song was labeled by many fans as a “bisexual anthem,” with Styles suddenly being thrust into the role of a queer icon for a new generation. Further addressing the topic of sexuality with the first single from his 2019 sophomore album, Fine Line, Styles’ music video for “Lights Up” features him dancing with barely-clothed men and women. Many took to Twitter to discuss the correlation between the imagery, the lyrics (with lines like “I’m not ever going back” and “Lights up and they know who you are”), and the fact that the single was released on National Coming Out Day. For fans, if “Medicine” wasn’t convincing enough, then “Lights Up” was definitely Styles’ confirmation of his own bisexuality. Still, Styles did not give the media a direct answer when it came to how he identified.
Not everyone was impressed with Styles’ revelations in his music. With no public record of being in a same-sex relationship, how could Styles possibly be a potentially-queer man? For many, there was no proof, no context for his actions being anything other than a mockery or fetishization of someone’s actual lived experiences. To skeptics, “Medicine” and “Lights Up” seemed like avenues for Harry to play up his sexual fluidity without actually committing to a sexuality or openly saying the words, “I’m queer.”
This is where things become problematic. The majority of Styles’ criticism comes from, of all places, the LGBTQIA+ community that he may be a part of. The queer community’s interrogation of Styles is just a microcosm of a larger issue: one where people feel the need to police each other to determine who is “queer enough” to be considered a member of the community. It is incredibly dangerous to equate being a “real” queer person with an official coming-out statement or “proof.” Harry Styles owes the world nothing. Folks who are still questioning owe the world nothing.
What queer people are really trying to say when they question Styles’ authenticity is: If you’re really one of us, will you stand up for us when it matters? Or will you be absolved of any responsibility because of your fame? Will you be engaged in our fight? Will you suffer alongside us? However, there are less dangerous ways to question his commitment to activism than doubting his sexuality.
Essentially forcing Styles to make a decision on his own sexuality is an extreme form of disrespect. Questioning his validity is detrimental. It tells questioning folks that they need to hurry up and commit to a sexuality in order to avoid being called out as “fake.” Sexuality is a private matter, and at 25 years old, may be something Styles is still coming to terms with. It doesn’t mean that he’s intentionally being elusive or baiting his fans. When and if he chooses to make his sexuality public in an official statement is his business and his business only.
Styles himself is known to be a private person. He’s notoriously tight-lipped about the relationships he’s been in. In this post-One Direction world, he’s kept a pretty low profile. Can you blame him? He had a meteoric rise to fame on the X Factor in 2010. Much of his adolescence—namely, his right to learn and grow without public scrutiny—was lost forever. Understandably, he’d want to try to protect the slivers of privacy he still has left. One’s sexuality is such a personal and close-to-the-heart matter; celebrities don’t need to divulge every aspect of their identities simply because they’re in the limelight and they’ve “asked for it.” Harry Styles asked to be famous, not to be analyzed within an inch of his life. He’s entitled to have secrets just like anyone else, especially surrounding his sexuality. It seems to me that Styles is just trying to establish a new status quo where one’s sexuality doesn’t need to be public knowledge, where you don’t have to come out if you choose not to. He’s advocating for one’s right to be seen as a person first and a sexuality second.
There’s a crucial line in “Lights Up” that goes, “It’d be so sweet if things just stayed the same.” Interpreted within the context of the song, it seems like Styles is blissfully hoping for a world and fanbase that remains calm and composed as he continues to come to terms with who he is. More than anything, the lyric seems like a plea to the media and the skeptics to leave him alone. Harry Styles doesn’t want to make his sexuality a talking point. Instead of shaming someone who’s still figuring out who he is, let’s leave him alone rather than throw out unfounded accusations.