Why accusing Harry Styles and Cardi B of queerbaiting is regressive

In November, following weeks of comments on social media targeting Kit Connor over his playing a queer character in Netflix’s LGBTQ+ coming-of-age drama Heartstopper, the actor tweeted a short, exasperated response: “I’m bi,” he wrote. “Congrats for forcing an 18-year-old to out himself. I think some of you missed the point of the show.”

Connor’s statement sparked another reckoning over the idea of queerbaiting, a term that has been in use since the early 2000s. Changing social media and celebrity culture has fueled a renewed interest in the concept, which originated as a criticism of books and films that hinted at a character’s queerness without explicitly confirming it. But it’s since expanded to encompass a broader critique of people who appropriate queer culture without publicly identifying as LGBTQ+.

Over the past few years, a number of celebrities have been deemed queerbaiters for supposed misdeeds ranging from dressing in feminine clothing to posing with same-sex stars in photos. Harry Styles was targeted for wearing a dress on the cover of Vogue, Bad Bunny for painting his nails and wearing makeup; Billie Eilish was faced with queerbaiting allegations for captioning a photo of women on Instagram with “I love girls”.

Queerbaiting once put a name to very real fears of exploitation: a reaction to media that exploited queerness to titillate while failing to deliver on the promise of representation. TV shows such as Supernatural and Sherlock spent many seasons playing up queer subtext between leads without openly acknowledging LGBTQ+ relationships.

young men behind a table
Kit Connor and Joe Locke in Heartstopper. Photograph: Album/Alamy

But today it can often spiral into a regressive means of policing identity – one that bases itself on the false premise that being queer in the public eye is somehow wholly beneficial at a time when LGBTQ+ rights are at a dire turning point. Real people’s lives and sexuality are not created in a writers’ room.

In an editorial for the New York Times about the “fine line” Harry Styles walks as a celebrity, the reporter Anna Marks said the singer, “assumed [to be] a straight man”, “appropriates the imagery of a marginalized community”. “The celebrity has deployed queer symbols and fashioned himself an ambiguous icon, without touching the messy, unlikable politics of claiming a public label,” she writes.

Social media posts about Styles and his music are often flooded with related negative responses: “Desperate queer baiter,” one typical tweet says. “I’m voting Harry Styles as queer baiter of the year,” another reads.

But assuming straightness or queerness based on a celebrity’s behavior or clothing rather than any concrete public statements or actions is a slippery slope, said Claire Sisco King, an associate professor of communication studies at Vanderbilt University.

“It’s problematic because it suggests that someone’s sexuality has to be visible, or has to be readily apparent in order to be authentic, as opposed to understanding that it’s something that could be private and changing over time,” she said. “It risks centralizing notions of sexuality to what we can see.”

The evolution of queerbaiting as a means of a legitimate criticism of media to a term lobbed at real human beings has not been “productive”, said Judith Fathallah, a professor of media and culture studies at Lancaster University.

“It reduces the whole complexity of sexuality to a yes/no tick box, which is completely counter to what queerness really is,” she said. “The opposite of straight isn’t queer, the opposite of straight is gay. Queer can be a whole range of things that evade categorization – that’s sort of the point.”

Take the case of Styles, who is perhaps the celebrity most relentlessly accused of queerbaiting. The former One Direction singer has repeatedly declined to comment on his private life and spoke out against the allegations in an interview earlier this year, stating that he does not seek to portray himself as queer or straight but rather prefers to keep his dating life private.

“Sometimes people say, ‘You’ve only publicly been with women,’ and I don’t think I’ve publicly been with anyone,” he said. “If someone takes a picture of you with someone, it doesn’t mean you’re choosing to have a public relationship or something.”

The critiques of Styles seem to center on his self-expression and fashion, as if wearing a glittery jumpsuit is a message about a celebrity’s sexuality and deserves interrogation. Gender non-conforming style has a rich history and has not always been associated with queerness – from the men’s jumpsuits and scarves of the 70s to the high-camp style of glam metal. To suggest that queerness is inherent to femininity, or that androgynous dress betrays truths about the wearer’s sexual orientation, feels outdated.

