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Gender-nonconforming actors make history with Tony nominations

J. Harrison Ghee of “Some Like It Hot” and Alex Newell of “Shucked” are the first gender-nonconforming performers to be nominated for the premier Broadway recognition.
Alex Newell, left, in "Shucked" and J. Harrison Ghee in “Some Like It Hot.”
Alex Newell in "Shucked" and J. Harrison Ghee in “Some Like It Hot.” Sara Krulwich / The New York Times; Marc J. Franklin

Two performers made history Tuesday when they became the first gender-nonconforming actors nominated for Tony Awards.

J. Harrison Ghee, who stars in the musical adaptation for “Some Like It Hot,” was nominated for best actor in a leading role in a musical, and Alex Newell, who performs in the musical comedy “Shucked,” was nominated for best actor in a featured role in a musical. 

Ghee is nonbinary and Newell is gender-nonconforming, and both of them use the pronouns he, she and they. Gender-nonconforming is an umbrella term that includes people who don’t follow traditional ideas about how they should look or act based on their assigned sex at birth. Nonbinary people, who are neither exclusively male nor female, can be gender-nonconforming.

Newell shared a photo on their Instagram story of the duo taken the night before, when they both attended the Met Gala, with the caption, “We walked in The Met as Met Gala Virgins and woke up TONY NOMINEES!!!”

Both performers have discussed why they decided to be considered in the actor categories over the actress categories for the Tonys.

Ghee told Elle magazine in February that their decision to stay in consideration for a Tony was intentional and that their producers asked them before submitting them for consideration in the actor category. 

“Someone else’s labels or limits are not going to bound me and my ability to do anything,” Ghee told Elle. “My artistry and the work will speak for itself. What anybody claims or puts on is extra, and they’re trying to place someone else’s experience on me. I’m here to be intentional about my ministry and my work. So again, I’m protecting Black joy over here. That’s all I’m doing.”

Newell told Variety last week that they chose which category they wanted to be considered in “based off the English language.” 

“Everyone who does acting is an actor. That is genderless,” they said.

Newell lamented that the industry standard is to refer to men as actors and women as actresses. On the other hand, they said, they do appreciate that separate categories give women — both cisgender and transgender — “an actual fighting chance to win awards in such a male-dominated field.”

“If we can create that, we can create more lanes for other people who don’t want to stick to those two categories,” Newell said, referring to the binary male and female acting categories. “I think me choosing actor, I hope, will be a spark to use that word as it was meant to the art of acting.”

They said it is both admirable and heartbreaking that some performers have chosen to opt out of Tony consideration due to the gendered actor categories. 

“It should be a wake-up call,” Newell told Variety. “Change is inevitable and it will happen, but we need to move a little faster.”

Trans and nonbinary performers have increasingly protested binary, gendered award categories. In February, “& Juliet” star Justin David Sullivan, who also identifies as nonbinary, said in a statement shared on social media that they felt like they didn’t have a choice “but to abstain from being considered for a nomination this season” because there were only two gendered categories. 

“I could not in good faith move forward with denying any part of my identity to conform to a system and structure that does not hold space for people like me,” Sullivan said in the statement.

The Tonys are not the only awards receiving criticism for having gendered categories. Nonbinary actor Liv Hewson, who stars in the Showtime series “Yellowjackets,” told Variety recently that they chose not to submit themselves for consideration in this year’s Emmy Awards due to the gendered categories.

“There’s not a place for me in the acting categories,” Hewson said. “It would be inaccurate for me to submit myself as an actress. It neither makes sense for me to be lumped in with the boys. It’s quite straightforward and not that loaded. I can’t submit myself for this because there’s no space for me.”