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As your tiresome, conservative uncle will fulminate at the drop of a hat at your next family gathering, “This gender neutral what what thing is out of control.” Of course what conservatives don’t want to acknowledge is that the reason the subject of gender-neutral, trans and nonbinary people has become such a hot-button topic from Florida to Glasgow is the long and righteous battle fought by members of these communities to gain legal and public recognition for their right to self-identify.

As with many burning social issues and debates, this one has been a pressing concern for Hollywood for a number of years. While the representation on screen of nonbinary and trans performers has certainly increased, another concern is making itself increasingly felt in the entertainment world. That’s the issue of awards and the categories they employ for recognition of performances, which remain the only categories that are gendered. There is no “best editing by a female editor” category but there still are “best actor” and “best actress” categories in most awards ceremonies, including the Oscars and the Emmys.

With the end of 2023’s awards season behind us and a new one soon to begin, the call for major Hollywood awards to degender their acting categories is getting louder. Several smaller industry awards have made the decision to degender their categories and allow nonbinary, transgender, male and female actors to compete under the broad banners of best performer and best supporting performer.

These include the Film Independent Spirit Awards, which adopted gender-neutral categories in 2022 and had eight female nominees and two male nominees compete for the best performer award and three women and seven men battle it out in the best supporting performer category. The MTV Movie & TV Awards, Gotham Awards and Berlin Film Festival awards have also eliminated gender divisions in their ceremonies, as have the Brit Awards for music and the Grammys, which have been gender-neutral for more than a decade.

These changes may be welcomed as a good start by nonbinary performers who have had to make the tough decision whether to subscribe to an anatomical gender category in which they do not place themselves for the purpose of awards; or to decline competition in protest against awards that do not recognise their gender choices. They are not, however, necessarily welcomed by all female performers in Hollywood.

Though several high-profile female performers have aligned themselves with the call for increased recognition and representation of nonbinary and trans performers, some believe the elimination of gendered categories in an industry in which representation and opportunities are still skewed towards men would mean that in an open nongendered equal playing field category, the majority of nominees would end up being men.

Even though more than 1.2-million adults identify as nonbinary in the US and the roster of performers who identify as such has definitely increased in movies and TV over the past five years, it does not seem that a separate “best nonbinary or transgender performance” category would yield enough nominees to be considered. Neither would such a separation really be very progressive in terms of the fight for recognition.

Orange is the New Black and Billions star Asia Kate Dillon is one of the first nonbinary performers to gain popular recognition for their performances and has been a strong public advocate for the collapsing of gendered categories in the Emmy Awards. In a 2017 letter written to the Television Academy, which runs the Emmys, Dillon wrote: “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. Furthermore, if the categories of ‘actor’ and ‘actress’ are meant to denote assigned sex I ask, respectfully, why is that necessary?”

Dillon went on to argue that historically gendered categories are evidence of sexism and patriarchy within the film and TV industry and send a message that “there is one space in which women are allowed to be, and that is in front of the camera entertaining us and certainly not creating stories”. 

The fact that only three women in history have ever won the best director Oscar seems to bear this out. But if female directors such as Sarah Polley, whose predominantly female cast in Women Talking was nominated for an Oscar in 2023, feel, “What none of us want to see is a general acting category where it ends up being all-male nominees, which I think is the fear — and that’s a genuine fear”, as she told the New York Times, then the solution to the problem may be far more complicated than simply eliminating gender from awards categories.

Ultimately the bigger question is perhaps whether, in a world where more and more people are accepting of the idea of gender as a construct, there could be a time when we all let go of your uncle’s old-fashioned ideas about men and women and begin to recognise the creative talents of humans of all creeds, preferences and colours.

That rainbow idealism may still be a little far in the future but as David Sullivan — the trans nonbinary star of the Broadway hit Juliet, who recently declined a Tony nomination in protest against the gendering of its acting awards — told Vanity Fair this week: “We’re here, we are present, and we are not going anywhere,” and neither, it seems, is this brighter burning issue.

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