Sam Smith’s decision to come out as non-binary has provoked predictable backlash from pundits – particularly rightwingers.
The pop singer announced they were changing their pronouns to they or their via Instagram late last week. “After a lifetime of being at war with my gender I’ve decided to embrace myself for who I am, inside and out,” Smith said. “I understand there will be many mistakes and mis-gendering, but all I ask is you please, please try.”
So far so reasonable. But the likes of Douglas Murray, a conservative journalist, took great exception to the request, calling it “an invitation to torture the language”. Charlotte Gill, one of Murray’s peers, pretended non-binary pronouns could invite all sorts of confusion on Twitter. “Me is confused about how this term will work,” she said.
So far so silly then. Andrew Doyle, a comedian who has made his name satirising social justice warriors, struck more balance in acknowledging “the common colloquial usage of ‘they’ as singular in the case of one whose gender is unknown” – though this point of style is contested by linguistic traditionalists.
Doyle made some fair points about the concept of non-binary resting on a binary interpretation of gender, just as Murray criticised our obsession with identity politics with some force. There are good grounds for thinking we are over-fixated on these issues.
But Doyle’s warning that describing non-binary folk as “they” is about to be imposed by woke diktat (echoed more hysterically by Brendan O’Neill over at Spiked) seems farfetched. The request made by Smith was that we “please, please try” to address the singer in their preferred manner – hardly an onerous one, nor the sign of some impending tyranny.