LGBTQ

Miley Cyrus Is Not Alone: 9 Other Stars Making Gender Fluidity Mainstream

Cyrus and Caitlyn Jenner may be the celebs-du-jour challenging our gender assumptions, but there are others you should know about.

Caitlyn Jenner’s recent turn as a Vanity Fair cover girl not only made her into a trans icon, it turned the topic of gender identity into a mainstream talking point. And just a few months prior, Miley Cyrus declared that she considered herself neither a “girl or a boy.” Each of these revelations helped demonstrate how gender is often complex and sometimes unfixed; that the sexes assigned to us at birth by virtue of our genitalia may not always match our internal gender identities.

What’s more, those identities may not fall under the headers of “man” or “woman,” but can be even more malleable and fluid. There are an infinite number of gender identities — a spectrum that runs from masculine to feminine, boy to girl — that sit in the space between. There are plenty of ways to express this idea: Gender fluid. Non-gender conforming. Gender queer. The idea of gender fucking, or intentionally blurring the socially constructed (and artificial) boundaries of gender, has existed in outsider culture (particularly art, music and performance scenes) for eons.

That a growing number of famous faces are now publically shaking off gender designations that run contrary to their own internal gender identities offers a vital opportunity to expand the conversation about equality for all, regardless of either sexual identity (who you fall in love with) or gender identity (who you identify as inside). It seems particularly timely, on the heels of recent LGBT civil rights wins, and particularly necessary, considering studies finding trans people — particularly trans women of color — experience widespread discrimination, violence and vulnerability due to their gender identities.

Yes, it seems important to acknowledge that Jenner, who is white, famous and very, very rich (not to mention, oddly, a self-identified conservative), represents an almost negligible sliver of the trans community. And yes, it seems pretty important not to use her in a way I might term “Elvising,” or rather, heaping praise on her as some kind of great white hope, while ignoring and/or downplaying the contributions of the many who came before. But Jenner’s sudden visibility, along with other trans and non-gender conforming celebrities, has done a tremendous amount to move the conversation forward. There are, for the first time, a number of people in the public eye who unashamedly identify across the spectrum of gender. Their public acknowledgement of their identities will not only help raise awareness, it could very likely help save lives.

Here’s a look at a few other folks who are transforming the discussion around gender identity.

1. Laverne Cox. Though not the first transgender person ever to gain national attention, in many ways Laverne Cox was America’s first transgender star. As Sophia on Orange Is the New Black, Cox became one of the show’s most popular characters during its premiere 2013 season. In 2014, she became the first transgender person to appear on the cover of Time in an issue dedicated to trans issues. Later the same year, during a ridiculous interview with Katie Couric, who couldn’t seem to stop asking Cox and trans TV star Carmen Carrera about surgery and genitalia (yes, genitalia), she eloquently broke down why it was none of Couric’s, or anyone else’s, business. Cox has basically, at every opportunity, used her fame to address issues of importance to the trans community, including a recent blog post in which she criticized cisnormative beauty standards, called for greater representation of trans diversity in media and acknowledged that “[m]ost trans folks don’t have the privileges Caitlyn [Jenner] and I now have.” Did I mention that last week she became the first transgender woman to be given a wax figure at Madame Tussauds? Every landmark counts.

2. Miley Cyrus. Miley Cyrus talked candidly about her gender fluidity in an interview with Out magazine in May of this year. Speaking briefly about her childhood, the singer said that while she hadn’t necessarily identified as a boy, she’d long felt uncomfortable fitting into the space designated “girl.” Instead, she felt genderless, falling somewhere between the binary poles that have, for so long, defined who each of us are in strict accordance with our genitalia. “I kind of wanted to be nothing,” said Cyrus. “I don’t relate to what people would say defines a girl or a boy, and I think that’s what I had to understand: Being a girl isn’t what I hate, it’s the box that I get put into.”

Like her genderqueerness, Cyrus said her sexuality was also fluid. Her broken engagement to actor Liam Hemsworth led most people to assume she was straight — heteronormativity being our default national state — but the singer clarified that gender was of little consideration in choosing her partners. (In a subsequent interview with Paper mag, Cyrus recounted coming out to her mother at age 14.) "I am literally open to every single thing that is consenting and doesn't involve an animal and everyone is of age,” said Cyrus. “I'm down with any adult — anyone over the age of 18 who is down to love me. I don't relate to being boy or girl, and I don't have to have my partner relate to boy or girl."

3. Janet Mock. Although she’s long been a vocal trans activist and public speaker, most people probably first heard of Janet Mock after an interview with Piers Morgan in which Morgan said seemingly every problematic thing he could shoehorn into the conversation (including saying Mock was “born a boy” and that he wouldn't have been able to guess she had once “been...a male”). The episode became an accidental lesson in precisely how not to speak to a person of pretty much any gender identity. Mock has since gone on to become a frequent guest expert on issues around trans rights, a contributor to Marie Claire, and released her 2014 memoir Redefining Realness (which she was promoting on Morgan’s program). Morgan’s show, in the meantime, was canceled.

4. Ruby Rose. On Season III, Episode 6, of Orange Is the New Black, a new inmate named Stella tosses off a dismissive line about the trouble with “women.” Piper asks, “You don’t consider yourself a member of that category?” “I do,” Stella answers, “but only because my options are limited.” And with that, Stella becomes the first genderfluid character on the show. (While OITNB has always featured characters with a diverse range of sexualities, all share a common female gender identify.) In real life, the show has been a breakout role for Rose, who has become this year’s It Girl, DJ’ing fashion parties and appearing on multiple red carpets. Like her onscreen character, she is not bound by gender binaries. In an interview with Elle, Rose said, “Gender fluidity is not really feeling like you're at one end of the spectrum or the other. For the most part, I definitely don't identify as any gender. I'm not a guy; I don't really feel like a woman, but obviously I was born one. So, I'm somewhere in the middle, which — in my perfect imagination — is like having the best of both sexes.” Rose and girlfriend Phoebe Dahl, the noted fashion designer and granddaughter of author Roald Dahl, announced their engagement last year.

