The first thing that shows up when you google “Kylie Sparks” is my IMDB page. I’ve been a working actor for over 16 years, starting my career as a child and have starred in movies, TV shows, digital series, commercials, you name it, you’ve seen it.
I’m sitting at my partner’s house, reading the latest industry news and texting with my fellow actor friends after attending an observing a local SAG-AFTRA board meeting, and I say out loud, “I think I’m gonna run in the SAG-AFTRA election this year. I’m just tired of this inaction, man, and I’m also tired of yelling about it.”
“I don’t think you realize that if you run, they have no idea what they’re in for.”
My career identity is being an actor first, and while I’ve developed my skills as a writer over the past several years, I’ve been a card-carrying member of SAG since 2004, AFTRA and Equity since 2011. When SAG and AFTRA merged in 2012, while it became the largest actor union in the world, it was also not a perfect blueprint. I had my thoughts and fears about that merger, but hoped maybe I would be proven wrong.
Unfortunately, I was right. While we’re in the age of Peak TV and job creation is higher than ever, wages are stagnant, contracts have been watered down and key losses like mileage and turnaround mandates have happened, and commercials have gone mostly non-union. Unless you are in the top echelon of the industry with a Top 6 agency or a high-powered management firm and have a huge social following, SAG-AFTRA’s membership of middle class, millennial, and Gen Z actors have suffered with not getting paid on time, along with having contracts with mandated buyouts instead of residuals which keep actors afloat between gigs. It’s forced actors to quit the business and kill their dreams.
All of this is before factoring in my identity as an openly out bisexual, queer, non-binary femme in the industry.
Before I came out, I constantly played queer female characters. In one of the series I starred on for three years, Squaresville, I played a closeted gay teen. Another show I appeared on, Weird Loners on Fox, I played an out lesbian. I received letters from fans thanking me for such a grounded, real portrayal of coming out and queerness. At the time no one knew that I was also dealing with questioning my own identity. I came out publicly in early 2016 as bisexual, a decision I wrestled with for a long time due to knowing that my career would take a hit. Historically, actors who come out are no longer viewed as “marketable” or would be pigeonholed. Since coming out that first time (I came out a second time as non-binary femme in 2018), as an actor, I have only worked a handful of times, and I can’t help but to think it’s because I’m openly queer in a geopolitical landscape and an industry that doesn’t want me to be.
With my career, I have always educated myself about my unions and my industry, from reading the trades to comparing old contracts. My father is a labor attorney who taught me the value of a paper trail and keeping receipts, and I’m also a Capricorn Moon and Virgo Rising with my Aquarius sun — I’m hyper-aware of the trends of contract negotiations, what’s important to my fellow actors, and the struggles and issues we are facing. I would vocalize my opinion, and become constantly frustrated after seeing fellow actors- — names, working actors, and friends just completely tired- — quit the industry because of how their union failed them. I was increasingly concerned. After attending a local board meeting earlier this year, I became so enraged with the answers I wasn’t getting that when I went back to my partner’s house, I started texting friends and I noticed in my paperwork I picked up at the meeting that it had deadlines and qualifications of SAG-AFTRA’s elections.
One thing everyone knows about me is that I’ve never been someone to sit on the sidelines. If I want to do something, I, like Nike, just do it. If I want to accomplish something, you should probably get out of my way because it’s gonna happen, even if I have zero idea if it will be successful, and it will get done my way. After I said to my partner I was thinking about running and he agreed it was time for me to put my words to action, I announced I was going to campaign for a seat for SAG-AFTRA’s convention delegation, where resolutions and bylaws would be made, as a way to get into union politics. I was met with the overwhelming response of “OH THANK GOD, how can I help?”
I ended up joining the Membership First slate as their ideals and politics aligned with my frustrations and how to solve them. After I filed to run, across all parties, I noticed on the list of candidates running that very few were LGBTQ+, and I decided to run as an unapologetically openly queer, non-binary candidate. I constantly tweeted and posted on socials why I should be elected, and talked with fellow actors who were willing to help spread the word about me and my slate. After a grueling six week election process between July and August, I woke up on August 29th seeing that I received 2116 votes as a delegate from the Los Angeles region, meaning that I won a seat at the convention. I screamed.
