How industry awards are changing to be inclusive of trans and non-binary talent

The Brit Awards recently announced it will be nixxing gender-specific categories for their 2022 ceremony. How do these changes benefit trans and non-binary artists? And will more industry organizations follow suit?

A number of awards shows are doing away with gendered categories

Sam Smith performs onstage during 102.7 KIIS FM's Jingle Ball at The Forum on Dec. 06, 2019 in Inglewood, Calif. The British artist, who is non-binary, was shut out of contention for the Brit Awards in 2021 due to the award show's male and female categories. (Rich Fury/Getty Images for iHeartMedia)

It's every aspiring performer's dream: getting up on stage, being handed a golden statuette, and offering a charming, clever — but humbled — acceptance speech.

But for performers who don't comfortably fit into "male" or "female" awards categories, the submission and nomination process can be a challenging experience.

"It's very difficult, if I'm honest," said Heath Salazar, an award-winning Toronto-based performer who is non-binary, meaning they do not exclusively identify as male or female. 

"With my fellow trans and gender non-conforming friends and co-workers that I speak with when we apply to things, there's not actually a space for us, because you always have to choose within a category."

Last week, the Brit Awards announced that its 2022 celebration of the U.K.'s music industry would be different from past editions: They would do away with gendered awards categories entirely, following in the footsteps of the Grammy Awards, the MTV Video Music Awards and the Juno Awards.

Gendered categories are a frequent point of discussion in efforts to make industry awards more inclusive.

While categories for best female performer or best male performer can be limiting to gender non-conforming artists like Salazar, there is also the question of whether removing a category for female artists is counterintuitive, leading to more accolades for men.

But experts and industry insiders say solutions are possible.

'It's kind of an outdated system'

Sam Smith poses with two prizes at the Brit Awards in London on Feb. 25, 2015. Smith came out as non-binary in 2019. In 2022, the BRIT Awards will change its awards categories to be gender neutral, making it more accessible for artists like Smith. (Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images)

The music, film and television industries are changing how they celebrate their artists as the conversation around gender has grown more complex, said Niko Stratis, a culture writer from Toronto.

"Presenting awards in a binary is difficult when, socially and sociopolitically, we are dismantling the binary — or at least we're trying to in a lot of ways," said Stratis.

"If you're presenting best male and best female artists, that kind of leaves a hole for people that don't identify in either of those categories," she said. "It leaves people out. It's exclusionary and it's kind of an outdated system."

In 2017, MTV opted for gender-neutral categories at both its Video Music Awards and its Movie and TV Awards. Australia's top music awards, the ARIAs, did the same in September.

The Brit Awards were particularly spurred to change their categories at the urging of British pop star Sam Smith. Smith, who is non-binary and one of the country's most successful artists, was left out of contention for the 2021 awards because the process would have required Smith to apply in a male or female category.

Until now, the organization has given out prizes for "solo male artist" and "solo female artist." In 2022, four awards categories — for male and female British and International artists of the year — will be replaced with prizes for artists of the year.

A similar dilemma exists in the film and television industry. Billions actor Asia Kate Dillon, who is also non-binary, has publicly asked both the Television Academy (which administers the Emmy Awards) and the Screen Actors Guild Awards to reconsider gendered prizes.

In its response to Dillon, the Screen Actors Guild declined to remove gender-specific categories. One of its concerns was that by removing a prize designated for female performers, men would dominate the awards.

Many North American awards bodies have categories designated for male and female performers. The Canadian Screen Awards, the Canadian Country Music Awards and the Hollywood Foreign Press (which administers the Golden Globes) did not immediately respond to CBC's requests for comment. 

A source familiar with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which gives out the Oscars, told CBC News that the organization is keeping tabs on discussion of the issue within the film industry, as well as having its own conversations.

Junos, Grammys show downsides

Allan Reid, president and CEO of Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, The Juno Awards and MusiCounts, speaks during an event in Vancouver on Nov. 21, 2017. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

"Gender categories [come] from trying to make more visibility for women in cultural industries when, traditionally, there wasn't as much space for them," Stratis said. 

While that isn't necessarily the case anymore, the perception that female artists are disadvantaged by neutral categories is accurate, she said. The Grammy Awards removed their gendered categories in 2012, and ever since, men have routinely dominated the awards.

The same is true of the Juno Awards, which has not had gendered categories since 2003. The organization was criticized in 2017, most notably by sibling duo Tegan and Sara, for its lack of female nominees.

Asked by Maclean's magazine whether the Junos would return to gendered categories, academy president Allan Reid said: "Gender shouldn't be a determinant factor, and nor should your ethnic background. It should be, 'Do you make great music?'"

While renaming an award can be a positive step forward, awards organizations also have to consider the makeup of their voting bodies, Stratis said. That can help guarantee that both gender non-conforming people and women will be given a fair shot as awards contenders.

"How many men are there, how many women are there, how many of these people are white?" Stratis said. "What [do] those percentages look like and how are we deciding who is getting to be put in these nomination battles?"

Canadian awards experimenting with new options

David Gale, left, and Heath Salazar. Gale is the president of ACTRA Toronto, and Salazar is a union member. The two collaborated on efforts to rename ACTRA's awards categories, making them more inclusive of trans and non-binary performers. (Submitted by David Gale and Heath Salazar)

Salazar is a member of the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA), the national union for professionals in English-language recorded media. Earlier this year, Salazar was part of a small committee leading efforts to change the union's annual ACTRA Awards.

In September, the organization announced that it would rename its categories: one for people who are gender non-conforming or male, and one for people who are gender non-conforming or female.

"We tried to find a way where we could be as inclusive as possible … and try to level the playing field and have our gender non-binary and trans performers feel comfortable enough," said ACTRA Toronto president David Gale. 

Gale said he and several others felt that getting rid of gendered categories altogether would put female performers at a disadvantage, so the new language aims to give both gender non-conforming and female actors a better shot at recognition.

Salazar notes that some of their peers don't apply for awards at all. In some cases, they said, the productions they work for don't know how to submit them for consideration, because it would require gendering them.

"Part of why we chose [the new language] is because it allows for equity within binary genders. But it also, as a non-binary person, it's like … both categories are for you," Salazar said. "And it was important to us that we put that first, so that people know that it wasn't an afterthought."

In British Columbia, the annual Leo Awards celebrate the province's film and television industry. The organization hasn't yet had reason to do away with its gendered categories, but it could be a point of discussion at future board meetings, said Walter Daroshin, its longtime president and co-founder.

In 2017, the Leo Awards made headlines when they accepted a gender-fluid child performer's request to apply in both the male and female performance categories, Daroshin said. Earlier that year, the Academy Awards made a gender-fluid actor eligible in both the Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress categories.

"All we want to do is be inclusive, all we want to do is ensure that people who want to participate can participate and feel comfortable in the choices they make in the categories that are available for them," he said.

Award-nominated artists are afforded cultural cachet that can have far-reaching benefits, said Stratis. Because trans and non-binary performers face barriers to this recognition, they're left out of a larger cultural conversation that could ultimately aid their careers.

"We can think that awards are silly, but awards matter," said Stratis. "Especially for artists that are struggling to make a name for themselves or struggling to be recognized on the same platform as their peers."


Jenna Benchetrit is a web and radio journalist for CBC News. She works primarily with the entertainment and education teams and occasionally covers business and general assignment stories. A Montrealer based in Toronto, Jenna holds a master's degree in journalism from Toronto Metropolitan University. You can reach her at jenna.benchetrit@cbc.ca.

With files from CBC News and The Associated Press