Shawn Mendes, like early 2000s Lindsay Lohan, is tired of rumors startin’.
In a lengthy profile released Monday in Rolling Stone, Mendes opened up about anxiety, his love of weed and the rampant speculation about his sexuality on the internet. And he spoke about how that speculation has heightened his anxiety.
“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,” Mendes told Rolling Stone. “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.”
Mendes’ sexuality has, as he notes, been an internet obsession for some time. Every time he strays outside the acceptable bounds of heterosexuality — like saying he’d buy Justin Bieber’s used underwear — theories begin to swirl. Mendes isn’t even always the source. In March, the official Twitter account for the gay romcom Love, Simon tweeted to Mendes — “Dear Shawn, There’s nothing holding me back. Love, Simon” — prompting criticism from people who felt the account had gone too far. The constant back-and-forth has led to several calls to *extreme Chris Crocker voice* leave Mendes alone. And he even took to his Snapchat to address the rumors.
“I noticed a lot of people were saying that I gave them a ‘gay vibe,’” Mendes says. “First of all, I’m not gay. Second of all, it shouldn’t make a difference if I was or wasn’t.”
In the past, I myself have vacillated between caring and not caring about Mendes’ struggle with public perception around his sexuality. Sometimes, I’ll think that, if someone thinks he’s gay and Mendes himself says being gay isn’t a bad thing, then why does it matter? Then I remember how people would hurl “gay” at me as an insult as a non-out baby gay. Even when I was gay, it hurt because I knew the person saying it had the intent to otherize and shame me.
But that’s not what disturbed me most in Mendes’ account. What I found kind of harrowing was Mendes’ account of the behavior modification he’s undergone to quell the rumor mill. According to the profile, Mendes watches videos of his own interviews and analyzes his voice and body language to try and masc up.
“He’ll see an anonymous stranger comment on the way he crossed his legs once and try not to do it again,” Rolling Stone wrote.
Most of what Mendes does is recounted in the Rolling Stone profile through prose, not through direct quotation, but it is disturbing either way. While reading the piece, I didn’t see Mendes as a straight person who had to deal with some gay rumors, but as a person who is comfortable with the masculine and feminine parts of himself being forced to feel uncomfortable about his natural femininity. In a way, Mendes has had to become his own version of a homophobic parent, forcing himself to change the way he naturally speaks and acts to appear more macho in public. And, ultimately, it’s collective external femmephobia (from the internet) becoming internalized femmephobia.
To curb the results of acting even a little bit outside the bounds of what society deems acceptable for straight men, Mendes has to self-flagellate and literally change who he is. It means that there’s a little less femininity in the world and another person who has begun to internalize that acting outside of gender norms has negative consequences.
Yes, in the end, Mendes leads a very privileged life few will get to experience. He’s a multi-millionaire with tons of adoring fans and, as an artist, he creates work that gets made and marketed to millions. He doesn’t experience a fraction of the ridicule or violence that LGBTQ people, especially transgender people (and especially especially trans women of color) experience daily for transgressing rigid norms. But, we don’t need to play oppression Olympics with Shawn Mendes. While he may have it better off, his story is still a testament to the insidious ways that homophobia, femmephobia and misogyny all work together.