Feature image of Demi Lovato performing at NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert in April 2021
“Every day we wake up, we are given another opportunity & chance to be who we want & wish to be” is how Demi Lovato opened the door to their reveal of being non-binary . They join the ever-growing ranks of non-binary celebrities walking the highways and byways of red carpets. Musicians like Janelle Monaé, Sam Smith and Miley Cyrus that have at some time or another revealed their truths and come out as non-binary, to the consternation of onlookers and pundits everywhere. The cycle repeats every time a statement releases into the world, a new pedestal gets erected under someone announcing they’ve just discovered something about themself while we demand answers and dig for explanations.
Coming out is an occasion, an almost indescribable process to people who don’t have to make grand declarations about their identity to the circles of society around them. For your average citizen without the advantage of a PR firm in your back pocket, coming out involves careful planning, enthusiastic support, awkward sit-downs with friends and families and private cries in the privacy of your 1995 Nissan Pathfinder when a close friend tells you they don’t understand. They rarely involve the grand declarations on social media that afford an influx of affirmations, opinions and critiques from the masses on celebrity watch cycles.
Sadly, it seems that any time a celebrity comes out as anything other than the gender given to them at birth, we dance a little dance with media figures hell bent on digging their heels in on the limited truths they understand. Instagram stories become flooded with infographics that discuss in detail how non-binary is not binary, as the name heavily suggests, and how expansive gender identities have existed since time immemorial. We explain about the proper use of they and them as pronouns literally every time this happens, pointing to original Shakespearean text and other historical clues to catalogue it’s usage, as if it’s ancient history should matter more than it’s modern context. Still, here we are. Fighting pundits and talking heads about how and why they and them are accurate pronouns to use to describe people.
Being non-binary is resigning to an identity that not only do people claim confusion about, but have continued to avoid learning anything about, despite evidence to the fact that more and more people are identifying as such. Skeptics will look for evidence, some clue in the debris that they can point to as to how someone arrived at such an identity.
Someone of Lovato’s stature coming out as non-binary also means non-binary is linked to the scrutiny of their celebrity. Lovato has been a darling young actor on the Disney Channel, they’ve recorded with Selena Gomez and Joe Jonas, been a Guiness world record holding judge on X-Factor and guested on Glee. They’ve been the face of Sketchers and won countless awards: MTV Movie Awards, Billboard and American Music Awards and People’s Choice Awards barely scratch the surface of their trophy cabinet.
Lovato has been nothing if not open about their struggles in the past with addiction and mental health struggles. Being open in such a brutally honest way is a struggle onto itself. Revealing yourself for all the hard parts within is no easy task, only heightened by the level of attention levied at someone like Lovato. When they suffered an unfortunate overdose in 2018, they became that year’s most googled person, a level of scrutiny unimaginable to the rest of us. So naturally, when Lovato came out as non-binary via their social media channels, reactionaries twisted the knife by weaponizing their past struggles against their current reality.
In Lovato’s own words, their 2018 overdose was due in part to their ignoring of their truth, an attempt to escape the answers lingering at the edges of their mind. Sobriety is a difficult road to walk at the best of times, exacerbated by rocky sections that come along when difficult internal struggles come to a head. The questions we ask of ourselves are often hellish to wrangle and wrestle with, especially when they come to matters of personal identity. Being an addict is a complex tapestry and a lifelong struggle with feeling your emotional states in their rawest forms. Relapsing and falling back into old habits is sometimes an unfortunate by-product of too much heavy internal processing. Sometimes it’s easy to fall into old habits to avoid the responsibility born of decisive action.
But to some, Lovato is forever marked by their past. People like Boston radio station KISS108 host Matt Siegel — who lambasted Lovato on-air and claimed they were “troubled” and said he was against their “binary thing” — want someone’s past struggles to be cause, not effect. It’s easy to look at someone with past struggles they’ve been brave enough to be open about and feign concern over their troubles, making claims that they’ve lost their way. Faux concern over someone’s mental health is a convenient mask to slip on when you want to be just a little transphobic. Just as we’ve yet to evolve our collective thoughts on gender, so too have we failed our collective conversation on mental health and addiction. We want mental health conversations to be easy, digestible in small chunks that read well on infographics and in sound-bites. We want struggles to be the root of something but never the branches and the leaves.
Demi Lovato coming out as non-binary is an move forward for the visibility of non-binary identities. They will suffer the slings and arrows of famously using they/them pronouns behind the glass walls of celebrity and will hopefully be given the grace to figure out their identity in their own time as it evolves. Coming out is the first stone dropped into a bottomless well, an endless journey on the way to grasping at a true understanding of it all. Hopefully Demi will be given the space to continue to be a person with career highlights and flaws and troubles within the space of being a non-binary person, without being lionized under the non-binary flag before they themselves fully understand what it means to them.
Perhaps this might be a “Hot Take”, but Matt Siegel is an asshole. I also believe he is now unemployed.
I wish- he is still on the air. Great article Niko, loved this. Especially that cause not effect line.
Really enjoyed this whole piece.
(And to the good ppl at autostraddle: I read Niko’s work on xtra so was happy to see her name here!)
also very excited to see Niko’s work here and i hope she writes more for y’all!
Thank you for this!
Very well written. It may be the optimist in me, but I could see this helping some people understand the impact being closeted and choosing to come out can have on someone’s wellbeing, maybe change some attitudes.
I sincerely hope Demi sees the positive responses to them coming out and not just the ignorant comments.
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I get the concept of visibility. I understand how celebrities have encouraged others to be more authentic by coming out.
BUT. I do think there is a limit to actual understanding when coming from a stranger.
I guess one would want celebrities to be more specific. To explain exactly what their identity means to them, but I find that going too far, a bit intrusive and a lot to ask of a stranger.
But there would be no true understanding if there was no explanation.
And considering gender identities are so…particular, one explanation isn’t adequate.
An explanation of identity may even be a lot to ask of the people in your personal life, but necessary for compassion.
coming out may seem like a first step. But there may have been years of personal/private steps before that.
But coming out is only one step. And it happens repeatedly. And it’s no where near the end just like it wasn’t the beginning.
I guess I’m wishing for a society in which people are comfortable to say, “this is who I am”, instead of, “this is how I identify” because there is a subtle and I think important difference.
One opens itself up to wild interpretation and misunderstanding, the other opens itself up to compassion.
And i’d like to think that we understand “this is who I am” is changing daily, it’s usually called growth. I hope we allow people to grow.
Can you explain more about this sentence- “Faux concern over someone’s mental health is a convenient mask to slip on when you want to be just a little transphobic.” I’m just trying to understand better— why specifically transphobic?
It’s saying that when you’re being transphobic but don’t want to blatantly come off that way, you can redirect to “mental health.” It’s still transphobic because it’s not respecting what they’ve said about their gender.