TORONTO – The push for greater recognition of trans and non-binary onscreen talent has several awards shows grappling with how to recognize queer talent, to mixed effect.
Voting began last week for the Emmy Awards, which last year saw the first openly transgender performer nominated for lead acting — Mj Rodriguez, for her role in the FX drama “Pose.” She’s also the third transgender performer to ever be nominated for an Emmy, following Laverne Cox and Rain Valdez.
In Canada, the Toronto chapter of the actor’s union renamed some of its prizes to be more inclusive, but critics said the categories were still mainly defined by binary terms.
In an industry finally starting to open up to under-represented performers, challenges continue in mainstream properties, as well as the awards shows that honor them, says New Brunswick-born Tricia Black, the actor, writer and comedian most known for the CBC comedy “Pretty Hard Cases.”
“We’re at a point in time where so many people are finally being able to be who they truly are and getting to express themselves in so many different ways,” says Black, who goes by the pronouns she/they.
“That means we need to be more considerate of each other when it comes to how we are seen. But in the acting world, it’s difficult, and it often makes you ask, ‘Where do I fit in?’”
Last year’s Emmys was the first to allow actors to request they be recognized with the gender-neutral title of “performer” on their nomination certificate and Emmy trophy. Meanwhile, also last year, the Gotham Awards eliminated best actor and best actress categories altogether, replacing them with lead and supporting categories.
Earlier this year in music, the UK’s BRIT Awards also opted for more inclusive categories, while the Grammys removed all gendered categories back in 2012.
In Canada, ACTRA Toronto, the largest branch of the Canadian performers’ union, allows members to submit for awards based either on the gender of the character portrayed or how a performer personally identifies. They include “outstanding performance – gender non-conforming or female ” and “outstanding performance – gender non-conforming or male.” ACTRA said the category changes were made in consultation with the chapter’s queer committee, outACTRAto.
However “Sort Of” star Amanda Cfalter, who was nominated for portraying non-binary character 7ven on the CBC Gem series, said the categories remained essentially binary despite the title change.
Having a category dedicated to “the best performer” would have made more sense, Cmapper suggested in an interview after the nominations were announced in January.
“It’s still male versus female, it’s still conforming,” Cfalter said at the time. ”I guess it’s a step in the direction, but I don’t know if we’re there yet.”
Jo Vannicola, the Montreal-born Emmy-winning actor and writer who goes by them/them, is on the LGBTQ+ committee at ACTRA Toronto and calls ACTRA’s move “a start.”
“I don’t know that it addresses everything and I’m hoping that, maybe even next year, ACTRA will open up more categories,” says Vannicola, chair of outACTRAto.
At this year’s Canadian Screen Awards, Cfalter’s non-binary co-star and “Sort Of” co-creator Bilal Baig chose not to submit their performance for awards consideration due to the “disappointing” binary acting categories, executive producer Jennifer Kawaja confirmed in an email to the Canadian Press.
Beth Janson, CEO of the Canadian Academy at the time, said “it’s something that we want to work on.”
Vannicola says when it comes to most award shows, binary categories only go so far.
“It doesn’t address the power dynamics that already exist culturally and in the way that people think in terms of the binary. People at the top need to be more educated about how better to represent more people on an intersectional lens.”
Vannicola, a recurring character on the final season of Space’s “The Expanse” and who has been working in the industry since they were eight years old, says their career in their 20s was marked by “an undercurrent of either misogyny or homophobia and, at this stage, I would also say transphobia.”
“At the time, there wasn’t a language for these issues I was experiencing. It’s only really quite recently, since the #MeToo explosion, that we’re starting to pay a little bit more attention to women’s issues and queer people, but it’s just scratching the surface.”
The key to more recognition, says Black, is through change at every corner — from the writing to the set to the cast and crew. She says playing a queer character that steers clear of stereotype on “Pretty Hard Cases,” has connected with viewers.
“I’ve had people stop me and be like, ‘It’s so nice to see myself represented on screen,’ just from that one silly character.”
Still, she says she has yet to see someone who “truly” looks like her on television.
“The industry still skews, even in a queer sense, to a male gaze. So you’re watching all these shows, you’re seeing all this amazing representation in terms of, for example, lesbian couples, but one thing you’ll notice is, for the most part, they all look the same.”
Vannicola agrees, adding, “I don’t often see myself reflected and when I say that, I mean people who are butch, who are trans-masculine, who are non-binary.”
The best solution, they say, is to create their own space.
“As an actor, I was so depressed in my young years; there was never any place for me and I kept trying to squeeze into these ridiculously feminine roles,” says Vannicola.
“It was frustrating when, in auditions, I would see blank faces staring back at me and sometimes hateful faces. I realized I have to write, I have to be more political, or else I will never work again.”
Vannicola says that led them to create the ACTRA committee and write the 2019 memoir “All We Knew But Couldn’t Say,” along with a series of shorts.
“We need to know that we are represented, that we’re seen, that we’re visible, that our lives are relevant and matter, that our stories are just as important. And historically we have not been represented, so to crack that code is fantastic…. An award like ‘best performance by any gender’ alone would open doors and educate.”
Cameron Mackenzie, the artistic and executive director of the queer Vancouver company Zee Zee Theater says he helped launch a 10-month, national paid mentorship and development program for queer and trans playwrights in large part because it was so hard to find queer material.
Mackenziesays hiring more queer playwrights will lead not only to more queer stories but more diverse roles, casts and crews.
“I want people to be able to see themselves, I want people to be able to be themselves. All of this ultimately advances the status of queer and trans folks in Canada, because art is the thing that can change minds, hearts, opinions and politics.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 20, 2022.
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