Li was one of thousands of One Direction fans waiting in line outside the O2 World Hamburg arena three years ago when something happened that would shift their identity as a Directioner. "A mother of a fan saw a teeny, tiny gay pride pin I was wearing, and she went off about it,” Li, who is now 28, recalls. “[She asked] how could I, as an adult, be allowed to be at a show like this when I support views like that?” Li, a longtime Directioner who uses they/them pronouns, had seen the band perform in Berlin two days earlier and traveled to Hamburg to see them again. Until this point, Li had never encountered homophobia or small-mindedness at a One Direction show. “It was traumatic," Li says. "I got angry and upset.” Then Li noticed a young same-sex couple nearby, witnessing the whole exchange. “[They] were very scared to see what was going on a few feet away from them. That was when I woke up and thought: Something has to change about the way homophobia is entering this fandom.”
That 2013 incident became the catalyst for Li to launch Rainbow Direction, a now-global campaign whose initial goals were to create safe spaces at One Direction shows and provide educational resources for fans navigating their sexual identity. As soon as the show was over, Li looked in the crowd for their friend and fellow Directioner, Kat, who had recently cofounded Take Me Home From Narnia, a Tumblr-based group aiming to battle homophobia and hate in online fan communities. Says Li, “I told Kat we’ve got to do something about this. Next time I’m going to a concert I want to bring a poster or something that says, ‘We’re here as queer people, and we’re just as much fans as anyone else.’”
Since then, Rainbow Direction has grown into a vocal presence in One Direction fandom, emphasizing the message that the band's concerts and conversations must be inclusive spaces for LGBTQ fans and allies. Li, Kat, and their fellow organizers are located around the world, and include employees of the European Federation of Associations and the Government of Canada. They currently number around 20 active volunteers; at the group's peak, before One Direction’s current period of Delphic hiatus, these numbers ballooned to over 130 fans who united around the goal of bringing positive visibility to the global community of queer Directioners.
The organizers' other initial goal was to have at least one key participant representing them at each stop on One Direction's Where We Are tour in 2014. They passed that benchmark during the first legs of the tour, in South America and Europe, and hosted their first official meet-up before a show that July in Düsseldorf. The crowd at Esprit Arena that night was decorated with scattered banners and messages of support, including rainbow flags bearing the lyrics “you make me strong” and t-shirts declaring, “Standing in One Direction against hate.” When the band returned for the On the Road Again tour in February 2015, their European shows regularly saw hundreds of fans meeting up with Rainbow Direction organizers to make signs, bracelets, and heart-shaped crafts to distribute before concerts. “By the time the On the Road Again tour started,” Li says, “we had a well-established team [and] a website with a map system that allowed people to sign up themselves.” By their estimate, Rainbow Direction volunteers hosted more than 200 meet-ups across the world during One Direction's 2014 and 2015 tours, bringing together nearly 8,000 fans.
Rainbow Direction's pride flags and handmade hearts have major IRL visibility at concerts, and not just One Direction’s — Li and their team have also used their platform to spread the word about similar fan-run campaigns for Taylor Swift, Troye Sivan, Ed Sheeran, Little Mix, and former One Direction member Zayn Malik. But the bulk of their work happens online, where a dedicated behind-the-scenes team offers personalized advice to young fans who reach out with questions about their sexuality or requests for real-world resources. “Rainbow Direction was able to create a safe space and a sense of home to people who weren’t out to their families, or who may not work in a real-life space that was as accepting or educated as we need them to be,” Li says. The campaign forged bonds and had a lasting impact, particularly for people who didn’t have an equivalent network in their daily lives. “U guys have made me feel so accepted and loved and just much more comfortable with myself and I'm so thankful for that!” one fan wrote, anonymously, on the Take Me Home From Narnia blog last year. “Every new rainbow sign or report about the boys or other fans being supportive makes me really warm and fuzzy inside and had me realize that maybe staying closeted isn’t my only option.”
