Nonbinary Broadway Performer Opts Out of Gendered Tony Awards
A principal performer in the new Broadway musical “& Juliet” has withdrawn from consideration for the Tony Awards rather than compete in a gendered category, shining a renewed spotlight on the question of whether major awards should continue to have separate categories for men and women.
The performer, Justin David Sullivan, is trans nonbinary and uses the pronouns he, she and they. In the pop-song-fueled musical, which imagines an alternative to “Romeo and Juliet” in which Juliet does not die, Sullivan plays May, one of Juliet’s best friends. May — an adolescent, like Juliet — is still figuring things out.
The Tony Awards, like the Oscars and the Emmys, have separate acting categories for men and for women. The Grammy Awards eliminated many gendered categories as part of a consolidation in 2012, and the Obie Awards, which honor Off and Off Off Broadway work, have long had nongendered categories.
Sullivan, whose performance has been generally well-received, was among many people who could have been nominated as a featured performer in a musical. But those categories, like all the Tony acting categories, are gendered, and by opting out of the contest altogether, Sullivan puts public pressure on the awards.
“I felt I had no choice but to abstain from being considered for a nomination this season,” Sullivan said in a statement on Wednesday. “I hope that award shows across the industry will expand their reach to be able to honor and award people of all gender identities.”
The Tony Awards have accepted Sullivan’s position, meaning that Sullivan will not appear on the list of Tony-eligible performers considered by nominators at the end of the season. “Per Justin David Sullivan’s request to the Tony Administration Committee, they opted to withdraw themselves from eligibility,” Tony Award Productions said in a statement.
Sullivan is not the first nonbinary performer to make such a move. Asia Kate Dillon, who played Malcolm in a production of “Macbeth” last season, asked not to be considered in either the actor or actress categories. That move did not become public at the time but was confirmed by a Tony Awards spokeswoman on Wednesday.
This season, there will be at least one Tony-eligible nonbinary performer: J. Harrison Ghee, who stars in the new musical “Some Like It Hot,” will be considered for possible nomination in the leading actor category, the Tony Awards administration committee said on Wednesday. The committee, which determines eligibility categories for shows and artists, was following a request from the show’s producers.
Ghee, whose performance has drawn strong reviews and who is considered likely to receive a Tony nomination, plays a musician who initially identifies as male but starts dressing as a woman to escape the mob, and by the end of the show has a more fluid identity.
“I’m not going to put myself on this pedestal like, ‘I need it to change today,’” Ghee told The Daily Beast in a recent interview when asked about this season’s Tony Awards categories. “I never go into things expecting to be the person that changes everything. I’m just showing up and meeting the moment.”
Tony Awards administrators have quietly been talking about whether to change the gendered nature of their acting awards — awards for designers and directors are not gendered — but it is not clear if, when or how they might do so. There has long been concern that such a change would make it even harder for performers to win the industry’s top honor.
“We recognize that the current acting categories are not fully inclusive, and we are currently in discussion about how to best adjust them to address this,” Tony Award Productions said in a statement. “Unfortunately, we are still in process on this and our rules do not allow us to make changes once a season has begun. We are working thoughtfully to ensure that no member of our community feels excluded on the basis of gender identity in future seasons.”
The Outer Critics Circle, which grants awards for work both on and Off Broadway, said this year that it would eliminate gendered categories. Several regional theater award competitions, including the Helen Hayes Awards in Washington, the Barrymore Awards in Philadelphia and the Jeff Awards in Chicago, have eliminated gender-specific awards categories.