Sam Smith didn’t officially come out as nonbinary. The media came out for him.
Except he didn’t, actually.
In an interview with the Sunday Times, Smith was asked if he considered himself a cisgender man, because apparently that is now a question that will be asked of any queer person by every middling journalist looking for a headline now that we live in a post-trans visibility world.
Smith responded that he didn’t. “I don’t know what the title would be, but I feel just as much woman as I am man,” he explained.
Smith went on to recount that he spent a year wearing women’s clothing in high school, claiming that he would “wear full makeup every day in school, eyelashes, leggings with Dr. Martens and huge fur coats, for 2.5 years.” This is before there were readily available YouTube beauty tutorials, so that’s especially brave.
But never once in the interview did Smith say “I’m gender-nonconforming” or “I’m nonbinary.” He did, however, talk about the album he has out next week. Hmmm.
The issue here isn’t really Sam Smith. Sure, he probably was doing a little too much in hopes that he’d get some good buzz for his new record, but that’s understandable — as is being a gay man who wore makeup in high school. The issue is that every media outlet rushed to applaud Sam Smith for coming out as something he didn’t come out as.
Gender-nonconformity is something the media still on the whole has a hard time grasping and something it certainly doesn’t represent accurately. Self-identified gender nonconforming folks, the few in the public eye, are often trivialized and sidelined from mainstream queer politics, and yet whenever a male celebrity says they wear women’s clothing, they’re immediately lauded as a nonbinary hero — look at all the fanfare surrounding Gigi Hadid and Zayn Malik’s Vogue cover story.
Sam Smith saying he likes high heels and immediately being turned into some kind of post-gender hero is harmful to people doing the work to deconstruct binary notions of gender. It’s harmful to trans women who are called men in dresses. Celebrities are not the only people allowed to own nontraditional gender identities.
If Sam Smith tomorrow says, “Yes, I identify as nonbinary,” that will be a whole different situation. But until that happens, the media should be hesitant to attribute to him an identity he didn’t claim for himself, an identity that is misrepresented and minimized for the people who claim it for themselves every day.