2021 was an extraordinary year of making the nonbinary ordinary

Thanks for celebrities who came out and more inclusive TV, pop culture led the charge in busting the gender binary

By Alison Stine

Staff Writer

Published December 27, 2021 7:00PM (EST)

Carl Clemons-Hopkins as Marcus in "Hacks," Demi Lovato, and Dua Saleh as Cal in "Sex Education" (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Netflix/Sam Taylor/HBO Max/Anne Marie Fox)
Carl Clemons-Hopkins as Marcus in "Hacks," Demi Lovato, and Dua Saleh as Cal in "Sex Education" (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Netflix/Sam Taylor/HBO Max/Anne Marie Fox)

In response to criticism about his casting of Javier Bardem, who is Spanish, as Cuban-American Desi Arnaz in the new film "Being the Ricardos," director Aaron Sorkin told the Times: "Nouns aren't actable. Gay and straight aren't actable . . . So, this notion that only gay actors should play gay characters? That only a Cuban actor should play Desi? Honestly, I think it's the mother of all empty gestures and a bad idea."

Queer actors have historically not been given the same opportunities as straight actors for roles, even roles that dramatize queer lives, which is why actor Billy Eichner and others criticized Sorkin's comments, with Eichner writing on Twitter that Sorkin was "Completely ignorant of how Hollywood has treated its openly LGBTQ+ actors for a century."

Sorkin aside, some queer performers came out okay, on some level, in the terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad year that was 2021. So did our stories: specifically, nonbinary characters and performers.

The 2019-2020 survey "Where We Are on TV" from GLAAD found only five regular or reccurring nonbinary characters on shows last season, out of the more than 800 characters surveyed. But 2021, according to Autostraddle, saw "some major leaps for nonbinary characters played by nonbinary actors after years of virtually no explicit representation at all." It may feel frustrating compared to the immense amount of straight and cisgender characters and storylines on TV and in film, but the portrayals of nonbinary characters this year, despite being small in number, were overwhelmingly nuanced and interesting.

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At the head of the class is Dua Saleh's soulful performance as new, nonbinary student Cal in season 3 of "Sex Education." The British Netflix series has always presented candid questions about sex and relationships that many stories — and many Americans — shy away from, questions ranging from how might aliens have sex? to how do you enjoy consensual sex again after sexual assault? 

This season introduces Cal, who skateboards through the halls of Moordale Secondary School, changes clothes in a condemned and abandoned part of the school rather than in the girls' or boys' locker rooms or bathrooms, and feels uncomfortable in the tight-fitting uniforms introduced by a new headmistress, whose antiquated ideas of gender and sexuality threaten to set the school back years. 

Stoner Cal and golden boy athlete/head boy Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling), have an intense connection, an almost love affair that feels real and really heartbreaking, until Cal expresses concern that Jackson still sees them as a girl, which they are not. If the two were to have a relationship, it would be a queer relationship, and Jackson would have to be okay with that. He's not there yet and he's mature enough to say so.

One important thing that "Sex Education" does? Cal is not the only character who doesn't fit rigid notions of gender. The show also includes the storyline of the minor but reccuring character of Layla (played by nonbinary actor Robyn Holdaway), another nonbinary student. Layla feels a bit of a rivalry with Cal and looks to them for guidance, including how to wear a binder safely.

Cal and Layla are not the same, and their journeys are not the same. So many shows tentatively wade into queer waters with a singular nonbinary or trans character (you can have one or the other — as a treat), but those identities are not interchangeable, and it's time TV and films show the range of gender experiences, as they do with so many other human stories. 

This year, "Star Trek: Discovery" went where no show has gone before to feature a romance storyline between a nonbinary human character (played by nonbinary actor Blu del Barrio) and a trans alien character, a member of the Trill (played by trans actor Ian Alexander). Del Barrio said the role was personally instrumental, helping them realize their own identity, which they had been questioning for years.

Science fiction, more than other genres, has long included characters and stories that deviate from a strict gender binary, even if some of those roles were aliens or otherworldly creatures. As a genre that looks ahead, it's unsurprising that nonbinary characters and storylines would have a home here. Take "The Matrix" series, the sci-fi saga which we now understand, on one level, as a metaphor for an experience of being trans. Its newest incarnation, "The Matrix Resurrections," features an entire cast of queer-coded characters.

Importantly, in 2021 we're seeing a shift toward nonbinary characters as complex, not just villains, even sexy villains, the trope that has long plagued those who do not fit rigid sexual or gender norms. Historically, queer characters have been dangerous, chaotic and promiscuous with edgy haircuts, black leather and bisexual lighting.

As my friend, Appalachian trans writer Stacy Jane Grover once said about queer characters: They need to be boring sometimes too, just like straight characters are. Nonbinary characters need to be ordinary, natural, their gender identities not the entirety of their personality or story but simply a facet of it. 

Last year, Jesse James Keitel became the first nonbinary actor to play a nonbinary series regular on primetime TV in the ABC crime drama "Big Sky," and nonbinary actor Bex Taylor-Klaus starred as fan-favorite character Bishop, the sarcastic, nonbinary deputy in charge of security detail for Sheriff Bill Hollister in the Fox drama "Deputy." When Taylor-Klaus auditioned, the role had originally been described as "compact lesbian supermodel." Once they were cast, that character description changed in the script to "fiery androgynous badass."

In 2021, we saw more nonbinary actors take on major roles, even if the parts they played were cisgender. Carl Clemons-Hopkins made history as the first openly nonbinary actor to be nominated for an Emmy, for their work as Marcus in the HBO show "Hacks." Marcus is an emotionally cut-off, hyper-organized manager who is competent in work, unlucky in love, and according to Clemons-Hopkins, gay but not nonbinary: "I ascertained very quickly that Marcus is a 'him' because my personal exploration of my identity has come from a lot of time that I devote to that, a lot of research and a lot of unearthing whatever. That's time that Marcus doesn't allow himself." 

Nonbinary actor and playwright Liv Hewson steals scenes and Taissa's (Tawny Cypress) heart in Showtime's 2021 "Yellowjackets," playing Van, a wise-cracking high school athlete who is queer but not nonbinary so far.

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In 2021, singer Demi Lovato publicly came out as nonbinary via their Instagram feed, after coming out as pansexual earlier in the year. Actor and model Courtney Stodden, survivor of a child marriage with much-older actor Doug Hutchison, came out as nonbinary this year too, and actor Emma Corrin, who starred as Diana in Netflix's "The Crown," publicly updated their pronouns to she/they. 

These shifts reflect a larger awakening, an awareness that human gender is complex, and stories that ignore or gloss over nonbinary experiences may be failing to reflect a segment of humanity. As Lovato wrote in her public social media: "Every day we wake up, we are given another opportunity and chance to be who we want and wish to be." In a 2021 Instagram post, which featured black and white pictures of themselves experimenting with binding, Corrin wrote, "It's all a journey right. Lots of twists and turns and change and that's ok! Embrace it."

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By Alison Stine

Alison Stine is a former staff writer at Salon. She is the author of the novels "Trashlands" and "Road Out of Winter," winner of the 2021 Philip K. Dick Award. A recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), she has written for The New York Times, The Guardian, and others.

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