Will Hollywood Lead the Way for Non-Binary Acceptance?

"It’s not something you’re going to be able to fully grasp overnight," says "Sabrina" star Lachlan Watson.

“I think there’s been a big and really interesting queer shift in the media,” Lachlan Watson of the hit Netflix show The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina tells NewNowNext. “But I think we’ve still got a long way to go when it comes to non-binary representation.”

Watson is one of a handful of openly non-binary actors currently working in film and television, having landed their first major role in the incredibly successful Sabrina series earlier this year. However, when it comes to representation of the diverse spectrum of LGBTQ experiences in Hollywood, non-binary people—and particularly non-binary people of color—seem to be much less present in film and television than other members of the queer community, particularly gays and lesbians.

“It’s been interesting in the world of trying to escape tokenism, basically,” Watson continues. “I think queer people have become a delicacy or commodity, and we’re almost a checkbox on a list. We’re moving forward and sometimes that’s all that really matters—but the roles that I get offered now that I’m a very openly and out non-binary person are usually just the best friend that appears for five seconds to educate people about what the hell non-binary means. It’s really tiring after a while.”

From left: Lachlan Watson and Jaz Sinclair in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.

According to GLAAD’s annual report on LGBTQ representation in television, 2018 saw a “record high percentage of regular broadcast LGBTQ characters on TV.” The study also found, remarkably, that more LGBTQ characters of color appeared in regular and reoccurring television characters than white LGBTQ people. While the study didn’t provide specifics about non-binary representation, it does seem to point towards a larger push for LGBTQ inclusion in Hollywood storylines. But still, non-binary people who make their livelihoods in the industry are struggling to find work.

“While there’s absolutely been a huge shift in representation for non-binary people in digital media in recent years, Hollywood and print media are seriously lagging behind,” Jacob Tobia, a media personality and author of the forthcoming memoir Sissy, says in an interview. “As an actor, I can’t begin to tell you how difficult it has been for me to get work… It has a lot to do with the limited imagination of the people who are creating television and film.”

With Hollywood, diverse storytelling often starts in the writer’s room and extends to the people working on set. Telling stories about people who navigate the world with non-binary experiences of gender is a collective effort—and one that everyone working on production needs to fully grasp in order to tell stories in an authentic way. This is especially true if non-binary people aren’t even in the room when these stories are being written, which can risk essentializing and tokenizing the way these characters are formed.

Ben Gabbe/Getty Images for Two Spirit, LLC
Jacob Tobia at the Phluid Project.

Watson believes remedying this structural problem starts with a very simple step: talking to non-binary people and making sure they are part of the process.

“People who live inside of the binary will never be able to fully understand or write a character who is non-binary without just discussing it with someone first. And that’s something I run into where these cis writers who are very talented and very good at world-building and character-building and write beautiful storylines, especially for queer characters—[but] they still live within a binary. And costumers are the same way where they still perceive clothing in a very structured and binary way—and it takes a lot of time, god, I guess it takes time for even non-binary people to figure that out. It’s not something you’re going to be able to fully grasp overnight.”

One television show receiving accolades for its recent portrayal of narratives outside of cisgender experience is Ryan Murphy’s Pose. The show made history with the largest cast of openly transgender actors in television history, received a Golden Globe nomination, and has been lauded as the way trans storytelling “should” be done in Hollywood—by allowing trans people to tell their own stories. Ryan Murphy also reportedly donated all profits from the show to LGBTQ organizations.

Indya Moore in Pose.

Aja, a non-binary drag performer and two-time contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race, heralded Pose for its handling of diverse gendered experiences, particularly those of trans people of color.

“Positive portrayals in mainstream media are very important, especially for trans people,” Aja says. “That’s why Pose was such a big deal. You got to see into the eyes of trans people, and you got to see their struggles, and it wasn’t a parody. It wasn’t a joke. It was like, these people are real, they have feelings and emotions, and this is a real thing that happened. They weren’t a punchline, they were the stars of the story. That’s what creates empathy and changes hearts, when you’re not laughing at trans people, but just seeing them for who they are and hearing their real stories. That’s the kind of stuff that reaches conservative people who’ve been sitting behind a pretty white fence eating lucky charms every morning.”

The success of Pose certainly generates a larger hope that Hollywood will continue to embrace the need to tell stories of people all along the spectrum of gender identity. However, the key to authentic storytelling, and storytelling that changes hearts and minds, is to make sure that it is done in a way that is empathetic, realistic, and involving the input of people of that lived experience. Tobia sees this as the way to ultimately move the needle when it comes to broader acceptance of non-binary people as a whole in society.

“I’m a firm believer that Hollywood builds the future,” Tobia says. “If you look at almost any modern civil rights or human rights movement, major policy gains have only ever come after a decade of positive, narrative representation in Hollywood. The sooner we have non-binary protagonists who are treated with dignity, the sooner the American public falls in love with non-binary people; the sooner they fall in love with us, the sooner we get rights.”

James Michael Nichols is a writer, storyteller and the former editor of HuffPost Queer Voices.