When Asia Kate Dillon sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss their new role on Billions, it was to mark an event on televison: the first character to identify as non-binary. Dillon does not identify as either male or female, making their casting on the show particularly relevant. In the course of the interview, Dillon described the scene in the show where they discussed the “pronoun check,” or the discussion of an individual’s preferred gender identifiers.
Dillon revealed a bit about their real-life experience surrounding pronouns.
“There is a struggle involved, certainly, but then there’s also a lot more visibility and a lot more acceptance as well. I find that often when I tell people what pronoun I use, I don’t get a lot of backlash. I’m really lucky in that respect. That’s a credit to the visibility that we’re seeing and the conversations that are happening around the topic. I also think it’s because people actually have a much more innate understanding of gender being fluid and gender identity being on a spectrum than they even thought that they might. Those moments of conversation I find particularly exciting.”
So, what exactly is a pronoun check? It’s a way to ask an individual what pronouns are preferred. A person may answer “she/her/hers,” “he/him/his,” or “they/them/theirs,” or other terms like “ze.” CityLab recently explored the various potential combinations in a thoughtful article. Although the pronoun check has been around for some time, it’s still new to a lot of people, not just in Hollywood, but on college campuses and in everyday society.
#TBT High school. JNCO jeans and turtleneck. Short hair, newly cut so. The beginnings of my experimenting with gender non-conformity. It was hard. It was very hard. It was hard because I got called, “Boy!” like it was derogatory. Like it meant I looked like something I wasn’t. I got called “Girl!” like that’s what I was supposed to be. I was bullied. But, I did have friends, teachers and family who were on my side. Although I was often deeply melancholic about what it meant that I was anatomically female, (because before I even had the language to describe it I knew this shouldn’t mean I was then a girl or a woman) I was, and have been, primarily surrounded by love and support. This is where I am very, very lucky. Love and support are key for trans youth. Not only key but, life saving. Trans students face suicide rates that are 9 times higher than their peers. 45’s administration is making it a priotiry to make trans kids feel less safe in environments where they already face higher levels of bullying and harassment. There are laws put in place to protect all people in all restrooms.The actions of 45’s administration do not change the law. Let us remember that. Trans and non-binary youth and your families, I Stand With You. If you are experiencing bullying or harrasment at school you can contact your local @ACLU office or any LGBTQ org in your state. You can follow Chase Strangio on Twitter. We can all tell our senators to publicly condemn 45 admin's attacks on transgender students' civil rights. Call (844) 241-1141. I love you. ✌❤????
A post shared by Asia Kate (@heeeysia) on
But not everyone is on board with the pronoun check, including those who are supportive of non-binary or gender nonconforming people. In a New York Times editorial published in September 2016, professor Elizabeth Reis argued that a mandatory pronoun check, common in some classrooms, could have the effect of “outing” students before they were ready. Reis told the story about one student who had only begun thinking of a transition and, despite a male appearance, identified as female. That student faced curious looks when pressured to choose a preferred pronoun.
Reis’ criticism seemed to focus not on the pronoun check itself, but circumstances that make the process mandatory, in environments that may not be entirely welcoming or supportive. She solved the problem in her own class by giving students the option to disclose their preferred pronouns only if they chose. Otherwise, everyone was on a first-name basis, and everyone was referred to as “they.”
Other criticism of the pronoun check comes from an unexpected source: grammar nerds. An Evening Standard article from late last year called upon a language expert, Tony Thorne, to argue that the word “they” is perfectly acceptable to use to refer to an individual person and not a group.
“There are a lot of grammar pedants out there saying it’s wrong, but this is nonsense, we’ve always done this. Using ‘they’ as a gender neutral for a singular is standard practice.”
As for Dillon, they told THR positive stories of queer and LGBTQ individuals were particularly important. Too often, tales of queer characters are tragic or sad. Their role in Billions offers a new perspective on non-binary and gender nonconforming people who, as Dillon says, have “been here since the beginning of time.”
Billions airs Sunday nights at 10 pm on Showtime.
[Featured Image by Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images]