At Harry Styles exhibits, teen gender-nonconforming followers abound

Katelyn may hardly consider it.

Harry Styles’ percussionist, Pauli Lovejoy, picked up the nonbinary delight flag their good friend had tossed onstage and commenced dancing and waving it whereas Styles sang. It was October of final yr, and Styles was performing in Nashville. Katelyn, a nonbinary fan who requested to go by their first title as a result of they haven’t but come out to sure relations, screamed with pleasure on the high of their lungs.

“It just made me feel so safe and validated and loved for being who I am,” mentioned Katelyn, 19, who makes use of they/them pronouns. “I came out to a lot of people after that experience.”

It’s no secret that Styles is a champion of the LGBTQ neighborhood, however to a particular part of that fan base — his younger gender-nonconforming devotees — Styles’ potential to exist comfortably, and very publicly, in a fluid house alongside the gender spectrum is especially resonant. For them, Styles, 28, is an icon and advocate whose journey to self-actualization, and unapologetic potential to put on a Gucci robe or a string of pearls, mirrors their very own strides towards self-love and discovery.

Harry Styles stands onstage in Nashville in 2021 beside a nonbinary delight flag.

(through Katelyn)

At his live shows, Styles repeatedly helps followers come out to their households by studying indicators they maintain up within the viewers. He then celebrates them by main the group in affirming chants, as he did on opening night time of his 15-show stand at Inglewood’s Kia Discussion board. After asking a fan named Serena if she was certain she wished to go public, he declared, “Congratulations, Serena, thank you for being here tonight.”

“He helped me feel like a lot of things about myself are OK,” mentioned Alondra “Ash” Sandoval, 20, who makes use of she/they pronouns and mentioned they’re simply starting to discover their gender id. Sandoval stood within the Discussion board parking zone sporting a snazzy black swimsuit emblazoned with vibrant silver stars. The venue behind her was bathed in rainbow colours.

Sandoval mentioned that after they see Styles making gender-expansive vogue selections, they aspire to do this too, whereas paying attention to the truth that Styles is liked by the plenty for being precisely who he’s.

“They see him, they like him,” Sandoval mentioned of Styles followers. “And if they like him, they might like me too.”

In a world overheated by tradition wars pocked with ugly barbs directed at younger individuals like Katelyn and Sandoval — the “Don’t Say Gay” legislation in Florida, the anti-trans laws in Texas, the unrelenting flood of snark directed towards gender-nonconforming teenagers on Twitter — Styles’ mantra of “Please feel free to be whoever it is you want to be in this room tonight” is a loving name to arms.

Styles has dropped so many references to his emotions about sexuality and his ideas on gender nonconformity that followers repeatedly monitor them on-line. In an April 2022 Higher Houses & Gardens cowl story, the pop star known as it “outdated” that folks ought to anticipate him to declare his sexuality publicly.

“I’ve been really open with it with my friends, but that’s my personal experience; it’s mine,” he advised the journal. “The whole point of where we should be heading, 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.”

Just a few months later in a Rolling Stone cowl story, Styles mentioned, “I think everyone, including myself, has your own journey with figuring out sexuality and getting more comfortable with it.”

A man smiling in a yellow plaid jacket and purple boa

Harry Styles on the Grammy Awards in 2021. Boas are a vogue must-have at Styles’ live shows.

(Jordan Strauss / Invision / AP)

Styles’ superstardom has solidified at a second when pop music and its followers are more and more accepting of queer identities and gender nonconformity. In 2019, Taylor Swift, who had hardly ever taken a political stance, earned plaudits — if additionally a little bit of criticism relating to the depth of her allyship — for her pro-LGBTQ anthem “You Need to Calm Down.” Pop star Halsey up to date her pronouns to “she/they” in 2021, and Demi Lovato introduced in 2022 that she recognized as queer and pansexual. In the meantime, Grammy-nominated rapper Lil Nas X constructed on the success of his smash hit “Old Town Road” by presenting among the most overtly queer visuals in well-liked music historical past. And simply this month, Sam Smith and Kim Petras grew to become the primary nonbinary particular person and the primary transgender particular person, respectively, to high Billboard’s Sizzling 100 with their duet “Unholy.”

Louie Dean Valencia, an affiliate professor of digital historical past at Texas State College, believes a lot that Styles is a touchstone of early 21st century tradition that he’s instructing a brand new course, starting spring semester 2023, known as “Harry Styles and the Cult of Celebrity: Identity, the Internet and European Pop Culture.”

