While Rebecca was falling in love with the music, Swift was starting to build a career in Nashville. It seems comically obvious to state, but the aughts were not kind to gay people in country music (let alone the country). It was considered revelatory when Kacey Musgraves sang “Kiss lots of boys/Or kiss lots of girls/If that’s what you’re into”…in 2013. The Gaylor theory does have legs when you consider that when Swift secured her first music deal, coming out would have certainly meant a career not supported by mainstream labels. And she was an artist who wanted to work within the label system. By 2014, with four albums to her name, Swift was hitting her first mainstream apex (it turns out the woman can really only go up, but it felt like a career high at the time). She opened up a new era in August by releasing the lead single “Shake It Off” off the album 1989.

In December 2014, Swift performed at the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, where she held hands with Kloss on the runway. Just days later, on the night before she would be nominated for three Grammy Awards for “Shake It Off,” Swift and Kloss attended The 1975 concert, where the infamous Kissgate photos of the pair possibly kissing were snapped. According to numerous Kaylor timelines, Swift also liked a bunch of Gaylor-related posts on Tumblr that night. But it wasn’t meant to be. When asked about it by reporters, Swift’s rep said, “It’s sad that on the day it’s announced Taylor has three Grammy nominations for ‘Shake It Off,’ I have to shake off this crap.” Swift allegedly unliked the Gaylor posts while liking ones criticizing the rumors. Then she tweeted: “As my 25th birthday present from the media, I’d like for you to stop accusing all my friends of dating me.”

Just like that, celebrity media largely shifted. Mainstream standbys like Entertainment Tonight argued Swift couldn’t possibly date Kloss because Kloss had a boyfriend, duh. Plus, they had tons of questions to ask about the men in Swift’s orbit if not the women. Swift and her team seemingly had contained the Gaylor theory from breaking past the first round of coverage. That was supposed to be it.

The Clues Were There, If Fans Chose to Follow Them

There is no artist working today who gives their fans what Swift does: curated, intimate access that doesn’t feel curated. It’s part of Swift’s genius. Since the very first album, she’s hidden Easter eggs for discerning fans in the physical world—in separate album editions, in concert programs, in books, and in liner notes—inviting us on a secret journey. Dr. Paula Clare Harper, an assistant professor of musicology at University of Nebraska-Lincoln who studies music, social media, and gender, says Swift’s pull on her fans also came with the rise of niche online communities, giving the relationship an ideal environment in which to thrive.

Taylor Swift and Dianna Agron attend the 2014 American Music Awards.
Taylor Swift and Dianna Agron attend the 2014 American Music Awards.
Photo: Jeff Kravitz/AMA2014 (Getty Images)

“She has come up being really savvy, not just about her ability to craft musical material, but the way that she encourages her fans to behave,” Harper told me. “[Her career] has really dovetailed with how the internet, and communities on the internet, have worked alongside the rise of her as a star.” That connection started on MySpace, a platform Swift used like a teenager—or like any band asking to be put in a Top 8—curating with the care that all of us who learned HTML for our Xangas know well. Nor can Swift’s career rise be decoupled from the rise of Tumblr, the aesthetically pleasing microblogging site that she still uses to connect with fans.

Swift, a millennial by birth, knew these online mediums were the consummate place to bare her soul and sell her art. To the outside world it looked like fans were pulling at invisible strings, making ridiculous connections, when they simply knew Swift better than even the most careful music critic. Inside the Swift universe, the coded language was burning red. “It’s kind of heady and intoxicating to be part of that intense, we-are-all-solving-a-mystery-together feeling,” Harper said. Swifties found each other in these online spaces, often with Swift lurking in the background. From there Gaylors, fans too, formed their own focused discussion spaces on Tumblr, Reddit, and beyond.

Harper regularly studies America’s great divas, and when she stumbled across #gaylor on Tumblr, it turned into a “robust and complicated” rabbit hole of Swift research. There, Harper read fans’ dissertation-level analyses about the musician’s relationships with women, and PowerPoints with slides in the triple digits that broke down how Red was about Dianna Agron (Swiftgron) and reputation about Kloss. She then organized SwiftCon, a multi-day academic conference about all things Taylor Swift in 2021, and joined a panel discussion about Gaylor theory with fellow academics called “I don’t want you like a best friend”—a reference to “Dress” from reputation.

Rebecca came to Gaylor when she started listening to early bootlegs of Swift’s demos. “Her first couple of songs are really simple, but they’re also about girls,” she said. “The more I listened to her demos from before she was famous, I was like, hmm, this is interesting.” But when she went to Reddit to talk about them with the rest of the Swiftie community after the release of folklore, she saw that users “would down-vote posts that were more Gaylor-esque.” It struck her as “very homophobic” and put her off the main Swift Reddit. “If people think that there’s a gay or bisexual motif in the song, let them discuss it. We listen to all of your heteronormative things about Taylor and her whichever boyfriend you think the song is about,” she said.

