Taylor Swift at the 2012 MTV Video Music Awards at Staples Center, Los Angeles. September 6, 2012 Los Angeles, CA Picture: Paul Smith

Taylor Swift and fans at the 2012 MTV Video Music Awards | Paul Smith / Featureflash Photo Agency

In summer 2023, it seemed that 34-year-old pop superstar Taylor Swift was at the top of her game. According to Forbes, at over $300 million in ticket sales, her Eras Tour had already grossed more than twice the ticket sales of the number two act, Bruce Springsteen. Sales of the Midnights album topped the Billboard sales chart, followed by her re-recorded Speak Now (originally 2010). At the sixth spot was Folklore (2020), a pandemic lockdown album the singer created by swapping files with her team over the internet.

But she got bigger. After the Eras Tour film dropped in October 2023, Forbes Magazine calculated that Swift had joined an exclusive club: she was a billionaire from her music income alone. 

Then, there was Swift’s whirlwind fall romance with American football star Travis Kelce and a dramatic trip back from Tokyo to watch him win the Super Bowl. Finally, nominated for six Grammys at the 2024 ceremony, she won two, bringing her up to a record 117 awards. “I would love to tell you that this is the best moment of my life,” Swift said as she accepted her unprecedented fourth Album of the Year award, but she felt so privileged to be a musician that she was happy every minute she worked. “For me,” Swift said, “the award is the work.”

Another aspect of Swift’s work is maintaining an almost magically intimate relationship with her large and growing fan base, which includes 53 percent of American adults. Although concert footage features weeping, singing, be-glittered, young women, 48 percent of Taylor Swift fans are men and boys. About three-quarters are white, and despite her progressive politics, almost half of Taylor Swift fans classify themselves as either Republican or independent. 

And fans return the work, not just with their dollars but with their devotion. As happens in spectator sports, people divided over religion and politics unite through the labor of fandom. On a daily basis, they study the object of their devotion as one would a crush, strategizing how to get closer. One 8-year-old girl sold lemonade and the homemade friendship bracelets that fans trade to buy her Eras ticket. In November 2022, thousands of fans rearranged shifts and took sick days to acquire Eras tickets online. Then the Ticketmaster system crashed, shutting them out and causing some to sue the company. The anger was so widespread that it triggered Senate Judiciary Committee hearings. There, right-wing Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) acknowledged the GOP’s recent failure to win back the Senate by nodding to Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and quoting Swift’s “You Belong with Me”: “She’s cheer captain, and I’m on the bleachers.”

Few Swift communities work harder at their fandom than Gaylors, an internet-based LGBT fan community dedicated to revealing secret messages about Swift’s sexuality in her social media and lyrics. Swift herself is partly responsible for this. She embeds “Easter eggs”—secret messages for her fans—in her liner notes, outfits, social media posts, and songs. Searching for these messages is a form of Taylor Swift scholarship and has become more than a hobby: as happened with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton, Swift’s oeuvre has moved into the college curriculum.

But “Gaylor” began as most modern obsessions do: on the internet, specifically lesbian internet forums, in 2008. Fantasy seemed to become reality when an intimate friendship sparked between Swift and supermodel Karlie Kloss. An Instagram post on Kloss’s account in March 2014 shows “Karlie ❤️ Taylor” written in the sand. Kloss affirmed the message in the comments. The two women were constantly in each other’s company, vacationed together, and Kloss had her own room in Swift’s New York loft. At the time, both were also publicly dating men; Kloss became involved with Jared Kushner’s brother, Joshua, marrying him in 2018. (Taylor did not attend the wedding. You decide.)

Despite all this drama, Gaylors were more or less a world unto themselves until January 4, 2024, when New York Times Opinion editor Anna Marks mainstreamed them in a 5,000-word essay. Swift, Marks argued, is not the proud, independent woman in charge of her career and sexuality that she appears to be, but a queer woman condemned to a glass closet by a homophobic music industry. Marks revealed no new evidence about Swift’s private life (and in fact, perhaps for legal reasons, concealed the actual romance with Kelce and speculative one with Kloss). Instead, she did a Gaylor reading of Taylor Swift’s artistic output and political commitments.

