Billy Dee Williams Says Pronoun Use Did Not Mean ‘Gender-Fluid’

Billy Dee Williams recently told Esquire magazine that he uses both male and female pronouns to refer to himself. “I say ‘himself’ and ‘herself,’ because I also see myself as feminine as well as masculine,” said Williams, who is known for playing Lando Calrissian in the “Star Wars” universe. “I think of myself as a relatively colorful character who doesn’t take himself or herself too seriously.”

His comments were widely taken to mean that he had embraced gender-fluid pronouns. But on Tuesday, in an interview with the Times reporter Dave Itzkoff for a forthcoming “Star Wars” article, Williams, 82, said he was not aware of how his words would be interpreted.

“That was a good article, except that thing about gender — what’s it called, gender-fluid?” he said, referring to the Esquire profile. “I had never heard that expression before. But I don’t really know what it means. What does it mean?”

When the term was explained to Williams — that there are people who do not identify as simply men or women — he said, “Well, that’s not what I was talking about. I was talking about, I think that men should get in touch with their female self.”

“Men should not be afraid or ashamed of expressing the soft side of themselves,” added Williams, who did not ask that others use different pronouns for him.

Williams’s clarification speaks to a broader and often divisive transformation taking place: the increasingly common practice of choosing a pronoun that best reflects one’s gender identity, and asking others to adhere to it. But society’s shifting understanding of gender and the language used to describe it should not lead to presumptions, said Nick Adams, director of transgender representation at the L.G.B.T.Q. advocacy organization GLAAD.

“It’s important to acknowledge and respect a person’s gender identity and the pronouns they use,” Adams said on Wednesday. “Someone who uses the singular ‘they’ pronoun, or perhaps uses both he/him and she/her interchangeably, could be telling you they are nonbinary or gender-fluid. However, one should not make assumptions or apply labels based on limited information.”

“You need to listen to what a person actually tells you about their gender identity: their deeply held sense of their own gender,” added Adams, who is one of GLAAD’s transgender staff members.

In the interview, Williams went on to seemingly conflate gender identity and sexual orientation, saying, “I wasn’t talking about running around and having a good time, playing male or female sexual games.”

Gender identity is one’s internal, personal sense of being a man, a woman or outside that binary; sexual orientation describes a person’s enduring physical or emotional attraction to another person (like straight, gay, lesbian or bisexual), GLAAD explains on its website.

Williams said he was “talking about what Carl Jung talked about, the anima-animus: the anima being the female counterpart of the male self, animus.”

Jung was the Swiss psychiatrist who founded the field of analytical psychology. He theorized that men and women unconsciously carry qualities of the opposite gender — that men contain feminine qualities, and women masculine ones. “Every man carries within himself the eternal image of woman,” Jung wrote in his book “Memories, Dreams, Reflections,” first published around the year he died, 1961.

When Williams heard that his words were interpreted as a move toward gender fluidity, he thought, “Oh please,” he told The Times. “I just want to tell everybody, read Carl Jung. He was a contemporary of Freud’s.”

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