At Harry Styles shows, teen gender-nonconforming fans abound

Katelyn could hardly believe it.

Harry Styles drummer Pauli Lovejoy took the non-binary Pride flag that her boyfriend had thrown on stage and began dancing and waving it while Styles sang. It was October of last year and Styles was performing in Nashville. Katelyn, a non-binary fan who asked to use her first name because they have yet to come out to certain family members, screamed at the top of her lungs.

“It just made me feel so safe and validated and loved for who I am,” said Katelyn, 19, who uses the she/them pronoun. “I came out to a lot of people after that experience.”

It’s no secret that Styles is an advocate for the LGBTQ community, but for a specific segment of that fandom — his young, non-gendered followers — Styles’ ability to comfortably and fiercely publicly exist in a fluid space across the gender spectrum is particularly resonant. For her, Styles, 28, is an icon and advocate whose journey to self-expression and uncompromising ability to wear a Gucci dress or pearl necklace reflect her own strides toward self-love and discovery.

A male pop singer stands on stage next to a non-binary Pride flag.

Harry Styles takes to the stage next to a non-binary Pride flag in Nashville 2021.

(via Katelyn)

At his concerts, Styles regularly helps fans get to their families by reading signs they hold up to the audience. He then celebrates them by leading the crowd in affirmative chants, as he did on the opening night of his 15-exhibit stand at the Kia Forum in Inglewood. After asking a fan named Serena if she was sure she wanted to go public, he explained, “Congratulations Serena, thanks for being here tonight.”

“He helped me feel like there were a lot of things right about me,” said Alondra “Ash” Sandoval, 20, who uses she/them pronouns and said she’s just starting to explore her gender identity . Sandoval was standing in the Forum parking lot, wearing a smart black suit adorned with glowing silver stars. The venue behind her was bathed in rainbow colors.

Sandoval said that when they see Styles making gender-biased fashion choices, they strive to do the same while also acknowledging that Styles is loved by the masses for being who he is.

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

In a world overheated by culture wars riddled with ugly barbs aimed at young people like Katelyn and Sandoval – the “Don’t Say Gay” law in Florida, the anti-trans legislation in Texas, the relentless barrage of scorn at gender-nonconforming teens on Twitter – Style’s mantra “Please be free, whoever you choose to be in this room tonight” is a loving call to arms.

Styles has dropped so many references to his feelings about sexuality and his thoughts on gender nonconformities that fans regularly follow them online. In an April 2022 Better Homes & Gardens cover story, the pop star called it “outdated” that people should expect him to publicly declare his sexuality.

“I’ve been very open about it with my friends, but that’s my personal experience; it’s mine,” he told the magazine. “The whole point of where we should go, which is to accept everyone and be more open, is that it doesn’t matter, and it’s about not labeling everything, not clarifying what boxes you tick.”

A few months later, in a Rolling Stone cover story, Styles said, “I think everyone, including me, has their own journey of exploring and becoming more comfortable with sexuality.”

A man smiling in a yellow plaid jacket and purple boa

Harry Styles at the 2021 Grammy Awards. Boas are a fashion must-have at Styles concerts.

(Jordan Strauss / Invision / AP)

The Styles superstar has solidified at a moment when pop music and its fans are increasingly embracing queer identities and gender nonconformities. In 2019, Taylor Swift, who has rarely taken a political stance, drew praise – if a bit of criticism for the depth of her allies – for her pro-LGBTQ anthem, “You Need to Calm Down.” Pop star Halsey updated her pronouns to “she/they” in 2021, and Demi Lovato announced in 2022 that she identified as queer and pansexual. Meanwhile, Grammy-nominated rapper Lil Nas X built on the success of his hit “Old Town Road” by showcasing some of the most overtly queer visuals in pop music history. And just this month, Sam Smith and Kim Petras became the first non-binary and transgender people, respectively, to top Billboard’s Hot 100 with their duet “Unholy.”