The article sparked a storm of outrage. An anonymous spokesperson from the Swift camp denounced the story as “invasive, untrue, and inappropriate,” something that never would have been written about a man. (In fact, Marks wrote a similar op-ed about singer Harry Styles, who Swift briefly dated in 2022.) Lesbian country singer Chely Wright condemned the piece as “triggering,” not just because it cited her own emotional struggles in the industry, but also because “seeing a public person’s sexuality being discussed is upsetting.”

Yet regardless of Swift’s private history and the entertainment industry’s long-standing homophobia, both Marks and her critics have missed two crucial facts. 

It is the queerness of fandom, not the artist, that helps us understand Swift better. By obsessively consuming information available to all and rearranging it into new stories, fans grow ever closer to a beloved who can never really be known. 

At the same time, it is the paradoxical queerness of Swift’s original genre, country music, that allows the artist to create a safe space for LGBT fans.

Born in Reading, Pennsylvania, Taylor Swift began to train as a professional musician in childhood; her parents moved the family to Nashville, TN, in 2002, when Swift was 13. She secured a development deal with RCA that year, and three years later, a recording contract from Big Machine Records. Swift made her reputation in country, transitioned to pop in 2014, and established a second home in New York City, although she remained a legal resident of Tennessee as late as 2018 when she publicly spoke out as a voter against incumbent Senator Marsha Blackburn’s homophobic re-election campaign.

At a lanky 5’11” (a good four inches taller than Beyoncé), she struts around the stage in short-shorts, spaghetti-strap tops, evening gowns, strappy heels, and capes, drenched in sparkles. Swinging her long ash-blond hair defiantly, she points to the outer reaches of the stadium and reiterates her love and appreciation for her fans. Swift’s intimate connection to the almost exclusively white crowd recalls Frank Sinatra, the Beatles, and Judy Garland: girls and their mothers sing along, sway, weep, and if they are close enough, they reach out to the stage to briefly touch the singer’s outstretched fingers.

Although Swift has dis-identified with the country music industry, her performance style, and the relationship that she cultivates with fans, is pure country. She doesn’t dress for men; she dresses for women, showing other women how to love being pretty for its own sake. Swift’s songs, like country music, are narrative and feature unexpected plot twists; they are musically complex, but easy to sing and play; and they feature vivid characters who overcome challenges to find happiness. And like female country artists, her music highlights women’s perspectives on love, romance, and power.

The country music industry also prioritizes relationships with fan communities. Big stars still perform regularly and test out new material at Nashville venues like the Bluebird Café (Swift was discovered there), as well as in medium-sized, regional auditoriums and fairgrounds where a fan doesn’t need much money to get close to a performer. Even at stadium shows, country musicians connect informally with fans, telling stories about themselves between songs (as Swift does), as well as touching, embracing, accepting gifts from the audience, and giving gifts—a flower, a scarf, or in Swift’s case, a hat, in return. 

Like queer kin and friendship networks, “family” in country music is expansive: it explicitly includes performers, songwriters, musicians, and the fans themselves. Following the suicide of her mother and performing partner, Naomi Judd, Wynonna Judd initially canceled what was to be their 2022 farewell tour but then decided she and the fans were more likely to “heal” together. “I want people to know that they’re loved,” she told People magazine. “I want people to know that there is hope.”

Perhaps, then, it is no surprise then that, for all that country performers often reflect personally and musically Christian traditions, and LGBT artists struggle in the industry, it is also a very queer cultural site. Its narrative themes (tragedy, heartbreak, violence, sex, death), gaudy costumes, hypermasculine cowboys (known as “hat acts”), and big-haired women with large busts unselfconsciously teeter on camp. 

