At Harry Styles shows, gender-nonconforming teenage fans abound
Katelyn could hardly believe it.
Harry Styles drummer Pauli Lovejoy picked up the non-binary pride flag their friend had thrown on stage and started dancing and waving it as Styles sang. It was October of last year and Styles was performing in Nashville. Katelyn, a non-binary fan who asked to be called by her first name because she has yet to come out to some of her family members, cried out in delight.
“It just made me feel so safe and validated and loved for being who I am,” said Katelyn, 19, who uses the pronouns them/them. “I dated a lot of people after that experience.”
It’s no secret that Styles is a champion of the LGBTQ community, but for a special section of that fanbase — his young, gender-nonconforming followers — Styles’ ability to exist comfortably and extremely publicly in a space fluid along the genre spectrum is particularly resonant. To them, Styles, 28, is an icon and advocate whose journey to self-fulfillment and unabashed ability to wear a Gucci dress or a pearl necklace reflects their own progress in self-love and self-love. discovery.
At his concerts, Styles regularly helps fans hang out with their families by reading the signs they’re holding up in the audience. He then celebrates them by leading the crowd in chants of affirmation, as he did on the opening night of his 15-show stand at the Kia Forum in Inglewood. After asking a fan named Serena if she was sure she wanted to go public, he said, “Congratulations Serena, thanks for being here tonight.”
“He helped me feel that a lot of things about me are okay,” said Alondra “Ash” Sandoval, 20, who uses the pronouns she/they and said she was just beginning to explore her gender identity. Sandoval stood in the Forum parking lot wearing a sleek black suit adorned with shiny silver stars. The room behind her was bathed in rainbow colors.
Sandoval said that when they see Styles making gender-neutral fashion choices, they yearn to do so too, while taking note that Styles is loved by the masses for being exactly who he is.
“They see it, they love it,” Sandoval said of Styles’ fans. “And if they like him, they might like me too.”
In a world overheated by culture wars riddled with ugly beards directed at young people like Katelyn and Sandoval – the “Don’t Say Gay” law in Florida, anti-trans legislation in Texas, the relentless stream of snark directed at no -gender-conforming Teens on Twitter — Styles’ mantra “Please feel free to be whoever you want to be in this room tonight” is a loving call to arms.
Styles has dropped so many references to his feelings about sexuality and his thoughts on gender nonconformity that fans regularly follow them online. In an April 2022 cover story for Better Homes & Gardens, the pop star called it “outdated” that people should expect him to come out publicly about his sexuality.
“I’ve been very open with my friends, but that’s my personal experience; it’s mine,” he told the magazine. “The main thing about the direction we should be taking, which is to accept everyone and be more open, is that it doesn’t matter, and it’s about not having to label everything, so you don’t have to clarify the boxes you tick.”
A few months later, in a Rolling Stone cover story, Styles said, “I think everyone, including myself, has their own journey to understanding sexuality and feeling more comfortable with it. .”
The Styles superstar has solidified at a time when pop music and its fans are increasingly accepting of queer identities and gender nonconformity. In 2019, Taylor Swift, who had rarely taken a political stance, received plaudits — even some criticism regarding the depth of her alliance — for her pro-LGBTQ anthem “You Need to Calm Down.” Pop star Halsey updated her pronouns to “she/they” in 2021, and Demi Lovato announced in 2022 that she identifies as queer and pansexual. Meanwhile, Grammy-nominated rapper Lil Nas X has built on the success of his hit “Old Town Road” by showcasing some of the most openly queer visuals in popular music history. And this month, Sam Smith and Kim Petras became the first non-binary and first transgender person, respectively, to top Billboard’s Hot 100 with their duo “Unholy.”
Louie Dean Valencia, an associate professor of digital history at Texas State University, believes so much that Styles is a touchstone of the early 21st culture of the century that he is teaching a new course, starting in the spring semester of 2023, titled “Harry Styles and the Cult of Celebrity: Identity, the Internet, and European Pop Culture.”
