On *NSYNC and Being a Lesbian Who Loves Boy Bands

feature image photo by John Shearer / Contributor via Getty Images

The year 1998 was a big one for me: My world had been rocked ever since I saw Angelina Jolie’s boobs in the movie Gia on HBO. It was also the same year I fell in love with *NSYNC. In my mind, there was never a conflict between those two things. I could want Angelina to kiss me like she kissed Elizabeth Mitchell, and I could also want Justin Timberlake to kiss me like that, too. But as a 12-year-old girl, I didn’t have the language to share those latent bisexual feelings with anyone else. How could I explain to someone that when I went to see Armageddon twice in the movie theater, I was interested in Liv Tyler just as much as I was interested in Ben Affleck? I couldn’t, so I decided to keep the parts of me I couldn’t explain to myself until I could explain.

Liking girls was a thing I couldn’t figure out in relation to liking boys. It was always a feeling that simmered below the surface, and only I could access it. When you’re very vocally boy crazy, how do you add in there that there are some very specific girls who make you crazy too, even if you don’t have the words for it yet? You have to remember, it was the late 90s, and bisexual wasn’t a word that got used often in my world. It would be years before there were queer female characters on TV shows for kids or teens, and I didn’t really watch a lot of TV back then anyway. I was all about music. Musicians like Hayley Kiyoko and Fletcher were still learning how to tie their shoes — female singers who sang the kind of pop music I loved were definitely not queer.

Being super vocal about things I love is a huge part of my personality, so of course when I was a teen, all I talked about was boy bands. It was the thing I cared most about. Algebra has yet to serve me, but you never know when you’re going to have to explain that the letters of *NSYNC are actually the last letters of each of their first names and that the original fifth member of the group was named Jason. My love for *NSYNC became a core part of my identity. I say they’re baked into my DNA, and I’m really not kidding. Without them I would have never met some of my dearest friends, started my interest in pop culture criticism, or found my love of writing.

When I was in high school, I discovered fanfiction, and it became yet another obsession. It started with *NSYNC, even though I did occasionally read fics where the boy bands cross pollinated. Fanfiction was actually one of the ways that I could explore my bisexuality. I didn’t write sapphic stories, but I enjoyed reading them when I could find them. I remember reading them late at night when I was sure my parents were asleep, the same way I had watched Gia on HBO multiple times. I would never print it out and read it the way I had stacks and stacks of *NSYNC fanfic (both het fic and slash) printed out to read whenever I wanted. Despite the volume of fics I had, I kept them largely hidden. Even though I hid them (even the het fic), it felt easier to explain to my mom why I was reading stories where the members of *NSYNC were gay than why I was reading stories about Christina and Britney getting it on at a slumber party if she ever found them. Because then I would have to admit to her that I was attracted to girls, and I didn’t know how to have that conversation, or if it would go over well.

I never used my love of boy bands to cover my attraction to girls. Mainly because I didn’t have to; people in my life did it for me. When all you do is talk about Justin Timberlake, people just assume you idolized Christina Aguilera and not that you wanted her to kiss you. It was easy to keep my bisexuality tucked into my back pocket back then because it was still so abstract to me. I had never met a girl in real life that I wanted to kiss or date, so why did I need to tell anyone?

I did consciously hide behind boy bands to explain why I rarely had crushes on real life boys. I had a few crushes in middle and high school, but those boys felt abstract, even when I saw them in the hallway every day. Sure, I liked seeing them, and they were nice, but I also wonder how much of that was me liking the idea of a boy but not really liking them romantically. Most of my friends in high school had boyfriends, so even though I didn’t see myself as less than because I didn’t have one, I wanted one so that I felt included in their world. As much as I attributed my lack of a boyfriend to being awkward around boys, I also knew how to pursue someone I was attracted to. I spent the entire summer of 2003 hooking up with a girl, and even though she initially suggested the idea of hooking up, it took me no time to run with it.

When I told my friends that I had spent the summer hooking up with a girl, it was not well received. I don’t know if it was because they could not reconcile the version of me who spent all of her time writing Justin Timberlake fan fiction with the version of me that was hiding behind cars kissing a girl, or because of their own internalized biphobia. Either way, it sent me running back into the closet.

During my “aggressively heterosexual” phase of life (aka my twenties), I buried my fangirl tendencies because I thought guys would find it weird. This proved true with my boyfriend. He couldn’t seem to accept my love for JT, nor did he appreciate the way I swooned over him. When *NSYNC reunited at the 2013 VMAs, he was ambivalent about my excitement, and didn’t support me the way I hoped he would have. He knew I loved them as a teenager, but he didn’t seem to ever want to understand why they meant so much to me. He also knew I identified as bi, but he was really only ever interested in it if it could have served him in some way.

