I don’t know much about Sam Smith, other than the out gay singer/songwriter has an exquisite voice, hails from England, and accidentally flubbed an Oscar acceptance speech in front of a billion viewers. Oh, and last year, the 27-year-old changed pronouns.
“I’ve decided I’m 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,” they wrote in their Twitter feed.
That weekend, I read a criticism of Smith for choosing these pronouns because they’re “a gay man,” which was seen by the commentator as disrespectful to trans people. At that moment I realized many people, including members of the LGBTQ community, remain unaware that gender identity and sexual orientation are not intertwined. Personally, I know just as many queer trans people as I do straight trans people.
Because of this misunderstanding of the many shades coloring the gender identity and sexual orientation rainbows, I’ve decided it is just as valuable to be an out proud nonbinary individual as it is to be an out proud gay person. So…
Yep, I’m gay and nonbinary.
When I was 5, I told my best friend’s mother I was born a girl but a witch turned me into a boy. I don’t recall if I actually believed that or if it was simply the best explanation my young mind conjured to express why I was different from other boys.
As a preadolescent, I secretly crossed-dressed in my bedroom, wearing wigs and clothes purchased at neighborhood garage sales. During my teen years, I had romantic and sexual relationships with both boys and girls, and identified as bisexual. This was during the 1980s, when androgyny—especially in music (Boy George and Annie Lennox)—was the order of the day. In parts of the U.S. it was easy to embrace androgynous clothes and still be seen as “cool” by one’s peers. So I did.
After high school, I realized that I only fell in love with men, and started identifying as gay. I also began reading books in college about gender affirmation surgery because I thought I might be transgender. The biggest deterrent for me was the lack of guarantee that one could maintain the ability to orgasm.
Illustration of Michael Matson, by Desiree Guerrero
In my early 20s, I contracted HIV when it was still considered a death sentence. I was told I had five years to live. I moved to Los Angeles and began doing genderfuck—a style that blends both gender styles beyond mere androgyny. I got a big thrill one New Year’s Eve when, while touching up my makeup in a bathroom mirror during a go-go dancing gig in Hollywood, I overheard a group of suburban kids debating which gender I was. Having an indeterminable gender made that the happiest moment of my life to that point.
At the same time, I was working for a sadomasochist mistress, playing a “skater boy” for a bisexual client who liked to be tied up, whipped gently, and called a slut. It seemed more silly than kinky. The mistress later saw me dressed in genderfuck and hired me to perform in full female drag. While the work was intended to exclude direct sexual contact, it occasionally crossed the line. One client requested to perform oral sex on me while I was dressed as a woman. He did, but it messed with my head. Whomever it was he desired, I did not want to be that person. I told the mistress I’d still work with her, but not in drag. She never hired me again.
As I immersed myself deeper into the LGBTQ community, I encountered gay auto repairmen and plumbers, and lesbian florists and hairdressers. One would never guess the sexual orientation of these individuals unless you saw them in the company of their romantic partners. I had long believed that my effeminate nature, love of playing with dolls, and hatred of contact sports were just part of growing up gay. But so many of the gay and lesbian people I now knew never “read” as anything but straight. I began to understand that gender and sexuality were not tied together.
Other gay men put me in a box, proclaiming me to be a “bottom” simply because of my effete ways. I did enjoy anal sex, but I enjoyed kissing and cuddling so much more than intercourse. To some men in my community, it seemed gender was determined simply by who was poked and who did the poking. Misogynistic behavior often followed, apparently because they had designated me “the woman.” I always loathed misogyny, long before I knew there was a term for it. Now I was being objectified the same way.
My five years came and went. Protease inhibitors saved my life and the lives of thousands of other HIV-positive individuals. Since there remained a risk of losing my health care due to preexisting conditions, I chose to play life much safer and began peacocking as male. Navigating romantic relationships at that point wasn’t so easy.
I began working in LGBTQ media during my 30s and discovered that some gay men’s misogyny went beyond their treatment of “bottom boys.” It extended to their cisgender (and trans) female community members. I grew to loathe every aspect of misogyny, and found that many of the men attracted to me saw me in the role of a “lesser female.” As much as I loved all things female, I didn’t feel like any gender by this point. Celibacy seemed the only practical choice for me. It lasted for a decade.
Last Halloween, I met a bisexual cisgender male at a club, and we ended up going back to his apartment. It was the best sexual experience I’d had in the 21st century. Not only did we seem to instinctively understand and enjoy each other’s desires, but there wasn’t any of the gender baggage I had encountered in the past. I’ve recently been seeing another cisgender bisexual male and the experience has been quite similar—just two beings enjoying each other intimately.
I don’t know if their bisexuality is a factor, or if it’s just a coincidence. But, it does make sense that gender might be less important when it comes to intimacy for bi-identified guys. Both long-term relationships I had during my 20s were also with bisexual men.
For some people, gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation may be cut-and-dry. And that’s great! For others, one or all could be made up by every shade of grey imaginable. And that’s great, too!
Identities can also morph over time. Mine has. I now see “queer” as a more appropriate description of my sexual and romantic orientation than gay was, because queer is genderless. So…
Yep, I’m queer and nonbinary!
Identifying as nonbinary doesn’t take anything away from the trans community. It doesn’t make any trans or other gender-nonconforming person’s identity less valid. There’s room for all of us in every variation in the queer community.