How Gender Non-Conforming Actors Are Changing Hollywood

Meg Zukin

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With 1.4 million Instagram followers, Tommy Dorfman is one of the breakout stars of Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why.” But when Dorfman, who is gender-nonconforming and goes by the pronouns “they” and “them,” was shopping around for a new agent in 2017, the process was harder than it should have been. As Dorfman recalls, one representative told them that not identifying with a single gender was “a fad,” and the agency couldn’t sign them.

“The agent was like, ‘Look, maybe you’ll be the Laverne Cox of this show and pop, but what I’m looking at now is not financially a good investment for us,’” Dorfman says in a Zoom interview with Variety.

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Dorfman, 27, remembers wearing a heeled boot and a cropped polo shirt to the meeting (relatively tame by Hollywood standards), which wasn’t even with “a big agency.” The look strayed a little too left of center for the agent. Now Dorfman is repped by CAA and says their agents couldn’t be more supportive. While reflecting on that experience, they say: “I was not accepted. I was celebrated, but I wasn’t accepted.”

Therein lies the conundrum for many gender-fluid artists. On paper, the industry lauds diversity, but when it comes to casting, cisgender actors still receive the bulk of the roles.

In the last two decades, there has been considerable progress for gay and lesbian actors. Ellen DeGeneres, “Will & Grace” and “The L Word” paved the way for today’s generation of out stars: Kristen Stewart, Tessa Thompson, Billy Eichner, Hayley Kiyoko and more. In 2014, Cox appeared on the cover of Time magazine, proving that transgender actors had crossed over into the mainstream.

But even in this more inclusive environment, gender-nonconforming actors don’t have the benefit of looking at a previous generation to see how it navigated climbing the Hollywood ladder. While most of Hollywood’s gatekeepers are familiar with gays and lesbians, gender fluidity is not as widely understood. As a result, many of today’s nonconforming creatives are writing their own rulebook and using social media to educate the world about their identities.

Gender is different from sex. According to GLAAD, “gender identity” is defined as “a person’s internal, deeply held sense of their gender.” This is separate from the sex people are assigned at birth. Most people’s gender identity is either male or female. For nonbinary and gender-nonconforming people, gender identity does not fit neatly into one of those two choices. Their gender exists on a spectrum between both.

The percentage of people who identify as gender-nonconforming is small — some estimates range from less than 1% to 3% — but growing. Anecdotally, experts say this could be attributable to a rise in visibility and representation. Only three years ago, in 2017, “Billions” introduced the first gender-nonbinary regular character on TV (played by Asia Kate Dillon, who identifies as nonbinary). In 2016, actor Amandla Stenberg (“The Hate U Give”) posted about questioning their gender on Tumblr, and now goes by “she/her” and “they/them” pronouns. British singer-songwriter Sam Smith, who came out as gay in 2014, has since said they are genderqueer. Tommy Dorfman came out in 2017, and trans and gender-nonconforming actor Theo Germaine landed their first major role in 2019 in the Netflix series “The Politician.” This generation of gender-nonconforming actors is not the first, and they’re quick to acknowledge that. But they are the first group with this much reach and visibility.

Dillon’s “Billions” character, Taylor, is a rare nonbinary character in a sea of otherwise token parts. In choosing roles, Dillon flat-out refuses to entertain one-dimensional nonbinary characters, or nonbinary roles that solely focus on trials and tribulations centered on the person’s gender.

“I’m not going to play a character like that, because that story doesn’t have value and doesn’t uplift or support the community,” Dillon says. “That’s one way I look at the responsibility — that I’m continuing to engage with work that meets the standards I set for myself.”

Dorfman is among the many nonbinary actors who yearn for a “they/them” character without a “they/them”-heavy storyline. This is a shared struggle for LGBTQ actors, and it may be that progress is only possible with time. “There always has to be a coming out,” Dorfman says. “There’s never just a gender-nonconforming person who exists on a TV show without some screaming on-the-street moment.”

Ignorance still pervades the industry, despite the best of intentions. Australian actor JayR Tinaco (Netflix’s “Another Life”), who goes by “he/him” and “they/ them,” was told by agents that they needed to be doing more “straight acting”: “When you’re an actor starting out and you have an agent telling you this, you want to listen because you want to make it and you want to work.” Now Tinaco only auditions for nonbinary and gay characters because they match and align with their lifestyle.

The internet, though riddled with trolls, has long been a space for marginalized people to meet, gather and band together. In the age of Instagram, finding other queer people is as simple as tapping on a hashtag. “Queers flock to social media,” says Bex Taylor-Klaus, who has had roles on “Arrow” and “13 Reasons Why.” “I say social media is the reason that we have voices right now, because it’s a lot harder for people in positions of power to ignore you if you have 300 retweets. Now imagine if you had 300,000 retweets. Little bit more power.”

As a kid, Taylor-Klaus — who came out as transgender nonbinary in 2018 — struggled to see themselves reflected on-screen. “It was always hard for me because I would see myself in these butch girls or these super femme or wussy guy characters. I never really had a character that was like, ‘Oh, that’s me. That’s me!’ That’s somewhere in the middle.”

A few years ago, Taylor-Klaus was cautioned against identifying as queer. “I was really well supported by my team, and I was still warned against coming out,” they say. “I didn’t even talk to them about coming out as nonbinary.” In retrospect, Taylor-Klaus acknowledges their team was trying to protect them. “The fear that they held for me was fear based around former clients in the former world.”

One of the biggest difficulties for nonbinary actors is not having a template to follow. Alex Newell, who goes by both “he/his” and “they/their” pronouns and played Unique Adams on “Glee,” created their own path, borrowing from other characters on the show. “I was always known as the hybrid between Amber Riley and Chris Colfer on ‘Glee,’” Newell says. “And so those are my two templates of representation that I saw on TV: I saw a sensitive gay man in Colfer’s character, Kurt, and I saw a strong black woman with a big voice in Mercedes, Riley’s character, and I kind of meshed them together and I became that on the show.”

As gender-fluid people are forced to seek out representation elsewhere, they sometimes turn to fantasy or animated worlds where gender rules aren’t so defined. The first time “The Politician’s” Germaine saw themselves on-screen wasn’t while watching a sitcom but while playing “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time” on a Nintendo 64. Germaine identified with Princess Zelda and her androgynous alter ego, Sheik, even if they didn’t yet have the words to do so. “Here’s this person who has a body type that looks like mine, and there’s something going on with gender, and there’s something very trans about this character,” Germaine says. “Video games are the secret origin of me finding characters that I really identified with.”

Lachlan Watson, who stars on Netflix’s “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina,” had a similar experience growing up, pointing to “The Lord of the Rings” as providing them with a semblance of representation. “I was the only kid in the room who saw myself as Gandalf, Legolas and Gimli at the same time,” they say. “Mulan” was another movie that shaped Watson’s gender identity. “All of the gender roles are kind of broken down in that movie,” they say. “It’s not just that she’s a lady and then she’s a man. It’s super fluid and fun.”

So how to make more nonbinary and gender-fluid characters come to life? Hollywood tends to be two steps behind, and the burden of responsibility comes crashing down on the oppressed. Dorfman is dealing with that reality by refocusing their activism. “Instead of going to a GLAAD event and standing on a soapbox, I am writing roles that I feel will change the narrative and open doors,” they say. “I decided that I was going to stop trying to convince older, more established heads of studios or networks to understand me and get me, and focus more on developing relationships with people who already do.”

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