Four years ago, Miley Cyrus became one of the most famous people to come out as pansexual. But in recent comments about her identity and relationships, she showed a frustrating lack of knowledge about gender and sexuality.
On Sunday, Cyrus spoke candidly on Instagram Live about how she thought she “had to be gay” because “all guys were evil.” She then reassured her 100 million followers that being gay isn’t the only way for women to find a good partner.
“There are good men out there, guys,” she said. “Don’t give up. You don’t have to be gay. There are good people with dicks out there. You’ve just gotta find them.”
It took no time at all for the internet to correct Cyrus on her hugely inaccurate statements about how gender and sexuality work, not to mention her complete erasure of transgender people. By Monday, Cyrus had half-apologized for her comments.
“I was talking shit about sucky guys,” she wrote, “but let me be clear, YOU don’t CHOOSE your sexuality. You are born as you are.”
But this backtracking doesn’t help anyone understand what compelled Cyrus — who launched an entire foundation dedicated to supporting LGBTQ+ youth and other marginalized groups — to spread such harmful messages to her massive following in the first place.
“For a young, queer Miley Cyrus fan, it’s going to assert the worst things that kid is already thinking about themselves,” said CJ Atkinson, a queer and trans writer, and educator. “That their queerness is something ‘broken’ about them and that they can be ‘fixed.’ … It would be great for people [like Miley Cyrus] to understand that their platform has real-life repercussions.”
Being queer is not a choice. It’s something you recognize about yourself on your own timeline — not because you’re dissatisfied with your dating prospects, but because it’s who you are.
It’s a worn-out stereotype to claim that queer women “turn” queer because they can’t find a good man. This mindset invalidates those queer women who have no interest in dating men, and it’s unfriendly to bisexual and pansexual women, whose queerness and interest in men happily coexist. It also gives fodder to the idea that queer people can be “fixed” through conversion therapy or even sexual violence.
Perhaps most significantly, Cyrus’ comments hold up heterosexuality as the goal to which we should all aspire, and relegate queer love to second-best. In reality, finding joy in your queer self is far from “giving up.”
“Famous people who’ve come out as members of the queer community have to know that young people are looking to them as role models,” said Becca Mui, education manager at the LGBTQ+ education nonprofit GLSEN. “When queer people fall back on gender stereotypes, it understandably causes hurt, confusion, and outrage.”
Jamie J. LeClaire, a sexuality educator, and writer, echoes the concern that Miley’s comments are detrimental to the singer’s younger LGBTQ+ and questioning fans. To counter those messages, LeClaire said, supportive adults must have intentional conversations with young people about gender and sexuality.
“Celebrities can be wonderful advocates, but at the same time, we label people ‘advocates’ who aren’t necessarily doing all the work,” they said. “The lack of queer-informed sex education is really inhibiting a lot of the conversations we could be having with kids, especially ones that could be getting their messages from people like Miley Cyrus.”
Miley’s comments miss the mark on transgender inclusion, too. Not all “people with dicks” are men, and not all men have penises. These restrictive definitions of gender are hurtful to trans, nonbinary, and intersex people, who already face high rates of discrimination and stigma.
“Talking about gender [in a way that’s] so binary erases trans folks,” said Ryan Cassata, a queer and trans musician, and activist. “It makes us feel less than. It makes us feel other. It makes us feel eliminated from dating.”
It’s disappointing when an LGBTQ+ celebrity uses their platform to disseminate toxic ideas about queerness rather than affirming ones. This moment is an important reminder that there’s a difference between belonging to a marginalized community and being a spokesperson for it.
“It’s important for us to recognize the amount of pressure public figures are under, especially when they share a marginalized identity,” Mui said. “In some ways, they can be expected to represent a wide-ranging and diverse community. People are hurt because of what Cyrus said, but they’re also hurt because it shows she has more learning to do.”
It remains crucial to uplift the thoughtful, inclusive educational resources that do exist. LeClaire adds that there’s no shortage of LGBTQ+ role models sharing positive messages for queer and trans folks everywhere.
“There are amazing people to look up to within the queer and trans community who are active, outspoken advocates,” they said. “I think it’s very important for the youth to find those people.”
Mui added that sex education classes can be opportune spaces to discuss topics like gender stereotypes, toxic masculinity, pansexual identity, communication, and more through the lens of current events. She said queer adults’ responses to Cyrus offer teachable moments about “callout culture,” modeling for young people how to be empathetic when someone messes up.
“Queer young people are definitely being raised in a callout culture,” Mui said. “Sex education can be another way to address that, and help young people not just extend that [understanding] toward public figures, but toward themselves and each other.”
Our understanding of queer identity and community is always changing, and all of us — Miley Cyrus included — are constantly learning. Hopefully, this moment can open a dialogue that encourages Cyrus and others to learn more about these issues from different perspectives and to advocate for LGBTQ+ people in a way that’s empowering and unifying.