September/October 2021 Cover Story: Bilal Baig Is Breaking Boundaries
Baig’s groundbreaking series Sort Of, which deals with the struggles of trying to reconcile all the labels we create for ourselves, will premiere on CBC’s streaming service this October…
By Christopher Turner
The category is…breaking boundaries.
Bilal Baig is helping to change the future of representation on Canadian television. Baig – who is Muslim, identifies as queer and transfeminine, and uses they/them pronouns – will make history when CBC’s Sort Of debuts this fall, making Baig the first queer/trans actor of South Asian and Muslim backgrounds to be cast in the lead role of a Canadian primetime television series. It’s an important step in Canada’s television journey, which has been consistently growing in the maturity of its stories so that all audiences can better relate.
As diversity has continued to grow across media over the past decade, we’ve definitely seen LGBTQ representation blossoming on screens. Of course, while we’re seeing more diversity and inclusion efforts everywhere – from the workplace to what we see on TV – there’s still a long way to go.
South of the border, GLAAD’s ‘Where We Are On TV’ reports annually on the quantity and quality of queer representation on screens, reminding everyone that representation matters. In their 2021 report, which looked at all 44 major films released in 2020, the advocacy group found that overall LGBTQ representation increased among the major studio films; however, for the fourth year in a row, there were no transgender or nonbinary characters in theatrical releases. While the report noted that television had progressed in both its inclusion and portrayal of transgender and nonbinary people, the major film studios seem to remain stagnant.
“We know that LGBTQ audiences are a powerful and invested audience – and a quickly growing one – as we see more and more people empowered to live their authentic lives. The power, passion and growth of LGBTQ audiences proves that if studios wish to be successful in retaining and expanding fans, they must tell meaningful queer and trans stories,” Megan Townsend, GLAAD’s director of entertainment research and analysis, said in a statement at the time.
GLAAD has previously praised the quality inclusion storylines of Canadian TV shows that air in the US – particularly shows like Degrassi, Sophie and Schitt’s Creek. But there is still an increased demand for new content that represents and invests in marginalized communities. CBC has arguably been leading the way with regular characters in scripted primetime series who identify as part of the LGBTQ community. They will be taking that lead a step further in October, when Sort Of premieres on their streaming service, CBC Gem, followed by the series broadcasting on television beginning in November.
The show is a half-hour comedy-drama that follows Sabi (played by Baig) as they navigate life as a 25-year-old nonbinary person living in Toronto. As well as starring, Baig also serves as co-creator, executive producer and writer. Not too bad for their first foray into television.
Baig grew up in Mississauga; their first play, Acha Bacha, had its world premiere in 2018 and has been published by Playwrights Canada Press. A writer by nature, in recent years they have helped develop and facilitate creative community-based programs and workshops for youth in under-resourced neighbourhoods in Toronto through non-profits such as Story Planet, Rivers of Hope, Unit 2 and the Paprika Festival.
We spoke to Baig this summer while they were coming out of the pandemic-enforced lockdown, finishing up production on the show and preparing for the fall launch. Here’s what they had to say about life, finding inspiration and authenticity, and, of course, CBC’s groundbreaking Sort Of.
Tell us about Sort Of.
Sabi – played by me! – works as a bartender at a queer bookstore bar and as a nanny for a family whose world changes when the mother of the family they nanny for gets into a serious bike accident. Along the way, Sabi also faces truths in their own biological family, in their friendship life and their romantic life too. A coming-of-age story, my series is about how each and every one of us is in transition.
And you worked together with Fab Filippo, who some of our readers may remember from Queer As Folk?
Yes! Fab and I co-created the show, and Fab directed six out of eight of the episodes.
How did the show come about?
Fab and I worked on a play together as actors, and through that process learnt about each other that we both write as well. We were curious about what it could mean to create a television show together, and when Fab proposed that the lead character should be inspired by me, I asked him where he would be in the storytelling. That’s when the character of Paul [the father of the family Sabi nannies for] emerged, and after that point, story ideas flowed between the two of us. We shot a sizzle [a short pitch video to give the idea a visual] over two days with the support of Sienna Films and a few months after that, we were greenlit by CBC for an eight-episode series order.
Who was your inspiration for Sabi?
Aspects of my life, as well as Fab’s life, definitely served as inspiration for the story. Elements of the story as well as the character of Sabi – who was initially based entirely on me – really transformed through the process in the writers’ room, where we had multiple perspectives informing the world of the show. Ultimately, during filming, playing Sabi really felt like playing a character, and I loved that!