The course, which filled in a hot second and garnered international media attention, uncovers significant socio-political moments in recent history through the progression of boy band idol Styles in One Direction, to from 2010 to the present when the aforementioned Gucci dress – worn by Styles as the first man to feature solo on the cover of Vogue – is featured in an exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum titled ‘Fashioning Masculinities: the Art of Menswear”.
Looking at how society’s dialogue around issues of gender, sexuality and race has changed over the past 12 years through the lens of Styles’ art and activism, Valencia said, it becomes clear that thanks to Styles, “a lot of people have learned empathy, they’ve learned to love others – to treat people with kindness, as Harry would say – but also to love themselves.
Such messages are especially powerful for gender non-conforming people, Valencia said, adding that Styles draws on the gender-fluid legacies of artists like Little Richard, David Bowie and Prince with an intentionality unique to the media-savvy landscape. social of our time. .
Styles’ firm refusal to label his own sexuality is part of that intentionality, Valencia said, noting that “homosexuality as a concept was originally meant to be this rejection of labels — you didn’t have to calling it bisexual, or gay, or lesbian — it was meant to be a unifying concept for people who aren’t heteronormative.
Not all observers agree that it’s okay for Styles to ignore gender norms and ally himself so firmly with the LGBTQ community without identifying as part of it. He has been accused by some disgruntled critics and fans of ‘queerbaiting’ – or co-optation of queer identity – an ongoing controversy that culminates in the release of his latest film, ‘My Policeman’, in which he plays a gay man. locked up in 1950s England.
Many gender-nonconforming fans have been Styles’ staunchest defenders. Grace Daniels, 19, who attends New York University and uses the they/them pronouns, said Styles doesn’t need to say anything publicly.
“Gender exists on a spectrum, sexuality exists on a spectrum,” Daniels said. “And who can say that you even have to have a label? This is something he insisted on a lot.
Another fan, Suba, 19, who is from the South and uses the pronouns she/they (who asked to be identified by their first name since they have not yet come out to certain family members), recently wrote an 11-page article on the subject for their writing seminar.
In the article, they claim that accusing Styles of “queerbaiting” is essentially “telling any young child who is reluctant to do something, like dress a certain way, that they are not allowed to try different expressions without having to mark yourself one way or another.
In addition to identifying with Styles’ rejection of labels and his near-utopian embrace of freedom and fluidity, young gender-nonconforming fans of Styles relate to him because they’ve seen him grow up, sometimes tentatively exploring the spectrum of genres – while doing the same themselves.
Styles was 16 when he rose to fame on One Direction, and many of his most ardent fans were in elementary school at the time – nursing secrecy, deeply personal feelings that they didn’t fit neat boxes that society is so adept at drawing.
“It really felt like we were on a journey together,” said Renee Hernandez, 22, who uses they/them pronouns and now teaches high school English in LA. “I see myself in him so much, in the way which he expresses himself.”
Hernandez said the song “Lights Up,” which came out in 2019, just when they were starting to realize they weren’t binary, changed their lives.
“I feel like it was just what I needed at this point in my life,” they said of the moving tune with the lyrics, “They light up and they know who you are / know who you are / do you know who you are / shine / step into the light.
Based in San Antonio transgender fan, Derek D., 19, agrees. When Derek (who asked to be referred to only by his first name and initial, for the sake of confidentiality), was about 11 years old and Styles was still in One Direction, Derek said he remembers a fan having complimented Styles on her black nail. Polish and Styles acting a bit shy and embarrassed about it.
“Times were a little different back then. And I remember resonating with that a lot, just that aspect of doing something outside of what’s generally acceptable for your gender,” and then feeling a little sheepish in public,” Derek said. Derek now calls it “the nail polish story,” and says it’s an anecdote he uses a lot when discussing the steps on the path to discovering his identity.
“It’s almost like he’s walking past me,” Derek said of Styles. “And he opens a path saying, ‘That’s OK. I promise you it’s OK to be yourself.