‘They just wanted to silence her’: the dark side of gay stan culture | Social
Ahead of Britney Spears’ record-breaking show at Brighton Pride this year, Aaron Hussey noticed a fellow fan wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a picture of Spears’ nervous breakdown: the 2007 incident when, head shaved, she attacked a photographer’s car with an umbrella. “I think he thought he was being funny,” Hussey says. “He wasn’t.”
“Brightney Pride”, as it has affectionately been nicknamed, was one of the biggest events of the gay calendar – so big that 4,000 revellers were left stranded once the city’s heaving public transport system failed under the pressure. Surely only dedicated Spears “stans” – the most dedicated kind of fan, a portmanteau of “fan” and “stalker” taken from Eminem’s hit about a crazed follower – would have braved these conditions to glimpse their idol. So why the cruel taunt?
Gay male culture has always coalesced around female pop stars, from Judy Garland to Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande. Academics and critics have puzzled over the source of this connection, their often misplaced theories ranging from the outlandish to the oedipal. But gay men and the women they worship are usually happy to bask in the mutual affection. This year, Spears was honoured with an award by the US’s Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (Glaad) for promoting equality. She responded by saying the gay community had shown her “unconditional love”.
But “unconditional” is often precisely what this love is not. Scratch lightly at the surface and what flakes off is, yes, reciprocity and genuine affection, but also callous misogyny.
One theory of the gay fan-diva link is that of shared oppression – gay men and women are both ground under the wheel of hetero-patriarchy. Perhaps in that model, the Spears T-shirt could be read as a show of solidarity, a knowing acknowledgment of her pain and our understanding? But there was nothing knowing in the way another gay fan photoshopped an umbrella into his meet and greet photo with the unwitting star and later circulated it online. These actions have a distinct edge of mockery, the air of a joke that their subject is not in on.
Dr Michael Bronski, a Harvard University professor and the author of books on queer history and gay culture says “There is a long history of gay male fan culture latching onto famous women and then turning on them. Queens would come to a Judy Garland concert and then scream at her when she was too drunk to finish it. The women have changed – it’s no longer Marlene Dietrich and Judy Garland. But the dynamic remains in western culture.”
The love-hate dynamic of gay stan culture that Bronski describes is now largely mediated through social media. Heckling in smoky nightclubs has been replaced by “hate memes”, when stans circulate unflattering edited pictures or examples of a star’s least-becoming behaviour, while the cheering has morphed into a lexicon of superlatives and put-downs that may seem impenetrable to the uninitiated: “we stan” favoured female pop stars, they’re “iconic”, a “kween”, an “unproblematic fave”. “She outsold” describes both someone’s commercial successes and a general sense of their superiority. Anyone who fails to meet those standards? “Fat”, “flop”, “failure”.
This online community relies on a dense matrix of references and neologisms informed by everything from drag culture to reality TV. Sami Baker is 21 and a self-professed gay stan – his favourites are Grande, Beyoncé and Charli XCX. He explains that the culture reaches further than many beyond the community might realise, citing the example of the recent avalanche of memes of reality star Gemma Collins. “They originated from gay stan Twitter. The language used within this culture is taken from the same place that Drag Race gets its lexicon,: namely the underground subculture where LGBT people compete in various drag and performance categories, documented in the film Paris Is Burning, and an inspiration for Madonna and Beyoncé.
For many gay men, Baker and myself included, gay pop stan culture is the distillation of everything meaningful in life. That statement reeks of camp melodrama, but it’s true. To my teenage self, women like Lady Gaga were the only light in a world where my queerness left me feeling like an outsider. As I grew up, the process of connecting my love for them with a wider culture of fandom enhanced my realisation that I was not alone as a queer person. “As I learned more about pop culture and references, that’s when I found people with the same interest,” says Baker. “These same people became my friends, my support network.”
It is hard to overestimate how meaningful the fan-diva relationship is for gay men. What is so perplexing is why this pseudo-religious devotion has always been laced with spite. Earlier this year, pop singer Hayley Kiyoko criticised Rita Ora, Cardi B, Bebe Rexha, and Charli XCX for their single Girls, a song about bisexuality that she, as a lesbian, thought was appropriative. Within hours, stan Twitter had unearthed and circulated incriminating tweets by Kiyoko from nine years ago (when she was 18) in an attempt to “cancel” her – excluding a person entirely from online discourse, except as the target of hate memes – for daring to critique a song they liked.
For Adam Byrne, a 23-year-old gay stan, this was a prime example of gay misogyny: “They didn’t care what she had to say. They just wanted to silence her”.
