I was once part of the anti-Spears chorus. Internalized homophobia made me dismissive of pop music growing up—because divas are revered in queer culture, and because I was unable to see my fearful self reflected in something so flamboyant and free. Then, in 2007, I watched a video that was supposed to make me laugh. In it, a sobbing fan asked the world to “leave Britney alone.”
Before, I had relished in the jokes made at Spears’ expense. But this video shocked me awake. I finally understood that judging Spears wouldn’t keep me safe. That the people who laughed at her when she was down had been doing the same to me for most of my life. And so, cracked open, I embraced her instead (just in time, too—shortly after that she released one the best albums ever made, Blackout).
As it turned out, embracing Spears had an unexpected benefit: it helped me embrace more of myself, too. Though I’d been out as queer for years, the compartmentalizing I’d learned in the closet proved harder to shake, and I still struggled to share the messier parts of myself. But if Spears could be so iconic while also being so human, perhaps I could learn to be less afraid of the parts I’d been tucking away, too. Sure enough, when I met Alex a couple years later, I found someone who not only loved Spears as much as I did, but who also loved me—all of me. He wanted nothing more than for me to be my full self, just like he wanted for Spears.
I’m glad that in 2020 a lot more people caught up with the perspective of Alex and the viral video that put me on the path to knowing him. As Spears enters the post-conservatorship stage of her public life two years later, that video is worth revisiting. “Leave Britney Alone” was originally a rallying cry against the harassment she was enduring from a world that judged her every move. But Spears deserves more than the peace of being left alone; she deserves understanding.
It doesn’t seem that Spears wants to be left alone, anyway—she’s been sharing more than ever lately, primarily through Instagram, though a book is coming as well. After a decade, perhaps a lifetime, of being silenced, she has every right to be heard on her own terms, whether it’s through unfiltered Instagram captions or unclothed selfies. But as people look and listen, I hope they will follow the lead of the stans who first saw Spears as fully human. People like my friend Alex, who knew better than most what it’s like to be embraced at your highest and judged at your lowest.
I see so much of Alex in Spears, who he defended and rooted for long before most of us. Every time she posts on Instagram, I feel a twinge of bittersweet hope that the world might offer her the understanding Alex didn’t always get.
Fortunately for Spears, long after casual supporters have either moved on or rescinded their sympathies, the stans who have always accepted her without judgment will still be there, refusing to leave Britney alone.