Harry Styles: Iconic or Queerfishing?

Writer: Li

Editor: Noor

Visuals: Kahyun

Queerbaiting: when queerness is used by non-queer people as a way to gain attention, and often, money. 

While this term was only recently recognized in the official Oxford English Dictionary in March 2021, it has been relevant for decades. According to Julia Himberg, a professor of Film and Media Studies at ASU (Arizona State University), it has been used since the early days of the internet when LGBTQIA+ representation was much less prevalent in media, or anywhere for that matter. But, Himberg explained, “What has been interesting to trace is that the term queerbaiting gained more traction as LGBTQIA+ representation has increased.” This is likely attributed to the styles of queer people being adopted and popularized by celebrities, leading to them being faced with allegations of queerbaiting, as much of the queer community likely feels robbed of their individuality. However, these accusations can sometimes be quite harmful. Jesus G. Smith, an ethnic studies professor at Lawrence University, told Rolling Stone: “There are pros and cons to having these sorts of discussions online. On the one hand, writing helps people better articulate specific points than speaking, but on the other… These spaces can be really harmful to have these discussions; it depends on how people utilize and manipulate technology.”

On that note, English singer-songwriter Harry Styles’s apathetic response to Rolling Stone’s reporter Brittany Spanos, concerning accusations of queerbaiting, has resulted in much online debate. During the interview, Spanos posed a question surrounding the possibility that Styles is queerbaiting, and he didn’t seem surprised. He responded with, “Some people say, ‘you’ve only publicly been with women,’ and 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.” This vague statement made people feel as though he may be avoiding the question, which could mean the accusations hold some truth; and his refusal to clarify is problematic for the members of the LGBTQIA+ community who support him. But on the other hand, many people are saying that he shouldn’t be forced to identify his sexuality publicly, or label himself.

“I’m conflicted because he really doesn’t owe anyone a ‘coming out’, but if he’s not actually queer, this is very weird behaviour.” – @TheTitanBaddie

“There’s a difference between being an unlabelled queer and being a man who won’t call himself straight because he’d rather his queer fans keep babying him in the face of accusations of him being queerphobic/transphobic.” –  @_laleena

“Are we going to talk about how he’s profited off of gay aesthetics and queerness and people just let him get away with it because “maybe” he’s queer?” – @midwestbimbo

Another Twitter user -during a similar discussion, but surrounding a different celebrity- uploaded a tweet that well describes the current status of the term ‘queerbaiting.’ They wrote, “The conversation around queerbaiting has reached a confusing place — on the one hand, we say don’t worry about labels, and on the other hand, if an artist presents even remotely ‘queer’ we interrogate them about their sexuality?” Regardless, the conversation around Harry Styles is an important one to have, and sheds light on a bigger issue that needs to be addressed. Is society more comfortable seeing a white man (who is likely straight) assimilating queer aesthetics, then seeing queer people truly expressing themselves? 

Billy Porter, a longstanding icon of gender-fluid fashion choices and an Emmy award winning star of Netflix series “Pose,” made this exact argument in an interview with The Sunday Times. Confronting the disparity between opportunities for him as a Black, gay man and those given to Styles, he stated “I created the conversation (about non-binary fashion) and yet Vogue still put Harry Styles, a [likely] straight white man, in a dress on their cover for the first time.”

Billy Porter in full glam at the 2020 Grammy's.

Credit: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Porter, since his performance of MC Pray Tell in “Pose,” has become a regular appearance on the red carpet, wearing outfits that push the boundaries of gender and style; but proper credit remains due. Porter “changed the whole game” when it came to gender bending clothing -men wearing skirts and dresses-. “I was the first one doing it and now everybody is doing it. I’m not dragging Harry Styles, but… He doesn’t care, he’s just doing it because it’s the thing to do…I had to fight my entire life to get to the place where I could wear a dress to the Oscars. All Styles has to do is be white and straight.” 

But, the English pop star’s possible queerbaiting is simply one part of a larger problem: the remaining inequalities that queer people face every day. This is perfectly illustrated in an Instagram post by Leo Herrera (a Mexican queer activist and filmmaker), titled “Scraps,” which addresses everything from the lack of healthcare for those in the LGBTQIA+ community, to how the whole world goes wild for straight white men in dresses while queer representation continues to be severely lacking. He wrote,“Tired of decades-old scraps repackaged as ‘visibility.’ Scraps are for famines. We are not starving. Queers have feasts in our history and banquets in our closets. Keep your fucking scraps.”

While no one should be forced to come out as queer, if a celebrity is not, than they have an obligation *’Responsibility’ might work better here? I’m not sure* to clarify that, or else they will just continue taking away visibility from people who truly need it: people who are queer. That is not to say that those who are straight can’t break the barriers between gender- they absolutely can. But doing so to stay in the spotlight while people in the LGBTQIA+ community are forced back into the shadows, is a problem. 

Works Cited

CNN, Leah Dolan. “Billy Porter Criticizes Harry Styles’ Historic Vogue Cover: “All He Has to Do Is Be White and Straight.”” CNN, edition.cnn.com/style/article/billy-porter-harry-styles/index.html.

“Harry Styles Is Getting Backlash after He Dodged “Queerbaiting” Questions in an Interview.” Junkee, 23 Aug. 2022, junkee.com/harry-styles-rolling-stone-backlash/339368. Accessed 19 Nov. 2022.

II, Moises Mendez, and Moises Mendez II. “Why Queerbaiting Matters More than Ever.” Rolling Stone, 23 July 2021, http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/queerbaiting-lgbtq-community-1201273/.