‘I felt like it was meant to be,’ E.R. Fightmaster says about joining ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ as the show’s first nonbinary character.

'I felt like it was meant to be,' E.R. Fightmaster says about joining 'Grey's Anatomy' as the show's first nonbinary character. 2
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'I felt like it was meant to be,' E.R. Fightmaster says about joining 'Grey's Anatomy' as the show's first nonbinary character. 3
Actor E.R. Fightmaster plays Dr. Kai Bartley, the first nonbinary character on Grey’s Anatomy. (Photo: ABC/Bonnie Osborne)

E.R. Fightmaster, a nonbinary actress, recalls the sound of being addressed with “she/her” pronouns as a child. Fightmaster (who uses they/them pronouns) tells Yahoo Entertainment, “I describe it now as this feeling of sharpness — it stung my ears,” adding that they didn’t have the terminology to convey the feeling of being misgendered for a long time. 

They say, “I’ve never felt entirely attached to womanhood, and I don’t feel fully attached to manhood.” “I’ve always had a sense of being in the middle.” 

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As an adult, it was Fightmaster’s partner who, in an unexpectedly casual way, delivered the vital piece of their identity puzzle. “She casually referred to me as ‘them’ to someone else. I heard it and felt it right away. ‘Oh, this is the remedy to all of my unpleasant, persistent feelings,’ I thought “they remember “Then I began to come out as nonbinary to my family and friends, and it’s been a fascinating journey. And it makes perfect sense to those closest to me.”

With that kind of background, it’s no surprise that Grey’s Anatomy producers chose Fightmaster to play the first nonbinary character in the ABC drama’s 18-year history.

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On the second episode of the current season, which aired on Oct. 7, the actor made their debut as neuroscientist Dr. Kai Bartley. Dr. Bartley was just supposed to be a guest appearance at the time, but Fightmaster had a good feeling about the part right away. “It felt like one of those occasions where they implicitly say, ‘Do your best and we’ll see,’ without actually saying it. I realized I had an opportunity to push it a bit further.”

And Fightmaster took full advantage of the situation: When the show returned with fresh episodes on Nov. 11, ABC stated that Kai would become a recurring character. The actor joins a group that is already one of the most varied on television, and he feels a sense of belonging that he didn’t always have as a child. “When you look back at the inception of the program, it had more representation across the board than any show on television for a longer time,” they add. “Seeing ‘This is what they’re looking for — they’re looking for you’ in [Kai’s] description was really exciting for me.”

Fightmaster talked about how they got their start in comedy, how they deal with internet haters, and why they’re pulling for the Kai-Amelia romance that Grey’s Anatomy fans are already shipping.

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What was it like for you to get cast on Grey’s Anatomy?

'I felt like it was meant to be,' E.R. Fightmaster says about joining 'Grey's Anatomy' as the show's first nonbinary character. 4
Kai (Fightmaster) graduates to recurring character status on the Nov. 11 episode of Grey’s Anatomy. (Photo: ABC/Bonnie Osborne)

I received an audition script for Grey’s Anatomy, which looked like a lot of fun, but I had a show in New York with my band Twin, and they were filming on the same day. So, because I’m stupid, I almost didn’t do the audition! [Laughs] I watched the audition tape after I finished it and thought, “Oh, this would be such a fantastic fit.” Then the next day, when I got the phone call, I knew it was meant to be.

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Was there a specific characteristic of the character that drew your attention right away?

I suppose it’s the chance to portray a high-status nonbinary character. I’ve played the love interest on shows like Shrill and Work in Progress, and I really enjoy it. However, this introduced an extra element that was a step beyond what I had previously done, which made it much more interesting for me to complete. In this particular plot, I also get to play opposite Peter Gallagher, who I adore. He’s hilarious and amazing. I can’t say much more than that, but their story is entertaining! There are numerous reasons to continue watching.

What has been the treatment of your character by the writers? Are you pleased with what they’ve accomplished?

What I admire best is how they’ve handled being nonbinary with such ease that it feels like I’m just getting to be a human. And it excites me because they’re basically acting as if in this universe you can use “they/them” as your pronouns and everyone accepts it. Of course, that’s not how it works [in real life], but we have a huge fanbase, and as soon as I was referred to as “they/them,” the rest of the world followed suit. All of the videos, comments, and encouragement have been extremely gender affirming and encouraging.

It appears that by treating nonbinary so casually, the writers are demonstrating to a much larger audience that it isn’t such a huge problem. I also believe that all of the writers I’ve worked with so far have the wonderful ability of empathy that all great writers possess. Everything begins with empathy, so my advice to any writer is to start with your heart.

'I felt like it was meant to be,' E.R. Fightmaster says about joining 'Grey's Anatomy' as the show's first nonbinary character. 5
Grey’s Anatomy fans are already hoping for a romance between Kia Bartley (Fightmaster) and Amelia Shepherd (Caterina Scorsone). (Photo: ABC/Bonnie Osborne)

Kai and Amelia Shepherd are already being shipped by the fans. Are you interested in that?

I had no idea what shipping was until I started getting tagged in all of these videos, which I adore! I’ve seen far too many of them, and it’s getting to me. [Laughs] I enjoy the buzz surrounding it, and I understand it as a viewer. You see things, and there’s something truly thrilling about the prospect of having your love life shown on television. I also enjoy performing across from Catarina [Scorsone] because it puts me in direct contact with the crowd. I’m also a Kai and Amelia shipper!