With the 2019 election, I became SAG-AFTRA’s first elected non-binary delegate. As the October convention rolled near, while I knew I couldn’t overhaul a residuals system by myself, I was figuring out what I could bring to the table and I realized I could bring a resolution that would make our industry more inclusive. For those who aren’t in the industry — while auditioning for commercials, when you sign in, you declare your race, age, and gender. These are used for metrics in the industry and in the union to see what demographics are working in commercials. Under gender, there are only two options, M & F, and if you’re non-binary, you’re left with the option of either not filling it in, or writing in “non-binary” (or if you’re feeling particularly cheeky, writing an X in between M & F). Knowing how I finally felt comfortable enough to declare I was non-binary at auditions and having fellow non-binary commercial actors feel the same, I decided that I would bring to the convention a resolution to add a third gender marker to the sign-in sheets to begin queering union politics. I didn’t realize just how heteronormative union politics were until I arrived to the convention, down to the credentials.
The first day of convention when I picked up my credentials, I noticed there was no place to put your pronouns on badges. I was annoyed, but I did what I normally do in this setting- — I just asked staff for a pen to write mine on my badge, – They/Them & She/Her. I noticed people staring at my credentials, unsure how to proceed. I was painfully aware I was one of the few LGBTQ+ actors elected. and attending convention to the point there wasn’t even enough interest for a LGBTQ+ actors meetup! When I attended my second choice meetup, NextGen Performers (actors aged 18-35), I was the only one who said my pronouns while introducing myself.
When reading the resolutions docket, I noticed a group of my fellow Membership First candidates had also brought a resolution to the floor to add LGBTQ+ actors in Diversity-In-Casting initiatives. I hadn’t realized LGBTQ+ actors were not included in SAG-AFTRA’s Diversity-in-Casting until convention (by the way, this resolution passed with no contest!). They also don’t warn you is that the convention is not for the faint of heart – it’s four days of constant yelling, arguing, and debating why what you’re saying matters. For some is overwhelming, but apparently I don’t know any better, because before I knew it, I was standing up yelling with some of the longest serving union political members. I was grateful to be with the Membership First slate, who made sure that even when things went awry, I was listened to, heard, and taken care of. I even cracked the hardest of union men with corny dad jokes when things got tough.
When it came time to present my resolution on Sunday morning, again, I was the only one who said their pronouns (however, my selected backup speaker in case of contest, a fellow Membership First delegate, made sure her pronouns were also in her statement). I had one minute to present why this resolution mattered in front of 300 people, including a stage of 12 people in the highest levels of union leadership staring down at me. I normally don’t get stage fright or anxiety when speaking, but explaining to 300 people why your existence should be respected in under a minute is nerve-wracking! When they called time on my statement, I ran away from the mic and said “OKAY!!!!!”
Apparently, my minor anxiety attack was charming enough to induce a room full of laughing and a standing ovation. It was overwhelmingly passed with no contest and no need for a backup speaker. When it was announced I was a first time delegate, the cheering continued and folks came up to me to congratulate me, which was surreal. From what I found out, to stare down the leadership and convince them what I had to say mattered as a first time delegate in an opposition party — and to have them approve my resolution! — is extremely rare, and I did it in the most unapologetically queer way possible. I ended up meeting with delegates across the aisle and across the country who asked me how to make their locals more inclusive, which was very flattering but also made me painfully aware that we need more LGBTQ+ folks in union leadership.
After convention, I received an email that I would be part of the Los Angeles Local NextGen Performers committee, as well as serving as an alternate to the National NextGen Performers and LGBTQ+ committees, so I’m in union politics deep now. I plan on running again in 2021 as a delegate and I’ll also throw my hat in the LA local board election race. I encourage fellow LGBTQ+ actors to also run next SAG-AFTRA election. Unions need LGBTQ+ people and the only way we will continue queering union politics is having more LGBTQ+ folks in power, no matter the industry. We are only as strong as our union leadership. The water’s fine. Come join us.⚡
Edited by Carmen