The NYT is testing Taylor. Mat Hayward/TAS23/Getty Images for TAS Rights Management

January 12, 2024   5 mins

The American fascination with the private lives of celebrities has always been inflamed by the mix of sex with scandal. In 1907, the country was enthralled by what was deemed the “Trial of the Century” after railroad heir Harry Kendall Thaw murdered architect Stanford White for the love of a nubile chorus girl; in 1921, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was front-page news as he stood trial for allegedly crushing a girl to death while raping her. But absent a splashy murder plot, the next best thing in celebrity gossip has always been a big, gay mystery: Is he or isn’t he?

Rumours that this or that star was actually, secretly same-sex attracted were par for the course in classic Hollywood, even as studios provided cover to their not-so-straight stars by casting them in scripted fauxmances with celebs of the opposite sex. Actor Tab Hunter, then closeted, reportedly managed to keep his career afloat in the Fifties by “dating” Natalie Wood, while gossip columnists asked sly, barbed questions about whether he was really the right type of guy for her, wink, wink. Rock Hudson battled rumours about his orientation for decades, even marrying his agent’s secretary to preserve the appearance of being a good old-fashioned lover of ladies. In a culture that viewed homosexuality with a mix of horror and fascination, creating a straight narrative for gay actors was part conspiracy, part con: to stay in the public’s good graces, they needed to at least pretend to conform to its mores.

But times changed, and with them, so did the nature of the is-he-or-isn’t-he discourse. Malicious rumour-mongering about gay actors gave way to something more like idle curiosity, while straight artists earned accolades for playing explicitly gay characters on-screen. The overt homophobia of the 20th century was replaced in the 21st by a fascination with minority sexual orientations, and shortly thereafter, the commodification thereof: Tumblr fanfic writers avidly projected queer desire onto canonically straight characters (not to mention the actually straight actors who played them), culture critics wrote think pieces about the problematic appropriation of allowing straight people to play gay roles, and the term “queerbaiting” was coined to describe the behaviour of celebrities who weren’t gay — or were they?

Crucially, this is bait that people of all persuasions have been all too happy to take. Today, the penchant for slyly referring to certain celebs as “confirmed bachelors” has been replaced by a smorgasbord of stars who are confirmed queer, or queer-adjacent, or queer-suspected, along with the occasional celebrity of a certain age who was grandfathered into the closet back when the mores were different and now remains there either by choice or inertia. Being ambiguously gay, or at least willing to be seen as maybe possibly such, confers status and intrigue much in the same way as those studio-orchestrated fauxmances did back in the Fifties.

But the symbiosis between the maybe-gay star and the slavering public is a precarious one, and it is possible to push it too far — as illustrated by the New York Times opinion piece titled “Look What We Made Taylor Do”. The essay, written by Anna Marks, is presented by its author as a catalogue of all the evidence that Taylor Swift is actually, secretly gay, but is probably better described as 5,000 words of pure wish-projection, a Tumblr-grade conspiracy theory that somehow wormed its way into the paper of record. Per Marks, Taylor Swift’s entire dating history (men), lyrical subject matter (men), and publicly stated preferences (men) are all just an elaborate psy-op: what’s really important, what really matters, is that her Lover album cover contains some of the same colours, sort of, as the bisexual pride flag.

As a cursory internet search for the term “Gaylor” will reveal, this is not the first time Swift’s sexual orientation has been the subject of speculation. And yet, there was an immediate sense in the wake of its publication that Marks’s essay had crossed a line. An anonymous source from within Swift’s camp slammed The New York Times in an interview with CNN, saying that a similar article about a male artist would never have passed muster at the paper: “There seems to be no boundary some journalists won’t cross when writing about Taylor, regardless of how invasive, untrue, and inappropriate it is — all under the protective veil of an ‘opinion piece’.”

Here, it is probably worth noting that, however inappropriate an article like this is, it is neither singular nor sexist: though Marks rarely writes for the paper at which she is an editor, she does have one other essay under her belt, a similar (albeit less lengthy) case for the secret gayness of Harry Styles. “Mr. Styles’s performance (and exorbitant ticket prices) makes his identity our business,” she wrote in August 2022. And if it is inappropriate, it’s arguably not more so than all the other speculation about Swift’s sex life that the press has engaged in over the years, including camping out at the apartment of current beau Travis Kelce in order to breathlessly report that Swift — who, lest we forget, is a 34-year-old woman — spent the night with her boyfriend. The difference, perhaps, is that the latter narrative is one in which Swift has always been a willing participant; what The New York Times did is more akin to casting her in a public and vaguely masturbatory lesbian fantasy without her consent.

The sympathetic take on this is that it’s about representation and identity, and specifically about the desire of marginalised groups from whom dignity, respect, and due credit have often been withheld to claim certain celebrities as One Of Us. Certainly this was the desire that fuelled last year’s controversial New York Times op-ed about Louisa May Alcott, to whom the writer assigned a trans identity and he/him pronouns — and which not coincidentally struck some of the same sour notes as the Swift one, fuelled in this case by the fact that Alcott was not alive to object.

The more cynical interpretation, though, is that Marks’s essay is a sort of queerbaiting unto itself — as in, baiting Taylor Swift into an argument about her own sexual orientation that she would really prefer not to have, forcibly conscripting her into a culture war she has thus far done her best to avoid. It’s hard not to notice that many positive cultural developments, such as the welcome rise in visibility and acceptance of the LGBT community, have been accompanied by the rise of an ideology powerful enough to supersede both national and religious identity, draping its rainbow-coloured flag over statehouses, churches, and corporate culture alike. And with this has come the unspoken but palpable sense that there can be no fame without the proper politics — a monocultural hegemony in which the press, including The New York Times, act as chief enforcers. There is an expectation that pop stars who’ve ascended to a certain level of visibility will announce their support for Democratic candidates. They will use their platforms for progressive activism. And they will produce an artist’s tithe in the form of an anthem signalling their support for the LGBT community — or be subject to increasingly pointed questions about why they haven’t yet.

In this context, Marks’s essay starts to seem like more than just a piece of poorly argued gossip, something akin to the political rumour-mongering about which Hollywood figures were Communist sympathisers at the height of the Red Scare. Calling Swift queer in the pages of The New York Times feels like a flex, and a test: what’s she going to do about it? Complain? After nearly two decades of playing peek-a-boo with her fans and the press alike over which guy she wrote that revenge song about, it’s the essay about her secret LGB status that’s somehow beyond the pale?

At this point, Swift can’t protest this invasion of privacy without being accused of protesting too much. Any objection will be read as an admission of guilt: if not that she’s the closeted queer her fans so desperately yearn for, then that she’s the secret Right-wing bigot the press has so often accused her of being, which is of course the only type of person who would object to being called gay in The New York Times. The only way for Taylor Swift to signal now that she’s on the right side of history is therefore to stay silent
 at least until she releases her next album.

Kat Rosenfield is an UnHerd columnist and co-host of the Feminine Chaos podcast. Her latest novel is You Must Remember This.