The Queerest Thing About Taylor Swift

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Written By Pinang Driod

Over the decades, as it evolved from a slur into a term of tribal pride, the word queer was converted by academics into a verb. To queer a text is to look for hidden, un-straight meaning—to theorize that sexual repression shapes Holden Caulfield’s bad attitude and Nick Carraway’s unreliable narration. Typically, readers queer a work through their interpretation. What the author really meant is, in many cases, unknowable; the text and its effect are what matters most.

Perhaps pop culture should relearn this use of queer, judging by the latest controversy surrounding Taylor Swift. Last week, The New York Times ran an op-ed speculating that Swift isn’t straight; this weekend, one of Swift’s associates, speaking anonymously to CNN, blasted the essay as “invasive, untrue, and inappropriate.” The situation reveals how fans and celebrities have become too rigid in their relationship to each other, missing the lessons that queerness has to teach.

Framing itself as a commentary on the social expectations that still compel gay people to stay in the closet, the Times op-ed, by the editor Anna Marks, scanned through Swift’s artistic output and biography for signs of someone nursing same-sex desire. Many of Swift’s songs, Marks pointed out, are about secretive romance. Some of her visuals portray cross-dressing and seem to reference lesbian touchstones. Her 2019 album, Lover, included explicit shout-outs to gay rights in its lyrics and marketing campaign. These supposed clues, Marks wrote, “suggest to queer people that she is one of us.”

This argument is not new to anyone who follows Swift closely. For years, a community of listeners known as “Gaylors” has spun similar theories on Reddit and TikTok, poring over ambiguous rumors and paparazzi pics to lend credence to their lyrical interpretations. In the universe of Swift’s fandom, Gaylors are divisive; another faction, “Hetlors,” goes out of its way to shoot them down. Swift herself recently weighed in: In the liner notes for 1989 (Taylor’s Version), she expressed annoyance that some people assume she dated her female friends.

This back-and-forth might seem to be specific to Swift—and be particularly provocative given how she has famously sung about crushing on assorted Prince Charmings. But remarkably, variations on the Gaylor phenomenon can be found in all sorts of fandoms. Wars once raged among listeners of One Direction over whether two members of the boy band were in love. In any given fan-fiction community, “slash” stories—pairing up same-sex characters—are likely to have an outsize following.

These dynamics reflect the social realities that Marks’s essay critiqued. History is full of artists who stayed in the closet while embedding references to queerness in their work. And even in our era, when an unprecedented number of people identify as LGBTQ, most popular entertainment is about straight people. Lots of audience members still need to read into stories, to project and remix and embellish, in order to fully relate. This is usually harmless—or, rather, it’s healthy, a testament to art’s capaciousness.

The problem right now is that the interpretive work that queer people have always had to do is taking place in an overheated social-media environment that is voyeuristic to a delusional degree. The impossible yearning to know who our artists really are beyond the art they put out is a powerful lure that keeps users scrolling TikTok and other platforms where fans gather. As a result, listeners don’t just analyze songs to find meanings applicable to their own life; they investigate songs, searching for truth about the creator’s life. And, ideally, that truth validates their own.


Swift has fed this mentality to spectacular effect—by infusing her work with references to personal sagas while constructing a perfectly relatable media persona for herself. Her songs, it must be noted, have never been strictly autobiographical: Her 2020 albums, Folklore and Evermore, were marketed as experiments in fiction, and before that, she said she borrowed stories from her friends’ lives. But her brand certainly is all about herself. And right now that brand is, to judge from the headlines surrounding her lately, centered on her relationship with the football star Travis Kelce.

Perhaps that is why someone in her camp felt the need to torch Marks’s column. “Because of her massive success, in this moment there is a Taylor-shaped hole in people’s ethics,” CNN’s source said. “This article wouldn’t have been allowed to be written about Shawn Mendes or any male artist whose sexuality has been questioned by fans … There seems to be no boundary some journalists won’t cross when writing about Taylor … all under the protective veil of an ‘opinion piece.’”

The quote is shockingly forceful (and a bit inaccurate: Marks herself previously wrote an article questioning the sexuality of a male star, Harry Styles). Its fervor comes close to implying disgust at queerness itself, and to shaming listeners for bringing their own interpretation to Swift’s work. But some of those listeners really do need a reality check: Shortly after the Times article was published, I scrolled through Gaylor hot spots online and saw people theorizing that Swift’s own team had planted it to prepare for her coming out.

Swift’s team is also asserting her need to maintain control over her image; they know how easily misinformation and innuendo can undermine a career. After all, Marks’s column suggested something that could fester into a full-fledged public backlash against Swift if left unaddressed: It sure would be great for the world if Swift embraced her (supposed) queerness. In November, Swift’s publicist issued a fiery condemnation of a gossip website for spreading unconfirmed reports about Swift covertly marrying a former boyfriend. After this latest clapback, other outlets might be even more careful about prying into Swift’s personal life.

The unfortunate thing about this situation is that Taylor Swift means a lot to LGBTQ listeners for good reasons, ones worth discussing. You don’t need to speculate about Swift the human being in order to queer her music. There’s plenty to analyze about her reconciliation of strength and femininity, her storytelling about love that evades surveillance, her rejection of “the 1950s shit they want from me,” as Swift put it in the song “Lavender Haze.” Marks could have invoked the scholar Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who once argued that queer refers to, among other things, an “open mesh of possibilities.” Swift’s songs shift for each listener, reflecting their image back like a mirror ball—dazzling while guarding what’s underneath.

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