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I guess we’re still not over Harry Styles in a dress on the cover of Vogue.
The latest public figure weighing in on the musician’s choice to wear both men’s and women’s clothing in his feature last winter is actor and singer Billy Porter—and not in a fond way.
“I changed the whole game,” Porter said indignantly in a recent interview with the Sunday Times, describing his impact on gender non-conforming fashion.
And then, more directly taking a shot at Vogue and Styles: “He doesn’t care, he’s just doing it because it’s the thing to do. This is politics for me. This is my life. I had to fight my entire life to get to the place where I could wear a dress to the Oscars … All he has to do is be white and straight.”
Porter is partially right, and also wrong.
He’s made headlines with his distinct style of mixing jackets and trousers with elaborate gowns. But Porter can’t claim to own a fashion genre of fashion with a rich history led by countless other transgender and gay people of color—and that’s a good thing. It’s important to respect and recognize where culture comes from, but it’s also changing and evolving to the needs of our times.
Porter isn’t the first celebrity to push the boundaries of gender binaries. Styles has credited icons like Prince, Elvis, Freddie Mercury and David Bowie as inspirations for his own style. Long before people were speculating about Styles’ sexuality, Janelle Monáe drew attention with her choice of black and white tuxedos and suspenders as she showed women’s sexuality in a different way. Younger artists like Lil Nas X are actively shaping the future of queer representation in rap and pop music, while twerking on the devil.
It’s a different age today than when Porter came up. The cultural zeitgeist is currently embracing alternative demonstrations of masculinity, as seen in the soft, vulnerable gazes of actors like Timothée Chalamet.
It’s allowed artists like Styles to thrive in the blurred lines of wearing both women’s and men’s clothing, curating an image that both softens and surprises his audience. The warm undertones and intimacy of Styles’ feature in Vogue match the bubbly and soulful experience of his music in “Fine Line.”
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Styles isn’t trying to promote a political message, nor is he interested in labeling his sexuality. But his fans still speculate about bisexuality or queerness because of his affinity for women’s clothing and staunch support of the LGBTQ community.
On more than one occasion, he’s waved a pride flag enthusiastically at his concerts, and of course there’s that iconic moment when he said, “We’re all a little bit gay” during his 2018 tour. Queer women profess to love him, and his style has inspired and normalized LGBTQ fashion and expression.
It’s Styles’ right to keep his dating life private, including his partners’ genders. Since he has only dated women publicly, though, those less generous might call his strategy “queerbaiting,” wherein an artist hints at being LGBT while failing to offer real representation. Asked point blank, he says he’s not just adding sexual ambiguity to his gender expression to be interesting, but he also hasn’t given his sexuality more thought than it being experimental and fun.
The question isn’t whether Styles’ presentation is authentic, or whether there’s enough space for two men to be disrupting gender binaries in fashion. A better question to ask is who takes up more space, and why.
Porter is fair to critique Styles’ positionality as a straight-passing white man who hasn’t publicly lived through the isolation and shame of the AIDs crisis, or faced career threats like Porter’s lived experiences as a Black gay man in the acting industry.
Styles, with his largely apolitical stance and soft presence online, presents a more palatable symbol of rejecting gender conformity for Vogue than other more vocal, politically invested openly LGBT individuals. That speaks to his privilege, as Porter points out: Styles hasn’t had to substantially risk anything in pursuing his artistic self-expression, compared to LGBT artists of color; in fact, he’s celebrated for it. There are harsher realities for LGBTQ individuals like Porter, where dressing outside the strict confines of the gender binary was risking loss of livelihood, or even death.
Much can be said about gender-queer fashion being born out of the struggle to be present and visible in the face of intense erasure and violence throughout history. Although Porter’s work on the FX series Pose is fictional, it represents the very real community of Black and Latino LGBTQ communities that danced “vogue” in drag competitions in the 1960s. Those spaces became a place of refuge and joyous defiance, where LGBTQ people of color dressed unapologetically extravagantly even as they simultaneously experienced persecution in the public sphere.
It’s possible to celebrate Styles’ stylistic and artistic freedom, while also recognizing that it’s not a privilege afforded to everyone in the LGBTQ community. Today, transgender and non-binary people of color are still disproportionately subject to job discrimination and gender-based violence. The Human Rights Campaign has tracked fatal violence since 2013, and 2021 is set to be the deadliest year recorded. This comes alongside a new wave of anti-trans legislation that has flooded state legislatures this year.
Alessandro Michele, who styled the Vogue shoot, says Styles is a “revolutionary” in applying playfulness to his clothes But that revolution of acceptance and safety isn’t a reality for many vulnerable members of the LGBT community—which is precisely Porter’s point.
Jireh Deng is an intern at NPR’s Source of the Week