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You said that you enjoyed the writers’ treatment of Kai as if he were just another doctor. Is that how you’d like to see non-binary characters treated in general in Hollywood?

I believe there is enough of room for both extremes here. I believe that shows that depict nonbinary persons, such as performers and characters, talking about how they got here are equally beneficial. I also believe that being too normal is a bad thing, but normalizing something like this provides individuals the language and tools they need to absorb what they’re hearing. I am certain that when individuals watch things on television, they become real to them. If you’re not surrounded by nonbinary individuals — or if you don’t have LGBT friends — this could take a lot longer than if you see it onscreen and think to yourself, “Oh, OK, this makes sense.” That portion excites me much.

Isn’t it frustrating to be the one who has to educate others?

It’s annoying at times, but I feel compelled as a person to give people the patience and space to goof up with me so that the nonbinary people they interact with later don’t have to wait as long as I did. I feel the same way about my role as Dr. Bartley on Grey’s Anatomy – I love the chance for kids and adults to see me and realize that there are other alternatives, and to find comfort in that because they’re seeing it reflected on TV.

'I felt like it was meant to be,' E.R. Fightmaster says about joining 'Grey's Anatomy' as the show's first nonbinary character. 6
Fightmaster attends the Los Angeles premiere of Mrs. Fletcher in October 2019. (Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic for HBO)

In a 2018 Chicago Tribune piece about you, “she/her” pronouns are used to refer to you. So, how did you react?

That was the last time that happened, and I believe it was published before I was identified as “they/them.” I have that article framed in my home, and I adore it, but I also see it as a time capsule. It’s a tribute to both the me I didn’t know back then and the me I know now.

You got your start in Chicago’s Second City. Do you believe that comedy, like movies and television, has the ability to change people’s minds?

As a comic, the sick little thing you have to do is bring comedy to the world of acting. It’s not like Grey’s asks me to be hilarious on screen, but I really enjoy myself with my co-stars, so I’m slipping it in! [Laughs] And I believe that humour is one of the most effective methods for [educating] people because it disarms them. When we were creating shows, all of the comedians I met in Chicago — especially those at Second City — were very aware that we had the opportunity to put something onstage that an audience member might not like and find a funny way to elicit empathy from them.

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Sometimes it wasn’t even doing a sketch or a scenario where we were discussing, say, my sexuality. I felt like I could create scenes about me being gay when I was onstage, which is fantastic, but I also felt like just being there and being able to perform for them and connect with them and give them and their family a nice time is what draws people in “Oh, I was a fan of that comedian. Maybe I’ll enjoy the rest of it.”

Certain comedians lament the fact that they can no longer say anything offensive. When you hear that, does it make you roll your eyes?

My personal relationship with comedy differs from that of some other bullies, but I believe it is a vehicle for bringing people together. That has always been how I have approached comedy. My least favorite memories of my life are the times when I look back and realize I used comedy to exclude or make someone feel horrible. It all depends on your expectations from comedy. I believe that what certain comedians are doing is totally correct if you only want a certain segment of the room to laugh — and you want them to laugh at someone.

'I felt like it was meant to be,' E.R. Fightmaster says about joining 'Grey's Anatomy' as the show's first nonbinary character. 7
Lolly Adefope and E.R. Fightmaster played lovers on the Hulu series Shrill. (Photo: Allyson Riggs / ©Hulu / Courtesy Everett Collection)

Despite the fact that the majority of Grey’s Anatomy viewers have accepted the show’s varied cast of characters, there is always a sector of fans that become enraged and take to Twitter to vent their frustrations. Do you try to block out that kind of negativity?

It’s getting easier for me! I’m stupid on social media because if I scroll long enough, even if I’m not clicking on anything I’m tagged in or comments, I’ll see something that isn’t exactly kind. And I’d be lying if I said it didn’t hurt my feelings at all. But I also have a lot of sympathy for folks who are enraged by other people’s happiness. And I wish them nothing but the best.

Is there any way, aside from what you’re presently doing, to reach them in your mind?

When people have an issue with you only because of your identity, I believe the problem is typically with them. So it would be a waste of my time for me to spend a lot of time attempting to reach out to folks who are invariably unhappy with themselves in some way. And I believe it would set a precedent that when nonbinary persons or anyone else faces intolerance or aggression, we should reach across the aisle to help. I’m overjoyed to be able to reach across the aisle and move folks. I’m apprehensive about putting my hand inside a rat trap.

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Nonbinary performers have appeared on programs like Star Trek Discovery and Billions, and now you’re on Grey’s Anatomy. Do you believe there has been a consistent progression in terms of representation?

Yes, I believe so. I believe that all of the nonbinary actors working now are doing an excellent job. And, if we’re being honest, we’ve had non-binary performances for quite some time. Not to offend anyone, but if you look at Grace Jones, Tilda Swinton, or Prince, we’ve known for a long time that gender is flexible before we could put words to it. And now that we’re putting words to it, all these performers who are so skilled and doing such a terrific job are emerging. I believe we will see more of this in the future, especially if it is well-received.

Obviously, Grey’s Anatomy will keep you busy, but do you have a dream role that you’d love to play?

You understand what I mean when I say I’m ready to take action. [Laughs] I’m trying to bulk up for a part. I’m a little noodle-sized right now, but if you put me in a superhero costume, I swear to God, I’ll acquire a hundred pounds of muscle!

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