Meet E.R Fightmaster, Grey's Anatomy's first non-binary doctor

“As an adult, my whole purpose now is to show queerness in its different forms so that when people find joy and find love, they know how to identify it.”

An image of E.R. Fightmaster. They are wearing black overalls.
Image: via Mike Aviles

I crossed paths with E.R Fightmaster shortly after their incredible Grey’s Anatomy debut as Dr Kai Bartley in October 2021. Shortly after seeing them on screen, I was immediately captivated by them. They have brought rare energy to Grey’s Anatomy, a kind that can never be duplicated. 

E.R’s presence is much more than a voice for queer people, it’s a symbol of what can be achieved through positive queer representation. They are my hero. As a non-binary human myself, I have been searching for someone to look up to, someone to help me feel like a badass and let me tell you, E.R has done just that. 

I sought out this interview myself. E.R is not currently promoting any specific project so I wasn’t sure if I would have much luck landing this opportunity. But honestly, for the first time in my life, I had hope. I kept telling myself “if it’s to be, it’ll happen.”

What came from this hope was a newfound source of patience. I waited and worked around the time differences (how are we eight hours ahead of Los Angeles?! Wild!) and sure enough, it all paid off. The date was set. My questions were ready. And I was nerv-cited (is that a word?)

Last Wednesday night at 8 PM, I sat down in my parent’s living room and signed into Zoom. My heart was genuinely racing, it’s one of those feelings that you can’t quite describe but you just know that it is so special. 

E.R joined the call shortly after I did and after that, the interview I had worked so hard for was finally happening. What I noticed straight away was how easy it was to talk to them. I felt like E.R. and I had met before this interview but we hadn’t. 

I didn’t quite understand just how impactful they would be after I sat down with them. I am a changed person and I owe it all to them. 

So without further ado, let’s jump right into my insightful conversation with a truly incredible human being. 

An image of E.R Fightmaster sitting in an egg chair.

Elliott: I was wondering if you could introduce yourself. I feel so weird asking this because I’m such a big fan but if you wanted to maybe tell us a bit about yourself? 

E.R: My name is E.R Fightmaster, I am a non-binary actor, writer and musician. I love queer people and the thing that makes me happiest is being a part of the queer community. That’s my intro.

Elliott: I listened to your Coming Out with Lauren and Nicole episode twice because I loved it so much. I was wondering if you could tell us about your coming out journey and growing up in Cincinnati as a queer person?

E.R Fightmaster: I grew up in Cincinnati Ohio. You have probably heard a lot about Ohio recently. We are on the news in the same way as Florida is for some pretty fucked up abortion bills and bills that are targeting Trans kids. And that’s now. In the nineties, we weren’t even having discussions that extreme. I think the culture in Ohio was trying to be as normal as possible, and trying to fit in which is a really middle-American experience so there weren’t a lot of people in my world that were doing things that were outside of the norm in any way. When I was growing up, I just didn’t see gay people. I truly didn’t think about them because I didn’t know they existed and then when I did hear about them, they were more this trope of a thing to avoid and when you get that message as a kid, you go “well that’s not me so I guess I’m not gay.” I didn’t have the framework for it.

Then when I was fourteen or fifteen I was playing basketball for a travel team and I fell in love. It was such a romantic experience but it was also so confusing because we didn’t understand what was happening and we had this friendship where we just could not get enough of each other. She felt a lot of the time like the only thing that was pulling me through a very difficult time in my life. My home life was not ideal at the time. My dad is really mentally ill and he was sort of dissolving at the time and she was so vital to my entire existence and yet I didn’t know that we were in a relationship and I didn’t know that we were queer because I couldn’t see it. 