It’s not just about eyeliner, though. Some celebrities accused of queerbaiting have already publicly identified as queer, suggesting accusers have delineated an unspoken code of right and wrong ways to express queerness. Targets include Lady Gaga and Cardi B, who have publicly identified as bisexual.

Cardi, after being accused of queerbaiting based on a sensual music video made with the singer Normani, responded on Twitter: “I don’t like this new ‘queer baiting’ word. I’m married to a man but I have [expressed] soo much about my bisexuality and my experiences [with] girls.” When accused again recently, Cardi B was more direct: “I ate bitches out before you was born …..Sorry I don’t have razr phone pics to prove it to you.”

Many celebrities are initially accused of queerbaiting only to later come out publicly, including Janelle Monáe. Such mentalities have also forced celebrities to out themselves before they are ready to, as in the case of Connor and others, including the Stranger Things actor Shannon Purser. Outing queer people against their will or pressuring them to publicly declare their dating preferences is a step back for the community, not forward.

In some cases, fandoms assume queerness when there is none to be found and then get mad when their assumptions don’t pan out.

Such fan detective work and dedication to queer narratives that may or may not exist comes as part of an evolution of celebrity culture in which dedicated fanbases demand more access to increasingly intimate details, said Brittany Spanos, a reporter at Rolling Stone who co-hosts the internet news podcast Don’t Let this Flop.

“Social media has created a false sense of intimacy and a heightened parasocial relationship where people think because someone is a public figure we deserve to know every bit of their lives,” she said. “We are at a real crossroads with fan culture, where people are constantly over-analyzing and over-policing celebrities’ behavior online.”

Such is the case with Taylor Swift, who, despite explicitly stating in 2019 she was “not a part of” the LGBTQ+ community, has been targeted with allegations of queerbaiting for years. Reddit’s r/Gaylor, a community where fans discuss her sexuality, has more than 20,000 members and others are dedicated to “Kaylor” theories, based on a fan-created narrative that Taylor Swift and Karlie Kloss secretly dated. In 2019, the fandom theorized Swift was going to come out publicly after promotional material used pink and purple – colors present in the bisexual flag. Her recent album prompted more queerbaiting allegations for simply using the word “lavender” in a song title, as the color has previously been associated with the lesbian community.

Related: Whether it’s Kit Connor or Harry Styles, forcing a celebrity to come out is not progress | Patrick Lenton

To be clear, there is an ongoing and valid debate about the merits of straight allyship. Whether Swift’s rainbow-saturated video for You Need to Calm Down actually made strides for the LGBTQ+ community or used queerness as a costume is up for debate – but calling her own sexual orientation into question despite her repeated statements otherwise is a dangerous path for fandoms to pursue.

Ironically, the policing of queer identity through queerbaiting allegations has grown in part because of increasing acceptance of queer people. Many young people accusing celebrities of queerbaiting have grown up in a world where gay marriage is legalized and countless celebrities now publicly identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community, decades after watershed moments like Ellen DeGeneres coming out.

But the reality is, many people – celebrities and the rest of us – do not feel safe being queer in the public eye, with good reason. The queerbaiting debate continues in a climate in which three-quarters of Republican senators voted against codifying gay marriage into law, Nazis are publicly intimidating drag queens at children’s events, and anti-LGBTQ+ hate speech online is on the rise. Last year was the deadliest on record for transgender people in the US and just one month ago the deadly shooting at a gay night club in Colorado showed us that even safe spaces are not always safe.

Ultimately, we aren’t owed a view into anyone’s bedroom, not even artists who make our favorite films and music. At its core, queerbaiting is essentialist, regressive in nature, and strips queerness of all of its nuance and magic. The path to coming out is messy, non-linear, and ever-changing – a journey that is flattened by online communities that insist on labeling identities that are always going to be fluid and personal.