By Carson Mlnarik
I learned about the gospel of Taylor Swift through my mom, whose car stereo was permanently tuned to country radio. Her first single, “Tim McGraw,” sparked something in me, and I was immediately obsessed — to the point where my family was calling Taylor “Carson’s girlfriend” within weeks. I was 11 years old; it would be six years before I told anyone that I was gay. And it would take even longer — and for Taylor herself to proclaim, “You can want who you want / Boys and boys and girls and girls” — for my family to learn that I didn’t want to date Taylor Swift, I wanted to be like Taylor Swift.
As I became more accepting of my sexuality, it helped that Taylor was growing into an LGBTQ+ ally. And as the years went by, her music, frankly, got gayer.
When she debuted in 2006, Taylor was my middle school confessional queen. She always knew what it was like to be an outsider at the lunch table (“The Outside”) or to dramatically pine after someone who wasn’t into you (“Teardrops on My Guitar”). And while anthems like “Fearless” and “Speak Now” encouraged listeners to live their truths, I was only beginning to realize my truths: namely, that the fixation on male friendships that took up 113 percent of my brain was most definitely a manifestation of some same-sex attraction. I took note, but stayed closeted, especially given that I was navigating my own identity in conservative Arizona.
The fact that Taylor got her start in country music is not lost on me, either; the genre’s current focus on Christian faith, heteronormative imagery, and popularity in states that often vote red (no relation to the album) have garnered it a reputation as the “Republican genre.” You’d be hard-pressed to find mainstream country music by out LGBTQ+ artists, and, until recently, little solidarity with the community by its biggest stars. Thanks to open allyship from artists like Kacey Musgraves and Luke Bryan, that’s changing, but for the most part, they’re still the exception.
Taylor was always an icon in my eyes but it wasn’t until she went pop that her allyship seemed to take form. While “icon” status is a term some people seem to apply like chapstick, “ally” involves putting in a certain kind of work. Taylor had never come out against the community but was an unlikely ally nonetheless, especially considering she came from country and scrubbed a potentially homophobic line from her discography early on. Her first solidly pop entry, however, found her empowered enough to shout out the community and even arguably earned her gay Twitter’s respect. The Reputation era found her taking on a more active ally role: it was then, ahead of the 2018 midterms, that she finally stated her pro-gay rights stance, encouraged fans to vote, gave a Pride Month speech on tour, and made pro-LGBTQ donations.
“I’ve always seen her as someone who’s really accepting of everyone,” Gia, a fan who identifies as bisexual and lives in Scotland, told MTV News. But even she has noticed an uptick in active and affirmative allyship, from both Taylor and her fans.
In the LGBTQ+ community, having an “active ally” — a friend, co-worker, or acquaintance who not only believes in equality but does so visibly with empathy, patience, and recognition of privilege — can make a huge difference. Allies not only promote acceptance in the greater community but can also be sources of information and help. In schools with gay-straight alliances, 91 percent of LGBTQ+ students in the club felt supported enough to further advocate for other social or political issues, and workplaces that have openly supportive senior staff or a company culture of acceptance help employees feel more comfortable in being professionally out.
“Within the last year, I’ve seen a lot more pride [within the Taylor fandom], especially when I attended the Rep Tour and saw other [people] with pride flags,” Gia added.
Gia said she truly realized the extent of LGBTQ+-identifying individuals in the fandom after seeing hashtags like #LGBTQSwifties and #GayForTay. Stan Twitter and Tumblr bios boast rainbow emojis and pride flags, which aren’t necessarily decisions that Taylor had any part in making, but still affirm that there isn’t just space in the fandom for LGBTQ+ fans — we’re welcome here, too.
Jeremy, a Twitter user who identifies as bisexual, has been a fan of Taylor’s since 2006. While he is “definitely happy that she has been more explicit with her stances,” he says her message of “self-love and [embracing] that self loudly and passionately” has always been a source of comfort for him.
“She always inspires us to be proud of who we are, and to ignore those who tell us to be different,” he told MTV News.
For me, that pride took a while to establish, and even longer to give voice to. Still, Taylor was there for me every step of the way: In my junior year of high school, she released a mixed-genre foray into pop that gave us bops like “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” “22,” and “I Knew You Were Trouble,” and I didn’t just enjoy the Red album, I felt it. The emotional LP provided inspiration as I became student body president and big man on campus, but kept my sexuality a complete secret. It would become a source of comfort after I came out to close friends and family but lacked the confidence to do so on a larger scale. It would even become a guide to love and heartbreak after I got — and then broke up with — my first boyfriend.
He left me with bitter parting words: “I’ll never be able to listen to another Taylor Swift song without thinking of you.” I may get that inscribed on my tombstone.
As I started my freshman year of college, I was tired of feeling splintered about my identity. I started introducing myself as gay and going out on dates with guys, with the newly-released 1989 as my companion. While Taylor’s pop departure alienated some people, I found lyrics like, “I got this music in my mind / sayin’ it’s gonna be alright,” take on new weight in the midst of finding myself. If Taylor could start anew, so could I. Besides, what gay doesn’t love a good bop?
We make connections to music based on what we’re experiencing when we’re listening for the first time. Even if it’s beyond what the songwriter intended, their work can often become shorthand for certain times, places, and feelings — it’s chemical. It’s a phenomenon Taylor has even penned about, and while her lyrics, for the most part, describe heterosexual relationships, they do so in such a raw and confessional manner that it never mattered to me. Whether she was calling a boy out by name on her albums or scorning her bullies at the Grammys, there was an echoing theme of never hiding your feelings.
And through her vulnerability and openness, the singer has nurtured a fandom of people like myself who not only unite to feel seen and validated by her music but see and validate each other.
For Grace, who lives in Tennessee and has had a stan account since 2017, having a network of allies and openly LGBTQ+ people in the Taylor fandom has helped her in her own self-acceptance.
“I think a big part of it was just seeing how open other people were about their own sexuality and everyone was super supportive and loving towards them,” she said. “It’s not something that I had ever really seen much of before and it made me feel comfortable enough to accept myself and be open about it. I’m not sure I would be as secure in myself as I am now without it.”
When Taylor donated $113,000 to the Tennessee Equality Project to fight against the state’s “Slate of Hate” legislation, Grace felt directly moved. “I cried at the fact that someone I have admired for so many years of my life was fighting for me directly,” she said.
Arthur, a bisexual trans man from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, said he grew up seeing a lot of “bigoted people in the fandom,” but since Taylor has become a more active ally, he has seen a huge shift. An activist since age 14, he started following Taylor around 2012 in her Red era and knew when she eventually spoke up, things would start to change.
“LGBTQ fans are gaining space, as [are] fans of color, which is so great to see,” he said. “Taylor being more politically engaged helped [make] this change happen.”
Taylor has not only made her stance clear but continues to affirm it. She kicked off Pride Month this year by creating a petition for the Senate to pass the Equality Act, a sweeping policy that would protect LGBTQ people against sexuality-based discrimination. She also shared a letter she wrote to her state senator urging them to pass the bill and encouraged fans to do the same.
“While we have so much to celebrate, we also have a great distance to go before everyone in this country is truly treated equally,” she tweeted.
Taylor is hardly the first pop star to encourage their fans to get political. But as discussions arise around Pride becoming branded and straight people co-opt events, she’s proving to be a pretty good model of what it means to be an active ally in this political climate.
That’s not to say we’re there yet. We’ve still got a long way to go, and Taylor’s even acknowledged it. But as a former purveyor of yee-haw music and a current pop queen, she’s doing what she’s always done best for many of her gay fans: helping us feel seen and heard.