The other day, when my mom and I finished chatting on the phone, she handed me off to my dad so he could say hi. "What are you working on?" he asked. I told him I had interviewed Asia Kate Dillon, a breakout star on the Showtime series Billions. (Although he hasn't yet made it to the season-two debut of Dillon's character Taylor Mason, my dad—like all dads—loves Billions.) "They're gender non-binary, which means they don't identify as either a man or a woman even though they were assigned female at birth," I explained. "They use the pronoun 'they.'"
"That's interesting," my dad said. "I've never heard of that before."
He asked a few more questions and I did my best to answer them, although not nearly as articulately as I imagine Dillon would have. It's a conversation I'm sure they've had hundreds if not thousands of times. As a non-binary actor playing what's considered to be the first non-binary character on mainstream television, Dillon might be many Americans' first experience with the gender spectrum—the idea that gender identity and assigned sex are two different things, which may not fall into the simple male/female dichotomy that's been culturally embedded in most of us since childhood.
In their work as an actor and activist, Dillon has been confronting ignorance and bias in many forms, including publicly challenging the existence of separate "actor" and "actress" categories at award shows earlier this year. They presented the first non-gendered acting award to Emma Watson at the MTV Movie & TV Awards in May. Watson thanked Dillon in her speech for "educating" her in such an "inclusive, patient, and loving way."
Since Donald Trump's presidential election it's been difficult for a lot of people to feel optimistic about the direction of our nation. A few hours on Twitter is enough to reveal the underbelly of humanity: trolls so entrenched in hatred disguised as righteousness that the only response I'm typically able to muster is no response at all. But just a few minutes talking with Asia Kate Dillon renewed my sense of moral equilibrium. They are talented, but they're also compassionate towards a world with which they have every right to be angry. That world is lucky to have Dillon as its ambassador, to educate and help usher in a more free and more inclusive era.
Here, Dillon's take on pushing the boundaries, in Hollywood and beyond.
On Hollywood's progress with gender representation
"Even if Taylor Mason was the only character outside the expected gender binary we usually see on TV, that would be progress in and of itself. But they're not the only one. We have characters on Orange Is the New Black, Transparent—there are all of these shows and films out there that are at the forefront of giving representation and visibility to marginalized and historically disenfranchised people. And we still have a long way to go. People who are light-skinned, white, assigned female at birth like myself—we certainly have privileges that my friends who were assigned male at birth and are people of color don't have. Those people are still ostracized and living on the margins in ways that we need to be having conversations about as a nation."
On the double standards in gender expression
"I absolutely think it is more acceptable for people who were assigned female at birth to dress in a typically gender non-conforming way. There was a time when people of all genders had long hair and anyone who wanted to wore jewelry—it was more a sign of status than a sign of femininity, per se. But we are now living in (and have been living in for some time) a culture that says feminine equals pink, equals dresses, equals weakness. Stereotypically, boys and men are supposed to be strong, which is actually not the opposite of weak—but that's what we're taught. That's why I think it's more acceptable for people who were assigned female at birth to play with gender expression."
On what gender identity means in 2017
"I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that only gender non-conforming, non-binary, or trans people have a gender identity. But the truth is, everyone has a gender identity. Some people's gender identity conforms to the sex they were assigned at birth, and some people's identity doesn't. That realization was certainly very freeing for me—and could be very freeing for other people."
On being a constant spokesperson for gender non-conformance
"I look forward to conversations like the one I'm having with you in particular, because these are the conversations I'm having with my family, my friends, and my coworkers—that's exciting in and of itself. And then on top of that, to talk with with strangers where I get to engage in conversation...it's like icing on the cake for me. This is what I want to be talking about, because it's how I feel the world around me becomes safer, and hopefully then the world at large."
On confronting anger and ignorance in the world
"I can only speak to my experience and what I've observed, but there are a lot of places in the United States where there aren't any people of color in a town, or there aren't any trans people. Or if there are, they certainly aren't out because it's far too dangerous for them to be. The United States has larger enclaves than one might suspect of communities that have simply never engaged with anyone different than themselves, or anyone that has an ideology that's different, or a background that's different.
Throughout time, that creates fear of 'the other,' and fear leads to misunderstanding. We can talk about that fear, and have understanding for people who aren't in the position to travel outside of their community, or meet a person of color. That person has no reason to care about Eric Garner [a black man killed during an incident with the New York Police Department], because they don't understand. To them, it doesn't affect their life because they don't know about it! But if they did know about it, they might understand that—and this is taking it pretty far—the drug laws put in place by racist individuals to keep populations of color down, they affect white people in poor, rural communities as well. And so really, we all have to work together in order to be free. Whether we're aware of it or not, we're all living under the same system, and we're all affected by it."
On the importance of the terminology
"I do use the term 'trans.' A trans person is someone whose gender identity does not conform to the sex they were assigned at birth. And although I was assigned female at birth and we use the terms 'girl,' 'woman,' and 'female' synonymously, they are not, in fact, the same thing. 'Girl' and 'woman' are identity words and 'female' is a sex word. That's why I use the term 'non-binary.'
One of the exciting things I'm seeing—especially on social media—is growing understanding and visibility of the 'non-transition' people like myself, who aren't undergoing any physical or surgical transformation in order to express gender identity outwardly.
For a long time I thought 'trans' meant 'transition,' or someone who had transitioned from one sex to the other. I'm happy to see a growing visibility and acceptance for all different kinds of expression and all different kinds of body types. Body hair has no gender; makeup has no gender; clothes have no gender: It's all stuff that's out there for any of us to try on and see whether it feels like us."
On the industry dividing awards into "male" and "female," leaving others out
"It's a combination of factors that prevent award shows from merging male and female acting categories, some of which are just practical. It's been that way for a while now, which means that the length of the program itself has been roughly the same for a while, the amount of advertisements on the show has been the same for a while—whether it's the Emmys, or the Academy Awards, or what have you.
There's a lot to consider on that end, but on the other side of it, the conversation I had with the Emmy board was very encouraging, MTV making this change was very encouraging, and it shows that there's a major cultural shift happening, and I think it's happening very quickly. I'm so excited to see where we'll be a year from now in terms of award shows. I think there's a lot to think about, and a lot of ideas out there. I'm excited to be a part of those conversations."
On the real benefit of the job
"My favorite thing about my job is connecting to other people, whether they have a similar experience to me, or a different one. When I'm doing a play, the connection is more direct with the audience because we're in the same room with one another, and when I'm doing television, the connection with the audience is a little more indirect—but it's direct when people approach me or comment on social media or say they saw a piece of art I was in. And then there's the connection I make with all of the people I'm working with. For me, it's all about human connection."
Photographs by Tina Turnbow · Styling by Jenna Blaha · Makeup by Tina Turnbow for Lancôme Monsieur Big Mascara · Special thanks to The Flower Shop