Louie Dean Valencia, associate professor of digital history at Texas State University, believes so much that Styles is a touchstone for early 21sSt At the beginning of the 20th century he will teach a new course entitled “Harry Styles and the Cult of Celebrity: Identity, the Internet and European Pop Culture” starting in the spring semester of 2023.

The course, which filled in a hot second and garnered international media attention, teases key sociopolitical moments in recent history through Styles’ evolution from boy band heartthrob in One Direction, beginning in 2010, to the current moment when the aforementioned Gucci dress – worn by Styles as the first man ever to appear solo on the cover of Vogue – is featured in an exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum entitled Fashioning Masculinities: the Art of Menswear.

According to Valencia, by examining how society’s dialogue on issues of gender, sexuality and race has changed over the past 12 years through the prism of Styles’ own art and activism, it becomes clear that through Styles, “many, many people have Learned empathy, they learned to love others – to treat people with kindness, as Harry would say – but also to love themselves.”

Such messages are particularly powerful for gender non-conforming individuals, Valencia said, adding that Styles builds on the gendered legacy of artists like Little Richard, David Bowie and Prince with an intentionality unique to today’s social media-savvy landscape .

Styles’ staunch refusal to label his own sexuality is part of that intent, Valencia said, pointing out that “Queerness as a concept was originally meant to be this rejection of labels — you didn’t have to label yourself as bisexual, gay, or lesbian — it.” should be a unifying concept for people who are not heteronormative.”

Not all observers agree that it’s okay for Styles to flout gender norms and align themselves so firmly with the LGBTQ community without identifying as part of it. He has been accused by some critics and disgruntled fans of “queerbaiting” — or co-opting a queer identity — an ongoing controversy that culminates with the release of his latest film, My Policeman, in which he portrays a closeted gay man in England plays in the 1950s.

Many non-gender fans have served as Styles’ staunchest defenders. Grace Daniels, 19, who studies at New York University and uses the pronouns “they/they,” said Styles doesn’t have to say anything publicly.

“Gender exists on a spectrum, sexuality exists on the spectrum,” Daniels said. “And who says you have to have a label at all? Which he has emphasized at length.”

Another fan, Suba, 19, who is from the South and uses she/them pronouns (who asked to be identified by their first name as they have not yet come out to certain family members), recently wrote an 11-page spread Essay on the subject for her writing seminar.

In the paper, they argue that accusing Styles of “queerbaiting” is essentially the same as “telling every young kid out there who’s hesitant to do something, like dress a certain way, that it doesn’t allow them to do.” is to try different facial expressions without having to label yourself one way or the other.”

A man plays the guitar on stage

Harry Styles performs at the Kia Forum on October 23rd.

(Lloyd Wakefield)

Aside from identifying with Style’s label rejection and his almost utopian embrace of freedom and fluidity, Style’s young, non-gendered fans feel close to him because they watch him grow up and at times tentatively explore the gender spectrum — while they do it same yourself.

Styles was 16 when he found fame on One Direction, and many of his most ardent fans were in elementary school at the time — they harbored secret, deeply personal feelings that didn’t fit into the neat boxes that society so aptly paints.

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

Hernandez said the song “Lights Up,” which came out in 2019 when they were just beginning to realize they were non-binary, changed their lives.

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

Based in San Antonio Transgender fan Derek D., 19, agrees. When Derek (who asked to only use his first name and last initial for privacy reasons) was about 11 years old and Styles was still with One Direction, Derek said he remembered a fan complimenting Styles on his black nail Politur and Styles are acting a bit shy and embarrassed about it.

“Times were a little different back then. And I remember resonating a lot with just that aspect of doing something that’s outside of what’s normally acceptable for your gender,” Derek said. Derek now calls it “the nail polish story,” and said it’s an anecdote he often uses when discussing the stepping stones to discovering his identity.

“It’s almost like he’s running in front of me,” said Derek of Styles. “And he leads a way and says, ‘It’s okay. I promise it’s okay to be yourself. At Harry Styles shows, teen gender-nonconforming fans abound

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