'Billions' star Asia Kate Dillon calls for ending gender-specific acting categories

"Separating people based on their assigned sex, and/or their gender identity, is not only irrelevant when it comes to how an acting performance should be judged, it is also a form of discrimination."
Special Screening Of Lionsgate's "John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum" - Arrivals
Asia Kate Dillon attends the special screening of Lionsgate's "John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum" at TCL Chinese Theatre on May 15, 2019 in Hollywood, California.Axelle/Bauer-Griffin / FilmMagic
/ Source: Reuters
By Variety and Alexander Kacala

"Billions" star Asia Kate Dillon, the first gender nonbinary performer to play a nonbinary character on a major TV show, made headlines in 2017 when they asked the Television Academy to clarify its gender distinctions.

“I’d like to know if in your eyes ‘actor’ and ‘actress’ denote anatomy or identity and why it is necessary to denote either in the first place?" Dillon asked in an open letter.

“We are happy with our productive dialogue with Asia based on their very thoughtful letter,” a spokesperson for the TV Academy told Variety at the time. “The Television Academy celebrates inclusiveness, and as we discussed with Asia, there is no gender requirement for the various performer categories. Asia is free to choose the category they wish to enter.”

Dillon, who uses they/them pronouns, has since been entered in the supporting actor category, and has been nominated as best supporting actor in a drama series at the Critics' Choice Awards.

Dillon poses in the press room during the 2017 MTV Movie And TV Awards at The Shrine Auditorium on May 7, 2017 in Los Angeles.Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Images

Also in 2017, MTV announced that for its Movie Awards that year, it would eliminate gender-based categories and add television ones. Dillon was selected to open the show by presenting the award for the best actor in a movie.

“It’s so cool to be here presenting the first acting award ever that celebrates performance free of any gender distinctions," Dillon said before presenting the award to Emma Watson for her performance in "Beauty and the Beast."

"Tonight we celebrate portrayals of the human experience, because the only distinction we should be making when it comes to awards is between each outstanding performance.”

"I’m proud of MTV for joining the conversation about breaking down binaries," Dillon told W magazine at the time. "Binaries whether it be man or woman or black or white, they were created to separate us, to create an us and a them. Without binaries, there’s only us. Which means we’re actually all equal."

This year, Dillon was asked to take part in the Screen Actor's Guild Awards' motion picture nominating committee, but in an open letter to SAG-AFRTA's SAG Awards committee members, Dillon said they'd first like to see the awards show do away with gender-specific categories.

"When the Critic's Choice Awards later took it upon themselves to nominate me within the supporting actor category, I felt respected in my identity," Dillon says in the open letter first published on Variety. "I now recognize, however, that being submitted or nominated within categories that reinforce the gender-binary should have been met with my outright rejection of those nominations, alongside calling for change."

A spokesperson for SAG has yet to respond.

Here's Dillon's full letter:

Dear JoBeth, Daryl, Jason, Elizabeth, and Woody:

I hope you are all safe, and healthy.

In a letter dated June 1, 2020 you reached out notifying me I had been "selected to serve on the 27th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards Motion Picture Nominating Committee." The categories you asked me to participate in judging are: female actor in a leading role, female actor in a supporting role, male actor in a leading role, male actor in a supporting role, cast in a motion picture and stunt ensemble in a motion picture. I received your letter today, June 10, 2020, and I apologize for my delayed response, which will focus on the acting categories you have asked me to judge.

In late 2016, I publicly came out as non-binary, meaning I'm not male or female, or man or womxn. I use they, them, their pronouns. If you google my name and "acting award categories," you will find I have been calling for an end to segregated acting categories. Separating people based on their assigned sex, and/or their gender identity, is not only irrelevant when it comes to how an acting performance should be judged, it is also a form of discrimination. Not only do your current categories erase non-binary identities by limiting performers to identifying as male or female / man or womxn (which not all SAG members, like myself, do), they also serve as an endorsement of the gender binary at large, which actively upholds other forms of discrimination, including racism, the patriarchy, and gender violence.

The distinction between male and female acting categories was implemented as a means of combating the chronic and systemic overlooking of cis-women, particulary white cis-women, when it came to acting awards. This was despite the fact that there were no other categories similarly revised (as in directoress, best female or best male director/cinematographer/sound designer, etc.) I say "particularly white cis-women" because it's important to note how dangerous it has been to defend the separation of male and female acting categories, as well as other awards shows' use of the actress category, as being motivated by wanting representation for all womxn (cis and trans alike). In fact, Black, POC, indigenous, trans, and disabled womxn are still the most underrepresented groups at any awards show. And yet, if SAG, or the Academy, or the Emmys, or the Critics Choice Awards, decided to combat that underrepresentation by creating Best Black/POC/Indigenous actress in a leading/supporting role, that action would resoundingly read as what it was: racist and discriminatory.

In April 2017, when Showtime wanted to submit my name for Emmy consideration in the supporting category, I engaged in a conversation with the Emmy board that felt encouraging at the time. I asked them to clarify if their actor and actress categories were intended to separate people based on assigned sex and/or gender identity. I was told that Emmy rules state that any performer can enter either category for any reason. Since the word actor (late 14c.) is a gender-neutral word meaning "theatrical player, to do, to perform," and is the word I've always used to refer to myself, I asked to be submitted under supporting actor. When the Critic's Choice Awards later took it upon themselves to nominate me within the supporting actor category, I felt respected in my identity. I now recognize, however, that being submitted or nominated within categories that reinforce the gender-binary should have been met with my outright rejection of those nominations, alongside calling for change.

Not only is it possible to combine all of your leading and supporting nominees into the same gender-neutral categories, there is precedent: On May 7, 2017, I presented the first gender-neutral acting award, to Emma Watson, at the MTV Movie & TV Awards, noting, "It's so cool to be here presenting the first acting award ever that celebrates performance free of any gender distinctions. Tonight we celebrate portrayals of the human experience, because the only distinction we should be making when it comes to awards is between each outstanding performance."

To return, then, to your invitation: I would be thrilled to serve as a judge, provided you take immediate action to combine your acting awards into gender-neutral categories. This courageous and overdue step from my union would send a wide message that SAG not only supports me but supports all its non-binary and gender non-conforming members.

I look forward to your reply. With Love and Solidarity,

Asia Kate Dillon

— they / them / theirs