For him, this behaviour typifies gay stan culture: female artists must obey the rules or suffer the consequences. “A sinister side emerges when their ‘fave’ isn’t giving them exactly what they want,” Byrne explains. “Often jokes made at their expense are said in fun but it’s grim to see the joy [the community] sometimes takes in seeing these women fail: ‘She’s over!’, ‘Flop!’ ‘This era is dead!’ Look at the smug tweets about Nadine Coyle cancelling her tour; the way Katy Perry became gay Twitter’s punching bag.”
Baker says: “I’ve seen stan Twitter make jokes about the Manchester attacks, Demi Lovato’s recent overdose, Beyoncé’s skin tone, Noah Cyrus’s appearance.”
Much has been written about the “queer art of failure” – how queer people are always viewed as failures by heteronormative society, and thus must make a success of their own non-conformity. Perhaps, in this context, it’s unsurprising that gay men seem to revel in the perceived setbacks and shortcomings of their stanned subjects. But the sympathy one might expect to accompany this identification seems absent. The behaviour is less like a playful poke in the ribs, and more like a slap in the face.
Just last week, singer Marina Diamandis – an idol of the gay community – tweeted back to a fan who is part of the gay stan community after he sent her an abusive tweet. “There is a fan culture of degrading people online that I’m really not into. I haven’t been on social media a lot the past 3 months because I suffer from depression and the negative comments really affect me,” Diamandis posted. “Marina omg please don’t take it the wrong way I’m a stan and this was just intended as a harmless joke,” the fan protested. As Diamandis herself pointed out, stan culture can fail to grant humanity to the subjects of their worship.
Even when gay men aren’t raining outright abuse on these women, their praise can sometimes reveal different forms of misogyny. One recent trend is to laud women by hailing them as “skinny” or a “skinny legend” – a trope that took off with a meme about Mariah Carey. Though it is used figuratively to imply flawlessness, it is revealing that a word historically used to police female physicality has naturally evolved in the gay male vernacular. Can it be anything other than chauvinist body-shaming?
Indeed, “skinniness” is just one of many hyper-feminine traits that gay men seem to prize in our stanned women. Helen Moynihan, 23, is a self-identifying queer woman who says the stanning of Ariana Grande exemplifies precisely what is problematic about gay male idolatry. “Often I think gay men only see beauty in hyper-feminine, not butch, women,” she says. “It made me laugh when Grande was called a queer icon because she is the least queer person to me: someone who’s always trying to escape hyper-femininity.”
Grande’s blinding highlighter, swinging ponytail and heels are ubiquitous hallmarks of the gay stan hall of fame. Buzzcuts and Doc Martens are few and far between. It’s conditional love again – do we only stan the “right” type of women? Other forms of gay culture are similarly plagued by this insidious heteronormativity – men on dating apps like Grindr use refrains like “masc4masc” to praise masculinity and shun femininity in other men.
It’s important to remember that gay male culture exists at the confluence of many social currents, including wider male misogyny and societal homophobia. It is easy to apportion blame to gay men who are merely trying to find escapism and belonging, and to scapegoat behaviour that is universal. “In our culture of binary, heterosexual dysfunction, men hate women,” says Bronski. “It just so happens that some of them are gay.”
This is an important qualifier. Stanning itself is not exclusively homosexual territory – Eminem, the originator of “stan”, is hardly a queer icon. Dr Lynn Zubernis is a professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania and an expert in fandom. She says the bullying behaviours found in gay stan culture are common to all fandoms.
“Because the object of a fan’s adoration becomes very important to the fan’s happiness, when there is some sort of disappointment, that brings a strong – and sometimes problematic – response. That is the dynamic behind the ‘mood swings’ you see in fandom, where fans love something one day and turn on it the next. It’s not about misogyny. It cuts across gender, sexuality, type of fandom, even time. Sports fans sometimes turn on star players in the same way. I don’t think it’s a male-female thing or a gay-straight thing. I think it’s a human thing.”
However, not all fandoms operate with the same power dynamics. In football, the vitriol Dr Zubernis uses for comparison takes on a new dimension when it intersects with racism. In gay stan culture, gender does not just occasionally intersect with online hatred – it defines the landscape. The abuse and objectification of these women is distinctly gendered – any man, gay or straight, tweeting “fat!” at a woman is unarguably misogynistic.
Gay men and pop’s women alike benefit from the mutuality of their “special relationship”. Spears is unlikely to have noticed one nasty T-shirt through the love heaped on her that day. But with gay male misogyny being discussed more widely than ever, in terms of our nightlife, queer spaces, and social movements, what does it say when this relationship is often so heartless? What kind of permissiveness are we helping to cultivate around misogyny? Deep down, do we really know what it means to love these women?