It’s no surprise that my coming into my queerness coincided with my becoming reacquainted with my fangirl side. Those two things are intrinsically tied deep in my mind. But unlike when I was 12, I leaned way more into the whole liking girls thing than I had before. Now that I was choosing to live out loud as a queer woman, I couldn’t shut up about it. One of my friends from middle school remarked that my whole identity was being queer and astrology and iykyk.

My reaction to this year’s *NSYNC reunion is no surprise to anyone who knows me really well. I have been waiting for this day since 2002, and there was no way that I was going to shut up about it. While most of my fangirling has been happening irl (sorry to my amazing partner who has to hear most of it!), I have also been posting about it incessantly on social media. It’s really good that social media didn’t exist back in the day; I would have probably gotten in a million discourse arguments about boy bands.

But in my posting haze, I started to think about something that never occurred to me before. So many of the people I interact with regularly on social media have little to no idea about how much of an *NSYNC fan I am. How could they; the band has been broken up for 21 years!

For the last five years, I have been very loud about being queer on social media. It’s basically the totality of my online life. I have gained a lot of followers because of it and created a bit of a community in my way. And since my brand became being queer, would people be turned off by my sudden simping for the boy band that made me? Is it weird if I post memes about eating pussy in my Instagram stories and then follow it up with a picture of Justin Timberlake and the drooling emoji? In my mind, I’ve never had to reconcile those two parts of myself, but when so many people see me one way, how do I make it clear that those parts are two halves of a whole?

As I posted story after story — a clip from *NSYNC’s episode of “Hot Ones”, a reel of them acting out the dialogue from Friends as a teaser for their single from Trolls, still photos from the VMAs — I began to wonder if my fangirling was changing anyone’s opinion of me and the way I represented myself and my queerness on social media.

It’s taken me a long time to get comfortable with who I am — language, and the discourse around who can use certain self-identifying words have led me to really grapple with who I am and how I see myself. Bisexual isn’t a word I use to describe myself because it’s not a word that fits me anymore. But if I say I’m a lesbian* (*except my love for Justin Timberlake), are people who are lesbians without the asterisk going to tell me I’m not who I know I am? Some people may say it’s internalized biphobia back to rear its ugly head, and I don’t know if that’s true. I am not afraid of being bi; it simply doesn’t feel like that’s who I am anymore. Unlike in my teens and twenties, I don’t want to have sex with Justin Timberlake. I’d kiss him to fulfill the desires of 12-year-old Sa’iyda, but then I’d be like, “this has been a blast, do you want to go get cheese fries?”

Also, it may sound ridiculous, but I wonder how to tie my queer self together with my *NSYNC loving self from a branding standpoint. One of my writing dreams is to write a nonfiction book about the 90s boy band craze, more specifically about *NSYNC because they’re my favorites. But since so much of my writing is about being queer, will it get in the way of one of my ultimate career ambitions? Do my queer readers and followers want to read my analysis of the greatest boy band of all time? (PS: if you do, you can here.)

If you had to make me into a pie chart, being queer and loving *NSYNC are basically the same size. They’ve both informed so much of who I am that even if I sat down and tried to undo the knots of each part, there would still be a ball of string holding them together. Even if I’m freaking out about it, maybe it’s okay and I’m freaking out for no reason. My very online brain tells me I have to be stressed about how my fellow queers perceive me or else I will fall victim to discourse. If liking Justin Timberlake didn’t change the way I felt about girls when I was 17, does it really matter now that I’m 37?

I don’t think I have an answer for that, so I guess I’m just going to stream “Better Place” for the millionth time and chill out.

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Sa'iyda Shabazz

Sa'iyda is a writer and mom who lives in LA with her partner, son and 3 adorable, albeit very extra animals. She has yet to meet a chocolate chip cookie she doesn't like, spends her free time (lol) reading as many queer romances as she can, and has spent the better part of her life obsessed with late 90s pop culture.

Sa'iyda has written 125 articles for us.

9 Comments

  1. I recently listened to Tearin’ up my heart on repeat and its scary how those lyrics relate so well with my last sapphic breakup. That connection soothed my inner closeted adolescent quite a bit. Love this article!

  2. There was a wonderful documentary called I Used to Be Normal about several generations of women and the boy bands they love, one of whom was a lesbian Take That fan. Although I should warn the diehard *NSYNC fans that one of them was a Backstreet Boys fan who talks about how she didn’t like *NSYNC because of the rivalry!

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