When GLAAD releases its annual report on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender visibility on television, 2020 likely will be dubbed a milestone for nonbinary characters. From "P-Valley's" Uncle Clifford and "Star Trek: Discovery's" Adira to "Big Sky's" Jerrie Kennedy and "Good Trouble's" Lindsay Brady, there are more characters on TV whose gender identities fall outside of the man-woman binary than ever before. But Jacob Tobia, author of the memoir "Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story," which is being developed for TV by Showtime, isn't yet applauding Hollywood.
"I'm really Shania Twain about the whole thing: That don't impress me much," Tobia said, describing a vision for nonbinary characters who aren't secondary on shows and aren't created or written primarily by people who aren't nonbinary themselves. Tobia is withholding praise until nonbinary people are telling their own stories.
Tobia's declaration reflects similar calls from other marginalized communities. "Nothing about us, without us," has become a popular refrain. But the promised land that such communities are working toward might be farther away than it appears.
Just three years ago, Showtime debuted one of television's first nonbinary characters, played by Asia Kate Dillon, on "Billions." Today, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation tracks about a dozen nonbinary characters either currently on or coming soon to broadcast and cable television and streaming platforms.
For some, nonbinary is a gender presentation or expression, a way of describing their behavior, mannerisms or appearance. For others, nonbinary refers to gender identity, an assertion that they are something other than, or beyond, a man or a woman. Some nonbinary people are also transgender, while others are not, and they can use masculine, feminine or gender-neutral pronouns. That complexity isn't always reflected in shows with nonbinary characters, said Nick Adams, GLAAD's director of transgender media.
"Most people, when they come to me, they just think, 'We're going to write a nonbinary character,' but they have not thought it through further than that," he continued.
So Adams created a checklist of questions to help writers and producers be more intentional — figuring out the sex their characters were assigned at birth and whether the characters are also trans, as well as asking about the characters' sexual orientation. The goal, Adams said, is having characters that feel like real people.
Adams noted that when there isn't a nonbinary or transgender person in a show's writers room, it's even more important to hire a nonbinary or trans actor for the role. That way, the actor can give input, as Bex Taylor-Klaus, who played a nonbinary character on Fox's canceled "Deputy," has done.
"I've played a lot of characters that, if they were written this year or last year, they'd likely be nonbinary," Taylor-Klaus said. "It's been really fun to watch over the last five years as it's become more and more possible for the characters I play to have their nonbinary identity be, rather than subtext, actual text."
Taylor-Klaus believes the industry must also give a platform to nonbinary and other lesbian, gay and trans creators.
"Once we start giving unknowns a chance to tell their stories, the world will change," Taylor-Klaus said. "If we keep hearing the same stories from the same people who have the same experiences, it's never going to be right. "