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28 November 2018

Gay men should know better than to lead speculation over Shawn Mendes’s sexuality

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.

By Louis Staples

Many LGBT+ people have experienced the awkwardness of facing speculation surrounding their sexuality. As a rather effeminate gay man, people knew I was gay long before I did. In fact, I only started thinking I might be gay because I’d often hear people say it about me, just as they’d also use “gay” to signify things that are broken or unwanted.

For gay men like me who don’t conform to traditional masculinity or queer women who similarly flout gender norms, rumours or accusations relating to our sexual preference make it much more difficult to figure it all out for ourselves. Though, as Canadian singer Shawn Mendes has discovered, this type of speculation is rife within the LGBT+ community too.

Mendes has said in an interview with Rolling Stone that ongoing rumours about his sexuality make him feel uncomfortable. He admitted to considering setting up photos of himself with women to “prove to people” he’s not gay and also confessed to analysing his gestures in interviews to understand where the speculation came from. Mendes has frequently stated that he is not gay. In 2016 he said that, while he’s not gay, it “shouldn’t make a difference” either way and there’s nothing wrong with being gay.

It is, of course, not just gay people who were telling then 17 year-old Mendes that he gives off a “gay vibe”. Yet as someone who spends a lot of time online and has a wide network of gay male friends, I can see that there is a definite fetishisation of Mendes that feeds into this unhealthy fascination with his sexual orientation.

Earlier this year the New York Times proclaimed that 2018 is the “age of the twink”. The word “twink” is fundamental to the gay lexicon, referring to a young, hairless and toned man. The article, which cited actor Timothee Chamalet and gay musicians Troye Sivan and Olly Alexander as examples, was widely criticised, but it’s clear that Mendes fits this description. With his handsome looks and flowing locks, it’s not difficult to see why people, particularly gay men, find Mendes attractive.

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Though while lusting after Mendes is fine in theory, the fetishisation of him frequently crosses ethical boundaries. GIFs featuring Mendes displaying “feminine” mannerisms are often jokingly tweeted by gay men when referring to their own sexuality. The fact that Mendes is viewed as “closeted” is mocked and lusted after in equal measure, but it’s important to remember that people stay “in the closet” for many reasons as they attempt to combine their gay identity with other factors like race, class and occupation. Mendes has clearly stated he’s straight, so we should believe him, but closets are no laughing matter. Stonewall <a href="" title="Cmd+Click to follow link”>research suggests that as many as two in five LGBT+ people are not “out” at work in the UK. So while Mendes might not be closeted, plenty people are. Queer identities are valid however openly they are displayed. Closets of different sizes exist in all areas of life and mocking those who navigate them is wrong.

Mendes is right: there is nothing wrong with being gay. But gay people need to remember that he has no obligation to be gay just because they, for whatever reason, think he should be or want him to be. In some cases, malicious rumours combined with a need to fit in can cause LGBT+ people to experience deep shame, ruining years of their lives and even leading to mental health issues or substance misuse. But as we have grown up and hopefully become more comfortable with our identities, it seems many of us have not learned from our own experience and now engage in the speculation that once made our lives difficult.

It is deeply sad that Mendes, now just 20 years old, has been made to feel so insecure that he re-watches footage to study his mannerisms. 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.

It is a bleak sign of the times that someone like Mendes faces such intrusive speculation for daring to be gentle. To me Mendes, who rose to fame on video sharing platform Vine, represents the men of the future. But this invasive speculation, furthered by gay men who should know better, relies on nothing but outdated stereotypes and preconceptions that hurt us all. Let’s leave that in the past.