It’s late summer in NYC, and after a pandemic-induced hiatus, fashion’s night of nights is back in full swing. The 2021 Met Gala and pop sensations (and long-term couple) Camila Cabello and Shawn Mendes are glammed to the nines. Filmed as part of Vogue’s ‘Get Ready’ series, we see the couple waiting for a lift that will take them to the most coveted red carpet event of the year.
Former Fifth Harmony member – turned star of Cinderella remake #2389 – Camila, is decked out in purple; a two-piece Michael Kors number. With long, wavy hair flowing down to her waist and a co-ordinated sequined set, a member of Camila’s team is taking video footage of the finished look, at which point the pop star’s supportive boyfriend chimes in.
“It’s giving… it’s giving Cher.”
Within hours, a social media maelstrom began to build, and a tired old question was back on everyone’s lips: was Shawn Mendes secretly gay? Was Camila his beard? Was it all a lie?
The rumour mill
As a soft-spoken young man with a gentle countenance, Shawn has fielding questions and speculation about his sexual orientation since 2013. After reading YouTube comments that said he “gave off a gay vibe”, in 2016 Shawn took to Snapchat (R.I.P) to address the rumours.
The then 17-year-old remarked: “First of all, I’m not gay. Second of all, it shouldn’t make a difference if I was or if I wasn’t.”.
Two years later, Shawn’s self-titled album Shawn Mendes: The Album had its number one US debut, making the “In My Blood” singer the third-youngest musician with three number one albums.
He’s, by all accounts, on top of the world. But a Rolling Stone profile brings up his discomfort with the sexuality rumours.
"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," he continued. "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," Shawn revealed.
Shawn’s ambivalent reaction to the rumours speaks to the homophobia that remains baked into our culture. Marriage equality may be a reality in much of the Western world, celebrities might be coming out more readily than they once were, and yes, Lil Nas X exists. But the continuing presence of homophobia cannot be denied.
During the interview, Shawn added that he doesn’t “defend” being straight for himself but for members of the LGBTQI+ community.
"I thought, 'You fucking guys are so lucky I’m not actually gay and terrified of coming out,'" he said. "That’s something that kills people. That’s how sensitive it is. Do you like the songs? Do you like me? Who cares if I’m gay?"
Meanwhile, responding to his recent appearance on Vanity Fair’s Lie Detector YouTube series; fans again took to the now 23-year-old’s sexuality with a fine-toothed comb; with TikTok commenters even seeing his flustered response to the interviewer asking about the contents of his ‘For You’ page as yet more evidence of his closeted status.
“Not him blushing,” one commenter posted, “If y’all don’t let that bottom rest” said another, with 6933 likes.
Most of these commenters aren’t hating on him because he may be gay. Rather, they’re forcing him to “confess” his sexuality because of the years of rumours, moments and mannerisms that have been pored over and scrutinised over the past eight years.
It’s this messaging and the most-recent memeification of “It’s giving Cher” that has me asking, can we not?
If young people are so progressive, how are we getting this so wrong?
According to The Washington Post, one in six Gen Z adults identify as part of the LGBTQIA+ community. A report by the think tank Irregular Labs and luxury fashion label Gucci, found that 25% of Gen Zs expect their gender identity to change once in their lifetimes while 45% expect two to three gender identity changes. Meanwhile, a 2021 study called ‘Gender: Beyond The Binary’ found that 50% of the young Americans surveyed believe traditional gender norms are outdated.
Millennials and zoomers are known for leading the charge of sexual fluidity and inclusivity, and rejecting outdated binaries. But despite Shawn insisting on multiple ocassions that he’s straight, public speculation that he remains closeted keeps rearing its head, again and again and again.
So why are young people getting this so wrong? At a time when young people are asking older generations to be respectful of people’s gender identities, pronouns and sexualities, is it not hypocritical to continue to speculate and make jokes out of someone’s sexuality? Is it because of Mendes’ fame that the public feel we have the right to speculate about his presumed sexuality? Or is there something more insidious at play?
At first glance, the constant prodding from his fans seems harmless. Much of it comes from queer fans who would simply like him to be queer, too. But ultimately, all of this speculation only reinforces traditional and outdated gender norms that dictate how straight (and gay) men should look, act and sound.
As we’ve seen in conversations over the past few years, these norms are anything but harmless. We know, for example, that gender stereotypes can result in some men suppressing their emotions and using violence as an expression of power; what some theorists see as traits of toxic masculinity. As Louis Staples writes in New Statesman: “We can’t decry toxic masculinity in one sentence, but then mock or speculate over a man who displays mannerisms we view as feminine in the next”.
More recently, Shawn Mendes seems to be taking the “jokes” in his stride. In the same Vogue Met Gala video, the singer expresses that he’s enjoying tapping into traditionally feminine styles. “The more jewellery you put on the stronger you become.” Another video by TikToker Connor Wood shows Shawn at a festival. Connor playfully asks, “It’s kind of giving… share,” before Shawn shares his beer with his friend, laughing at the viral meme.
Assuming that Shawn Mendes is gay because he has qualities traditionally seen as feminine is reinforcing the stereotype of what a cisgender heterosexual man has to be. And isn’t that what we’re trying to break down?
As gender constructs begin to bend and break further than ever before, why can’t the queerest generation in history let a young guy just be himself? In 2021, it shouldn’t be confusing for a straight man to wear a necklace or have an equable manner.
To think otherwise? It’s giving… homophobia.