Why Are So Many Queer Women Obsessed With Harry Styles?
The pop star's sexual ambiguity and androgynous style have gained him a cult following from queer women — some of whom even discovered their own queerness thanks to him.
Three days after the release of his self-titled debut album, and six days after he wore a now-iconic pink suit during a Today show performance, lesbian pop-rock twin bandmates Tegan and Sara tweeted a confession about Harry Styles from their account: “I have a very real crush on @Harry_Styles. Loving the new album and the high waisted wide leg pants.” Check the replies to this admission from mid-May to find a smattering of solidarity from Tegan and Sara fans: “Same.” “Same.” “Same.” “You’re not alone.” “Lesbians for Harry Styles Unite (LHSU).”
The entire internet had a crush, really. And while Tegan and Sara may be the most famous queer women to make their love for Harry (and his style) public, they’re just the tip of the iceberg that is the gay-lady Styles hive. The Great British Bake Off’s Ruby Tandoh wrote a recipe for “Harry Styles’ Dutch Baby with Cinnamon Rhubarb.” Former BuzzFeed writer Katie Heaney (along with current BuzzFeed Books editor Arianna Rebolini) wrote a whole damn book inspired by their love of Harry. My girlfriend has a One Direction wall calendar, and wholeheartedly plans to re-up for 2018. As a queer woman with lukewarm feelings toward the singer, I kept finding myself thinking, What the fuck is up with queer girls and Harry Styles?
Queer women have always rallied around their likeness in pop culture: Ellen DeGeneres, Joan Jett, and pretty much the entire US women’s national soccer team all sit squarely in the elite category of lesbian celebrity icons. It’s not terribly common for queer women to rally around a cis man in the same way. Sure, people love to joke that Justin Bieber and Cole Sprouse look like lesbians, and queer women have harvested fashion inspiration from James Dean and Marlon Brando for decades. But it’s much less common for a cis man to be the subject of a full-blown lesbian pop-culture obsession.
Once he went solo, folks who hadn’t paid attention to 1D started eating up what his fans had obsessed over for years: Harry's sexual ambiguity, androgynous style, boy band appeal, and relatively progressive social awareness. It’s what many women I spoke with characterized as Harry’s “magic.”
I found that Harry Styles means something slightly different to each of his fans. He possesses an ability to be whoever you want him to be. When the lines are blurred between stage persona and social media persona and real persona, when it’s unclear what’s fact and what’s fiction, when his sexuality is an open question, a character is born. Fans can project their own desires onto Harry, in the quiet of their imagination or in their own fanfiction or in group iMessage threads with fellow fans. That’s the magic of Harry.
And that’s the Harry that queer women get so obsessed with. That’s the Harry who has even inspired some women, in becoming infatuated with him, to recognize their own queerness.
Men herald Cher and Whitney and Gaga as their gay pop idols. Have queer women chosen Harry Styles?
One Direction came to fame in 2011 and 2012 by offering a near-24/7 window into their lives, thanks to social media. Twitter and Tumblr livestreams gave fans access to whatever the five cute teens were up to at almost any given time. Fans had an insurmountable pile of content to consume: photos and videos of the boys just pallin’ around backstage on tour, or performing for packed arenas, or pondering their endearingly silly teenage thoughts aloud. No boy band before One Direction roared to fame in such an all-consuming and intimate way, as the technology wasn’t there yet. That near-constant barrage of content gave their OG fans (mainly teenage girls and young women) a feeling of truly knowing the boys. And with that, a sense of ownership over their rise to fame — a sense of ownership of the boys themselves.
Fans immediately fell for the youngest of the group, Harry Styles. Raised in a tiny village equidistant from Liverpool and Manchester, he wields a relentlessly British charisma. Even from the get-go, Harry publicly radiated charm. His boyishness, his ease on camera, his frog prince face — it’s almost unfair how easy it was to love this kid. He exuded, as many celebrities and so few 16-year-olds do, a complete ease in his own skin. According to fans, he seemed to genuinely not give a fuck what people thought about him.
