When Billions star Asia Kate Dillon became a viable contender in the 2017 Emmy Awards race, Showtime had a groundbreaking consideration on their hands: in which category should the nonbinary actor be submitted -- "supporting actor" or "supporting actress?" The TV network requested Dillon's preference, a concept the native of Ithaca, New York, had once contemplated, but never gave too much thought to. But this was their chance to decide, so they wrote an impassioned letter to the Television Academy for clarification on the gendered award categories.
"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,'" Dillon's note read, "then there is no room for my identity within that award-system binary."
The Academy promptly replied, noting that any person may submit themselves for consideration in either category for whatever reason, a satisfactory response that gave the actor the freedom to choose. Dillon settled on the "supporting actor" category because the term "actor" was genderless when first used in the late 1500s. In the process, they kicked off a conversation about Hollywood's binary way of recognizing talent and the boxes into which nonbinary and gender nonconforming people are forced.
"I am interested in a future that puts all performers into one category, as we do with director, cinematographer, all of the other categories," they say. "I don't begrudge anyone identifying as an 'actress,' either because they identify as a woman or with their assigned female sex. But in terms of awards ceremonies, separating people based on gender identity and/or assigned sex is archaic and unnecessary."
While Dillon has taken on age-old gender standards in entertainment, the last five years of their life have been nothing short of remarkable. After all, they were still working brunch shifts as a waiter while playing Brandy Epps on their first season of Orange Is the New Black in 2016. Dillon was able to live off of acting alone a year later, when they also booked Billions.
"I feel very lucky to make a living doing the thing that is my passion, because it means that the time I spend living in my passion is fulfilling to me both emotionally and artistically," they say. "And it means that in the time I'm not working on an artistic project, I'm able to do what I want."
As Dillon's visibility and platform increase, with their latest role in John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum, the responsibility they feel to use it for good persists. "Whether I'm getting gas, acting in a play, or acting on TV, I want everything that I'm doing, every practice that I'm engaging in, to be uplifting and supporting historically marginalized and disenfranchised people," they say. With Dillon being nominated for best supporting actor at the Critics Choice Awards two years in a row, it seems like their work is paying off.
"I felt respected," Dillon said about the honors, and about a body like the Broadcast Film Critics Association recognizing their performance. "We don't have best director-ess, best cinematographer-ess. This idea is not that radical. Let's figure it out."
This is one of our 50 Radical Ideas, featured in Out's June/July 2019 issue celebrating Stonewall 50. The three covers feature the enduring legacy of activist Sylvia Rivera, the complicated candidacy of presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, and the triumphant star power of actress Mj Rodriguez. To read more, grab your own copy of the issue on Kindle, Nook, Zinio or (newly) Apple News+ today. Preview more of the issue here and click here to subscribe.