Stop trying to put Miley Cyrus in a box

Only Miley Cyrus gets to decide if she’s genderqueer or bisexual.

I have a little confession to make: I kind of adore Miley Cyrus.

That’s actually the first time I’ve even admitted it. Since Miley came of age and started doing everything in her power to reclaim her identity and individuality, shredding the carefully crafted wholesome image Disney created for her, I’ve admired her. It’s hard enough to try to find yourself, so I have to imagine doing it in front of the ever-watchful eye of 24-hour news cycle is nightmarish at best.

Despite being constantly slut-shamed since she turned 18, Cyrus continues to define herself on her own terms and refuses to shy away from confrontation. Yesterday, Cyrus took that further, opening up about her sexual orientation and gender identity.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Cyrus revealed that not all of her relationships have been “straight, heterosexual ones.” In an interview with the Out magazine about her charity focused on homeless LGBT youth, Cyrus discussed her feelings about her gender: “I didn’t want to be a boy. I kind of wanted to be nothing. 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.”

First and foremost, it’s awesome that Miley Cyrus is being open about her gender and sexuality. We’re still in an era where revealing any deviation from the expected norms of the cisgender, heterosexual narrative carries considerable stigma, even for celebrities. While Cyrus hasn’t shied away from honesty before, both of these interviews contained some personal vulnerability that she hasn’t provided in the past.

There’s been rampant speculation for years that she may be a lesbian or bisexual, which Cyrus has said doesn’t offend her. Given how parents complain about her every move, I’m sure this confession will draw another round of scornful tongue-clucking from those concerned about “impressionable” young girls. I suspect Miley will continue to take it all in stride.

Not surprisingly, people have been quick to read into Miley Cyrus’ comments, pushing labels like “bisexual” or “queer” onto her sexual orientation and “genderqueer” onto her gender identity. However, it’s important to remember that this was not the coming out of the Bruce Jenner variety, or even of the Ellen Page variety. Cyrus has shared specific feelings about her gender, while alluding to a history of non-heterosexual relationships. However, she has not made any statement about how she actually identifies, with respect to gender identity or sexual orientation. Thus, it’s absolutely premature and definitely out of line to assign her a label or identity.

It’s absolutely premature and definitely out of line to assign her a label or identity.

Gender identity and sexual orientation are extraordinarily important parts of a person’s conception of self, particularly for those of us who are not cisgender and/or straight. Only we can decide how we identify; there’s no bureaucratic committee sitting around handing out assignments. 

Instead of trying to immediately cram Miley into a box, why don’t we give her a chance to get used to the idea that the information is even out there before we start demanding an easily digestible set of words to assign to her? The rainbow flag is great and all, but we don’t need to be forcibly draping people in it.

Perhaps more critically, we need to remember that you don’t immediately have your straight and cisgender cards revoked simply for having experiences outside of the box. Having one, 10, or 20 sexual encounters with someone of the same gender doesn’t necessitate that you are homosexual or even bisexual. It simply means that you’ve had experiences with someone of the same gender. We don’t insist on telling every lesbian who’s had sex with a man or every gay man who’s had sex with a woman that they must be bisexual, so it’s just as ridiculous to make any assumptions about Miley’s sexual orientation simply because she’s had non-heterosexual relationships.

It’s also somewhat fallacious to assume that Miley Cyrus (or anyone) is straight because they’ve mostly been seen dating people of their opposite gender. That’s simply the magic of straight-as-the-default creeping its way in to our discourse. The long and short is, we have no idea what Cyrus’ sexual orientation is, and quite frankly, it’s none of our business until she decides to tell us.

The same goes for her gender identity. Sure, not feeling particularly connected to the idea of being a girl or a boy is something that’s generally associated with non-binary trans identities of many flavors (not just genderqueer). However, the brief comment Cyrus made about gender belies more of a rejection of gendered expectations—that is, the fact that girls and boys are expected to behave in specific ways. Rejecting the entrenched gender stereotypes is a hallmark of modern feminism as a whole, and being a feminist is an identity that Miley Cyrus has clearly expressed.

Only we can decide how we identify; there’s no bureaucratic committee sitting around handing out assignments. 

Given the particularly strongly gendered expectations that were placed on Miley Cyrus as a child actress, it’s easy to imagine how stifling and restrictive that must have felt, and it shouldn’t really come as any surprise that she felt frustrated and resentful. Thus, it’s entirely possible that Cyrus is simply a cisgender woman who rejects the idea that she must behave in a particularly way because she’s a woman, like many other women do. It’s also possible that Miley Cyrus identifies as genderqueer or some other non-binary gender term.

It’s also completely reasonable to think that Cyrus is still exploring her gender identity (and sexual orientation), as many people in their early 20s do. She deserves space to figure that out her own, without us waiting outside her door to stick a label to her.

This all gets at a broader point about the narrowly defined boxes that seem to make up our discourse on sexual and gender identities. Sadly, we’re still so rigid in our thinking about gender roles that we immediately assign people whose experiences do not exactly match with our standard narrative into some category that labels them as “other.” It’s the policing of gender (and specifically of gender performance), and it’s damn harmful.

It’s entirely possible to reject the standard expectations of your gender—or even the traditional narratives of your gender—and not be transgender. Allowing people that freedom breaks down those absurd standards that that we’re all held to by patriarchal influences, men and women and non-binary folks alike.

It’s entirely possible to reject the standard expectations of your gender and not be transgender. 

It’s not any different for sexual orientation. Exploration is a natural and healthy part of sexual development, and it’s suffocating to start pressing labels onto people simply because they chose to swim farther out into that ocean. In the end, sexual orientation is about personal identity, not a summary of someone’s experiences, and to deny someone the right to define their own sexual orientation (or gender identity for that matter) strips them of agency. In fact, it’s also OK for people to reject labels, period. It’s a choice everyone must make for themselves.

For what it’s worth, Miley Cyrus herself has already responded via Instagram to the speculation about her gender and sexuality, proclaiming:

NOTHING can/will define me! Free to be EVERYTHING!!!

A photo posted by Miley Cyrus (@mileycyrus) on

It’s time to start taking Cyrus at her word, allowing her to slap her own label on it or reject labels altogether. If at some point Miley Cyrus wants to officially declare herself one of us, however, we’ll be waiting to give her a hug and welcome her to the family. 

Mari Brighe is a writer, educator, and proud science PhD dropout. Her writing focuses on queer and transgender life, feminism, science, and pop culture nonsense. Her work has also appeared on Autostraddle, Daily Dot, Salon, and TransAdvocate.

Screengrab via Miley Cyrus/VEVO