The course, which stuffed up in a sizzling second and gained worldwide media consideration, teases out vital sociopolitical moments of current historical past by way of Styles’ development from boy-band heartthrob in One Path, starting in 2010, to the present second, when the aforementioned Gucci robe — worn by Styles as the primary man ever to be featured solo on the quilt of Vogue — is featured in an exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum known as “Fashioning Masculinities: the Art of Menswear.”

By inspecting how society’s dialogue round problems with gender, sexuality and race have modified prior to now 12 years by way of the prism of Styles’ personal artwork and activism, Valencia mentioned, it turns into clear that by way of Styles, “a lot of a lot of people have learned empathy, they’ve learned how to love others — to treat people with kindness, as Harry would say — but also to love themselves.”

Such messages are notably highly effective for gender-nonconforming people, mentioned Valencia, including that Styles is constructing on the gender-fluid legacies of performers like Little Richard, David Bowie and Prince with an intentionality distinctive to the social media-savvy panorama of our present period.

Styles’ agency refusal to label his personal sexuality is a part of that intentionality, mentioned Valencia, declaring that “queerness as a concept was originally meant to be this rejection of labels — you didn’t have to call yourself bisexual, or gay or lesbian — it was meant to be a unifying concept for people who are not heteronormative.”

Not all observers agree that it’s superb for Styles to ignore gender norms and ally himself so firmly with the LGBTQ neighborhood with out figuring out himself as a part of it. He has been accused by some critics and disgruntled followers of “queerbaiting” — or co-opting queer id — an ongoing controversy that’s peaking as his newest movie, “My Policeman” comes out, wherein he performs a closeted homosexual man in Nineteen Fifties England.

Many gender-nonconforming followers have served as Styles’ most staunch defenders. Grace Daniels, 19, who attends New York College and makes use of they/them pronouns, mentioned that Styles does have to state something publicly.

“Gender exists on a spectrum, sexuality exists on the spectrum,” Daniels mentioned. “And who’s to say that you have to even have a label at all? Which is something that he has emphasized, extensively.”

One other fan, Suba, 19, who’s from the South and makes use of she/they pronouns (who requested to be recognized by their first title since they haven’t but come out to sure members of their household), lately wrote an 11-page paper on the topic for his or her writing seminar.

Within the paper, they argue that accusing Styles of “queerbaiting” is actually the identical as “telling any young kid out there who is hesitant to do something, like dressing a certain way, that they are not allowed to try out different expressions without having to label themselves one way or another.”

A man plays guitar onstage

Harry Styles performs on the Kia Discussion board on Oct. 23.

(Lloyd Wakefield)

Along with figuring out with Styles’ rejection of labels and his near-utopian embrace of freedom and fluidity, Styles’ younger gender-nonconforming followers really feel near him as a result of they’ve watched him develop up, typically tentatively exploring the gender spectrum — whereas doing the identical factor themselves.

Styles was 16 when he shot to fame in One Path, and plenty of of his most ardent followers had been in grade faculty on the time — nursing secret, deeply private emotions that they didn’t match within the neat packing containers that society is so adept at drawing.

“It definitely felt like we were on a journey together,” mentioned Renee Hernandez, 22, who makes use of they/them pronouns and now teaches high-school English in L.A. “I see so much of myself in him, in the way he expresses himself.”

Hernandez mentioned the music “Lights Up,” which got here out in 2019, simply after they had been starting to comprehend they had been nonbinary, modified their life.

“I feel like that was just what I needed at that point in my life,” they mentioned of the soulful tune with the lyrics, “Lights up and they know who you are / know who you are / do you know who you are / shine / step into the light.”

San Antonio-based transgender fan, Derek D., 19, agrees. When Derek (who requested to go by his first title and final preliminary solely, out of issues for privateness), was about 11 years previous, and Styles was nonetheless in One Path, Derek mentioned, he remembers a fan complimenting Styles on his black nail polish and Styles appearing a bit shy and embarrassed about it.

“Times were a little bit different back then. And I remember resonating with that a lot, just that aspect of doing something outside of what is typically acceptable for your gender,” after which feeling a bit sheepish in public, Derek mentioned. Derek now calls this “the nail polish story,” and mentioned it’s an anecdote he makes use of lots when discussing the stepping stones alongside the way in which to discovering his id.

“It’s almost as if he’s walking in front of me,” mentioned Derek of Styles. “And he’s leading a path, saying, ‘It’s OK. I promise it’s OK to be yourself’.”