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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 on the musician’s choice to wear men’s and women’s clothing in his feature film last winter is the not very affectionate actor and singer Billy Porterand.
“I changed the whole game,” Porter said indignantly in a recent interview with the Sunday opening hours, describing its impact on gender non-conforming fashion.
And then, more directly by pulling on Vogue and Styles: “He doesn’t care, he just does it because it’s the right thing to do. It’s politics to me. It’s my life. I’ve had to fight my whole life to get there. to where I could wear an Oscar dress and not get shot now. All he has to do is be white and straight. “
Porter is partly right, and also wrong.
He made the headlines with her distinct style of blending jackets and pants with elaborate dresses. But Porter can’t claim to own a fashion genre with a rich history ruled by countless other transgender and gay people of color and that’s a good thing. It is important to respect and recognize where culture comes from, but it also changes and evolves according to the needs of our time.
Porter isn’t the first celebrity to push the boundaries of gender binaries. Styles credited icons like Prince, Elvis, Freddie Mercury and David Bowie as inspirations for his own style. Long before people speculated on Styles’ sexuality, Janelle Mone gained attention with her choice of black and white tuxedos and suspenders because it 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 twerk on the devil.
It’s a different age today than when Porter arrived. The cultural zeitgeist is currently adopting alternative displays of masculinity, as evidenced by the gentle and vulnerable looks of actors like Timothée Chalamet.
This has allowed artists like Styles to thrive in the fuzzy lines of women’s and men’s clothing, creating an image that both softens and surprises its audiences. The warm undertones and intimacy of the Styles feature in Vogue correspond to the sparkling and moving experience of his music in “Fine Line”.
Dimitrios Kambouris / Getty Images for the Met Museum
Styles does not try to promote a political message, nor to label his sexuality. But her fans still speculate on bisexuality or homosexuality due to her affinity for women’s clothing and her unwavering support for the LGBTQ community.
On more than one occasion, he enthusiastically waved a pride flag at his concerts, and of course there’s that iconic moment where he said, “We’re all a little gay” during his 2018 tour. Homosexual women profess to love him, and his style has inspired and standardized LGBTQ fashion and expression.
It is Styles’ right to keep his love life private, including the sex of his partners. Since he only dated women in public, the less generous might call his strategy “queerbaiting“, in which an artist suggests that he is LGBT while failing to offer an actual representation. When questioned at close range, he says he not only added a sexual ambiguity to his gender expression to be interesting, but he also didn’t think about his sexuality more than that it was and fun.
The question isn’t whether Styles’ presentation is authentic or whether there is enough space for two men to disrupt gender binaries in fashion. A better question to ask is who takes up the most space and why.
Porter is fair to criticize Styles’ position as a straightforward white man who has not publicly experienced the isolation and shame of the AIDS crisis, or faces career threats like Porter’s experiences in as a black gay man in the theater industry.
Styles, with his largely apolitical stance and gentle online presence, presents a more acceptable symbol of rejection of gender conformity for Vogue than other openly LGBT people who are more virulent and politically involved. This is a testament to his privilege, as Porter points out: Styles did not have to risk anything substantial in the pursuit of his artistic expression, compared to LGBT artists of color; in fact, he is celebrated for it. There are harsher realities for LGBTQ people like Porter, where dressing outside the strict boundaries of the gender binary risked losing their livelihood or even dying.
Much can be said about the fact that gender-queer fashion arose 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 fictitious, it represents the very real community of black and Latino LGBTQ communities who danced “the fashion” in drag competitions in the 1960s. These spaces became a place of refuge and joyful challenge, where LGBTQ people of color dressed extravagantly without apologizing even as they simultaneously suffered persecution in the public sphere.
It is possible to celebrate Styles’ stylistic and artistic freedom, while recognizing that it is not a privilege granted to everyone in the LGBTQ community. Today, transgender and non-binary people of color are still disproportionately subject to workplace discrimination and gender-based violence. The human rights campaign has followed deadly violence since 2013 and 2021 is expected to be deadliest year on record. It comes next a new wave of anti-trans legislation that has flooded state legislatures this year.
Alessandro Michele, who stylized the Vogue shoot, says Styles is a “revolutionary” in applying playfulness to his clothes. But this revolution in acceptance and security is not a reality for many vulnerable members of the LGBT community, which is precisely Porter’s perspective.
Jireh deng is NPR’s Source of the Week Intern
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