Social Anxiety: Sam Smith and the Complicated Matter of “Normalizing” Gayness
The British pop singer says his sexuality is a “non-issue,” but what does that do for the queer community?
In her bi-weekly column, Social Anxiety, Emilie Friedlander peeks underneath the artifacts of contemporary culture to question what it all really means. This week, The FADER's executive editor Jessica Robertson steps in for a special guest edition.
I spent time with Sam Smith over two days in Berlin earlier this year, for one of our four FADER 92 Summer Music Issue cover stories. He was two weeks shy of his 22nd birthday, in the throes of a compact European tour in support of his debut album, In the Lonely Hour. By the time we met at his hotel in Kurfürstendamm, Smith had already told reporters the story behind the inspiration for the album: he’d fallen in love with someone who didn’t love him back. We talked at length about love and relationships, and Smith spoke of the former with the wide-eyed innocence of someone who’d internalized an idealized version of that emotion. It made sense: a self-professed romantic, he was young and inexperienced. I, two weeks shy of turning 31, opened up to him in return, even sharing with him that most of my own relationships, significant or otherwise, have been with women. It wasn’t until we revisited the subject of unrequited love in a follow-up interview that, for the first time, Smith stopped using gender-neutral pronouns (“someone”) when discussing the object of his affection, and instead, said “he.”
It wasn’t momentous. After he revealed that he’d been in love with a man, the conversation continued openly and rather casually. He never labeled himself “gay,” nor did he proclaim this revelation a “coming out”; he’d already done that in his personal life. (The FADER, in turn, didn’t categorize Smith as “gay” or use the phrase “coming out” in the story; I personally still wouldn’t, unless he chose that as his label.) Smith stressed that he was comfortable with his sexuality, and expressed a desire to present it to the public as a “normality”—something that needs no discussion or special attention. “I’ve been treated as normal as anyone in my life; I’ve had no issues,” he said. “I do know that some people have issues in life, but I haven’t, and it’s as normal as my right arm. I want to make it a normality because this is a non-issue. People wouldn’t ask a straight person these questions.”
Smith assumes some privilege here; it’s easier to normalize queerness by making it a “non-issue” when acceptance is what you’ve always known. In many ways, I can identify with him. I assume a lot of privilege, too; I’m a thin, white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, college-educated, able-bodied, young-ish woman, who, physically, aligns with the socially constructed idea of femininity. This privilege often allows me to “pass” as heterosexual, an orientation that comes along with an even greater degree of social privilege. For that reason alone, I’m often quick to note my sexual orientation to others whenever the subject of sexuality is broached. While, like Smith, I’d say being gay feels normal, there’s a paradox at play here, one of which Smith, like any queer person with a public platform, is surely well aware: queer visibility and activism are imperative to equality. But visibility—publicly acknowledging oneself to be different—runs contrary to the ideal of cultural assimilation. In fact, it's the opposite of blending in.
What Smith exhibits, in part, is post-gay ideology, “post-gay” being a term coined by British journalist Paul Burston in 1994 to connote the willful disassociation from certain stereotypes within gay culture. In an academic article for Princeton University, Canadian sociology professor Amin Ghaziani points out that the term found an American audience four years later, when Out Magazine editor James Collard employed the phrase to assert that gays need no longer define themselves by their sexuality. Post-gay ideology is often used as a means of cultural assimilation (i.e. we’re all the same on the inside!), and is rife in current popular culture. Television shows like Showtime’s Queer as Folk and The L Word, for example, which were built around their, well, gayness, have been supplanted by shows like HBO’s Looking, ABC’s Modern Family or FOX’s Glee, where gay characters appear in the storylines, but sexuality isn’t the story. While the march for equality necessitates some variance of post-gay ideology, considering queerness a non-issue (because, well, look how far we’ve come!) can become synonymous with a kind of status quo politics. It does little to advance the cause of activists engaged in the battle for gay rights; nor does it do anything for those who, unlike Smith, currently face real issues surrounding their queerness.
