IF YOU ARE a fan of Harry Styles, you’ve probably had a complicated couple of years. Styles contains multitudes, or at least he contains multiple narratives: At 29, he is the British reality-competition star made good, the style icon, the now-solo boy-band supernova, the “Saturday Night Live” host, the burgeoning movie star, the burgeoning movie actor (different thing) and the pop-cultural shape-shifter for whom everything is a lark, a laugh, a pose, an interesting new outfit to try on. This makes Styles the ideal choose-your-own-adventure celebrity for the first generation of fans to have grown up fluent in the syntax of the multiverse. You don’t have to love all the iterations of him, just the ones that resonate with you.
Styles’s fans are enjoying a relatively recent phenomenon: a version of stardom in which skins are constantly being shed to reveal new skins, and old powers keep giving way to fresh ones. He’s Madonna crossed with one of the X-Men. But recently, he and his followers have discovered something very old: Sex complicates everything, and sexual identity even more so. Because among the many versions of Harry Styles that exist, at least one is very straight; the publicity campaign for last fall’s movie “Don’t Worry Darling” was overwhelmed by reports of the ripple effect on the shoot of his apparent relationship with the film’s director, Olivia Wilde. And at least one version of Styles is very maybe-something-else: the one posing in a dress on the cover of a women’s fashion magazine. The one who likes to flirt with nail polish. The one who brandishes Pride flags and who once told an admirer, “We’re all a little bit gay.” And now, the question of which Harry Styles is the real Harry Styles has run hard into a vexing new controversy: queer baiting.
A quick primer, for those of you who, like me, are over a certain age and may be more familiar with the term “gay baiting”: This is one of those squirmy evolving-language things in which, faster than you might ever imagine, a phrase comes to mean almost exactly the opposite of what it once meant. As recently as 10 years ago, gay baiting referred to the practice, especially in politics, of sneeringly insinuating that someone was gay via coded language in order to harm them while maintaining plausible deniability by never saying it directly. Today, however, queer baiting (the difference in designation is not incidental) is a celebrity culture term referring to performers and artists who slyly imply, whether by action, remark or passing behavior, that they might not be a hundred percent heterosexual in order to court an L.G.B.T.Q. audience, but are actually either straight or, at the very least, determined not to get specific. For those who make the accusation of queer baiting, the argument against opportunism is simple: How dare you reach into our pockets and take our money when you’re only pretending to be one of us (or, in any case, when you’re not telling us who you are)?
The anger is understandable, since the history of gay representation in pop culture does not inspire much trust or confidence. That journey began with invisibility; it gave way to vilification and mockery; then, after decades of struggle, to a few carefully crafted gay characters made largely for straight audiences; then to a larger and more diverse range of characters, some created without the need to attract those straight audiences. But even in the past 15 years, an era with an unprecedented number of L.G.B.T.Q. characters and out artists, tokenism is still an accepted norm — a gay kiss in a Marvel movie or in a cartoon, 12 seconds (literally) taken to show that Sulu is gay in a Star Trek film.