The Canadian singer-songwriter said sorry to Smith, after he unintentionally referred to Smith by the wrong pronouns during the iHeart Radio Jingle Ball, an annual concert that went virtual last Thursday. The non-binary musician has gone by they and them pronouns since last September.
Fans who caught wind of what happened were quick to call on Mendes to make amends and take the scripted event’s organizers to task.
Mendes took accountability for his blunder a day later, through an Instagram story update.
“I’m so sorry for reffering [sic] to you as a ‘he’ for your jingle ball introduction,” Mendes wrote. “It absolutely slipped my mind. Won’t happen again.”
The 22-year-old also took the time to sing the praises of Smith, accompanied with heart emojis: “Sending you so much love! Also, you absolutely are one of the funniest people I’ve ever met!”
Hours later, Smith responded on their own Instagram story, via a screenshot of the Canadian performer’s note.
“We’re all learning together,” Smith replied, adding hearts as well. “Happy holidays, all my love xx.”
The short, but thoughtful exchange between the two superstars was heartening for some, as it reflects how many trans, non-binary, and gender-marginalized people prefer these situations get handled: Quickly and respectfully.
Common advice suggests the best approach involves a quick apology or acknowledgement that the wrong pronouns/gendered terms were used, followed by a commitment to not do it again before carrying on with the conversation.
The Instagram story was not quite a perfect reply — Mendes hopefully also reached out to Smith privately, and “slipped my mind” is still giving an excuse — but the performer from Pickering, Ont. didn’t fall into the biggest pitfalls many cisgender people do when they misgender someone: The dreaded hand-wringing and centring of their own emotions.
“Please do not turn your apology into a monologue or use it as an opportunity to proclaim your support for trans people,” Rose Dommu wrote in Out.com. “Misgendering happens most often in public/social situations, and they’re already embarrassing enough without you creating a spectacle.”
And while a nice show of mutual care, it’s important not to let praise of Shawn Mendes’ apology gloss over how hard it is to be misgendered. Research has long shown that getting repeatedly misgendered is bad for people’s health and lowers their self-esteem. Being wrongly identified, on purpose or not, constructs societal barriers to health, employment, and education for many trans communities.
Watch: Sam Smith was ‘bullied’ after pronoun change. Story continues below.
On the other hand, Smith’s response, while commendable, wasn’t necessarily the right or only way to react to getting misgendered. After all, cis people aren’t owed a pat on the back for doing the bare minimum to be supportive.
And it’s also worth noting that Smith’s gracious nature was perhaps the only avenue they had; while patient and understanding with those who do it accidentally, Smith has previously gone on-record that they expect to get misgendered “until the day I die.” Still, misgendering is obviously something they’re taking great efforts to prevent, by speaking about their identity with media and having their pronouns in their social media bios.
That means being kind to Mendes could be a survival tactic. It certainly is for many gender-marginalized people, especially those in the workplace, who see allaying well-meaning cis people’s worries or foregoing so-called “confusing” pronouns as the least exhausting method to employ. Especially when anti-trans voices ridicule gender-affirming steps, like Republican commentator Tomi Lahren and her take on Mendes’ apology.
All this goes to show that if a non-binary white celebrity like Smith is bracing for getting misgendered by others for the rest of their life, there’s a lot of room for improvement before things get better for non-famous trans people on the margins.
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