5. Angel Haze. Rapper Angel Haze has been well known in indie and bloggy hip-hop circles for a few years now, but developed a higher profile in the last year or so. From the beginning of Haze’s career, the rapper has publicly identified as pansexual and a virgin. (That status may have changed somewhat; earlier this year, when talking about rumored girlfriend Ireland Baldwin, Haze referred to the two as “an interracial gay couple” and clarified the exact nature of their relationship by bluntly stating, “We fuck — and friends don’t fuck.”) Haze has also indicated on social media that she is “agender,” and in an interview with Buzzfeed, identified “they” and “them” as preferred pronouns. Said Haze, “When I hear people use the word ‘her’ around me I’m like, who are they talking about, you know? I just have felt this about myself for so long.”

6. St. Vincent. Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, is mostly known for helping make pop weird these days in all the right ways. In a remarkably accomplished career over just a few years, she’s released five critically lauded releases, including an album with David Byrne. Generally outspoken and frank in interviews, Clark has been transparent about her gender and sexuality, refusing to tether herself to a single idea of who she is or loves. In a recent Rolling Stone interview, when questioned about whether she identified as “gay or straight,” the singer suggested that neither answer fit the bill. “I don't think about those words," Clark said. "I believe in gender fluidity and sexual fluidity. I don't really identify as anything." The answer echoed her sentiments from a year earlier when, talking to the UK Sunday Times, she stated, “I'm not one for gender or sexual absolutism in the main. I fully support and engage in the spectrum.”

7. Shamir. If you’re familiar with Shamir’s music, you probably know he’s been blog buzzy for a couple of years now and become an oft-checked name in dance music. (And even if you think you aren’t familiar, you likely are, considering his song “On the Regular” appeared in a vaguely ubiquitous Android commercial.) A few months ago, perhaps tired of answering the same question over and over, Shamir tweeted, “[T]o those who keep asking, I have no gender, no sexuality, and no fucks to give.” He also invited fans to “call me whatever you want! I don’t care or get offended if you call me ‘her’ or ‘she’ because I proudly embrace my fem side.” He told the New York Times that all the chatter around his gender identity wasn’t manufactured on his end, but an organic outgrowth of who he’s always been. “People think my androgyny is a thing or a gimmick, but no, I’m naturally androgynous; I don’t try to be.” The singer explained things in a bit more detail in a recent interview with the Advocate, saying, “I think [people] kind of think this is like a spiel or a gimmick. But it’s not something I try for. I wear menswear all the time. I don’t do anything to make myself look more feminine. I naturally look and am more feminine...Ever since I was little I showed traits of both masculine and feminine energies.”

8. Laura Jane Grace. Back in 2012, Laura Jane Grace (then known as Tom Gabel), the  lead singer of Against Me!, announced she was transgender after trying unsuccessfully for years to ignore who she was. For the most part, fans and fellow musicians rallied to support her. After spending a couple more years reading up on what it would mean to transition, Grace began the journey toward living publicly as a woman. She has become one of the most well-known public figures in the transgender community, and a particularly vocal fixture against transphobia in the world of punk. She’s also been active in trying to raise awareness in so many roles it seems like a feat of multitasking, including as a regular “Dear Abby-style columnist for Vice; performing with Miley Cyrus on behalf of her Happy Hippie Foundation, which aids LGBT youth; and calling out transphobia and lack of trans representation in media when needed. (Most recently, that meant taking Arcade Fire to task for its “We Exist” video, which cast a famous cisgender male actor in the role of a transgender woman.)

9. Grimes. The last few years have been pretty massive for Claire Boucher, aka Grimes, who went from indie pop bedroom favorite to what seemed like rapid track ubiquity. Although there hasn’t been a lot of discussion of Boucher’s gender identity — most of us have been working under the heteronormative assumption that the artist is a cisgender woman— the singer and multi-instrumentalist actually identifies as gender fluid. In a series of tweets just a few months ago, Boucher indicated that the emphasis on her work as a female artist wasn’t just sexism, but actual misgendering. “I vibe in a gender neutral space so I'm kinda impartial to pronouns for myself,” Boucher wrote. “Don't have a preferred so much but I wish I didn't have to be categorized as female constantly. Everything I ever hear about Grimes is super gendered and it's always really made me uncomfortable."

10. Jennicet Gutiérrez. Although you may not recognize her name, Jennicet Gutiérrez has recently become one of the most talked about people on this list. Various media outlets have referred to her as a “heckler” of President Obama’s speech at this year’s LGBT Pride Month reception. But Gutiérrez, a transgender Latina activist, was speaking out about an issue the president and many Pride celebrants were ignoring. As she wrote the next day in a piece that appeared in the Washington Blade, “Last night I spoke out to demand respect and acknowledgement of our gender expression and the release of the estimated 75 transgender immigrants in detention right now. There is no pride in how LGBTQ immigrants are treated in this country and there can be no celebration with an administration that has the ability to keep us detained and in danger or release us to freedom.” At the very least, Gutiérrez’s outburst was a necessary reminder that LGBT equality isn’t achieved until every community member’s rights, including those of trans women and particularly those of color, are recognized.

Kali Holloway is a senior writer and the associate editor of media and culture at AlterNet.

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