The effect was mirrored in Li’s own life: Before Rainbow Direction, they’d never walked in a Pride parade, and had kept the details of their identity close to their chest. “Now rainbows follow me everywhere I go," Li says. "I join protests and gatherings when I can, I volunteer at LGBTQ+ events and voice my opinion on Facebook, where people know me personally and I am not afraid of being loud about it anymore. Thanks to amazing trans and non-binary people I met through Rainbow Direction, I understood that my gender was not a stupid idea my brain came up with when I was 17, but that there was actually a word for it and that it was OK for me to respect and celebrate myself.”
Before becoming involved in Rainbow Direction on a grassroots level, 25-year-old Anne was working on an AU — a term for fan fiction based in alternate universes — about a fictional boy band. On a recommendation from a friend, she watched the One Direction documentary, This Is Us, and was immediately hooked, drawn to the playful and affectionate bond between members Liam Payne and Zayn Malik. “Their dynamic and the way they were comfortable with it was what drew me in, in a very superficial way,” she says. Anne is queer and has been out since her teens, but since getting into 1D two years ago, she says her sexual identity has been very much connected with her love of One Direction. “They’re gorgeous, and I have a cardboard cutout that I stole from work in my room," adds Anne, who requested that MTV not use her real name. “[But] it’s not like I’m attracted to them. A big draw for me was the queer subtext.”
The Liam-Zayn dynamic that Anne picked up on wasn’t unique in One Direction, a band where the 'shipping of different members is commonplace and practiced in every possible combination: Ziall (Zayn and Niall), Narry (Niall and Harry), LiLo (Liam and Louis), and, most famously, Larry (Louis and Harry). The possibility that there could be something more intimate beyond the playful touches and lingering glances between two of the boys onstage is a reinforcement that many fans like Anne have desperately longed for. When online fan communities explore the fantasy that the biggest boy band on the planet might be keeping secrets of its own, a world where these fans could be out and proud seems within arm’s reach. It’s rare for young queer kids to see positive reflections of themselves in popular culture, so the act of filling in the blanks and believing — hoping — that Louis and Harry’s matching ship and compass tattoos mean what some fans want them to mean is part of a very real need to be seen and understood.
This reflects a fundamental shift in the way pop fandom works in 2016. In many cases, because the internet has offered fandoms the opportunity to broadcast their own ideas and experiences, the bands themselves have been demoted to runners-up, replaced in fans' hearts by an urgent desire for representation and queer survival. In the world of pop music — where straightness is the presumed default and girls are expected to watch boys sing about girls and pray that one day they’ll be sung about too — fans like Anne are cherry-picking elements of band members’ identities to engineer relatability, hoping instead for a reality where male band members fall in love with, and write songs about, one another. Instead of lining their lockers and schoolbooks with photos of cute boys with swoopy hair, they’re designing elaborate posters and visual aids at concerts to send palpable messages about queerness and hope. They are linking arms and listening to one another, while the band that brought them together is reduced to something like background noise.
Whether it’s through writing AUs and fan fiction or drawing fan art, queer Directioners are putting themselves into the narrative of this band en masse. That sense of community was more visible than ever on One Direction's 2015 tour. In a stunning act of organization and cleverness, Rainbow Direction last year began feeding its full community — now numbering tens of thousands of followers across their social channels — maps of the stadiums and arenas where the band played. Each image was superimposed with a rainbow flag, dividing the seating chart into colored sections corresponding to the hues of the flag. The maps made it easy for fans to screenshot their section’s color without the need for an app or complicated instructions. During a specific song in the set, they’d pull up the screenshot, raise their phones in the air, and help make the stadium into a shining rainbow flag.
One Direction appeared to join in toward the end of the tour, when the stage lights during "Girl Almighty" — a track from the 2014 album Four that has since been retrofitted by female fans to express their own romantic love and self-assurance — were redesigned to flash in a rainbow pattern.