Harry’s either a very reserved person or is incredibly well media-trained — likely some combination of the two. He rarely shares personal details in interviews, which, as several women I spoke with concluded, makes him very easy to project an imagined personality onto. Compound that mystique with his enigmatic androgyny and surreal level of fame, and Harry is a perfect blank slate.
And thus, a fandom was born. And with every good fandom comes fanfic. And lots of that fanfic is gay. Very, very gay.
Slash fanfic is far from unique to One Direction, but 1D fans took up slash fic in a major way. The main coupling shipped in fic was Harry Styles and bandmate Louis Tomlinson, coined “Larry Stylinson.” Fans went so far as to speculate a real-life romance between the two lads. Though, it didn’t stop with Larry. From stories of Harry and bandmate Niall Horan hooking up on tour to a sentimental imagined romance between Harry and British radio personality Nick Grimshaw, there is a near-infinite trove of gay fanfic involving Harry Styles. In One Direction’s heyday, especially from 2013 through 2015, Tumblr was ablaze with stories of trysts between the boys. This, of course, says more about the fans themselves than of Harry’s own real-life sexuality.
The One Direction fandom really latched onto the Larry slash fic. Julia, a 32-year-old Harry devotee, told me she would read Harry fic “half turned-on, half, like, academically.” This phenomenon, too — of women being into gay male porn — is a well-established one. (Remember that scene in The Kids Are All Right where two wives watch porn, and how people lost their damn minds they were so confused?) Taking heterosexuality out of the equation in porn complicates gender power dynamics in a way that really works for lots of women. So, it makes sense that that phenomenon would translate to 1D fic. Those cute British boys were like queer-girl sex bait.
Let’s make one thing clear: Harry Styles looks like a hot lesbian. With a wiry frame, effeminate features, a shaggy mop, and an enviable wardrobe of floral prints and eye-popping suiting, he’s an absolute Shane. If you’ve never noticed this, perhaps you should hang out with more lesbians.
His fashion sense — that is, fashion not designed to flatter only men — is central to most queer women’s admiration for the pop star. I mean, come on: Those suits! Harry’s bottomless cache of dazzling two-piece suits and patterned blouses has made him a bit of a lesbian fashion icon. “I don’t wear suits often, or hardly ever — but I always want his suits,” says Katie, noting his penchant for sporting outfits that would look great on men and women alike. My girlfriend, Fran, asserts her “personal fandom is rooted in all of his outfits.” (Good answer.) I’m not sure if queer women are suddenly running out and buying Styles-esque suits, but they’re certainly fun to drool over.
Harry came to adopt his now-notorious personal style throughout 2015. It was at this time, too, that he grew his hair down past his shoulders, which amplified his androgynous looks. This androgyny piqued his queer fans’ affection. Even Sara Quin admitted to GQ that she grew her own hair out to look like Harry’s. For many women, long-haired, end-of-One-Direction Harry was a glory age of sorts. “There was a specific moment from late 2014 through early 2016 where he had this long hair and was wearing all YSL, where he was for me, in some magical witch way,” says Julia. He wasn’t a little boy holding hands with Taylor Swift anymore — his presentation had matured into something much more interesting. Something a little queerer.
Of course, Justin Bieber was the original “looks like a lesbian” pop star of the social media era. If you’ve never noticed (again, see my above note about hanging out with more lesbians), mid-puberty Justin Bieber looked a lot like an androgynous-leaning woman. Internet lesbians embraced this comparison, and in 2010 the blog of viral fame Lesbians Who Look Like Justin Bieber was born. Women would submit photos (mostly selfies) where their looks were particularly reminiscent of the then-teenage Biebs. (The Tumblr’s most recent post is from April 2017, so it’s not officially dead, just past its heyday.) The account posted masses of photos between 2009 and 2012; it was a truly excellent meme.
But IRL, Justin Bieber appears to be — what’s the phrase? — oh, aggressively heterosexual. He very publicly dated Selena Gomez, joined a church that “does not affirm a gay lifestyle,” and has a habit of sliding into random women’s DMs like a true 23-year-old dumbass. Honestly, Bieber’s severe straightness is the perfect punchline after years of Lesbians Who Look Like Justin Bieber. While he may sport effeminate features (even post-puberty), the star doesn’t represent any sort of queerness in the pop sphere.
