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Harry Styles Walks a Fine Line

Harry Styles, this summer’s pop prince, has earned his crown by capturing the fantasies of millions and taking what seems like a groundbreaking approach to the presentation of gender fluidity and sexual identity.While growing his kingdom and conquering pop culture, Mr. Styles has — with his last two album releases — also been accused of queerbaiting: In this case, using queerness to burnish his celebrity without explicitly claiming to be queer.

Discussion of anyone’s identity, even a celebrity’s, is inherently fraught. But in a culture obsessed with identity politics and still constrained by homophobia, it’s inevitable that we look at our icons and wonder who they really are, especially when their style and mystique seem to invite us to ask questions.

Mr. Styles’s performance (and exorbitant ticket prices) makes his identity our business. He skips onstage with what has become the most corporate-friendly symbol of resistance, a rainbow flag. He deals in less obvious symbols of his possible queerness, too: sizable flowers pinned to a lapel (as Oscar Wilde was known to wear), a scrap of blue fabric dangling suggestively from a back pocket (like the Village cruisers), the words “Never Gonna Dance Again” tattooed across his feet (the croon of the once closeted, later proudly out George Michael).

But when he speaks, Mr. Styles tells us a different story. He has consistently declined to claim queer identity or label himself when questioned by the press. This year, in a glossy profile in Better Homes & Gardens, ​​he said of sexual orientation: “I’ve been really open with it with my friends, but that’s my personal experience; it’s mine.”

His desire to live away from prying eyes isn’t surprising. Tabloids and fans have spun stories with varying degrees of credibility about Mr. Styles’s romantic life since he was a teenager, linking him to myriad women (and the occasional man). In a recent profile, Mr.Styles called assumptions about his dating life — and therefore any smoke signals about his sexual orientation they might send — bunk, stating, “I don’t think I’ve publicly been with anyone.”

It’s difficult, then, to reconcile two of Mr. Styles’s seemingly incompatible public identities, both heartbreaking to many queer fans like me. One, Mr. Styles, assumed a straight man, appropriates the imagery of a marginalized community. Another, Mr. Styles, closeted, performs queerness, presumably in the hope that his community might hold out the palms of their hands and welcome him.

In private, Mr. Styles could, of course, claim any — or many — of a spectrum of gender identities and sexual orientations. But the issue at hand is that Mr. Styles asks us to revel in his performance without giving us the key with which to unlock that performance’s true meaning. It’s worth asking why his door is locked.

If Mr. Styles contends with a closet, it was built by a homophobic culture, not any action of his own. Accusing him of queerbaiting his fans works like a kind of trap; he can only really deny the accusations by coming out and identifying himself in a way that would not be wholeheartedly accepted by the public.

So consider this for a moment. Is it really so inconceivable that one of the most famous people in the world could be trapped in the same closet as you or me?

As a queer person, it’s impossible for me to look at Mr. Styles’s use of our symbols with such dexterity, consistency and precision and not see those symbols for what they surely must be — evidence that he is one of us. Perhaps I lack the cynicism to believe that anyone could dare to earn so many, many millions by brazenly appropriating queer culture. Or perhaps I lack the imagination to divine some other meaning — allyship, possibly — from his performance. But even if Mr. Styles’s queerness ends up being just a mirage, I can’t help but believe that it’s better to have been a welcoming fool and wrong than to have been a cruel gatekeeper and right.

Mr. Styles walks a fine line. He can signal to those in the know while safely constructing the myth of Harry Styles the celebrity, a bankable, untouchable cipher that’s designed to appeal to as many fans — and wallets — as possible. The celebrity is a study in contradictions: sexy but nonthreatening, amiable but unknowable, straight but readable as queer. He offers a pretty screen onto which a generation or two can project their sexual, romantic or ideological fantasies. Such a celebrity could never dare to offend anyone by coming out.

I’m not entirely convinced that the public has a right to know how Mr. Styles describes his identity to his friends. But no matter how (or even if) Mr. Styles identifies, we must not look away from the uncomfortable truth about his public image: The celebrity has deployed queer symbols and fashioned himself an ambiguous icon, without touching the messy, unlikable politics of claiming a public label.

In displaying queer symbols as he does, Mr. Styles may indeed be navigating a culture and its closet as best he can. But he also sends young, questioning fans a message that it’s acceptable, perhaps even advisable, to reject the Harvey Milk mantra that has guided so many in the L.G.B.T.Q. community in our struggle for collective freedom: “Every Gay person must come out.”

In the Better Homes & Gardens profile, Mr. Styles elided the issue in one of his few revealing comments on sexual orientation. “The whole point of where we should be heading,” he said, “which is toward accepting everybody and being more open, is that it doesn’t matter, and it’s about not having to label everything, not having to clarify what boxes you’re checking.”

These soft, fluidity-affirming words muffle the danger of the tantalizing fantasy Mr. Styles presents. Implied by his celebrity is the idea that the greatest fights against anti-queerness are over and that it’s good, or at least good business sense, to play coy to appeal to the masses — even those who would rather see you dead than in love.

This position does not meet the challenge of a noticeable rise in anti-queerness in recent years. In the United States, where Mr. Styles commands the stage, anti-L.G.B.T.Q. bills have become fixtures of many state legislatures. In Eastern Europe, where he toured earlier this summer, L.G.B.T.Q. rights have regressed.And in plenty of other markets around the globe, our existence is denied, if not outright criminalized. In the face of this hatred, Mr. Styles hasn’t chosen overt rebellion. He proposes an easy-to-swallow plea to “treat people with kindness.” It’s a tired platitude tone-deaf to 2022’s brand of bigotry.

If our community seeks true liberation, Mr. Styles’s “don’t ask, don’t tell”queerness must not be something to which we aspire. It should instead be something that we mourn.

Coming out can be an act of political resistance, but it’s also a celebration. We exclaim to the world: “I’m here! I’m queer! You must accept me!” Maybe that isn’t always a palatable, salable message, but if it is offensive to those who hate us, we must shout it.

No matter how he identifies, if Mr. Styles wishes to dance with our symbols, he would do well to pay more attention to their politics, regardless of whether he dreams with us of liberation.

Anna Marks is an editorial assistant in Opinion.

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