If you spend enough time on some of the trashier corners of gay Twitter gossip (I am, ahem, guilty), you have been privy to a shocking secret for some time now. You might have seen it in the hand movements, or the leg crossing, or in selfies analyzed with the zeal of an over-caffeinated English major. Shawn Mendes, the social media sensation turned teen idol turned arena rock star, is rumored to be gay. The only problem? He isn’t actually gay. And he would like you to stop talking about it.
I admittedly laughed (or swooned) at plenty of related memes. Most of them were made with a certain degree of affection (and wishful thinking) by fans excited by a pop star who is both impossibly handsome and subtly effeminate. These snickering in-jokes were told in the familiar language of gay men adapting to a culture that is not built by them or for them. Within gay communities, this kind of gossip is both perverse community building and a necessary survival tactic. It is also a thinly veiled fantasy. In pop music, sex sells, and so does imagination — you either want to be Rihanna or to be sleeping with Rihanna. (Let’s face it: you probably want both). For Mendes’ gay fans, it was exciting to imagine that they too could be the object of affection in one of his many love songs.
Even as queer representation has greatly improved in the past decade, pop music still has little room for gay singers singing explicitly about gay romance. Frank Ocean and Troye Sivan have certainly broken barriers, and there are plenty of wonderful queer artists in all genres with loyal niche followings. However, it is still a rarity for major-label pop music to move beyond a hetero-normative standard. Stereotypical gay icons are usually female divas, and even those singers often cater their sexuality for a straight male audience.
In this environment, audiences are forced to create subversive fantasies that twist the intended purposes of pop culture. There is clearly a demand for more queer sexuality — just ask one of the many writers of “slash fiction,” fan-fiction that imagines fictional characters or celebrities in gay relationships. These writers are looking for representation, or a new way of engaging with their favorite art, or maybe just a turn-on. Some “ships,” like the imagined pairing of One Direction singers Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson, inspire thousands of dedicated fans and many lifetimes worth of passionate discourse. A lot of these fantasies come from straight women, who use these men as a new kind of sex object, or as a vehicle for unexpected romance. In her smart piece on boy-band fan-fiction, Amanda Hess wrote, “never before has the straight girl’s queer imagination so totally disrupted the intended purpose of the men marketed to her.”
So, the gay obsession with Mendes is not without precedent, and the impulse to insist — jokingly or not — on his homosexuality is understandable, if not exactly justified. However, in a much-discussed profile for Rolling Stone, Mendes explained the personal consequences of this constant speculation. He said, “In the back of my heart, I feel like I need to go be seen with someone — like a girl — in public, to prove to people that I’m not gay. Even though in my heart I know that it’s not a bad thing. There’s still a piece of me that thinks that. And I hate that side of me.”
In the interview, which had a rare candor for a star of Mendes’ stature, it is easy to sympathize with him. This kind of anguish and trepidation is recognizable to many queer people, and from a new angle. The constant speculation over Mendes’ sexuality is similar to the kind of bullying that many LGBT+ people face while in the closet. It is easy, especially in an environment that treats pop culture as a lifestyle and extreme sport, to forget the real people behind the stadium tour. Extreme fame requires a total loss of privacy, and some fans treat full access as their natural right. When celebrities become brands or commodities, their entire self-hood is up for public consumption, but Mendes’ vulnerable response reminded fans that he is not a blank canvas for others’ invention.
Mendes is part of a generation of heartthrobs, including but not limited to Harry Styles, Timothée Chalamet, Nick Jonas, Channing Tatum, Chris Hemsworth and Darren Criss, who are challenging stereotypical definitions of masculinity. They are more willing to experiment with fashion, openly perform emotional vulnerability and explicitly support feminism and gay rights. They practice a modern version of manhood that feels refreshing — and it endears them to the women and queer audiences who are likely to support their careers. This welcome shift from rigid, harmful gender performance contains both political and artistic opportunities. However, these kinds of expressions can be undermined by the very fans that benefit from their existence. By scrutinizing Mendes’ perceived femininity, fans suggest that only gay men are allowed a wide range of emotional and physical expression. By insisting that Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson are secretly gay lovers, they stigmatize nonsexual affection between men. And by treating sexual orientation as a mystery to be solved, they are promoting the kind of toxic masculinity that they claim to be subverting.
Mendes says that he is straight, and I take his word for it. But no matter what his sexual orientation is, he deserves the chance to address it however he chooses — or not at all. In his statement there is palpable anxiety. He knows that his discomfort could be perceived as homophobia, or that he’s hiding something. But Mendes shouldn’t feel guilty for his sexual orientation. It’s uncomfortable to be put into a box, or to be subject to endless scrutiny, or to or to feel like something as private and personal as sexuality is up for debate. If anyone should know that, it’s a man who is attracted to Shawn Mendes.