When Sam Smith came out as genderqueer, it felt momentous. When they asked people to refer to them using “they” rather than “he” or “she”, it felt even more so. It could have been an opportunity for increased understanding and acceptance of non-binary identities and alternative pronouns. Instead, the singer became the unfortunate object of a violently transphobic media backlash driven by misinformation and fearmongering.
For identifying as something other than a man or a woman, and for asking people to respect that identity, Sam Smith has been mocked and insulted on national television and in international media.
The ferocity of the backlash should be evidence enough of the sheer scale of discrimination faced by non-binary people today.
Non-binary people make up an increasingly large proportion of the world’s population. According to a recent estimate, one in 250 people identify as something other than a man or a woman.
In Britain, that figure means that there are likely more of us than there are people in Wolverhampton, Derby, or in the City of Westminster.
And yet we still face huge barriers to acceptance and recognition. Non-binary people are currently unable to have their gender recorded on their passport or driving licence. Those of us who don’t take steps to medically or socially transition – who, according to some estimates, make up more than half of non-binary people – are not protected by the Equality Act. In short, we have neither legal status nor legal protection.
We’re also prone to higher levels of mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, self-harm, and suicidal ideation. Many of these issues are symptoms of the isolation and discrimination which so often come with identifying as neither a man nor a woman.
According to one survey, 94 per cent of non-binary people said they had felt uncomfortable in the UK. Every single one of them said they had felt unsafe.
It is telling, then, that Sam Smith ended their announcement with an appeal to people’s better nature: “I’m scared shitless, but feeling super free right now. Be kind.” Like so many other non-binary people, they were painfully aware of the negativity that asking people to respect their identity, and to use their preferred pronouns, can bring. The backlash we have seen in the press and on social media has shown that Smith was right to be scared.
Figures with considerable influence over public opinion have disputed the validity of Sam Smith’s gender identity. Many have misgendered them, often wilfully and maliciously. Their announcement could have paved the way for much-needed acceptance and understanding.
Instead, it has been exploited by ill-informed commentators in what looks to me like a calculated attempt to fuel the hatred that rages against trans and gender non-conforming people, and all in the pursuit of clicks or viewers.
Some people, such as Piers Morgan, have insinuated that Sam Smith’s announcement is little more than a publicity stunt. In The Spectator, Douglas Murray argued that “it is impossible to tell what the difference is between coming out as ‘non-binary’ and simply shouting ‘Look at me’.” These remarks are echoed elsewhere, and reflect a widespread and pernicious misconception in our society that people identify as non-binary for attention.
It’s true that coming out as non-binary tends to get a lot of attention, especially if you’re in the limelight. The reaction to Sam Smith’s announcement is a testament to this. But the crucial point is around the tone and nature of that attention, which in this case has been dominated by the negative. Look more widely, and it’s no surprise. The attention we receive for being non-binary or for using the pronoun “they” is overwhelmingly negative.
Smith’s experience has been a very public example of the mockery, humiliation, and threats, not to mention the very real violence we can face. It comes in the form of double-takes and raised eyebrows on the street, in changing rooms, and in public toilets. It comes in the form of verbal and sexual abuse, and in the curled fist of the man who told me he’d “take me outside and show me what he does to real men” when I tried to use the men’s bathroom.
Others have outright refused to recognise that non-binary people exist. On BBC Radio 4, Douglas Murray said that he didn’t think “there is any such thing as non-binary”. In The Times, Janice Turner went one further, arguing that non-binary identities are “sexist, homophobic and, above all, damaging to the mental health of fragile young people.”
It is patently clear to me that these people fundamentally misunderstand what it means to be non-binary. Being non-binary is not about liking both, say, football and make-up, or about gender stereotypes of any kind. Being non-binary is about experiencing a profound sense of discomfort or displacement in the gender we were assigned at birth, and only finding solace when we stop trying to fit into the categories of man and woman.
Being non-binary is neither sexist, nor homophobic. It is not about reinforcing toxic gender stereotypes, or about excluding effeminate gay men from masculinity, nor butch lesbians from femininity. And if anything is damaging to the mental health of fragile young people, as study after study has shown, it is not allowing them to freely identify in whichever way they feel most comfortable, be that as a man, as a woman, or as something beyond those categories.
However, what being non-binary is, apparently, is to be derided, humiliated, and threatened. It is to be the butt of jokes on national television and on social media. It is to be reminded on a constant basis that we still have no real place in contemporary society. It is to be ignored and disrespected by vast swathes of the population. It is to experience high levels of discrimination and violence, and to lack the basic legal recognition and protection to feel safe.
Given this bleak state of affairs, Sam Smith’s decision to ask people to use “they” and “them” was profoundly courageous. They knew it would expose them to scrutiny and derision on an enormous scale. The tragedy here is that, rather than being used as an opportunity to raise awareness, their coming out has instead been weaponised against them and the very communities they had surely hoped to empower.
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