Sam Smith may or may not have come out as nonbinary.
If you were to Google him this past week, this news was the top result, the product of an interview between Smith and Louis Wise of the Sunday Times:
Does he feel like a “cis” man? “No,” he scoffs. “I mean, I’ve got these tattoos on my fingers” — he flashes two delicately etched Venus symbols, one on each hand. “I don’t know what the title would be, but I feel just as much woman as I am man.”
Louis Wise, Sunday Times
This is the second time that Smith has sat down with Wise. At their first, back in 2014, Wise was primarily set on yanking Smith out of the closet, and Smith wasn’t taking the bait. Three years on, we’re seeing a different Sam Smith. More confident, more queer, more fuckable in a conventional sense, and on the eve of his second album, The Thrill of it All, Smith is more present in the public eye than ever.
In this light, Wise and his editors must be thrilled at what is now being characterized as this second coming out. By throwing around the words “gender nonbinary”—despite them never being used by the interviewee himself—the cisgender media outlets that have picked up the story can count on it drawing clicks from sympathetic and hostile readers alike. Meanwhile, there are bigger questions being left unasked. Most importantly: what does this kind of publicity mean for young trans and queer people?
Smith has been very forthright about how deeply he’s affected by his publicity. Speaking in greater depth with Billboard in early October, he describes a sense of pervasive stress and scrutiny that has contributed to some serious bouts of physical and mental illness. Even with an Oscar under his belt, Smith admits to feeling inadequate, unworthy, and deeply hurting, both in spite and in the midst of his happiness.
His admissions feel uncomfortably familiar; trans and queer people experience incredibly high rates of mental illness compared to our cisgender and heterosexual counterparts. Much of this has to do with the experience of going through the world without the kinds of supportive peer structure or social benchmarks that many folks can take for granted. And as Smith attests, that feeling doesn’t just go away, even with success. In fact, publicity can make it even harder to avoid.
Smith describes a pervasive sense of stress and surveillance—around relationships, his public image, his body image, and a sense of loneliness that makes it hard for him to connect with people. “I’d grown up in an area where I was the only gay guy in school, the only gay guy in my village,” he tells Billboard. “‘I’d definitely be emotionally richer now if I’d had a long-term relationship, but if it wasn’t easy while I was growing up, it’s hardly going to be any easier for me now, is it?’”
His words feel close to home. From an early age, most of us are confronted with the demands of a gendered experience somewhat messily. There’s a blunt matter-of-fact-ness about it that feels almost aggressive: boys do this, girls do that, good morning, good afternoon, good night. And everywhere, there was a sense of being watched. From peers, parents, teachers, co-workers—there was always a pervasive fear of approaching footsteps, of unwanted discovery, of being caught in the act.
It’s a simple formula: when you don’t know how to play with the boys but you aren’t allowed to play with the girls, you get used to playing alone.
I never understood how others managed to make navigating these rules look so effortless. Every other day was some new confusion, and the stakes felt so impossibly high. If boys were meant to be good at sports, wear these clothes, listen to this music, like these kind of toys, or feel this way about girls, why did none of it make sense to me? If I slipped up, how would I know? Would I have time to fix it before everyone else saw?
Many trans and queer people speak to a sense of perpetual surveillance, the sensation of being judged for your queerness, under inspection for signs of gender nonconformance. Skewing too fem or too butch of centre comes with stares. Fucking with traditional ideas of gender expression can be liberating, yet it is also very isolating. It’s a simple formula: when you don’t know how to play with the boys but you aren’t allowed to play with the girls, you get used to playing alone. All of this comes through in Smith’s description of his own experiences: in his interview with The Sunday Times, Smith outlines experiences of bullying, harassment, and even physical assault—the kind of public punishments that come from acting too queer in public. He’s grown accustomed to putting up what he calls a “barricade.”
Trans and queer people are rarely recognized as who we are, yet these decisions are made for us. Don’t get me wrong—I don’t for a second doubt Sam Smith’s experience of gender (I would probably use similar terms if asked). But it’s inaccurate to suggest that he came out, or to gender him in such a public way in spite of his refusal to use any label to that effect. Rather, he was presented with a (frankly, insensitive) question, and he answered it as best as he could in the limited space available.
Outed without actually coming out, labeled without actually adopting a label, Sam Smith is robbed of the chance to explain what it means for him to say: “I feel just as much woman as I am man.”
What’s really happening is that Sam Smith is being gendered without his consent. Moreover, the whole process is oddly derisive. After bringing up the topic solely to yank Smith out of the closet and submit him to questioning, Wise dismisses Smith’s statement as “zeitgeisty”—a five-dollar way of saying that it’s “just a phase.”
This is a conversation that Smith is set up to lose. Outed without actually coming out, labeled without actually adopting a label, Sam Smith is robbed of the chance to explain what it means for him to say: “I feel just as much woman as I am man.” For cisgender authors, editors, and audiences, newly introduced to this kind of language for critiquing gender variance in pop culture, all it means is a clickable headline and a new subject for public debate.
But in spite of this kind of attention, trans and queer artists rarely get the opportunity to dictate our own stories in meaningful ways. Even in conversations centred on Smith’s queerness, he’s denied the courtesy of complexity. There are an abundance of ideas about trans and queer people, but far fewer of our own stories: our narratives are often decided for us, whether we asked for them or not.