The Twunk, The Interview, and The Closet
An Examination of Shawn Mendes
I'll be honest. 2018 was the year that I realised that Shawn Mendes was actually a singer. All I knew about him beforehand was that he is cute, and that he has some effeminate mannerisms. Both things are fine, and they've also contributed to the way that queer male audiences engage with him. From very graphic expressions of attraction, to using gifs of him as a way of expressing one's own queerness, Mendes became a rather popular figure on Gay Twitter. However, due to these things, speculations about his sexuality were quite common. On one hand, I understand the mindset between seeing similarities between oneself and a public figure and assuming there is something shared about your identity. I also understand the desire for visible queer representation, especially in popular music.
But, as usual, the internet didn't know when to quit.
His recent interview marks the third time that Mendes has felt the need to assert his heterosexuality, and to be fair I'm glad he did that and didn't decide to queerbait audiences like other young white men who attract a following of queer men have done. In this interview, Mendes does make some interesting points. He says that,
“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 says. “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.”
Upon initial reading, this could seem like the pretty straight boy complaining that people think that he's gay, but what drew my attention was that he addressed his own internalised homophobia.
In my experience, in an attempt to seem like allies to any community, people tend to distance themselves from any internalised prejudices they may be battling with. Unfortunately, we all digest these things and have to work through them, even the most well meaning allies. To have a public figure address it in this way kinda does nothing for the queer community, but hopefully it would inspire other self-described allies to look at their own prejudices and admit them, and then work on them. Mendes then went onto make a point that shocked me. He said:
“I thought, ‘You fucking guys are so lucky I’m not actually gay and terrified of coming out,’ ” [...] “That’s something that kills people. That’s how sensitive it is."
And I sat there, my wig (named Audra) slightly dishevelled from these words, and I thought... "he is right." Being called every variation of "gay" growing up did me no good for when I eventually began to walk in my queerness, and the unsettling notion that people around me not only knew something about myself that I didn't understand but used it against me was traumatic. Young queer people suffer at the hands of gay jokes and assumptions on their identity thrown at them.
The irony here is that Shawn Mendes, a whole entire cis straight dude, had made a valid point on the way that out queer people can potentially treat out closeted queer siblings. I felt myself reflecting on how I had previously treated queer people who existed in "glass closets." As out queer people, it can be easy to forget why people are closeted and what it means for them. The Closet may be a place of hiding, but also a place of protection and self preservation in a cisheteronormative culture. My outness may not necessarily make things easier for someone closeted, and it is not my place to try to figure them out. I'll admit that this is a journey I am still on.
Shawn Mendes being a catalyst for self reflection was not what I expected but anything can happen on The Internet I suppose!
Love Peace and Hair Grease,