When I was 18, I had a huge crush on a straight boy.
I had lots of crushes that year, but something about this felt different. We had a connection. I told myself that I knew better; that he was probably just closeted, or couldn’t accept it for himself, that his queerness was a secret to even him. At the time, it didn’t feel so ridiculous—after all, he was funny, musical, fastidious with his appearance, and a bit feminine. I refused to believe in the straightness that was right in front of me, convincing myself that he was just a closet case.
Every queer person has had a crush like this. Most of us grow up and grow out of them. Whatever the reason, it happens often enough to be a trope. It’s one of those shared experiences that most queer people have knowledge of. And because of the possibility of the closetedness, we hope that the truth is not really the truth — that by our detection of the potentiality of queerness, we might be able to tease it out and bring it to life.
In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Shawn Mendes talked about how he feels an intense pressure to demonstrate his straightness. Since his star started rising, the Internet has been itching to claim him for the LGBT community. If you go on Youtube or Twitter, it’s hard to miss. People pick apart his voice, his clothes, his mannerisms, the way he sits—everything about him—in hopes of finding some clue pointing to his queerness. It’s clear that this apparent queerness is not an intentional performance on his part. He’s not queerbaiting. He’s just…being Shawn Mendes. And while he didn’t think anything bad of being gay, he still felt very affected by the scrutiny, attention, and analysis.
Eve Sedgwick’s 1990 queer theory text, The Epistemology of the Closet, speaks to this idea of secrecy and signification. It argues that queerness has been historically imagined as a relationship to privileged knowledge; the closet defined you by your site inside and outside of this knowledge, a collective identity based on an open secret. Queerness was built into people, and it couldn’t help but bubble out in moments of secrecy or divulgence. The epistemology of the closet posits, in a way, that it takes one to know one — the existence of queerness is hinted at by the presence of deviant traits, and shared knowledge of these traits forms the basis of a shared identity.
There is no closet, no secret knowledge, no hidden queerness bubbling up under the surface, no implication behind his actions. One’s body is not a sign of anything other than itself.
In the Rolling Stone interview, Mendes recounted to the interviewer experiences watching interviews over and over, studying his own behaviour, worried he was acting a certain way that would give people the wrong impression. He talked about being afraid of saying too much or too little, being comfortable spending time with female friends or doing stereotypically feminine activities.
Reading this interview made me uneasy. Because even though Mendes isn’t gay, that sense of fear, scrutiny, and surveillance is something that almost all gay people know intimately. Having to police our bodies so as not to appear overly feminine, overly masculine, wrongfully desiring, or wrongfully desire-less—these are hallmarks of queer youth. It seems cruel to both ourselves and to others to impose this on a stranger, let alone someone who cannot, by dint of their straightness, be in on the joke.
The New York Times has dubbed this the “age of the twink.” According to the article, the time is right for the celebration of a particular brand of male slimness, smoothness, youngness, and often paleness. Images of men whose bodies and faces may once have been read as overly queer can now be found on runways, playlists, and movie screens. By nature of embodiment alone, queerness is seen and felt, and Mendes seems to fit the bit—heterosexuality aside. To some viewers, then, it feels right to read into him the secrecy and half-truths of queerness. Like our closeted crushes, there’s this same hope that, by dint of this embodiment—in his case, slim, smooth, white, young—he’s in on it too. He may be in the closet, but his body is outside alongside us.
But it isn’t, and he’s not. Shawn Mendes is not in on the joke. His body is not a clue, and his behaviours — how he sits, how he sings, how he talks, and what he shares — don’t tell us anything other than the mere fact of themselves. There is no closet, no secret knowledge, no hidden queerness bubbling up under the surface, no implication behind his actions. One’s body is not a sign of anything other than itself. And just as that holds true for us, it holds true for him.