For me then, as an adult, my whole purpose now is to show queerness in its different forms so that when people find joy and find love, they know how to identify it. I’m really grateful I had that experience because it gave me so much empathy. I really understand that this idea of “it’s cool to be gay now, it’s so much easier” etc. Maybe it is cool to be gay now but straight people don’t understand what it’s like to have such limited representation and straight actors don’t know what it’s like, in the same way, to need to be that representation and to feel the burden of representation so every role that I take, everything that I do, I have an audience in mind. I have to think well if my character does this story arc and it leans into some hetero understanding of penis envy, that’s actually harmful to my fans, that’s not building an umbrella of representation because they have already seen that. But, if I can go on Grey’s Anatomy and show them, beautiful queer love, that takes time and is thoughtful, passionate and healthy, that’s the representation I feel comfortable giving them. That is a constant conversation with the self that never leaves. Long story short, representation matters but also, thoughtful representation matters more.

Elliott: You know, I came out as non-binary in 2021 and when I saw you on Grey’s Anatomy I was like “what! wait for a second, that person looks like me! That person identifies the same way as I do and that person is on national television!” You have built such a huge fanbase and so many people look up to you and I really think it’s so important that we credit you for that because you care so much.

E.R Fightmaster: I do care! It’s actually so important to me. I love my fanbase. I legitimately love them and I think about them. We had a really tumultuous episode during the last season where, spoiler alert, there’s a breakup… Of course, I’m contractually obligated not to say anything and you want the fanbase to have strong reactions but it’s also different, you know? Like I was talking about that with Caterina Scorsone (Dr Ameila Shepherd on Grey’s Anatomy) because while her character always had undertones of queerness, she has with this storyline, reached an entirely new fanbase. And she’s experiencing them in a different way. So we talk about the needs of our audience and we have discussed that our queer fanbase needs more protection, they need more love because they don’t have the same number of options to turn the channel and watch something nice that puts them back in a good mood and also centres gay people. You know, we have a much more limited supply of shows and characters that are queer and look like us and sound like us. So when our queer characters get hurt or injured, we can’t escape it as easily as somebody else and it actually injures us. So when that episode happened and everybody started freaking out, I was up that night worried about them like they were my babies.

An image of E.R Fightmaster sitting on the pavement.

Elliott: I really wanted to know as well, have you had open conversations with the writers about Kai? Was there anything that you were like, I’d love for them to say this or have this background etc.? 

E.R Fightmaster: I think with Kai, I saw an opportunity to do the heartthrob thing that Grey’s has done so well with men and so when I came on, I knew what energy I wanted to bring to the role to make sure that the queers got their version of McDreamy (McFruity!). At the same time, I also wanted to be really diligent about looking or acting like a scientist, you know what I mean, like, when we are on set, we are asking questions about all the things that we’re talking about. We’re asking questions about all the procedures because as much as it’s important for the queer audience to see a romantic lead, it’s also important for the other part of the audience queer or not to see queer people in STEM, you know, the non-binary doctor doing a good fucking job and being great and being smart and being intelligent and being capable. There are so many different versions of queerness they all need to be represented.

E.R Fightmaster: Can I ask you a question? When you watched Grey’s and Kai came on, what about it energetically were you like “yeah I align with this”

Elliott: Well, firstly, when you were being referred to by your pronouns and then when Amelia is talking to Teddy and says that “people don’t have to be constantly defined to be loved unconditionally.” I mean, you know, for so long, I mean, it feels like my whole life, but, the past few years have been so tumultuous in that it’s been such a painful, but rewarding journey where I’ve been coming out and it’s been so difficult, and dealing with the internalised homophobia and the internalised everything. When you’re watching that representation on screen, I’m actually getting emotional. I saw you on screen and I just went like, oh, like, you know, there’s someone who looks like me. I think your character is so special and so confident. Kai isn’t defined by the fact that they’re non-binary, it’s not talked about all the time. You’re the same as everyone else on the show, and that’s the way you should be, you know?  

E.R Fightmaster: That’s rad. It’s always nice to hear the one v one experience of someone seeing it and being like “there’s me!”

Elliott: You’ve mentioned before that you are confident but it was hard-earned confidence?