But like Swift had discouraged any discussion of Kaylor, she also began to discourage the practice of linking her lyrics with her male partners. In the prologue to reputation, really an essay at the start of the album notes, she wrote: “When this album comes out, gossip blogs will scour the lyrics for the men they can attribute to each song, as if the inspiration for music is as simple and basic as a paternity test. There will be slideshows of photos backing up each incorrect theory, because it’s 2017 and if you didn’t see a picture of it, it couldn’t have happened right?” Swift seemed to give up a bit of control, or at least make peace with the general public never figuring out her entire story. Because the fans, they’d know.

It wasn’t just gossip blogs that scoured for explanation. reputation came on the heels of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West’s infamous snake tapes and Swift’s lawsuit against a radio DJ who groped her at a press event. The media (including Jezebel) had a lot to work with when it came to figuring out who each song could be about, as did Gaylors, who had nothing but love for their snake queen. The consensus amongst online Gaylor spaces seemed to say reputation was not about her current boyfriend, but rather Kloss and how Swift was gay for her. For Gaylors, the album introduced a new Swift world full of secrecy to analyze—no matter that Swift didn’t want the lyrics to be hyper-analyzed for relationship subtext, she still welcomed her fans’ close readings of the lyrics as composition. And according to one Gaylor slideshow, reputation introduced the gayest lyrics of all time. At least until her next album.

As a safe space for queer people to gather online, camaraderie was built into Gaylor. One Gaylor forum actually conducted a poll about its members and found a majority were women and only 15 percent identified as straight. Alison, a 29-year-old fan from Australia, conducted the poll, along with other data analysis. “I made a spreadsheet of every single one of her songs, ranked by how gay they are and with different categories based on if it’s an inherently queer song,” she told me. “Like, say, ‘Treacherous’ just is very gay but doesn’t have a lot of links to outside evidence. And then some of them were ranked really highly, based on the fact that a lyric connects to a social media post, which connects to this love interest.” She sees this as her contribution to the lyrical analysis that permeates nearly every discussion of Gaylor.

When Rebecca joined one of the largest Gaylor subreddits, the sense of camaraderie made her realize this was what she needed. It reminded her of those first intense years of discovering Swift’s music, and no more so than when Swift dropped folklore and evermore in the midst of the pandemic. “I’m disabled. I have a chronic lung disease. I hadn’t really left my house in six months,” she said. “So when she came out with new music, I just remember putting it on and hopping in the shower and being like, ‘This is the best thing I’ve heard all year.’”

The Gaylor Community Comes Under Attack

While Swift might have wanted the media to give up decoding, Swifties were still hard at work hunting for new hidden messages and themes in the surprise album folklore. But as Gaylor adherents went pulling at every string, nonbelievers (remember the Hetlors?) railed against them for thinking the woman may like women. This distinct hatred of Gaylors was best exemplified by Bettygate.

“Betty” is track 14 on folklore, and queer fans immediately latched onto its ambiguous storytelling. Later, Swift would say the song was about a love triangle between a boy and two girls, but Gaylors continued to hold onto the themes of yearning and secrecy as evidence of its gay anthem potential. That in turn led to some anti-Gaylor Swifties going so far as to out people who made pro-Gaylor posts to their families or to dox them online.

Brendon Urie and Taylor Swift perform onstage at the 2019 iHeartRadio Wango Tango concert.
Brendon Urie and Taylor Swift perform onstage at the 2019 iHeartRadio Wango Tango concert.
Photo: Kevin Winter (Getty Images)

“It’s this kind of infamous moment for our community that’s become this point of collective trauma for a lot of people,” Sarah, a 27-year-old who moderates one of the most popular subreddits for Gaylor fans, told me. She wanted to go by her first name only because of the Bettygate fallout. The worry remains so palpable that when I posted on one Gaylor forum asking for interviews earlier this year, it took less than nine hours for my post to be locked before it eventually was removed, because people were convinced I would be outing members if I quoted them about Gaylor.

To clear the air: As a bisexual who has dated enough people of all genders to last a lifetime, I no longer personally care if Taylor Swift is gay. While I wish her nothing but the best on whatever sexual and gender journey she might or might not be on, after a decade of decoding this woman’s Easter eggs, I don’t have the energy anymore! Will I continue to give her money via concert tickets and music sales? Yeah. (I spent a lot last year with those re-issues.) I’ve also known about the Gaylor theory for about long as I’ve been buying Swift’s songs (I owned the version of “Picture to Burn” that included “gay” as an insult!), and its endurance interests me more than the outcome of the theory itself. Defenses of her heterosexuality that frame the undercurrent of gayness as something undesirable are pretty awful! Generally, though, I think it’s a good rule of thumb to believe people when they tell you who they love.

