“Neighbours” has cast its first ever non-binary character, Asher Nesmith.
The guest role is being portrayed by non-binary creator and actor Kath Ebbs who told Variety Australia it was both a special and a seminal moment for them to take on such a task.
“It’s a very iconic show and that’s very exciting in and of itself, but I think being cast as the first-ever non-binary character on one of the longest-running TV shows in Australia is quite profound,” they said.
“I think growing up and even on the first two years being on the journey, especially as a creator, [you question] whether to even come out as non-binary because you get scared that there might not be work for you, or people might treat you differently, also just the day-to-day struggles of being a queer body in society.
“So to not only be out, but also be celebrated and to be able to turn my story into art and be that representation that I so desperately needed growing up is quite an emotional and incredible thing to be able to do.”
Ebbs has created their own content in the past, which enabled them to control both the narrative and the representation of queer people. They concede that allowing someone else to author a queer story can run the risk of creating a character in which their ‘queerness’ is their only defining trait.
“Sometimes, honestly, that comes down to the writing,” they said. “So sometimes that is out of your control and you hope and you have trust in the writers that they will not do that, and make sure that it is a well-rounded representation of an individual that happens to be queer, but that’s not their only personality trait.
“And that is always a bit of a worry, because as an actor you can bring what you can to the character, but at the end of the day you’re not controlling the storyline.”
The set of “Neighbours”, however, was welcoming, inclusive and receptive to feedback, Ebbs said.
“I really enjoyed the people – the cast and the crew and the directors that I got to work with were just so lovely,” Ebbs said.
“Especially as a queer person and a gender diverse person and the first non-binary person they’ve had, they were very open to hearing my feedback and allowing me the flexibility to change things if needed or to dress in a way that made me feel comfortable, and they were all just really open.
“I really enjoyed the sense of community and openness and kindness that all the cast and the crew extended. It was a really positive experience for me and a very euphoric experience to be the first non-binary person.”
This openness to inclusive storytelling and groundbreaking diversity could be lost on mainstream Australian television when “Neighbours” wraps up later this year, with Ebbs lamenting that more wasn’t done to save the show and its stories.
“‘Neighbours’ has, especially in the past five years, been such a centre of queer storytelling on Australian TV. They had the first ever gay marriage on TV in Australia. They have so many gay characters and lesbians, they have a trans character – beautiful Georgie Stone who’s incredible not only on screen but in her private life. And now they have the first ever non-binary character.
“So they have been at the forefront of storytelling for my community, and it is such a real shame… and a real loss because ‘Neighbours’ is such an institution for not only actors, but creators, writers, directors, camera people. They do a lot for the industry and they tell a lot of important stories.”
Ebbs knows that while these big casting moments can get headlines, it’s impossible to be all things to all people, particularly in such a diverse community with so many stories to tell.
So for Ebbs, it will be the little moments within viewers’ homes, the moments that bring someone from the fringes of society to the centre of the conversation, that will make the role feel successful.
“Everyone in our community has their own experience, their own story, especially when we’re talking about gender diversity and non-binaryness – people express themselves under that umbrella very differently,” Ebbs told Variety Australia.
“So I’ve had to come to an acceptance that I can only bring to Asher what I feel as a non-binary person and what’s true to me, and I think that will resonate with hopefully a lot of people… But I think just having those conversations and starting those conversations on such a mainstream traditional conservative platform is just so important, and you hope there will be a ripple effect, not only for queer people, but for allies, to parents, to the older generation who might never have heard what non-binary means…
“If just one child that is struggling with their gender identity sees Asher on screen and feels as though their feelings are valid and okay and accepted – and not only accepted but celebrated – or a parent seeing Asher and then being more accepting of even their child or kids at school, that would be a huge achievement and success point for me.”
Jason Herbison, the executive producer of “Neighbours”, noted how important these stories and moments are ahead of the show wrapping up in August.
“Representing the LGBTQIA+ community in our storytelling and casting has been paramount on “Neighbours” and something I hope the series will be remembered for when it finishes in August,” he said.
“We are privileged to have Kath join us and they are wonderful portraying our first non-binary character on Ramsay Street.”
A Network 10 executive has previously expressed hope that the show could one day find a new international broadcast partner and return. Despite the glimmer of hope, the long-running soap will end in both Australia and the UK on Aug. 1.