For Travis Coles, coming to terms with their gender has been a lifelong process, one that’s been accelerated with their new role on David Makes Man, the new TV show written by Moonlight‘s Tarell Alvin McCraney and executive produced by Oprah Winfrey and Michael B. Jordan. Coles, like their character, Mx. Elijah, is genderqueer, black, and brings a sense of fun and play to their gender performance.
Travis Coles talks about gender, sobriety, and working with Oprah on the LGBTQ&A podcast.
Jeffrey Masters: You character is gender nonconforming and commands respect. I hate to say it, but that combination feels special to me.
Travis Coles: From the first episode, right? They’re talking about Mx. Elijah saying, “Oh, there’s nothing to be ashamed about. Mx. Elijah is amazing.” Then you see the scene with Mx. Elijah, and you realize he’s just going to continue being himself no matter what you say. Any of your baggage has nothing to do with him. He’s just moving forward.
JM: How do you describe and experience your own gender?
TC: It’s so interesting. I was so hesitant to experience my gender when I was younger. I grew up on Air Force bases. There was this idea of what man is, what woman is.
What is masculine? It was just hyperbolized because of the space: guns and war. For me, skating around to Britney and Whitney in booty shorts and my boom booms, I didn’t fit in. Something was missing. I think it was because I was trying to hold tight to this idea of masculine and feminine, and not fluid, which is what I am. With this character, Mx. Elijah… I remember I was walking down Hollywood Boulevard for the callback, and I was in full makeup. I felt confident and I felt right in a way that I had not felt in a long time. It was scary. It was really scary.
JM: Why did feeling confident and right scare you?
TC: Because that’s not the norm, is it? For a lot of people, for me.
JM: It’s not what we’re told the norm is.
TC: Exactly. I am a genderqueer black man in America. There’s already a label that comes with the color of my skin, and with apparently who I want to sleep with or not sleep with, or what kind of makeup I want to wear or not wear.
Then when you decide that you’re going to show up for yourself, even though the world is telling you Please don’t and there are these little gifts that start happening. People start shining.
For me, it was a matter of recognizing that. All of a sudden, I’m sitting across from Oprah and she’s telling me that I’m talented and that I was going to help people. Meanwhile, I am in my head thinking, “I shouldn’t be here. I don’t deserve this love that she’s giving me.” I was not used to it.
What I learned were a bunch of lies, and I believed in those lies. They’re very hard to get rid of, and that’s what trauma is.
JM: All these realizations came from playing this character?
TC: Literally. They were always on the top of the surface, right? All of these small things, but I didn’t really know what it was. And then money changes you. Mo’ money, mo’ problems, right? I was catching the bus and looking for change and being a server, which I loved. Now I’m not doing that. I used to live in a small closet. I used to live in my car for a little bit. You do what you got to do.
JM: As you’ve become more comfortable with your gender, how has that changed or affected who you’re attracted to?
TC: Honestly, Why am I attracted to somebody? is the question I’ve been asking myself lately. Having experiences in the gay community, from apps and all these things, I’ve been told that the black body is either this or it’s that.
JM: What is that binary of this or that?
TC: It’s thug or definitely it’s B.B.C. That is an issue that I’ve had.
I never even thought about this. I used to pretend, in order to hook up with people, I would do a character, because that’s what they were asking me for. They didn’t want to see me. They weren’t trying to come for this body. They were like, “We want this version of what we think a black person is.”
I didn’t realize that, and now I do. So I’m just like, Oh, my world is turned upside down. What is attractive? Why do I want to do this? Also, I’m not going to lower my voice when I get around men anymore. It makes me feel very sick because it makes me feel like I’m not being authentic. What I’m going to find attractive is someone who just accepts me wholeheartedly, without a caveat.
JM: Can I ask you about sobriety?
TC: Oh god, yeah.
JM: How long has it been?
TC: Well, here’s the thing: I went to Florida and I ended up relapsing. I have not Marie Kondo-ed that out of my life. I found all of these terrible things happening while all of these amazing things are happening. I can now look back on it with sober eyes and realize, “Oh, it’s because the stuff that I believed from before didn’t match what was actually happening.”
So, my actual survival mode is misery. It knows being drunk. It knows pleasure, immediately. I also know that in order to change that, I have to sit down and I have to meditate, and I need a community. Those are all of the things that went because we were making a show.
JM: What made you decide to get sober the first time?
TC: I tried different ways. What that looked like was me being sober and also not necessarily feeling the best. That’s what was missing: if you’re sober and if you’re in recovery, you can also still have those terrible feelings.
Before I left, it was like, I’m sober, but also I’m not happy. I’m not healthy, but I’m not drinking. I’m so glad that it took off a full-on rock bottom in the middle of oh-so-many things going on in my life, that made me realize, So where do we start? In the rubble, where do we start? Where do we pick up the pieces?
JM: Rock bottom happened when you were getting all these big career opportunities.
TC: And it was so incredible because I was surrounded by the most powerful, inspirational, amazing people that I could ever know. These now are people who are family to me. Now I have people in my life that I get to call, who I know aren’t not going to shame me.
You have to find your people. If there’s resistance, then you move on, and that’s okay. You can love that experience that you had. But you have to find the people that are hardcore. Because honey, if you’re in it with me, we are going for a ride and it is going to be bumpy. And you know what? You better put on your seatbelt.
JM: Last question, is it true that you used to write Jurassic Park erotic fan fiction?
TC: Oh my god, yes I did. True. I can’t believe I told people that I did that.