Last week, Gawker writer Rich Juzwiack dissected some recent comments Smith made about popular dating and hook-up apps like Tinder and Grindr, the latter of which is for exclusive use by gay men. In the interview in question, Smith said he doesn’t use either app, preferring in-person interaction to technology where matters of romance or love or sex are concerned. Juzwiack astutely noted that, while it’s perfectly fine for Smith—or anyone, really—to prefer one approach to dating over the other, “the anti-app/anti-hookup stance also falls in line with the greater conservatism guiding Smith's presentation to the world as a gay man. His philosophy is, in short, to be gay, but not too gay.” According to Juzwiack, Smith’s desire to disassociate himself from Grindr is not just a disassociation from technology; it’s a disassociation from the hook-up culture and hyper-sexualized stigma surrounding gay men.
"The question is less, ‘If gayness is treated as a non-issue, does it become a non-issue?,’ than ‘How can we recognize difference while still advocating for equality?'"
Conflicted by the Juzwiack article, I asked S. Pearl Brilmyer, an assistant professor of English at the University of Oregon, who specializes in queer studies, to share some of her own thoughts about post-gay ideology, and, in particular, Smith’s desire that his sexuality be viewed as “normal.” Brilmyer came back to me with the suggestion that asserting one’s sexuality as a “non-issue” is an attitude more in keeping with an ideology called homonormativity, one which doesn’t seek to protest social and cultural norms so much as uphold them. To understand homonormativity, it’s important to understand heteronormativity. The latter is an ideological assumption that everyone is straight, and that their behavior aligns with their gender, which aligns with their biological sex. For example, it’s the assumption that any biological male will have sex exclusively with biological females, and act masculine, as the social construction of gender dictates. Conversely, women will sleep exclusively with men and act feminine. Homonormativity, unlike heteronormativity, does not assume that everyone is gay, but it applies heteronormative standards to the queer community. This gay ideology relies heavily on cultural assimilation, disassociation from gay stereotypes and acting in ways more socially accepted as normal. It’s particularly tied to capitalist consumption and middle class sensibilities: the belief, for example, that people can sleep with people of whichever gender they prefer, but that they should still strive for marriage, a home in the suburbs and family life. In other words, queers should act straighter. Brilmyer writes in her email to me:
“[Homonormativity] is very harmful in that it perpetuates the notion that normality is a precondition for equality. Of course, the desire to present gay culture as ‘normal’ stems from the desire to further the cause—to persuade those who might be threatened by those who are different from them by convincing them that those who appear different are really ‘the same.’ (And, to be sure, this can be an effective strategy.) But in the process, it erases the very difference it sets out to defend. To me, the question is less, ‘If [gayness] is treated as a non-issue, does it become a non-issue?,’ than ‘How can we recognize difference (all the issues!) while still advocating for equality? How can we convince others that we should end discrimination not because everyone is really deep down "the same" but precisely because they are different and we want to preserve that difference—and allow yet more differences to emerge?’”
It’s unrealistic to think that Smith, or those like him—public figures in position of significant influence—could represent all things to all people. He is, in some ways, a scapegoat; he’s young and inexperienced, and cannot help his privileged background. His neutrality, while not inherently right or wrong, may also be something of a professional mask; he's a rising pop star, after all, and considering the significant major label money interests at play, it’s quite possible his gay public presentation is very different from who he really is in his personal life. But there’s a pitfall of being a public figure and opting for normalization, one which Brilmyer summed up pretty brilliantly for me in her email: “Even if that's what he genuinely wants, why not use his position of privilege to tell the world that it’s OK if you don't want that, if your desires are weird, if your family doesn't accept you, if you can't get a job because of your gender presentation? Should equality be awarded only to those who are ‘like’ the majority (or those in power), and thus, should we encourage queer people everywhere to not make their sexuality ‘an issue,’ so that they will appear less threatening? Or should we channel our energies into fighting for rights for those who haven't or are never going to be ‘treated as normal’ because of their race, sexuality, promiscuity, gender identity, etc.?”
While it may be unfair to expect Smith to meet all expectations thrust upon him by the public—especially at such a young age—they’re questions he’ll inevitably have to grapple with as he continues to define himself in the public eye. Before he can answer to his critics, he needs to answer to himself. That takes a whole lot of learning and a whole lot of living, which Smith has really only just begun.