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Best actress. Best actor. These are the labels generations of starry-eyed performers have dreamed of claiming.
But what if neither of those is actually capable of describing who you really are? What if both cause an uncomfortable twinge in your stomach, because they neglect to consider the full scope of who an artist can be? We’re talking, of course, about being nonbinary within the long-standing binary of Hollywood.
Other spheres of our culture don’t divide their top honors into gendered categories: There isn’t a Nobel Prize for best female peacemaker, nor a James Beard Award for best male chef. So why are the Oscars split male-female? We’re familiar at this juncture with the conversations around the need for more diversity onscreen in regards to race, sexuality, disability, et cetera. What’s more uncertain is the dialogue surrounding portrayals of nonbinary people. Obviously, we need to see more trans men and women represented in our media. But even they fit neatly into the Hollywood awards system, as either an actor or an actress. What about those who identify as neither, or both?
A quick vocabulary lesson: “Nonbinary,” according to GLAAD, is a term “used by some people who experience their gender identity and/or gender expression as falling outside the categories of man and woman. They may define their gender as falling somewhere in between man and woman, or they may define it as wholly different from these terms.” There are a whole host of other words created to help categorize different lived experiences: genderqueer, agender, gender fluid. Different words work for different people and each contains its own nuance. I personally use “trans nonbinary.” So does B. Scott, recently announced as the first of that label to host a show on BET, Twenties the After Show, out this fall. They describe their identity as: “Someone whose gender identity is different from the sex they were assigned at birth: That’s the trans part. And also a gender identity that isn’t characterized as exclusively man or woman: That’s the nonbinary part.”
But plain old “nonbinary” has emerged as a frontrunner term. And basically, a bunch of us don’t feel comfortable being defined as strictly male or female. What words and pronouns we identify with can and do change. Comedian and actor Cole Escola (Search Party, Difficult People) recently came out as nonbinary. They describe identifying with the word as “more of a clarification for how I’ve always felt and operated. I just looked up and saw that there was this other pronoun that better suited how I’ve always felt.”
I’ll be the first to admit it sometimes feels clunky to be throwing around all these different terms. Using the term ‘they/them’ is confusing for my mom, who can’t get over the implied plurality of it. I understand the linguistics behind that confusion, though it still hurts to be misgendered. Escola offers: “I even feel unsure about really sinking my claws into the term ‘nonbinary’ and ‘they/them’ pronouns, because it feels like it’s ironic to be like, ‘I don’t want any labels, so here’s this label.’” In an ideal world, pronouns would be irrelevant and everyone would be able to just be an individual person. But the reality is, labels do matter, because we live in a cisgender (someone who does not feel trans or nonbinary) society, and to ignore labels is to ignore who someone fundamentally is, to show you don’t care enough to respect how someone wishes to be perceived.
It feels like nonbinary is having a 2021 moment. The latest big name to identify is pop superstar Demi Lovato. As they tell THR, “When I overdosed in 2018, I feel strongly that the reason that that happened was because I was ignoring my truth. I suppressed who I really was to fit this sexy, feminine pop star and actress image that others had assigned for me — be it stylists, team members, or even fans — that I never truly identified with. … Now I just realize that it’s so much more important to live your truth than to ever suppress yourself because that’s the type of stuff that happens when you do.”
Many other notable actors use the descriptor. Sara Ramirez will play a nonbinary character in the Sex and the City reboot. Other nonbinary people in Hollywood include Shrill‘s E.R. Fightmaster, Younger‘s Nico Tortorella and Billions‘ Asia Kate Dillon. Some play nonbinary characters, some play cis characters. And Billy Porter will portray a genderless Fairy Godparent in the new Cinderella, and sharp-eyed fans of Loki recently discovered that in the new TV series, his sex is noted as fluid. In a welcome sign, USA Today reports that the Biden administration has suggested it’s considering adding an “X” gender option on federal documents. On the other side, according to HRC, in 2021 alone over 250 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced to state legislatures.
Yet nonbinary is far from new. Alok Vaid-Menon, author of Beyond the Gender Binary (2020), is a gender-nonconforming writer, performer and scholar. “There’s a long and prolific history of people who have lived and thrived outside the Western gender binary system, for thousands of years, in indigenous cultures across the world, whether that looks like Muxe people, now Mexico, or Fa’afafine people from Samoa, or Bakla people in the Philippines or Hijra people in India,” Vaid-Menon explains. “What we see is, with European colonization, there’s the imposition of cross-dressing laws that made it illegal for people to exist in public and banned their cultural art forms and rituals and ceremonies, and forcibly assimilated people into the Western gender binary.” Knowing this history is crucial, Vaid-Menon emphasizes: “We see this mistaken paradigm that nonbinary and gender non-conforming people are new, when in fact we’ve been here for a very long time. What is new is the imposition of Western gender norms.”
Nonbinary people are not only an ancient culture in other parts of the world, but right on our very own soil. Beyond the effacement of the beautiful genderless traditions of the Native American peoples, Vaid-Menon says: “In the late 19th century, the most visible members of the queer community in the U.S. were visibly gender non-conforming people who we would understand as nonbinary today.” That history has been scrubbed away by cis colonizers, and Hollywood could not be more complicit in that erasure. The Hays Code, introduced in 1930 and abolished in 1968, demanded strict moral guidelines for films. “What if we move the onus away from us being visible, toward them concealing us?” Vaid-Menon muses. “That’s a more interesting history for me.”
Is there a cost to an actor’s career if they come out as nonbinary today? On one hand, you’re making yourself an extremely desirable candidate for, say, the single nonbinary role in need of casting at any given moment. On the other, you’re potentially pigeonholing yourself, especially if a casting agent is transphobic. Because of that, writing characters for oneself can birth much-needed opportunities. “I’ve always created otherly gendered roles for myself. Females mostly,” says Escola (who writes and plays female parts in comedy videos like “Mom Commercial”).
Comedian Mae Martin also pens their own parts. The co-writer and star of the British series Feel Good came out as nonbinary on April 14. Martin was then nominated for a BAFTA award for best female comedy performance, though their character similarly does not identify as a woman. Speaking with THR, Martin explains, “I never want my discomfort to overshadow my gratitude, but yes, it did feel inaccurate to be in a female category and bumped [as a nonbinary person; “bumped” is British slang for “excluded”]. Maybe I worried that if I was too outspoken about it, I wouldn’t be included at all, which is crazy.”
While there have been calls for the addition of a third gender category to awards shows, that concept is limiting. Argues Scott: “The merit of your work, no matter how great it is, would not be able to truly be compared to everyone. I do believe that the only way to fix it is just to have one category.”
That’s what the MTV Movie and TV Awards did, moving to gender-neutral categories in 2017, and the Grammys, which scrapped gender categories a decade ago. As more people eschew binary gender in favor of freedom, it’s definitely time for other awards bodies to follow suit. Of course, it will mean shifting language around identity on a mass scale moving forward. But that’s OK. We’re all evolving. And since all of us are, it’s definitely time for the Academy to do so as well.
Want to fight the tides of change? Then why not pick another arbitrary division of nominees? How about age categories? Is that really so different from boys versus girls? Then nonbinary folks don’t have to worry about being misgendered on the greatest night of their acting careers, and when I write my starring vehicle, I can win for best actor in the 20-something category the same year Glenn Close wins for Sunset Boulevard.
Because ultimately, identifying as nonbinary is about being respected and seen. Says Lovato: “We must keep having these conversations about gender with an open heart and an open mind so that we can together figure out how to become a more united species on this planet.”
Hilton Dresden is a writer and performer based in Brooklyn, New York.
A version of this story first appeared in the June 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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