In 2020, it is impossible to discuss the influence of celebrity culture without mentioning Taylor Swift. Her platform speaks for itself: with over 126 million Instagram followers, the record for the highest-grossing U.S. tour of all-time, and distinction as the only artist to have four consecutive albums sell over one million copies in their debut week, Swift’s social influence and power is undeniable.
However, what is more significant about Swift is how she has chosen to leverage her platform for social change, especially within the past few years. In October 2018, Swift publicized her political views for the first time in an Instagram post endorsing Tennessee Democrat candidate Phil Bredesen over Republican Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn, a politician known for her long history of supporting policies that discriminate against women, LGBTQ people, and communities of color. In acknowledging that she had been “reluctant to publicly voice [her] political opinions” in the past, Swift chose to raise awareness about Blackburn’s anti-LGBTQ record, and declared that she “believe[s] in the fight for LGBTQ rights, and that any form of discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender is WRONG.”
Some have argued her post was far overdue, yet too simplistic. But for Taylor Swift — who first built her career and fanbase in the more conservative realm of country music — the decision to publicize her views was far from a simple one to make. As showcased in her new Netflix documentary Miss Americana, several men on her team, including her own father, heavily advised against the decision, warning Swift of the potential consequences to her career. Since her rise to fame in 2006, Swift was conditioned to keep quiet on political and social issues — a lesson that many draw from the backlash the Dixie Chicks faced in 2003 following their vocal opposition towards President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq.
However, in standing her ground and moving forward on her own terms, Swift’s Instagram letter represented not only her vocal support for LGBTQ equality and basic human rights, but also recognition of her social responsibility to affect positive cultural change. After directing her fans to register to vote at Vote.org, the website recorded a total of 364,000 new voter registrations within 72 hours of her political post, branding it as the “Taylor Swift effect.” Just like that, Swift had joined the political conversation and inspired hundreds of thousands of others to do the same.
As she had been warned yet ultimately accepted, Swift experienced serious backlash for getting political, as the recognition of her potential influence on politics — especially on young progressive voters — sparked public criticism from Republican leaders and supporters. The day after her Instagram post, the National Republican Senatorial Committee published a press release titled “shake it off?” — criticizing Swift’s endorsement of Bredesen. Charlie Kirk — founder of Turning Point USA and Chairman of Students for Trump — took to Twitter to criticize Swift for having “no idea what [she is] talking about.” Kirk also appeared on the morning show Fox & Friends to tell Swift to “stay away from politics.” Even President Trump chimed in on Swift’s remarks, stating that he likes “Taylor’s music about 25% less now."
Instead of backing down after backlash, Swift has only continued to become more politically and socially active, specifically with regard to her LGBTQ advocacy. However, it is important to acknowledge that long before 2018, Swift had publicly supported and advocated for the LGBTQ community. Before marriage equality was even legal in all 50 U.S. states, Swift opened her 2014 album 1989 with the pro-equality anthem, “Welcome to New York.” With lyrics including “And you can want who you want/Boys and boys and girls and girls,” Swift not only gave a shoutout to her LGBTQ fans, but also sent a powerful message of acceptance and equality by publicly supporting an America where everyone is free to love who they love.
In 2016, Swift made a surprise appearance at the 27th Annual GLAAD Media Awards in Los Angeles, where she presented the Stephen F. Kolzak Award to her friend, out actress Ruby Rose. Later that year in June, Swift paid tribute on Instagram to the 49 lives lost at Pulse, the LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando, stating: “As you bury your loved ones this week, please know that there are millions of us sending you love and our deepest sympathy in the face of this unthinkable and devastating tragedy.”
What’s now different about Swift’s LGBTQ advocacy is how she continues to draw mainstream attention to the legal, social, and political discrimination facing LGBTQ people. In April 2019, Swift brought awareness to the "Slate of Hate" — a set of anti-LGBTQ bills in Tennessee — by making a donation to the Tennessee Equality Project, a Nashville-based LGBTQ rights group working to defeat the bills in the state legislature. In June 2019, Taylor Swift spoke out in support of the Equality Act, which if passed through the Senate, would protect LGBTQ Americans from discrimination in employment, housing, and other public accommodations. In a letter to Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander, Swift highlighted the real-world effects of not protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination under the law, and noted that the majority of Tennesseans and Americans at large actually favor legal protections for LGBTQ people. In encouraging direct action from her fans, Swift created a Change.org petition to urge the U.S. Senate to support the Equality Act, which has since garnered over 594,000 signatures.
Swift’s hit single “You Need to Calm Down” shortly followed, which saw Swift use her first-class musical craft to promote messages of LGBTQ acceptance and equality. In the video for the song — which has now been watched hundreds of millions of times on YouTube — Swift consciously spotlighted several LGBTQ creators and celebrities, including Laverne Cox, Billy Porter, the cast of Queer Eye, Adam Rippon, Hayley Kiyoko, and more, ultimately bringing greater visibility to those in the LGBTQ community who are advancing representation and acceptance for LGBTQ people.
On stage last August at the MTV Video Music Awards — one of the most widely watched nights in music — Swift not only called out the Trump administration for its lack of support for the Equality Act, but also welcomed many of those from her video to join her on stage. When accepting the “Video for Good” Award for the “You Need to Calm Down” video, Swift handed the mic over to Todrick Hall — her long-time friend, co-director on the video, and inspiration behind much of her LGBTQ activism — who gave an impassioned speech to LGBTQ youth about the power of authenticity, love, and being different. In doing so, Swift showcased what it means for allies to use their privilege to bring LGBTQ voices to the forefront.
The expectation for celebrities to express their political opinions and use their platform to encourage social change and activism is a phenomenon unique to the age of social media. With Swift’s activism skyrocketing within the past few years, some have been skeptical of its merits, and whether it deserves to be celebrated in the first place. However, Swift’s extremely vocal support for LGBTQ equality and acceptance demonstrates the renewed importance that LGBTQ allies hold in an era defined by political and cultural division.
In a country where LGBTQ acceptance is declining among millennials, where the Trump administration has attacked the LGBTQ community over 130 times since taking office, and where there is an epidemic of violence facing trans women of color, we need voices like Taylor Swift’s to help draw attention to the fact that the fight for LGBTQ acceptance and equality is far from over. In calling out anti-LGBTQ discrimination, advocating for greater protections for LGBTQ people, supporting several LGBTQ rights organizations, and using her music to uplift the LGBTQ community, Taylor Swift has not only empowered her LGBTQ fans and allies to push for greater social change, but she has also used her unique platform to educate audiences that otherwise would be uninformed about LGBTQ issues.
No matter what, there will be those people who will debate the merits of Taylor Swift’s advocacy, just as they did long before she joined the political conversation. However, something that cannot be denied is that Swift is arguably the biggest star in the world. Her unique ability to influence popular culture cannot be understated. If anything, her new documentary Miss Americana teaches us about the nuances of what it means to understand this influence and to use one’s social power to change hearts and minds for the better.
From her fanbase in Nashville to her followings in countries around the world where it is illegal to be LGBTQ, Swift reaches a variety of diverse audiences like very few people can. By choosing to amplify LGBTQ issues and using her platform to push the conversation about LGBTQ acceptance forward, Swift has shown that she will stand by the LGBTQ community in the fight for a world where everyone is equal. And that is something that should be celebrated.
Spencer Harvey is GLAAD’s Communications & Campaigns coordinator.