This article is taken from the February 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
A weird thing happened on the opinion pages of the New York Times at the beginning of this year: the paper published a 5,000-word essay by a writer called Anna Marks, speculating on Taylor Swift’s sexuality. Was Swift, wondered Marks, deliberately dropping “hairpins” to subtly announce herself as not straight?
Country music (the genre where Swift got her start) is afflicted with “lingering anti-queerness”, wrote Marks: it needed “heroes”, big names ready to take the risk of outing themselves. But, wondered Marks, “What if someone had already tried, at least once, to change the culture by becoming such a hero? What if, because our culture had yet to come to terms with homophobia, it wasn’t ready for her? What if that hero’s name was Taylor Alison Swift?”
Even as the article announced its thesis, you could feel it clawing at plausible deniability in those “what ifs”. It was as though, in her heart, Marks knew that she was dealing in the flimsiest kind of evidence: Swift wears rainbow colours on stage! She once released a song on lesbian visibility day! (I’m not sure that even the most committed lesbian could tell you when that is without checking.)
It’s hard to imagine exactly what response Marks was hoping for: Swift calling it a fair cop and whipping out a dental dam? Probably not the one she got, at any rate. The Swifties (Swift’s hardcore fans, of whom there are millions) turned on Marks with ferocious protectiveness. So did team Swift, with a “source close to the singer” calling the article “invasive, untrue, and inappropriate”.
All the same, this must have been galling for Marks, who was clearly writing as an admirer — the theories she was dealing in all emerge from a subset of Swift fandom that calls itself “Gaylor”, a smushing together of “gay” and “Taylor”. From that perspective, detecting coded disclosures in Swift’s work is an act of love, not intrusion: a sign that you pay closer attention to your idol than anyone else.
Jason Donovan sued The Face magazine in 1992 for alleging that he was gay
But such speculation has a long, and usually hostile, history. Outings were once a tabloid mainstay, and in the eighties stars like George Michael lived pinched double lives to avoid a career-ending revelation.
Famously, Jason Donovan sued The Face magazine in 1992 for alleging that he was gay. The libel, his team successfully argued, consisted in the implication that he was lying about his sexuality — although in a sign of liberalising public morals, the win led to backlash from those who charged him with homophobia.
The tabloids began to catch up to the changing mood. In 1999, a story about Boyzone’s Stephen Gately was shopped around. Rather than leave his fate to a kiss and tell, he arranged an interview with the Sun (headline: “I’m gay and I’m in love”), the paper once the terror of the closeted.
Yet the subtext of the Gately story was still one of pressure. Gay pop stars spent the noughties in a double-bind. In theory, it was now OK to be gay — so what right did you have to “hide” your sexuality? Outings continued through the noughties, but increasingly they were couched in the language of social justice.
That was the rationale used by gossip blogger Perez Hilton, whose outings included Lance Bass of the boyband NSYNC. “Visibility is key,” said Hilton (gay himself). “The more straight people see that there are gay folks out there, the easier it is for us to achieve change, the easier it will be for us to get marriage equality, the harder it is for people to hate.”
This high-minded argument sat oddly with Hilton’s content, which included nicknaming Bass “Princess Frostylocks”. The politics were an alibi for the pursuit of clicks, and the NYT’s story is just another stage in the evolution of prurience. Gay stars were once a menace who needed to be identified, then victims of homophobia to be sympathised with, then traitors to their own cause, now saints to be celebrated — if only audiences had the discernment to recognise them as such! Whatever the framing, the sexuality is the story.
One oddness around the attempt to “queer” Swift is that she hasn’t been a country artist for at least a decade: the last hint of twang left her music in 2014, with the album 1989. Since then, she’s been unambiguously mainstream pop, and within mainstream pop, homosexuality no longer seems to be a career impediment.
Look at Reneé Rapp, star of the Mean Girls musical, who asks, “Can a gay girl get an amen?” on the movie’s theme song, “It’s Not My Fault”. Or Chappell Roan, whose girl-for-girl love song “Naked in Manhattan” casually dismisses Biblical morality with the line, “Could go to hell but we’ll probably be fine”. Or rapper Lil Nas X, christened “the gayest nigga who ever lived” by stand-up Dave Chappelle in a recent special.
Outing has lost its sense of ceremony so much that in December, Billie Eilish appeared to casually announce herself as bisexual in an interview — and then be annoyed with journalists who asked her about it. “I didn’t realise people didn’t know,” she said. If fans like Marks want to believe privately in Gaylor, that’s fine. But for journalists, the rule of pop star sexuality is back to being “don’t ask, don’t tell”.
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