From what I’ve seen so far, Sabi is out there living their most authentic life. I’m wondering what does living your most authentic life mean to you, personally?
To me, living your most authentic life means making choices that are always honest and real. It requires me to constantly be discovering who I am, being open to change all the time at any second, and it means giving myself the time and space to really make sure my actions are grounded in integrity.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to live a more authentic life?
Oh, I’m such a bad advice-giver! I’m more of a listener and question-asker. The best answer I’ve got is probably asking yourself who you want to be in the world and what you want to do. If your current reality doesn’t align with the answers that come up for you, perhaps beginning to take the first steps to start to feel some alignment between who you are and who you want to be might be something to consider. Easier said than done, I know!
Back to Sort Of.… Why did you decide to set the series in Toronto and not, say, Berlin?
At the most fundamental level, Fab and I are both Torontonians, so it just felt right to set the show in the city we know. On a story level, Toronto is where all of Sabi’s worlds – that they, for the most part, have compartmentalized – can deliciously collide: nanny world, queer/trans world, Pakistani mom world. It felt very natural to explore these worlds intersecting with one another in a city where so much is going on and so many different people live together.
You’ve included real members of Toronto’s queer community as extras on the show and used a lot of music created by Canadian queer artists. Was that important to you?
Yes, that was so important! It comes back to authenticity. We wanted these queer and trans spaces to feel real. We wanted to showcase the beauty of our communities. And we wanted the music to feel fresh and full of energy, and we wanted it to be in sync with the specific tone of the show, and that tone is somewhat hard to put in a neat box – and that was definitely intentional!
Okay…I have to ask… What are some of your favourite Canadian TV shows?
I probably have commitment issues because I have a hard time seeing shows all the way to the end – trust me, I’m working on it! – though I did consume Orphan Black pretty quickly. As a kid, I remember Radio Free Roscoehaving a big impact on me. I loved how dramatic their teen lives were and loved how rebellious they seemed because they started their own underground radio station in their high school!
What was it like switching from theatre to TV?
It was definitely an adjustment. Such different mediums that operate at such different paces. Writing-wise, it feels like there are more rules around how to structure a TV episode versus a play. Performance-wise, filming out of order while also being the lead of the show was a completely new experience for me! It was absolutely challenging, but really thrilling too.
As we know, our community as a whole regularly experiences a disproportionate amount of harassment and violence. Thinking about recent events, I’m wondering about your thoughts on using your voice and your platform right now?
I’m currently in the process of working with a designer to build my own website. One of its functions is to highlight the work I do, which includes my community work. On the site, we’ll feature trans women and other trans-feminine people and the amazing things they’re doing for their communities. And we’ll also have a ‘community bulletin’ page, which will highlight resources and amplify organizations committed to supporting trans folks, as well as informing folks of cool and fun events that may be of interest to them. I think there is such power and responsibility in having a public platform, and I’d like to share what I care about with anyone who’s down to learn more!
What do you want people to know about you that they might not already know?
I’m pretty shy and nervous and mostly pretty introverted! Approach with caution!
What’s next for you?
I’ve got some plays that I’ve been writing for a few years I’d like to return to. But I also love procrastination. Beyond that, I’m keeping it pretty low-key and prioritizing rest and slowing down as much as possible!
Who is inspiring you these days?
I think I’ve probably watched every video of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaking that’s out there on YouTube. Laverne Cox represents all that is good and pure in this world to me. My trans and nonbinary friends inspire me. I worked with several young students virtually through my community-based work these past few months, and it really inspired me to see them showing up to our workshops while navigating school and life in a pandemic.
What do you want viewers to take away from the series and from your work overall?
Sort Of explores the idea of what it means to truly be seen by someone else. My greatest hope is that viewers can see themselves in these characters or, conversely, feel seen by the characters. And it’d be so cool if when we see each other, we see the person in front of us the way they want to be seen, the way they deserve to be seen.
Sort Of premieres on CBC’s streaming service, CBC Gem, beginning Tuesday, October 5. The series then broadcasts on CBC TV with back-to-back episodes beginning Tuesday, November 9, at 9 pm local (9:30 pm NT).
– Watch The Trailer For Bilal Baig’s Groundbreaking Series ‘Sort Of’
CHRISTOPHER TURNER acted as guest editor for this issue of IN Magazine. He is a Toronto-based writer, editor and lifelong fashionisto with a passion for pop culture and sneakers. Follow him on social media at @Turnstylin.