Harry Styles, on the other hand, prefers to publicly retain a level of sexual mystique not dissimilar to Bowie and Prince. In the six years that Styles has been in the public eye, his own sexuality has remained an enigma. Even though fans have long speculated about a romance between Harry and Louis Tomlinson, Louis has outright denied any romance between the two — but Harry never has. On the whole, he prefers to keep his own sexuality undefined.
On a 2014 press junket, the British singer said being female was “not that important” a quality in someone he would date. In an interview with the Sun this past May, Harry declines to label his sexuality, seeming to confirm a fluidity fans had long sensed. Since their 2015 On the Road Again tour, it’s become a bit of a tradition at shows for Harry to parade around stage with pride flags brought by fans.
But, hey, coyness doesn’t equal...well, anything. For all we know, Styles has no interest in men whatsoever. He might reach Justin Bieber level on the Het Dude scale behind closed doors. My cynical side suspects he knows that coming out as straight, now, could very well alienate a large portion of the singer’s fanbase. Instead, he gets the best of both worlds by keeping things vague. Having his rainbow cake and eating it too, as it were.
But it ultimately doesn’t matter whether Harry Styles is gay or straight or one of the many other iterations of human sexuality. What’s important is that he appears to publicly champion non-definition.
Generally speaking, women tend to exist in a state of sexual fluidity more often than men do. A 2015 study from the University of Notre Dame found that women were three times more likely than men to report a shift in their sexual orientation, and more likely than men to identify as bisexual. What’s more, younger generations of LGBT people have been embracing fluidity and rejecting traditional labels of sexuality. A 2016 study found only 48% of Generation Z identified as exclusively heterosexual, compared with 65% of millennials.
So then, perhaps it’s Harry’s refusal to conform to mainstream sexual terminology that makes him so appealing to queer women. For many, seeing a pop star of extreme fame not only embrace a refusal to label, but appear to thrive in that gray area of sexuality, might be a relief. Sure, his private life could very well be less fluid. But publicly rejecting the notion of being “gay” or “straight” or “bisexual” — all of which have clear meanings — could be, for many non-straight women, something to celebrate.
But that, too, is an oversimplification of why queer women go fucking bananas for Harry Styles. After all, plenty of other celebrities keep their sexuality shrouded in mystery, or just choose to remain in the glass closet. So, still, why Harry?
On the topic of sexual fluidity, let’s get another thing out of the way: It’s not that queer women necessarily want to fuck Harry Styles. Sure, women tend not to adhere to gendered boundaries of attraction as rigidly as men do. But the Harry Styles obsession, for most gay women, is not “He’s so hot that I’d go straight for him,” nor is it “He looks like a lesbian, so that turns me on even though he’s a dude.” This love is not anchored in wanting to bone Harry. (Though, yeah, some would love to bone Harry.)
Hug? Yes. Flirting? Definitely. Engage in a drawn-out, rom-com-esque love affair that ends in kissing? Surprisingly, yes. But it’s not about sex in a straightforward sense.
“Addie” (who asked not to be named), a 29-year-old queer writer, would put wanting to sleep with Harry at, “like, number 17 of the reasons why I’m intrigued by him.” For Addie, “it's more of a kindred spirit situation, and I'd rather be him, or be like him, than sleep with him.” This feeling’s pretty common for queer people; think about gay men with Madonna or Beyoncé or Carly Rae Jepsen. Queer kids, before really tussling with their sexualities, often conflate these feelings of admiration with sexual attraction.
Julia has sexual fantasies starring Harry Styles, yes. But she clarifies that if the real-life Harry Styles made a move on her, she’d probably reject the advances. She then goes on to detail, “basically I want to watch him get fucked, then also zip his skin around me in a suit.” So, suffice it to say, these feelings are sexual, sure; but none of the women I spoke to were lusting after the real Harry Styles. Just the fanfic-born idea of Harry.
