There are few unequivocal forces for good in the pop world. One of them is Sam Smith, the non-binary British performer with an extraordinary singing voice, which can rise from a soulful purr through a heart piercing falsetto to a full belt. So impressive are Smith’s vocals that Mary J Blige is on record as saying that, on first listen, she thought they must belong to a black woman.
Their list of achievements, amassed quietly over a decade, is genuinely astonishing – starting with winning the BBC’s Sound of 2014 award for emerging artists and going on to include several Brits, a Golden Globe, Grammys, a GLAAD award, MTV Awards, a Q Award, a Teen Choice Award, several MOBOS, oh, and an actual Oscar for their Bond theme, Writing’s On the Wall, incidentally the only Bond theme to reach the UK number one. Their debut album, In The Lonely Hour, still holds the record for the most weeks spent in the UK Top 10. Their new album Gloria, which comes out this week, looks set to continue breaking ground and breaking records. It’s a hell of a CV.
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But successful pop stars are ten a penny. Chuck a brick in Beverly Hills and it’ll bounce off one and hit another with a similar track record. Sam Smith is different. For starters, they’re the most famous assigned-male-at-birth openly non-binary person in the entire world.
You can’t underestimate the value of that. Non-binary identities have been around for as long as humanity has. There have literally always been people who feel they are neither completely male nor completely female, and those people have had varying degrees of acceptance across that long history. Accepting of non-binary agendas in the modern era has been a rocky road, however. The list of genuinely famous non-binary people is a small one, and of those that have been very public about their gender, the vast majority have been femme-presenting and from an AFAB (assigned female at birth) background – Demi Lovato, Janelle Monáe, Cara Delavigne, Emma Corrin. We find it easier to accept someone who previously identified as a woman crossing that divide.
As the non-binary comedian Andrew O’Neill said in their Radio Four show Pharmacist Baffler, a female politician wearing a suit and brogues looks presidential, a male equivalent in a skirt and heels is a laughing stock. It’s a perception that was weaponised against Eddie Izzard in her own recent attempt to become a Labour MP.