I couldn’t find an interview where Swift explicitly stated she is straight; the closest to a disavowal of queerness was a 2019 Vogue interview, when Swift said she hadn’t realized she “could advocate for a community that I’m not a part of.” This was the same time—the quaint pre-pandemic time!—when even non-fans were convinced the woman was coming out with 2019’s Lover. It was marketed as Swift’s first album of full ownership, as it was the first made under an unprecedented contract with Universal Music Group that let Swift own her master recordings. While she did produce lyrical motifs that have been persuasively argued on TikTok as hella gay, Lover was yet another album full of more goddamn Easter eggs to sort through. When she didn’t come out, aesthetically, the era read like queerbaiting.

Though the pandemic and the battle with Scooter Braun for her old masters cut the Lover era short, Gaylors held strong. But even if Lover had given all the markings of a coming out era, complete with a guest verse by pansexual icon Brendon Urie, a LGBTQIA+ anthem packed with queer celebrities (it’s fine), and enough rainbows for a corporate Pride float, 2020’s homophobic response to a fictional song, “Betty,” showed Swifties still weren’t ready for the structiny, and Swift herself might never be.

Swift never spoke out about the fan-on-fan doxxing and outing. Paradoxically, outing is what every Gaylor fan worries they might be doing to their megastar. They want to talk about her potential queerness. They also want to give her the space to come out, as queer fans understand the difficulty of coming out before you’re ready.

Gaylor Approaches the Spotlight

Alison, the data-loving Gaylor, said Gaylors are generally happy to stay out of the spotlight. “As a community, we love sharing our ideas, we love being part of the community, but ideally we don’t want this to become massive and mainstream,” she told me.

That’s the rub, though. Gaylor got close to mainstream again with the potentially sapphic cottagecore albums folklore and evermore, if it wasn’t already there with the release of Lover. The #gaylor tag on TikTok grows stronger by the day, and the hashtag is still a decently active space on Tumblr. There are multiple podcasts that look at Swift’s life and music through a queer lens. Vulture loves to cover the queer overtones in the music and has written about Kaylor shippers. But as their reaction to my post in the forum shows, many Gaylors are hesitant about discussing how their theories are becoming increasingly visible, because while they love Swift, they also fear harassment. I can’t say I blame them. Who the hell wants to get doxxed for posting lyrical analysis of the theme of “gold” throughout a singer’s track list? Not me.

Taylor Swift performs onstage during the 55th Academy of Country Music Awards.
Taylor Swift performs onstage during the 55th Academy of Country Music Awards.
Photo: TASRIGHTSMANAGEMENT2020 (Getty Images)

All this is before we even get to Swift’s current, mostly secretive relationship—cruelly referred to as “Toe”—with Joe Alwyn. As Alwyn starts to get press for the much-anticipated adaptation of Conversations With Friends, online speculation will surely follow. If Swift and Alwyn break up, it’s a win for the Gaylors, who believe this will give her the space to come out and market the release of 1989 (Taylor’s Version) as the single lady album it is. Last month, after days of headlines about Jake Gyllenhaal’s reaction to “All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version),” engagement rumors swirled about Swift and Alwyn. Nothing official every came of this D-list tabloid story (who wants to get engaged in Cornwall in winter?), but if they do eventually get engaged, it will lend credence to the Hetlors. Still, Gaylor believers never take a day off. Swift recently posted on Instagram about how perfect Zoë Kravitz was as Catwoman in The Batman, and Toë was reignited. Even controlling rumors that Swift could be gay is impossible—no matter how talented Swift’s longtime publicist may be.

As we, the collective we, dive deeper back into Swift’s discography with every Taylor’s Version, there will be even more clues to theorize about and conjectures to consider. The Gaylor discourse will only get more intense on every platform, butting up against Swifties who seem to think doxxing and harassment is supporting their star. Despite everything Swift tries to share with her fans, she will remain unknowable. No matter how many times she tries to disappear, everyone—fans, celebrity media, tabloids, haters—will be adding evidence to their archive on the overlaps and divergences of Taylor Swift the Artist and Taylor Swift the Person. Maintaining the level of detachment required to be as famous as Swift must feel Herculean to a woman who loves to cultivate fan relationships. This separation between artist and fans can only grow.

The queer community has long been fascinated by the people who just might, maybe, possibly, could be one of us, and Swift’s love of hiding clues in plain sight invited this curiosity. I understand the hesitancy about dragging dropped hairpins too far into the light. Every time a safe little corner of the internet finds its way to the main stage—either intentionally or by dumb luck—something changes. One Gaylor forum already has nearly 10,000 subscribers. Magic happens when online communities are small and self-contained. I just don’t think it’s possible for anything related to Swift to stay that way forever.

In the introduction to folklore, Swift wrote: “A tale that becomes folklore is one that is passed down and whispered around. Sometimes even sung about. The lines between fantasy and reality blur and the boundaries between truth and fiction become almost indiscernible. Speculation, over time, becomes fact.”

As much as we want to control what’s said, dreamt, and posted about us, we can’t. Like Swift seems to have learned, we’re left with having to make peace with the uncontrollable.