E.R Fightmaster: The confidence thing is real. Every positive emotion that queer people have is a harder one. It’s a hard-fought victory, because of the messaging that we get that we are abnormal and abhorrent and unlovable or worthy of violence. So when we spend time getting to know each other, and we realise that we love ourselves, and when we spend time in our community and realise there’s nowhere else we’d rather be, that joy is so much richer than anything that bullies can imagine. And it’s so worth fighting for. It’s just such a powerful love that our community has, that nobody can understand, but our community, marginalised communities at large, I think, share that love. And I think that’s a really scary thing for the dominant culture is right now, the dominant culture in America has always been white, heterosexual and patriarchal. And the people in the middle that, you know, the white heterosexual patriarchy are looking out at the margins, and they’re seeing people of colour, have a beautiful community together, and they’re seeing queer people find a beautiful community together. And they’re seeing women feeling empowered and finding beautiful community together, and it’s pissing them the fuck off because it’s destroying their entire system and their understanding of governance, and they are realising for the first time that their culture is bullying. Their culture is bullying, and our culture is joy. They have tried to take all of these assets from us, they’ve tried to appropriate the things that make us joyful, but it’s not authentic to them. So they’ll take it, they’ll steal from black artists, and they’ll steal from queer people and they’ll try to legislate women’s bodies, but it doesn’t make them any happier. Because it’s not authentic. It wasn’t hard-fought. 

Elliott: I was wondering were there any people that you looked up to growing up and even now? Because I think that journey never stops, right? The journey of finding yourself and the journey of being comfortable in who you are. I look up to you. You’re my hero. 

E.R Fightmaster: As a funny kid myself, I remember seeing a few people. I remember seeing Ellen. Ellen was the first gay person I ever saw on TV. And I was watching her stand-up stuff. It was just on the TV. It was not something we sought out. I didn’t realise even that she was gay but I just felt an immediate connection. And I just started laughing so hard. I still remember the sketch where she said If the plane crashes, why would it matter if I was sitting up straight? And I was laughing so hard I was crying, but it was this elation. There was something about seeing her that I just felt elated. And I remember in another way, a different way, seeing a photo of Grace Jones and feeling this deep guttural “Fuck yeah, that’s it”. It’s that iconic photo of Grace in a black suit where everything’s sharp and angular, and she’s so striking and you watch her in an interview and they’re asking her about being masculine or feminine and she says, I’m Grace Jones. I do what I want. I didn’t have the language for it when I first saw that photo, but I understood some parts of it to be like “that’s exactly what I will be doing” I would like to do exactly what that is, which it turns out is just living 100% authentically with a beautiful balance.

An image of E.R Fightmaster. They are wearing black overalls and standing in front of trees.

Elliott: What does non-binary Joy look like to you?

E.R Fightmaster: I’ve been having a lot of conversations about gender with friends. And when non-binary started getting talked about the language still fit somewhere along with the binary of of you know, it’s a lack of gender altogether. Or, you know, it’s neither side of the binary or it’s right in the middle of the binary. I think we lost the plot a little bit. The word itself is non-binary, we’re not working on the binary. Gender is cultural, in a lot of ways. So masculine and feminine look different in America than they do in India than they do in Ireland than they do in Taiwan, you know, it looks different truly across the map. And it goes region by region. So we have to separate our understanding of capital G gender, which is energetics from lowercase g, gender, which is cultural because when I say that I’m non-binary, I don’t mean that I’m right in the middle of loving trucks or loving Barbie, I mean, that my energy is exactly what I allow it to be without an understanding of cultural norms. I have decided energetically to be exactly who I feel like, without anyone telling me that this is how a woman should behave or this is what a man looks like or this is what an androgynous person looks like. I don’t care. I am non-binary, I do not care about your understanding of cultural gender. My gender is the energy I carry with me. And anyone that meets me would say that that is very clear. And anyone that needs me and wants to lay cultural and gender roles on top of my identity, finds out that it doesn’t work. So for me, non-binary joy is finding exactly what your energy is, without them telling you how to behave. And then experiencing yourself through that freedom lens. Really cooling off any of the rules that they told you you need to follow up and just experiencing yourself. Heart to brain without anyone telling you that this is how it should be done. There’s no one way to do it. You are in constant exploration of self. That is joy.

E.R, Thank you sincerely from the bottom of my heart for your time and your wisdom. I hope our paths cross again someday!

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