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‘Shipping’, ‘Gaylors’, and ‘Queering’ Idols: Fans Can Find Community, But Is It Ethical?

There is some evidence that fan speculation about sexuality is genuinely taxing on celebrities.

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  • March 1, 2024
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‘Shipping’, ‘Gaylors’, and ‘Queering’ Idols: Fans Can Find Community, But Is It Ethical?

Fandoms are their own universes of creativity, community, emotions and battles. A common aspect of fandom is fanfiction (or “fanfic”): when fans write stories about their favourite characters or celebrity idols. This work is self-published on dedicated fanfic sites, and stories can get tens of thousands of reads.

Much fanfic involves “shipping”: imagining relationships (“ships”) between characters. When shipping involves two men this is called “slash”, and two women “femslash”. A notable example of slash is fanfic on Johnlock, the ship between Sherlock Holmes and John Watson.

 

 

Also read: How Tumblr Raised a Generation of Feminists

However, fandoms are often built around celebrities, not just characters. “Real Person Slash” imagines queer relationships between celebrities, and whole sub-fandoms emerge around queer ships of real people.

This genre is controversial within fandoms because it involves people with actual sexualities/identities. Perhaps nowhere is this more clear than among the debates in the Taylor Swift fandom.

Taylor Swift and ‘Kaylors’

“Kaylors” believe Swift used to date model Karlie Kloss. They also believe several of Swift’s albums were inspired by Kloss as muse/heartbreaker, rather than Swift’s very public boyfriends.

The Kaylor fandom emerged as Swift and Kloss’ friendship developed in the heyday of celebrity social media intimacy, beginning with a tweet from Kloss to Swift in 2012.

Also read: Fetishizing Gay Relationship: When Ship and Fan Fiction Turn Toxic

Kloss and Swift’s public displays dimmed from public view over several years. Kloss married her long-time partner Joshua Kushner in 2018, and they have since had two children together. In light of this, most fans no longer believe Kaylor “is real”, aka, they believe that Kloss and Swift broke up at some point, or were never together.

It is unclear whether Kloss and Swift’s relationship was impacted by the fandom, and whether this changed their public behaviour.

A Shifting Fandom

Many Kaylors have now morphed into “Gaylors” who believe Swift is queer, or who simply enjoy undertaking queer readings of Swift’s lyrics.

Taylor’s music frequently expresses themes around yearning, secret desires, intolerant families, and fear of the judgement of others: experiences many queer people can relate to. There is even a whole annual fan retreat, called “Gaylore”, dedicated to fans coming together to analyse Swift’s body of work through a queer lens.

Many within the Gaylor fandom are also queer, though importantly – and unlike other queer spaces in the real world – you do not have to identify or explain your own sexuality to be part of the fandom.

As my colleague Clare Southerton and I have argued previously, queer shipping practices provide a unique space of queer belonging. These are communities where the collective focus is on celebrating and encouraging queer identification and pride, without having to individually identify – or even know – what your own sexuality is.

Also read: How I Accepted Being an Aromantic and Asexual through Fan Fiction

While no one is pressing Gaylors about their queer legitimacy, perhaps ironically, Kaylorism and Gaylorism is controversial because other fans claim this amounts to speculating on Swift’s sexuality. The heart of the issue with queer shipping and Real Person Slash is the “truth” becomes secondary to the output and desires of the fandom.

Queer Desires

Kaylors and Gaylors “queer” their idol, or in other words, encourage queer narratives where there would otherwise be heteronormative assumptions made.

While for the mainstream, Swift is the canonical “All-American” straight woman, Kaylors/Gaylors suggest an alternative reality.

This is perhaps reminiscent of artist Zoe Leonard’s poem I want a President, released in 1992, which begins:

I want a dyke for president. I want a person with AIDS for president and I want a fag for vice president and I want someone with no health insurance and I want someone who grew up in a place where the earth is so saturated with toxic waste that they didn’t have a choice about getting leukemia.

Similarly to Leonard, the Kaylors/Gaylors have a desire for their “president” to represent counter-cultural existence. They express a longing for an alternative reality where it is possible that the most famous pop star in the world is a queer woman.

But What About the Ethics?

There is some evidence that fan speculation about sexuality is genuinely taxing on celebrities. In his recent memoir Pageboy Elliot Page reflects on the pain caused by conjecture about his sexuality in the public eye before he was ready to come out.

The Kaylor/Gaylor fandom has become so controversial that the main Swift Reddit banned “speculating about Taylor’s sexuality”. In practice, this amounts to any mention of Kaylor, Gaylor or related queer content.

A recent opinion piece in The New York Times about the Gaylor phenomenon also caused a huge debate on the Internet about the ethics of discussing celebrity sexuality.

As some Gaylors have pointed out, given Swift has never “come out” as straight, assuming she is straight because of her public boyfriends is also a form of speculation.

As a result of this fraught debate, Gaylors are sometimes on the receiving end of homophobic sentiments from other fans.

Controversies over Real Person Slash and queer shipping ought to be approached with delicacy from those outside the fandoms. Fandoms are not homogenous groups.

The fights that emerge within these spaces can be intensely emotional, and deeply felt by those caught up.

An understanding of the significance of the community connections built around queer ships, and the subversive desires of these fans in a heteronormative world, must be balanced against the very real ethical concern about the impact of fan speculation, what counts as “speculation” and what causes harm. The Conversation

Hannah McCann, Senior Lecturer in Cultural Studies, The University of Melbourne

This article was first published on The Conversation, a global media resource that provides cutting edge ideas and people who know what they are talking about.


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Hannah McCann

Senior Lecturer in Cultural Studies, The University of Melbourne.

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