Asia Kate Dillon, who plays Taylor Mason on Showtime’s Billions, is a television pioneer. Not only does Dillon play the first gender non-binary character on TV, they are also the first to be nominated for an Emmy Award and call into question the Television Academy’s gender-specific terminology.
Dillon isn’t just gender non-binary on TV, but in life as well. And it’s a self-discovery that was achieved thanks to the show.
“When I saw the breakdown for the character, it said ‘female, non-binary.’ And I thought, ‘Interesting, I think I know about those words, but let me do research into every aspect of this character and their world and who they are,'” Dillon said to Vulture. “I just went, oh my gosh, there is language to express something about myself that I’ve always known, but could never put words to.”
When Showtime decided to submit Dillon for an Emmy in a supporting role, a challenge presented itself: does Dillon identify as an actor or an actress?
“What I learned through my research is that the word ‘actor,’ specifically in reference to those who performed in plays, came about in the late 1500s as a non-gendered word,” Dillon said to Variety. The word actress didn’t appear until 1700.
Before they could make a decision, however, Dillon decided to engage the Academy in a conversation. They wrote a letter questioning the gender-specific terminology of the categories.
Variety obtained a copy of the letter, which reads:
“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? The reason I’m hoping to engage you in a conversation about this is because if the categories of ‘actor’ and ‘actress’ are in fact supposed to represent ‘best performance by a person who identifies as a woman’ and ‘best performance by a person who identifies as a man’ then there is no room for my identity within that award system binary.”
The Academy responded quickly, and engaged in what Dillon described as a “thoughtful exchange.” The rules state that anyone can enter under either the “actor” or “actress” category without specifying gender qualifications. All that’s necessary is that a person is in a continuing performance in a regular series.
“I found them to be 100 per cent supportive. I really couldn’t have been happier,” Dillon said.
A spokesperson for the Television Academy said to Variety: “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.”
In the end, Dillon decided to enter under the Best Supporting Actor category.
“Given the choice between actor and actress, actor is a non-gendered word that I use,” they said. “That’s why I chose actor.”
Gender non-binary people and how to reference them has become part of the mainstream conversation of late. In late March, Global News reported that the Associated Press announced a change to its stylebook to accept “they” as a personal pronoun for a singular person in lieu of “he” or “she.”
“Not all people fall under one of two categories for sex or gender, according to leading medical organizations, so avoid references to both, either or opposite sexes or genders as a way to encompass all people,” reads a portion of the new stylebook entry.