The Pulse

September 18, 2019

How Sam Smith’s Pronoun Announcement Is Helping Push Boundaries

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Last week, singer and songwriter Sam Smith, 27, took to social media to announce they would be changing their pronouns to the gender-neutral they, them and theirs. They began the short thread saying, “Today is a good day so here goes. 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…”

This announcement comes six months after Smith publicly came out as non-binary and after several years of mentioning they don’t feel they fit within a rigid gender binary of man or woman. In 2017 Smith told the Sunday Times, “I don’t know what the title would be, but I feel just as much woman as man”.

According to TransStudent.org, non-binary is the “preferred umbrella term for all genders other than female/male or woman/man binary, and used as an adjective.” When we’re born, a doctor assigns us either “male” or “female” based on our genitals, i.e. the gender binary. It’s like saying “You’re either one or the other.” For many reasons, often worsened by strict gender roles and expectations, some folks aren’t comfortable with the gender identity in which they were assigned at birth, but they also don’t feel identifying as the other binary gender. In this case, they may feel most comfortable identifying outside of these strict bounds. 

In the Twitter thread announcement, Smith followed up saying, “I’m so excited and privileged to be surrounded by people that support me in this decision but I’ve been very nervous about announcing this because I care too much about what people think but fuck it!”

Smith’s use of singular they pronouns, as a worldwide pop star is a deeply personal choice, one that is not only hugely impactful for the trans and non-binary community, especially those who use they/them pronouns, but also on a larger scale. Increased visibility, especially by famous folks with clout and influence, will help to move our culture towards a greater acceptance and embracing of gender and sexual minorities. As one of the few, but growing number of celebrities who identify as non-binary or genderfluid (including Jonathen Van Ness, Amandla Sternberg, Lachlan Watson, Ruby Rose, Jacob Tobia, and more). Smith’s decision to live loudly and proudly as a non-binary person, and to demand our society recognize them as such, is hugely impactful. 

Smith recognizes that it may take some practice, adjusting to they/them pronouns, but ultimately, what is important is that people are actively making an effort to learn their new pronouns. In another tweet in the announcement thread, Smith pleads, “I understand there will be many mistakes and misgendering but all I ask is you please please try. I hope you can see me like I see myself now. Thank you.” 

Sam Smith’s announcement is important for the non-binary community, but also to our society as a whole, as it’s a teachable moment for those who have never even heard of the gender non-binary term. It sparks conversations about what it means to be non-binary, and how there can be so many variations on gender and identity. For example, It’s important to note some non-binary people identify as trans, but not all trans people also identify as non-binary. There are many different ways to be and to experience non-binary identity, and all are totally valid. 

Some people identify as non-binary because they — like Sam — feel just as much of a woman as they do a man. Some non-binary people identify as genderfluid, meaning their gender identity may change over time or even day-to-day. Some non-binary people have little to no connection to either gender (sometimes identifying as agender). Also, not everyone who identifies outside of the gender binary wants to be referred to as a non-binary person. There are many different ways to describe oneself as non-binary that we choose from, such as agender, genderqueer, gender non-conforming, genderfluid, trans-masc, and trans-femme. Which term someone chooses to describe their gender is a personal decision, and often self-defined. What is important is to respect and use the identifiers that the person has requested.

The singular “they” isn’t anything new

Despite what your high school English teacher might have you believe, the use of singular they pronouns to refer to an individual person has been around since as early as the year 1375 and is well-documented, hell even Shakespeare used it. We also do it all the time when referring to someone whose gender we don’t know. For example:

“Oh no, someone left their soccer ball, I’ll bring it to the lost and found in case they come back for it.”

“We are looking for a driver in a black Nissan sedan, do you see them?”

 “My professor mentioned something about the school’s Pride event”, and “Oh really, what did they say?”

While yes, most style manuals still restrict the use of “they” to its plural use, thankfully this is beginning to change, most recently with Merriam Webster’s decision to add singular they to their dictionary earlier this week.

How to use they/them/theirs

Using singular they shouldn’t be difficult, especially if we move away from gendering people before they’ve offered us their pronouns, and default to singular they pronouns. Below are some example sentences that incorporate they/them/theirs.

“Did you see the new video for Sam Smith’s song, ‘How Do You Sleep?’ It’s so good and they look like they had such a fun time filming it.”

“I was talking to Jamie about that book you recommended. They are so excited to read it. I think you mentioned you had an extra copy. Could I give it to them to borrow?”

“I went over to Amy’s house to make banana bread, but their bananas weren’t ripe enough, so we just hung out and watched Steven Universe instead.”

Yes, using they/them and other gender-neutral pronouns takes practice, but language is not set in stone. It never has been, really. It’s always evolving as humans are, so we should always be prepared and open to adjusting our language—and how we speak to and about others.

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Jamie J. LeClaire (they/them) is a sexuality educator, freelance writer, and consultant. Their work focuses on the intersections of pleasure-positive sexual health, queer & transgender/gender-nonconforming identity, body politics, and social justice. You can find more of their work at their website, and follow them on Instagram & Twitter.

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