After hearing about Rainbow Direction on Tumblr, Anne organized a meet-up in Baltimore, where she lives, and headed to a second show when she was visiting Buffalo, New York. The Baltimore meet-up was held at a random coffee shop coincidentally located on the corner of Pratt and Gay streets; fans helped one another design posters, and painted rainbows on their cheeks over cups of coffee. Anne remembers someone stopping them on their way to the show to ask them if it was Pride weekend (it was actually August). During the Buffalo show, a comparably quieter response had Anne overcompensating by cloaking herself in a Pride flag and carrying a sign emblazoned with the One Direction lyrics, “Nobody can drag me down.” (“On a rainbow, surrounded in glitter,” she says.) She took heart when a random concertgoer caught her eye to give her a reassuring thumbs-up from the crowd.
“I’m a very out and proud person,” Anne tells me carefully, speaking more slowly than she did during the rest of our conversation. “I put a lot of personal emphasis on being as loud about myself as I can be, because I spent so much time in my life having people tell me that I needed to hide that part of myself away. So it is important to me, in basically every situation, to be able to communicate openly and honestly about who I am. If the opportunity presents itself where I can literally show up to a concert with, like, a big-ass rainbow flag … I’m going to take it.”
That show in Buffalo became significant for Rainbow Direction — and for fans like Anne — when Harry Styles, during the song “Act My Age,” waited until the Jumbotron’s cameras were focused on him before mirroring Anne and wrapping a similar rainbow flag around his shoulders.
This was not an out-of-character display for the singer, who is surely very aware of the hope and encouragement his LGBTQ+ fans take from seemingly small acts, like when he wears Michael Sam’s Rams jersey during a concert in St. Louis, or says the gender of a partner is “not that important,” or wishes an audience “Happy Pride.” “Every time a band member has openly displayed or acknowledged a rainbow — for example, Niall calling for marriage equality in Ireland, Louis with his rainbow-themed shirts, and Liam pointing out rainbow-colored posters and talking about them onstage — the LGBTQ+ side of the 1D fandom has grown to feel stronger, more validated, and most of all welcome, whether that was tied to Rainbow Direction or not,” Li says. Moments like these cause the fans to rejoice because they feel heard and seen by the people they’ve spent years looking at and listening to. In those moments, the exchange between artist and fan offers the potential for a relationship that’s reciprocal. They validate the visibility that is so essential to the well-being of queer fans. “I remember what it was like to be young and closeted and not entirely sure of who you are,” Anne says. “And I know that when I was in that position, it did help on some level to see people who were old enough and secure enough in who they were to be out and proud.”
To many commentators, last year’s announcement that One Direction would take an indefinite hiatus instead of touring their fifth album, Made in the A.M., spelled an inevitable end for the band. Many assumed that the fans would stay strong for a point, before dropping away and moving on to the next big thing. But assuming that a band ends when the music stops is a display of ignorance about why they exist in the first place. One Direction — and any pop act whose fan armies congregate and communicate independently of them — will only dissolve when there is no one left talking, tweeting, and Tumblring about them. The band exists as the source material, but it’s what the fans are doing with that syllabus that really unites them.
Author Lev Grossman has said that the act of writing fan fiction is “not about simply churning out more and more iterations of existing characters and worlds … it’s about doing things with those existing characters and worlds that their creators wouldn’t or couldn’t do.” For queer Directioners, doing what the creators couldn’t do means putting themselves first; it means prioritizing the stories and experiences of historically dismissed or oppressed people over the heteronormative party line that the band and its fans are jointly expected to operate under. The fans who have found, here in their fandoms, a safe space to retrofit their favorite pop music and pop stars to align with their queer perspectives are actively working to represent themselves in the pop culture they’re expected to passively consume.
One Direction was the first boy band to be fully realized as an online phenomenon. Using the massive power of the internet, Directioners have been able to bring themselves closer to the band and each other, and the result is a community that understands its importance. The act of imposing an LGBTQ+ narrative on a publicly straight group of young men is a radical one, and when Directioners reject the idea of how boy bands and their female fans are supposed to engage and interact, they seize power in the exchange. When you are no longer simply watching someone else's idea of love, but instead insisting that it be made available to you, you are reminding the world that you matter, that your survival is both possible and essential.