If you don’t understand Demi Lovato’s nonbinary identity, that’s OK

·5-min read
 (Getty Images for OBB Media)
(Getty Images for OBB Media)

Demi Lovato, singer and teenage movie star, has announced that they are nonbinary and have changed their pronouns to they/them. Lovato took to social media to share their new podcast, 4D, and their self-discovery. “I’ve been doing some healing and self-reflective work and through this work I’ve had the revelation that I identify as nonbinary,” the singer wrote, adding of their new pronouns that: “This best represents the fluidity I feel in my gender expression and allows me to feel most authentic and true to the person I both know I am and still am discovering.”

At the end of their short social media announcement, they invited their audience to join them for a conversation with gender non-conforming model, performer, activist, and author Alok Vaid-Menon about what it means to be nonbinary. The 30-minute conversation explored the differences between being nonbinary and gender non-conforming, as well as how the two came to understand their own gender identities.

On social media, reactions to the singer’s news has been varied. Many fans have expressed support, mixed with some fear of making mistakes and misgendering Lovato. Others have expressed confusion.

Though they are far from the first celebrity to share their nonbinary identity — Pose’s Indya Moore and Rutherford Falls’ Jesse Leigh readily come to mind — Lovato still faces backlash. And confusion is a reaction many nonbinary people have become accustomed to. When I first came out as nonbinary, a family member asked why I couldn’t just be a woman and if I was planning on becoming a man. When singer Sam Smith came out, even trans people expressed confusion around their genderqueer and nonbinary identities. Model and social media influencer Courtney Stodden was met with a great deal of doubt and bemusement when they shared their new pronouns and gender identity.

It is understandable that for some, the idea of being nonbinary is new territory or outright inconceivable. However, it’s actually fairly simple. Nonbinary is a term that describes anyone and everyone who doesn’t solely identify as a man or a woman. Some nonbinary people use gendered pronouns like he/him or she/her. Some use gender-neutral pronouns like the singular they/them or neopronouns like xe/xem. Some nonbinary people use multiple pronouns and may want to be referred to with he, she, they, xe, and so on interchangeably. The only unifying factor is that all nonbinary people identify as more than solely a woman or man.

As a society, we understand cisgender people (those who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth.) We are doing better at understanding trans people who identify as women or men: they were assigned one binary gender at birth and transition to another thereafter. But we resist nonbinary identities (including trans people who identify as nonbinary like myself) because believing nonbinary people about who we are requires coming from a place of not-knowing. Just because you look at Demi Lovato and think you know who they are doesn’t mean you’re right. A person with a beard is not automatically a man. A person with breasts is not automatically a woman.

So, what makes nonbinary identities so hard to grasp? Well, we’ve all been purposely conditioned into the gender binary and anything and anyone that complicates that duality is considered abject. The gender binary refers to the way that many societies today believe there are only two genders: men and women. However, prior to colonization, which forced a rigidly defined binary gender system on many people and cultures, societies throughout history recognized three or more genders and some still do today — from ancient Egypt to Turtle Island (modern-day North America) to the Visayas, part of the modern-day Philippines.

There is a tendency to think of nonbinary identities as a hot new trend. When Stodden shared their nonbinary identity, they were accused of using their identity as a “publicity stunt.” Piers Morgan took to Good Morning Britain to accuse Smith of the same. Lovato has already been accused of using “this announcement [as] their well-timed attempt to get some good press.”

Not only is being nonbinary not new, but the idea that someone would change their gender just for press is wholly offensive. Do some people identify as nonbinary and later change their identity? Sure. Why shouldn’t they? The point of being nonbinary is living outside the gender binary — shifting between identities is a natural extension of that experience. Just ask your genderfluid friends.

In their announcement thread on Twitter, Lovato said, “I’m doing this for those out there that haven’t been able to share who they truly are with their loved ones.” At first, I read that and felt it was a bit trite and perhaps over-ambitious. One person coming out is good, but the wider social implications are nebulous at best.

Then I read the responses online from nonbinary fans and parents of children who are nonbinary. It’s hard to stay cynical when you see how freeing it is for nonbinary people to be ourselves and see ourselves represented in public, particularly when you know their journey hasn’t been easy.

Living with others’ doubt is an unfortunately common part of the experience of being nonbinary. So, too, is the liberation of no longer having to hide or deny parts of yourself to be accepted by friends, family, and society at large.

What’s important to note is: You don’t have to understand someone’s nonbinary identity to want them to be freer, happier, and more of themself.

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