In one of her earliest scenes in Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Susie Putnam is seen crying into her locker. “They pulled up my shirt,” she breathes when Sabrina Spellman, our star, asks what’s wrong. Enraged, Sabrina marches into the principal’s office and announces that the jocks violated her best friend “because they wanted to see if she had breasts to see if she was really a boy or a girl under there.”
But, oh, if only it could be so simple.
If gender was as easy as a quick anatomy check, it would have saved Lachlan Watson — the 17-year-old actor who plays Susie — from the emotional journey he endured throughout his teens — what he now refers to as a “three-part opera.”
Lachlan Watson as Susie Putnam in “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”
As he tells it — and we’re using he/him at the request of his representatives, as Watson views pronouns as little more than syllables at this point in his journey, noting that the words “don’t really make me that uncomfortable anymore” — Act 1 began around the age of 13, when Watson “felt a little queer” and “wasn’t really sure what to do with that,” but recognized an attraction to girls and so, using that logic, identified as a cisgender lesbian.
That lasted about a year and a half, until he realized that something was off with that label. “It wasn’t quite encapsulating the pain that I was really feeling. There was something body-related, there was something else there, and all I had to label that under was being trans,” he said, which led him to Act 2: “And so I came out as trans.”
The label accurately encompassed Watson’s rejection of his female form, and roughly two-and-a-half years into Act 2, Watson was preparing to take the next step in his transition and headed to Duke University’s gender clinic — the only gender-accepting clinic in his home state of North Carolina.
“I had the script memorized, basically. I knew what I needed to say as a trans man to get them to believe that this is what I wanted and this is who I was,” he said. “I had the words, the phrases, the labels — I had it all down from all the YouTube videos that I watched, and so I marched in and we had all our psychological evaluations and I was like, ‘Yes, this is what I want. This is what I’m supposed to do. I’m supposed to go on testosterone,’ and they said, ‘OK’ and they handed me a prescription of testosterone.”
And then… “I felt terrified.”
In that moment, glancing at the five-page list of testosterone side effects and away from the limited world of LGBTQ internet explainers, Watson realized that growing facial hair and lowering his voice felt just as wrong as growing breasts. “I realized in doing that that the problem wasn’t that I wasn’t male; the problem was just that I was female,” he said. And thus, he arrived at Act 3 — the current act — as non-binary, residing inside “the gender void.”
Identifying as non-binary means a person doesn’t totally identify as male and doesn’t totally identify as female, but exists somewhere in the either/or, neither/nor space. Like all areas of the gender spectrum, being non-binary can look very different from one person to the next.
“For the entirety of puberty I ran into that, where every problem that I had with my body wasn’t that I wanted to be male; it was specifically that I didn’t want the world to look at my body and inherently deem me female and inherently decide just by looking at me what I can or cannot do, how I’m supposed to sound, what I’m supposed to say, what my career is going to look like, how I’m supposed to act, my mannerisms. Everything could have been deemed by taking one look at my body because society assumes that’s what we’re bred and born to do,” he said of the gender dysphoria — a psychology term to describe the emotional effects a person experiences when there’s a disconnect between their gender identity and biological sex — he endured throughout Acts 1 and 2. “Seeing myself as female every time I look in the mirror is painful in a way I will never be able to describe.”
Ultimately, Watson declined the testosterone prescription and opted to get top surgery, a procedure to remove his breasts (yes, the same ones Sabrina’s jocks were trying to expose on Susie), to achieve a look more consistent with his sense of self.
It took “a tizzy of introspection and poetry and Googling” before Watson reached “the turning point” — finding Jacob Tobia’s work, a writer and genderqueer activist within the non-binary and gender nonconforming space. “Seeing someone else being openly gender-free and being comfortable with that and being articulate about that and being proudly that was huge.”
Realizing that it was OK to forge his own path gave Watson the space he needed to really see himself. “Listening to yourself and how you feel and listening to your body is going to get you so much farther than like, the YouTube videos you Google the moment you think you’re queer.”
Getting to that place was such a relief — “a nirvana moment” — but the journey was by no means easy.
Watson’s dysphoria peaked during the years he identified as trans “because I was forcing myself and shoving myself into a box that didn’t fit me, and I was causing myself so much pain and trauma just trying endlessly to be something that I wasn’t because that’s all I thought I could be,” he said. “We talk so much about the boxes society puts us in as queer people and the boxes that the world puts us in and bullies put us in and blah blah blah, but we never talk about the boxes we put ourselves in … I didn’t realize that the pain being inflicted wasn’t inherently societal; it was self-inflicted.”
Part of the problem, he believes, is the linear narrative that we’ve created for the queer experience. “It’s interesting to me that we, as a society, perceive queer journeys as a person going from Point A, which is suffering, to Point B, which is happiness, and it’s like, no queer journey I’ve ever experienced or no queer person I’ve ever talked to has experienced that ever,” he said. “Like, there is no Point B.” For Watson and for many others, gender is “an ongoing experience,” where Point B might lead to Points C-E, then jump back to A before moving on to F. “That’s sort of why I call it ‘gender freedom’ as opposed to gender fluidity, because instead of fluctuating between two options or three options or four options, you’re just sort of free,” he said. “I’ve found it a really beautiful thing to just not limit myself as much as I used to.”
The cast of “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”
Getting the chance to play Susie has added yet another layer to Watson’s third act. Now, not only does he have the benefit of his own experiences behind him, he’s also able to interpret gender through a fresh lens. “It’s been almost poetic in a way, that I’ve just been able to think in a way that I’ve never thought about it before,” he said.
It’s an opportunity only made more special because, this time, he’s able to take others along for the journey with him. “Even though Susie’s identity is never really labeled in the first half, [non-binary kids are] all looking at Susie and going, ‘Oh my God, that’s me. That’s non-binary representation right there,’” he said, calling it “an honor” to be able to show that under-represented experience on TV in 2018. “It’s something I’m so proud of being able to do.”
And like Susie, Watson has no plans to stop learning and growing into his identity. “How can you expect your gender identity to stay the same?” he wonders. “I mean, for some people it does and for some people they decide on something and they pour their heart and soul into being that thing, but for me, I just, I don’t know … staying one way, to me, sounds foreign and it sounds like I’d be missing out on allowing myself the freedom to experience so much more than that.”