What is Queerbaiting
… and Why Shouldn’t You Care?
Last month, Harry Styles caused a minor uproar when he accepted a Grammy for Album of the Year, when most prognosticators, music fans, and people with ears expected Beyoncé to win the evening’s biggest award. To suggest that people were upset is putting it mildly. To make things worse, Styles ended his speech thusly: “This doesn’t happen to people like me very often and this is so, so nice. Thank you very much.”
Now, it’s impossible to know exactly what he meant by that, but to most of the folks watching a white man win an award they believed a Black woman deserved more, it was brutally ironic. Viewed through the lens of race and gender, Harry seemed like exactly the kind of people who typically won these things.
He continued making headlines a few weeks later at the BRIT Awards. After picking up a trophy for Song of the Year, he kissed a guy, and the internet lit up like the proverbial Christmas tree.
As a proud member of Generation X, who learned what “gay” meant around the same time I heard my first AIDS joke, the idea that a same-sex kiss would generate controversy is not shocking. What did surprise me, however, was who was doing the complaining. Suddenly, and not for the first time, Styles was being criticized by LGBTQ folks. His crime was something called “queerbaiting.”
This is a term that means different things to different people. When it first arose in the early 2010s, it was used to describe fictional stories (usually movies and TV) that hint at LGBTQ subject matter to attract (“bait”) an audience hungry for representation, then fail to follow through. The BBC’s Sherlock series has often been accused of this (though its creators insist the relationship between Holmes and Watson has never been anything but platonic). But in my recent memory, the worst example was hearing that Avengers: Endgame was going to feature Marvel Studios’ first gay character, only to learn that this giant step in LGBTQ visibility was a man with no name in a support group for survivors of the Snap talking about his dead husband. He was listed in the credits as “Grieving Man.” Worst. Superhero. Ever.
But because language evolves (faster than ever thanks to the internet), “queerbaiting” now has an alternate meaning, referring to celebrities who imply by word or action that they may not be 100 percent straight/cisgender while simultaneously not coming out in a definitive way.
Back in 2019, Ariana Grande released a music video called “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored.” In it, she teases and flirts with a man who already has a girlfriend, but in the final moments, leans in and is about to kiss the girl instead, as the image fades to black. LGBTQ fans didn’t think it was cute. Many commented that if Ariana was using a video to come out as bisexual, great. If not, they said, using bisexuality for “shock value” is wrong. Other celebrities who’ve been criticized include Nick Jonas (for singing in gay nightclubs), Billie Eilish (flirted with partially dressed women in a video), and Charlie Puth (posts pictures on his Instagram featuring his bare buttocks).
But no one has been criticized for this more than Styles. While he’s on record saying that “everyone’s a little bit gay,” he uses he/him pronouns and has only ever publicly dated women. Still, he wears pearls, nail polish, glittery jumpsuits, and heels, and has a habit of kissing men in public (first his co-star Nick Kroll at the Venice Film Festival, then Scottish singer Lewis Capaldi at the BRIT Awards last month). He’s either pretending to be one of us, or refusing to come out, and apparently, this is bad.
Mark Harris writes in the New York Times Style Magazine that queerbaiting “can feel like teasing.” And I suppose he’s right, although that’s a word that can be either cruel or delicious, depending on the context. I suspect that a lot of LGBTQ folks don’t like to see Harry Styles get (mostly) positive attention for things that most of us would be criticized for. If he proudly claimed a queer identity, that would be one thing, they’d argue; this way, he’s just chasing clout.
Or, I would argue, he’s having fun. If by teasing, you mean you’re upset because despite Styles’s androgynous fashion choices, Vogue covers, and his habit of locking lips with other dudes at public events, you’re still not quite sure if Harry Styles is going to sleep with you, allow me to clear that up quickly and neatly: No. He’s not. Or at least the chances are so remote as to be practically zero. It strikes me as mindbendingly ironic that the queer generation that claims to love ambiguity and hate labels like no other can’t deal with a person’s ambiguity unless they attach themselves to the correct label. And Harry Styles, if you’re reading this (you aren’t)—go ahead and wear all the dresses and kiss all the men you want. I fully support you in these endeavors. (Beyoncé probably should’ve won the Grammy, though.) ▼
Eric Peterson is a diversity and inclusion practitioner. His first novel (Loyalty, Love & Vermouth) is available online and at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach. His podcast, The Rewind Project, is available wherever you listen to podcasts.