Sex and Gender

If Sam Smith’s new tattoo of a boy in stilettos and underwear is what ‘non-binary gender’ means, then I want nothing to do with it

Nobody will ever find peace by sucking up to everybody, or demanding that others share our delusions. True contentment comes from within, and I hope that one day Smith finds it.

How can a human being be neither a man nor a woman? Sam Smith thinks they are, but what this means beyond grammatically inconvenient pronouns is hard to fathom.

Smith came out in a blaze of publicity two years ago. At the time, the singer explained that being non-binary was “your own special creation.” Last week, a remarkable creation was tattooed onto Smith’s arm.

A boy wearing nothing but underwear and women’s stilettos gazes in a mirror. According to People Magazine, it seems to be a tribute to Smith’s non-binary gender identity.

If this is what non-binary means, I want nothing to do with it. Whether the image depicts Smith or someone else, it should make us all question what is going on under the burgeoning LGBTQQIAAP umbrella.

Gay and lesbian people campaigned for the right to marry someone of the same sex and then hold their hand in the street without being abused. Transsexual people like me fought for the right to change our bodies to resemble the opposite sex and not be fired from our jobs as a result. In the UK – where both Smith and I were born – those rights are secure. Yes, there are objectionable people around, but all the legal battles have been won. The future should be a world where we can roll up our sleeves and contribute to society in the same way as everyone else. The fact that we are LGB or T should be irrelevant.

But for Smith it appears to be a journey in the other direction, where genderqueer identity becomes the defining quality in life, described by they/them pronouns and encapsulated in that tattoo. Smith said last year that, “Queer people all around the world, we don’t identify within those two places. Gender, for me, has been nothing but traumatizing and challenging throughout my life.” I assume that those two places are man and woman; Smith completed the statement, “It’s so hard to explain. I just feel like myself. I don’t feel like a man, basically.”

Who does, Sam?

It didn’t use to be like this. David Bowie wore dresses in the 1970s, but he was a man, because he was an adult human male. 

A few years later, Boy George of Culture Club encapsulated the androgynous look of the New Romantic movement. The band’s number one hit ‘Karma Chameleon’ is perhaps remembered for the evocative line “I’m a man without conviction,” but it follows the preceding statement, “If I listen to your lies, would you say.” Boy George once explained that, “The song is about the terrible fear of alienation that people have, the fear of standing up for one thing. It’s about trying to suck up to everybody.

Neither David Bowie nor Boy George talked about identifying out of being a man. They were men who did not always conform to gender norms. Why, then, does Sam Smith seem to think differently? Putting aside fame and fortune, Smith has had a difficult life:

I’ve sometimes sat and questioned, do I want a sex change? It’s something I still think about: ‘Do I want to?’ I don’t think it is,” the singer said in 2019.

Smith has talked about struggles with body image from an early age, extra estrogen that led to developing breasts and becoming the target of school bullies, then having liposuction at age 12.

Gender identity ideology – the idea that we can identify out of our sex, rather than find our place within it – is tantalising. It captured me for a while, so I can empathise with Smith. But it relies on other people contributing to the illusion, and that is a fool’s game. When I tried to live my life that way it was not enough for others to say the right words, and use the pronouns I needed them to use; I needed to convince myself that they actually believed what they were saying.

I fear that the tattoo will not help Smith find peace and contentment in life. It’s no more than a trapping, like a hairstyle or clothing. Instead it draws ridicule.

Graham Linehan, the co-creator of ‘Father Ted’, told me that, “Writing comedy at the moment feels completely irrelevant when people like Sam Smith are making such fools of themselves for free. How on earth can comedy writers match a tattoo of a ten-year-old standing in front of a mirror wearing only tighty whities and a pair of high heels? It’s grotesque but also very, very funny.

I agree with Linehan – it is grotesque – and putting aside the non-binary angle, it raises questions when an adult male adorns their body with an image of a scantily clad child. But I am a teacher and I also look at the broader picture.

Society has been captured by gender identity ideology. But the idea that men and women are distinguished not by the biology between their legs but by the feelings in their heads is totally without foundation. Gender identity may have been enshrined into law in many jurisdictions but nobody can define it, not without circular reasoning – “the gender we identify as” – or sexist stereotypes. It is pseudoscience; nobody should build their lives on that. 

In one respect, Smith is right: “Non-binary/genderqueer is that you do not identify in a gender.” But they then miss the point by identifying as non-binary, or genderqueer, or whatever. It sounds to me like swapping one gender prison for another.

Much better, surely, to find yourself? A unique individual who has a sex but who is not restricted by that sex. Nobody will ever find peace by sucking up to everybody, or demanding that others share our delusions. True contentment comes from within, and I hope that one day Smith finds it.

Debbie Hayton

Debbie Hayton is a high school teacher and trade union officer. She teaches science to 11-18-year-olds at a school in central England. As a transgender person, she has written extensively about what it means to be trans and how trans people can be included in society without compromising the rights of other vulnerable groups. Her work can be read in publications from across the political spectrum, where rational scientific debate is allowed and encouraged. Follow her on Twitter @DebbieHayton

* This article was first published by on 29 April 2021: If Sam Smith’s new tattoo of a boy in stilettos and underwear is what ‘non-binary gender’ means, then I want nothing to do with it.

By Debbie Hayton

Physics teacher and trade unionist.

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