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‘Just to know non-binary was a thing’: Big steps forward for representation on stage

South Australia-born performer Baylie Carson has a key role in a major West End production in London, becoming the first non-binary person to appear in an award-winning musical about the six wives of Henry VIII. 

They took up the role of Anne Boleyn in October as SIX: The Musical extended its run for another year.

“West end debut as non-binary finery she/they, Boleyn, soz not soz!”, Baylie said when they announced on Instagram that they had landed the role. “pps I get to be trans on stage!!”

British theatre journalist and critic Mickey Jo Boucher – aka MickeyJoTheatre – said it was “going to mean so much to so many fans”.

“I cannot wait to see how Baylie incorporates themselves into their performance,” he said in a recent post.

“I am so excited, I have been waiting for non-binary and trans representation in SIX, I knew it was only a matter of time.”

Baylie Carson. Picture: Instagram

While this is a major win for transgender and non-binary performers all over the world, many are still facing difficult challenges to find their place in the industry.

Queenslander Jahla Black, 25, said they fell in love with the stage after performing in a musical theatre production in high school.

“I loved every second of it, and that was kind of a clue in my brain where [I realised] I’m meant to do this,” they said.

Growing up in Brisbane, Black didn’t understand what it meant to be transgender or non-binary, but always knew they felt a little different.

They said,

Because it wasn’t out there, because we couldn’t see it, I felt very alone in it.

After coming out as non-binary trans in 2021, Black found that the musical theatre opportunities and auditions available to them diminished significantly.

“I did a year in the industry with long hair as a typical classic feminine musical theatre girly,” they said.

“There was a definite shift, I get a lot less auditions that I can go for now. There’s not many trans people in entertainment, because we don’t see ourselves represented,” they said.

Jahla Black. Picture: Kate Williams (@katesyourmate)

The Screen Diversity and Inclusion Network recently released a national report into the diversity of cast and crew members working in Australia’s TV and film industry.

The survey, done by the The Everyone Project, found that while LGBTQI communities are currently represented at 17 per cent, well over the benchmark of 11 per cent, only 1.9 per cent identified as transgender and 1.7 per cent identified as non-binary.

Making a big impact in the Australian scene is the recent Netflix reboot of the ’90s classic tv series, Heartbreak High, which features an extensively diverse cast.

The first season, released in September, is receiving high praises all over the world for its commitment to inclusive casting and authentic representation of the LGBTQI experience.

Heartbreak High has. received praise for its diverse cast. Picture: Netflix.

While jobs opportunities in musical theatre are limited, Black found work on screen, recently appearing on the ABC iView series, Mikki vs the World.

In the show, which focuses on breaking down some of the big issues faced by young people today, Black played a non-binary teenager navigating pronouns and representation at a new school.

“To have seen an episode like that as a kid would have given my little brain so much more access to information,” they said.

“Just to know that non-binary was a thing, to understand what it meant and to understand what trans is and that it’s not weird and it’s not different, it’s just a part of the human experience for some people,” they said.

Black on Mikki vs the World. Picture: ABC

US suicide prevention and mental health organisation The Trevor Project has released a 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, finding that LGBTQ youth are coming out about their sexual orientation and gender identities at younger ages.

Dr Myeshia Price, director of research science for the group, told Healthline that opportunities had improved.

“Young people increasingly have more access to language, education, and representation around LGBTQ people and identities,” Price said.

The authors of the survey warned that many of the participants who came out at the age of 13 or younger were exposed to a higher risk of suicide.

Fewer than one in three transgender and non-binary youth found their home to be gender-affirming and many participants reported being physically harmed or threatened because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

“Although our data continue to show high rates of mental health and suicide risk among LGBTQ young people, it is crucial to note that these rates vary widely based on the way LGBTQ youth are treated,” Price said.

Postdoctoral research associate of gender and cultural studies Grace Sharkley, from the University of Sydney, said popular culture was “a huge part of our cultural imaginary”.

“It’s one of the ways that we learn and how to understand things,” Sharkley said.

Baylie Carson performing: Picture: Instagram

While limited numbers of transgender characters have appeared on screens for a long time, they have typically been represented in problematic or offensive ways.

Until relatively recently, transgender characters were often portrayed as killers, villains or having some kind of mental illness.

Sharkley compared this to the years of the HIV epidemic, when queer representation began gaining screen time but, in every story, they were “either crying or dying”.

“It’s certainly not new that these representations exist, but what you’ll find is that people don’t just want more representation, but certain kinds,” she said.

Although Sharkley said she can understand the desire for more positive portrayals of the trans non-binary experience, she argued that quantity would be more beneficial in this case.

She said,

It’s not that we need certain kinds of representation, it’s that we just need more of it.

“The more we have, the more kinds of stories that can exist, and people can find what they want.”

Acknowledging that the industry has come a long way already, Black hopes to be a part of the change and is currently writing more inclusive musicals with trans and non-binary leads.

“Hopefully, when these kids graduate, they have something that they can look forward to and roles that they’re excited to play,” she said.

Norwegian Cruise Lines recently announced inclusive auditions for its new production of SIX. “These roles are not solely limited to cisgender women; they are also open to transgender women, non-binary people, and other people in the trans community who feel comfortable performing on stage as characters who are women,” they said.

Although the process is slow, Black said they are excited to see companies creating space for more diversity in their cast.

“They’re going out and searching, they want audience members to see themselves on stage and they’re actively looking for trans people now,” they said.

“It would have meant so much to me when I was, 15, 16 to have seen someone like me on the stage and [feel like] I can do it because they can do it.”

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