Their music has always been easily adapted to the rough and unrespectable realities of queer life. In Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight” (1957), the singer (who, until her abrupt death, had a famously intimate friendship with Loretta Lynn) wanders the streets “looking for you,” not unlike a gay man cruising for sex. Roger Miller’s “King of the Road” (1964) describes a cleaned-up version of the hobo life, an American subculture where men formed families with each other, were sexually intimate, and adopted boys as sexual partners. “We didn’t have money for food or rent / To say the least we were hard pressed,” Reba McEntire sings in her 1990 cover of Bobbie Gentry’s “Fancy,” a story about a streetwalker who makes good. “Then Mma spent every last penny we had / To buy me a dancin’ dress.”

Southern naming practices also make characters easy to re-gender, creating fantasy spaces for queer stories. Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” (1967) probes, but never reveals, the secret of a teen suicide: an ambiguous name, and the lack of pronouns in the lyrics, deepen the mystery of who—or what—went off the Tallahatchie Bridge. Johnny Cash’s darkly comic “A Boy Named Sue” (1969), about a father who misgenders his son to toughen him up, opened a space for butch lesbians to celebrate their masculinity

Country’s narrative conventions also allow listeners to gender-swap themselves into the song. British singer Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man” (1968) evoked religion as an erotic space where young people evade adult surveillance to find pleasure: “Learnin’ from each other’s knowin’ / Lookin’ to see how much we’ve grown … ” 

A product of “Swinging London,” Springfield was a closeted lesbian, but the queer icon who is the most direct antecedent for Taylor Swift is Dolly Parton. Despite her long-term marriage to Carl Dean, lesbian rumors have swirled around Parton for decades. Like Swift, Parton seems to not only have a genuine affection for the LGBT community. She also sports a campy, overwrought glamor that lends itself perfectly to drag: Parton claims to have once entered a Dolly Parton contest at a gay club in Santa Monica and lost. 

Parton normally stays far away from partisan politics, but, like Swift, she has made an exception for the anti-LGBT legislation passed in her home state of Tennessee. She has chided politicians for trying to control the queer world around them, making it clear that she is defending her own family and friends. And she has praised queer artists Billie Eilish and Lil Nas X, who have covered her 1974 anthem “Jolene,” in which the singer begs another woman not to take her man. “It’s really, really good,” Parton wrote on Instagram about the Lil Nas version, which flips the script to tell a story about a man on the down low. “I was surprised, and I’m honored and flattered.”

Taylor Swift’s music and her relationship with fans cannot be understood outside the context of how she has brought country traditions to mainstream pop audiences. One of her most popular songs, “Love Story,” from Fearless (2008), performs a classic country narrative turn that invites audiences to queer the song. Without using any pronoun but “you” until the final verse, the singer gives herself and her lover parts in a timeless play. “You were Romeo, you were throwing pebbles,” Swift sings, “And my daddy said ‘Stay away from Juliet.’” Later, she speaks to the terror and promise of forbidden love. “Romeo, save me, they’re trying to tell me how to feel,” Swift sings. “This love is difficult, but it’s real / Don’t be afraid, we’ll make it out of this mess / It’s a love story, baby, just say, ‘Yes.’” 

Is it any wonder that lesbians took a proprietary interest in Swift in 2008?

In addition, Swift has managed her career shrewdly, thriving despite a music industry that is legendarily unkind and exploitative of women. As importantly, she has largely controlled her own narrative, which is, as Time noted when the magazine made her Person of the Year in December 2023, “one about redemption—where our protagonist discovers new happiness not despite challenges, but because of them.”

It’s hard to believe that if Taylor Swift wanted to come out, that anyone would be able to stop her. They couldn’t. But in the end, it doesn’t matter, because the most gloriously queer thing about Taylor Swift is that when we, her fans, say, “You belong to me,” she always says:


Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Dolly Parton has 12 children. This has been corrected. We apologize for this error, which has since been corrected.

This essay is part of a Public Seminar symposium on the Taylor Swift phenomenon—from fandom to philosophy.