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Sam Smith's they/them pronoun backlash highlights an ongoing cultural disconnect

Smith is hardly the first celebrity to come out as gender nonbinary. But Smith is still read and understood by society to be a “man,” based mainly on tone of voice and appearance.
Image: Sam Smith
Sam Smith performs during the second day of Lollapalooza Buenos Aires 2019 at Hipodromo de San Isidro on March 30, 2019 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.Santiago Bluguermann / Getty Images

Sam Smith is a gender nonbinary individual. This means Smith uses pronouns that are gender neutral: they, them, theirs. It’s not a particularly difficult concept, but the singer has continued to face pushback from fans and members of the media who are either unable or unwilling to accept Smith’s identity.

The singer first shared their nonbinary gender identity in March but in recent days has politely but firmly doubled down on the pronoun issue in both a new Instagram post and a Twitter thread. “After a lifetime of being at war with my gender I’ve decided to embrace myself for who I am, inside and out,” Smith said. “I understand there will be many mistakes and mis gendering but all I ask is you please please try.”

Coincidentally, Merriam Webster announced this week that it was adding an entry to the definition of the pronoun "they" to refer to a nonbinary individual. Indeed, Smith is hardly the first celebrity to come out as gender nonbinary, although they are arguably the most famous. What is different, perhaps, is that Smith is read and understood to be a “man,” based mainly on tone of voice and facial hair. And of course, Smith has identified as a man for most of their life, including in such hit songs as “Stay With Me.”

This disconnect between appearance and identity remains an ongoing struggle for many in the queer community. It can be hard for those of us who present as more traditionally masculine or feminine to convince others of our genderqueerness.

During Smith’s March interview with Jameela Jamil, Smith said, “When I saw the words ‘nonbinary’ and ‘genderqueer’ and I read into it and I heard these people speaking, I thought f--- — that is me.” And during the years that preceded Smith’s big splash onto the charts, I was slowly yet surely coming to terms with my own gender identity, which I realized was somewhere outside of what’s considered normal by today’s cultural assumptions.

It can be hard for those of us who present as more traditionally masculine or feminine to convince others of our genderqueerness.

Indeed, I remember a similar feeling when Facebook expanded its range of gender labels several years ago. No longer would the social network force people to identify as strictly “man/male” or “woman/female” — otherwise known as cisgender. As I read more about gender-fluid, genderqueer, nonbinary and the many other labels and identities that existed outside the male-female binary, memories from my past came flooding in. And they made a lot more sense.

I reflected upon my childhood, when I put on makeup despite admonishments from other boys or adults. I remember how happy and free I felt when I quietly tried on what’s commonly understood to be women’s clothing. I remembered how safe I felt when I was surrounded by a core group of women who didn’t judge me for my full range of characteristics during those formative years: from the “swish” in my hips to my love of watching pro wrestling on TV.

The news about Facebook’s expanding gender labels came within days of the passing of one of those women. My heart was heavy, but I felt myself smiling as I opted for “genderfluid.” It was a small step, just a toggle switch really, but it was the beginning of a process that would open up my world.

One can only imagine how freeing Smith’s own “aha moment” must have been. Yet it does seem as though Smith anticipated the resulting backlash — one that’s all too familiar for many transgender and gender nonbinary people when they share who they are and their pronouns.

Piers Morgan couldn’t help himself, predictably, questioning the authenticity of Smith’s gender identity and pronouns on "Good Morning Britain." Morgan suggested that gender nonbinary identities are a “fad,” “an excuse for people to be different” and accused Smith of only sharing their pronouns as a publicity stunt to drum up album coverage.

So much for trying, as Smith had kindly asked.

Sometimes, a troll is just a troll. But for trans and nonbinary people, this kind of pervasive disrespect and disregard for their identities and pronouns contributes to higher suicide rates and increased mental health struggles compared to their cisgender peers, according to recent studies.

In Smith’s instance, they are both gay and gender nonbinary. And both of those labels are among the many used to describe a broad range of sexualities and genders that still aren’t really considered normal by today’s mainstream cultural standards, although they’ve existed throughout human history. Even as we make cultural strides toward a more equitable society, those who are seen as most other and the least assimilated always bear the brunt of the bigotry. This queer vanguard changes with time as progress ebbs and flows.

It’s a testament to both the evolution of identity and the evolution of language, as author and transgender advocate Thomas Page McBee wrote in a Twitter thread of his own. “Growing up I related to words now used rarely: ‘butch,’ ‘genderqueer,’ and ‘genderfluid,’” he wrote. “Before I found ‘trans,’ I figured ‘man’ was right but too heavy with restrictions in a way I refused to be. ... Argue with [Smith] all you want, the genius of queer people has always been our absolute commitment to naming our lives for ourselves.”

When queer people use gender-neutral pronouns, we aren’t trying to confuse people or make their lives difficult. We’re simply asking for the small acknowledgement that identity does not stop at his and hers, just as facial hair does not define manhood.

I am tall, with short hair and a carefully trimmed beard. But that does not make me a “man” — even if those characteristics may make me appear similar to current aesthetic stereotypes for men.

As Sam Smith reminds us, there are more than just two ways to best label someone’s gender. But there’s only one way to call someone by their preferred name, pronouns and gender identity: by following their lead.