7 Up-and-Coming Stars Who Are Changing How We Think About Gender

by Daniela Capistrano 10:41 PM PDT, April 22, 2015
Photo: Getty Images

Some of the most provocative discussions about gender identity aren’t happening inside a classroom, they’re on the Internet -- often thanks to influential personalities who use their platform trying to help make the world a safer and more welcoming place for transgender, intersex, gender non-conforming and cisgendered people. (Not sure what any of those terms mean or how they’re different? Start your self-education here.)

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Here are seven emerging artists, entertainers and activists who are helping to bring gender identity activism conversations to the mainstream:

1. Conchita Wurst

Photo: Getty Images

This Austrian pop artist, who won 2014’s Eurovision Song Contest, is a style icon who made her modeling debut as part of Jean Paul Gaultier’s couture show in Paris -- walking in the coveted final spot that is usually reserved for the designer’s favorite model. Although they don’t identify as transgender, they choose to use masculine pronouns when referring to their off-stage identity (Thomas "Tom" Neuwirth) and feminine pronouns for their Conchita Wurst persona.

In an interview last year, Conchita said she’s not phased by haters. "It's funny that these people think I'm so powerful," she told The Guardian. "I've figured out over the years, you can only hurt me if I love you; if I don't know you, I really don't care. There are people who want to kill me and I'm always like, 'Well, get in line, darling.'"

Wurst’s debut album Conchita will be released in May and her video for "You Are Unstoppable" premieres this week. Follow Conchita on Twitter and Instagram at @conchitawurst.

2. Angel Haze

Photo: Getty Images

This award-winning rapper and singer has drawn critical acclaim and controversy for writing and performing a song about childhood sexual rape and abuse -- and also for refusing to conform to gender norms. Haze, whose on-again, off-again girlfriend is model Ireland Baldwin, came out as agender in early 2015 (preferring gender neutral pronouns such as "they"). Recently lauded as a style icon by Paste Magazine, the artist is unapologetic about being gender-nonconforming. "To be honest with you, I’m not really a girl," Haze told Buzzfeed. "If anything, I feel more on the guy end of the spectrum." Follow Angel Haze on Twitter at @AngelHaze, on Instagram at @angxlhxze, on Facebook, Tumblr, UStream, and listen to new music on SoundCloud.

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3. Grimes

Photo: Getty Images

The rising witch house/synth pop star Grimes is opening for Lana del Rey this summer and is known for both her eclectic vocal style, beautifully strange music videos and -- as of late -- publicly sharing her thoughts on her own gender identity with her 275,000 Twitter followers. In a recent series of tweets, the Canadian producer/musician/singer-songwriter/music video director revealed that she was frustrated by the assumptions made about how she identifies: "I vibe in a gender neutral space [in my opinion], so I’m kind of impartial to pronouns for myself," she tweeted. "I wish I didn’t have to be categorized. Everything I ever hear about Grimes is super gendered and it has always really made me feel uncomfortable."

4. Jaden Smith

Photo: Getty Images

With his ultra-famous parents and sister (Willow), plus a film and music career of his own, Jaden isn’t new to the spotlight. But he recently caught our attention for wearing gender non-conforming clothing and helping to further a dialogue among his young fans about the ways that fashion choices can challenge gender norms. With more than 5 million followers on Twitter and more than 1.8 million on Instagram, Jaden leveraged his celebrity and casual tone to help redefine what is acceptable for guys to wear when he posted a photo captioned "Went To TopShop To Buy Some Girl Clothes, I Mean 'Clothes'" that went viral. Fans can enjoy his latest song “Offering” -- an ode to his family, the prison system, and saving the world -- that was released in early April on SoundCloud.

5. Dr. Kortney Ryan Ziegler

Photo: Facebook

Recently named one of the Top 40 Under 40 LGBT activists by The Advocate, Dr. Ziegler is an award-winning filmmaker, artist, writer, scholar and entrepreneur who was also named one of the most influential African Americans by TheRoot100. A co-founder of BlackStarMedia, the charismatic Renaissance man can be found on Twitter as @fakerapper and on Facebook, where he writes candidly about pop culture, technology, entrepreneurship gender identity and more. He recently shared a celebratory Facebook post: "may 1st my new health insurance kicks in that will help me complete my physical transition. Thanks based insurance gods. HAPPY FRIDAY!"

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6. Pidgeon Pagonis

Photo: Facebook

Pidgeon was featured in a popular Buzzfeed video about intersex identity after having been an activist for years. Due in part to a recent uptick in coverage by mainstream media, Pidgeon’s activism and sense of style has become crush fodder for young people on Tumblr and Instagram. Pidgeon travels the world fighting for the legal rights of intersex/DCD youth and their families -- and you can follow along on Twitter @pidgejen, on Instagram as @pidgeonie and on Facebook, where they frequently share "intersexy" selfies and their thoughts on music, art, films, fashion, why #blacklivesmatter and gender identity activism.

7. Brittney Griner

Photo: Getty Images

Brittney doesn’t just break the mold -- she shatters it. Beyond being known for her skills on the court, the 6’8” gender non-conforming athlete, who led the Phoenix Mercury to a WNBA Championship in 2014, reached a wider audience when she was featured on TLC's Say Yes to the Dress: Atlanta in an episode that detailed her wedding plans with partner Glory Johnson. She rocks sponsored apparel branded as menswear, including the skateboarding line Nike SB. "She can change the way people think," says Lindsay Kagawa Colas, Griner's agent at Wasserman Media Group in an ESPN interview. "And her success will mean society is working a little better for everyone." Follow Brittney on Facebook, where she posts her longboard videos, game highlights, thoughts on gender and youth activism and more.

UPDATE: Griner and her fiancee, Tulsa Shock player Glory Johnson, were both arrested on April 22 on suspicion of assault and disorderly conduct following an altercation at the couple’s home. The 24 year olds were booked into jail in Phoenix and later released. The Arizona Republic reports that the booking report indicates that the incident was being considered a domestic violence offense.

Is there another emerging star who should be on this list? Share your suggestions in the comments or tweet us at @ETNow.

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