By Joe Jones
In October of 2017, openly gay pop singer Sam Smith came out as genderqueer, stating, “I feel just as much a woman as I am a man.” This was an incredible and brave announcement to make in a world where gender non-conforming and queer individuals are subjected to harassment, prejudice, and even bigotry just for living as their authentic selves. Smith is also one of the first major celebrities to come out as non-binary, introducing the mainstream to an identity that only fairly recently has become a part of the conversation surrounding gender identity.
A couple of days ago Smith took to social media to state from hence forward they will be using gender neutral pronouns. In an Instagram post with a text photo saying “My Pronouns are they/them,” Smith wrote in the caption: I’ve decided I am changing my pronouns to THEY/THEM after a lifetime of being at war with my gender I’ve decided to embrace myself for who I am, inside and out.”
In the wake of Smith publicly changing their pronouns to they/them, the internet was a buzz, and while some criticized Smith’s decision, those in support of the singer outnumbered those in opposition. Celebrities such as Demi Lovato, Jonathan Van Ness, and Katherine Langford all gave words of encouragement to Smith and their decision to use they/them pronouns.
While the response to the news was mainly positive and the world was quick to accept Smith and their pronouns, some were slow to adapt and failed to properly refer to Smith properly. For example, the Associated Press misgendered Smith in an article about their pronoun change. Throughout the article the AP refers to Smith with he/him pronouns, misgendering Smith and completely invalidating their identity and contradicting their own article about Smith’s use of they/them pronouns. The article has since been edited with the correct pronouns. While this may seem like just a simple error, the mistake completely dehumanizes Smith and negates their identity and how they wish to be recognized as.
What the Associated Press debacle reveals is the difficulty for non-binary people to have their pronouns and identities recognized and affirmed by the rest of society. The journey of self-acceptance is a long and difficult one, but there is a daily struggle to find acceptance in the everyday world. Everyday LGBTQ and non-binary people are forced to come out to a world that may not be fully willing to embrace their true selves. For non-binary people specifically, they are mainly advocating for themselves, correcting people when their pronouns are not used properly, and explaining what non-binary means and why they identify as such.
The Associated Press article highlights a major fear for non-binary people, that their pronouns will not be used properly, and their identities will not be respected. It shows that no matter how many times you say which pronouns you prefer, you will just be mis-gendered and branded with a gender marker that doesn’t correspond with how they feel internally. This fear is what may keep non-binary people trapped in the closet, afraid that they will be forever misunderstood and never accepted as their true selves.
One of the reasons non-binary people who use they/them pronouns receive pushback is because of the claim that “they” cannot be used as a singular pronoun. However, “they” has been used countless times to refer someone when the gender of the individual in question is unknown. “They” also has a long history of being used in the singular form. Take this line from William Shakespeare’s, A Comedy of Errors, Act IV, Scene 3 for example:
There's not a man I meet but doth salute me
As if I were their well-acquainted friend
Pronouns are one of the most basic forms of showing basic dignity and respect to others. When our pronouns are respected and adhered to, we feel seen, validated, and included. This is especially important to non-binary people and those who don’t identify with “male” or “female”. For non-binary people, most of their life has been a long and painful road to acceptance and happiness, feeling like outsiders who don’t feel like they belong in this world. There is very little representation of non-binary people in media, such as film and television, and non-binary often fail to see positive representations if themselves reflected in the culture.
For many non-binary people, Sam Smith could be that positive representation they need to feel that they are not alone, that someone out there understands how they are feeling, and can be brave enough to live their truth. Smith and others like them could inspire non-binary people to summon the strength to live authentically the way that feels the most natural and right for them. This story, as well as the way in which the Associated Press improperly and inaccurately covered the story, hopefully will raise awareness for non-binary people and how best we can honor, respect, and support non-binary people and help them to feel accepted and affirmed in society. Together we can change the narrative and make “they/them” pronouns more commonplace and open the door for more gender variant identities to become a part of our lexicon and help create a world where more and more people are able to have the agency to be themselves and be loved and embraced as such.