What Demi Lovato’s non-binary revelation means for the LGBTQ community

Over the years celebrities such as Sam Smith, Ruby Rose, Jonathan Van Ness, Elliot Page and now singer Demi Lovato have come out in very public ways.

The pop star came out as non-binary on Wednesday, changing their pronouns to they/them. Lovato is arguably one of the biggest celebrities to come out publicly — the 28-year-old singer was a well-known Disney Channel star before launching a music career more than a decade ago.

“I feel this best represents the fluidity I feel in my gender expression and allows me to feel most authentic and true to the person I both know I am and am still discovering,” Lovato said.  

Non-binary and transgender people have always existed, but the influx of celebrities coming out has impacts on culture at large — though some in the LGBTQ community see the focus on celebrity as a hollow victory.

Los Angeles-based author and streamer Joanna Truman has been a fan of Lovato’s music for years. 

“Even people who are only tangibly aware of them — for [people] to find out about this and maybe find out about non-binary identity or things they weren’t as familiar with … is a big deal,” Truman said. 

Others, such as high school student and artist Oskar Blasi from Springfield, Ill., haven’t been fans of Lovato’s music personally but hope their coming out will help others understand non-binary and transgender people.

“It makes us more seen,” Blasi said. “The first celebrity I remember hearing news about was Rebecca Sugar.”

Sugar, a U.S.-based animator and creator of Steven Universe, came out as a non-binary woman in 2018.

“I didn’t get it at the time but I was really excited because I didn’t know celebrities could do that,” Blasi said. 

Shelley Craig, Canada Research Chair in sexual and gender minority youth at the University of Toronto, told CBC News some queer youth look up to celebrities as role models.

“They feel a sense of being valued,” Craig said.

Bobby MacPherson, director of operations at Pride Toronto, said as someone who identifies as non-binary like Lovato, news like this is “uplifting.”

‘Visibility is a double-edged sword’

Ira Bare, an artist and student from Boston, said an important moment for the trans community was when trans actor Laverne Cox was on the cover of Time magazine in 2014. 

 

The 2014 cover included a photo of Cox with the headline “The Transgender Tipping Point.” In the past 10 years, trans people have been hyper visible, Bare said.

And although celebrities like Cox have been vocal about the trans and larger LGBTQ+ community, Bare said coming out as a celebrity is different from coming out as a non-celebrity.

“Visibility is a double-edged sword,” Bare continued. “When I was 14 and didn’t know what being trans was, seeing celebrities come out was cool, but I think materially that trans visibility has only made trans people’s lives worse.” 

Bare said celebrities are far removed from the realities of most trans people. 

According to the Trans Pulse Canada report from this year, 79 per cent of respondents have experienced verbal harassment and 52 per cent have experienced physical intimidation and threats. Research also shows transgender Canadians are more likely to experience violence and other forms of discrimination than non-trans Canadians.

According to the official Trans Day of Remembrance reports between January 2008 and September 2020, more than 3,664 trans and gender-diverse people were killed in 75 countries. At least 62 per cent of those reported murders were sex workers.

“Coming out is such an arduous, unpleasant thing that makes you so hyper conscious of the way people see you and the way people react to you,” Bare said.

WATCH | The push for trans equality on both sides of the camera:

Canadian actor Elliot Page’s Time magazine cover pushed his fight for trans equality, but it was also a big moment for photographer Wynne Neilly. Many hope it’s also a sign of more diversity on both sides of the camera. 2:16

Blasi said conversations should be focused on visibility and busting stigma.

“While visibility is important, celebrities should provide some kind of resources specifically for  young people … [or] should start talking more about topics that affect us,” Blasi said. 

Bare believes vocal trans activists that call out bathroom bans, transphobic violence and medical discrimination should also be recognized. 

“If you’re newly out you’re not really equipped to be a voice for the community in any material sense — I would like to see [them] amplifying the voices of community organizers.”

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