For some women, like Katie, their crush on Harry Styles is like a middle school crush: pure, nonsexual, anchored in cuteness and kindness. The kind of crush you had before you really understood your own sexuality whatsoever. “I can give myself flies thinking about Harry Styles flirting with me,” says Katie. “But my imagination ends there.” Similarly, Fran describes her ideal, real-life relationship with Harry to be “someone I see at four to six parties per year who I always flirt with, and who reciprocates, but literally nothing [sexual] ever happens.” (Again...good answer.)
And it’s not strictly about the music, either. Some women connect to the music itself, while others love it merely as an extension of Harry’s existence, like the “magical” era of long-haired Harry, mid-to-late 1D — once he was no longer the squeaky teen he was on The X Factor — holds a special place in the hearts of fans. Several fans cited the band’s 2013 album, Midnight Memories, in particular. Solo Harry falls more into the category of mom-like pride in their grown-up boy: “I love it because it’s Harry.” As Julia says, “Does a mother like her child’s macaroni art? Objectively, no. But yes, it’s the best thing she’s ever seen. I listen to [One Direction’s music] because I like to have them in my ears, but not because I like it.”
Fandoms are a funny thing. They can elicit such intense and unexpected joy, and the resulting friendships, more often than not, come to overshadow the thing itself. It’s like sports: It’s nice to have a thing, completely out of your control, that’s fun to talk about and obsess over without any actual, real-life stakes. A bizarre interview prompts an inside joke, a trek to a concert in New Jersey prompts another, and over time real-life, intimate friendships have been stitched. Addie tells me her life as a Harry stan brought her a whole new slate of queer women friends, including Julia. The One Direction community is far from the first one queer women have bonded over online: Everything from Buffy to The Social Network to American Idol has had rabid, fanfic-penning queer fans online. But still, it’s had quite a robust impact on the lives of many queer women.
For some queer women, the particular joy unveiled in the Harry Styles fandom is and was a newfound sense of connection to one’s own body and sexuality. Perhaps the strangest and most notable part of all this is the women who attribute their realization that they’re gay, in some part, to their love for Harry Styles.
Julia remembers the exact moment she realized she was gay, at age 29. It was early 2014, and she’d been consuming as much Harry content as possible over the previous two months — photos, videos, fanfic, the works. One evening, she and a friend were exchanging emails about Harry (you know, normal things), when she was sent an email of about a dozen GIFs of Harry Styles (naturally). Something struck her.
“I remember so clearly looking at those GIFs of Harry and being like, ‘I’m gay,’” she recounts. “I can’t really explain why… Something about this has unleashed a reality within me that’s like, I know myself now.” Julia attributes her sudden connection to herself and her sexuality to her love for this androgynous-leaning, charismatic pop star. It was wrapped up in her realizing she had a crush on a woman, who she now realizes she was conflating with Harry.
A similar thing happened to Katie Heaney. Her love for Harry, which peaked in 2014–15, “was much timed to my sexual awakening in my late twenties. I was completely obsessed with a boy band — for the first time in my life — at the exact moment that I’m turning away from men in general.” Julia and Katie’s stories are not identical (as no two coming-out experiences are), but are both inextricably linked to their fixation on Harry. Both women also describe feeling a sort of “second adolescence” during their coming-out periods. (Imagine feeling all that crazy, intense horniness and obsession, but with a parent-free apartment, a 401K, and a decade’s worth of weird pseudo-exes. That’s what coming out later in life is like.)
Perhaps Katie and Julia’s unapologetic love for a teen boy band sparked that second adolescence, or vice versa. In any case, the near-crazed feelings of boy band fandom and teen-esque sexual discovery can go hand-in-hand.
There’s no crystallized explanation for why so many queer women love Harry Styles so achingly. I’ve learned that the avenues by which fans arrive at Harry appear to be as multifarious as those to arrive at one’s own sexuality. I guess all I’m saying is, perhaps more lesbian bars could stay in business by adopting Harry Styles cosplay nights. If given the opportunity to exist as Harry, as this idealized prism of confidence and androgyny and fluidity and glitter and youthful joy — well, who wouldn’t come out for that?