Comedian Travon Free: Men have had a really long run at the top and this is where it’s gotten us

Comedian Travon Free: Men have had a really long run at the top and this is where it’s gotten us
Image: Matt A. Brown
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Travon Free has won Emmys for his writing on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. Today, he’s working on an HBO show with Insecure creator Issa Rae, about a bisexual black man. He believes no one, no matter how powerful or powerless they may be, is exempt from the task of advancing social progress.

Growing up in Compton, Free struggled with whether to come out as bisexual while on his high school basketball team (Free had NBA potential until a career-altering injury). He is intimately familiar with racism, homophobia, and discrimination of all types.

“I really want to work to change the image of what it is to be a man and disconnect that entirely from who you sleep with,” Free said in a recent interview with Them. “I think if we can get to a place where more men who are across the spectrum can be more honest about their feelings around sexuality and not feel like it’s a detriment to who they are as a man, I think we can rid society of so many problems that have a direct correlation to toxic and hyper-masculinity, [like for instance] school shootings.”

Speaking with Quartz, Free explains how he uses his social platforms to advance equality, why racial, LGBTQ, and gender liberation are intimately intertwined, and the best advice he ever received from Jon Stewart.

1. Did you actively think about workplace gender inequality prior to the Me Too movement? And what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from Me Too?

I’ve always been sensitive to gender inequality in the workplace because, as a black person in the workplace, I think women and people of color deal with a lot of the same issues as it relates to insecurities, advancement, and general comfort or lack thereof in the office. It’s hard to say what the most important lesson I’ve personally learned from the Me Too movement is because as a queer person of color who worked on shows like The Daily Show and Full Frontal, I was hyper aware of most of the things highlighted by the movement. If anything, I would say it’s just how afraid women are of telling these stories. I knew the fear was there but the Me Too movement exposed the depths of that fear, as well as the unbelievable nature of just how terribly men in positions of power had been behaving.

2. Do you identify as a feminist? Why or why not? How do you define your feminism?

I would consider myself a feminist, because many of the perils of the world probably wouldn’t exist or would be lessened if the world wasn’t completely dominated by men. I’ve seen up close what male and female leadership looks like and there are a lot of elements of female leadership in general that would improve the way men run anything.

I would define my feminism by the desire to create a balance of women, especially women of color, in every space we inhabit that has an effect on anyone’s life and the future of the world. Men have had a really long run at the top and this is where it’s gotten us so far.

3. What do you do on a daily basis to advance gender equality?

Anyone who knows me or follows me on any platform is aware of my daily activism of race, gender, and sexuality equality. So I think it would fall within the realm of doing those things along with specifically addressing gender when the occasion arises. For example, a few days ago, without provocation I posted: “Maybe we should stop making things pink so we know they’re for women. Just a thought,” because many of us are aware of the pink tax and the underlying gender issues with the pink/blue dynamic of boys and girls.

4. What’s the biggest threat to men in America today? Why?

The biggest threat to men is men. A lot of men are vocalizing fear of a threat that doesn’t exist. Men hold almost every elected office in this country. They’re most of the police, FBI, and CIA. They’re most of every branch of the military. They’re most of almost every workplace. Where is the threat? Who is the threat? Men hear people asking for equality, and when you’ve been in power for centuries, equality can feel like oppression. If more men took the time to think about and understand how an equitable world would add exponential value to all of our lives, everything would change.

5. Do you talk about sexism with your male peers? If so, what strategies prove most effective, and if not, what inhibits you from doing so?

I do, most effectively when I connect it to their lives and the things they feel and experience that mirror the experience of sexism. Connecting your pain to my pain or someone else’s pain tends to be a very effective method.

6. What is your biggest anxiety about being a man?

As a man, I think it’s making women feel as safe and as comfortable as possible, not doing things to further the worst of a woman’s daily experience with men. As a black man it’s the police and people (usually white people) who feel they have governance over my body and behavior. The civilians who think they can police me in the absence of deputized authority.

7. What do you wish your female co-workers, and women at large, knew about you?

How constantly I’m thinking of making them feel comfortable and safe in the workplace and how important I think they are to the workplace and the world at large. I firmly believe if there’s any saving this world it will be on the backs of women.

8. Some men feel like they can’t win: They’ll be criticized by men for speaking up, and by feminists for not speaking loud enough. What would you tell these men?

Do it anyway. Protest is hard and telling the truth is important. Men have a privilege in society that has eluded women for centuries and it’s time to use that privilege to change things. There will never be a time where you’re pleasing everyone. Near the end of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, he didn’t have a large swath of affection from the black community he’d experienced in the past. But the ebb and flow of that support is a part of doing the work of justice and radical progress. Do what you can where you are, but above all else do something.

9. If you could take back one thing you’ve said or done that contributed to bias at work or at home, what would it be? Why?

You know, I honestly can’t think of a specific thing I’ve said or done but I am certain that I’ve done something, be it knowingly or unknowingly. Whether it was not speaking up when I should have or not providing a space for a woman to have an equitable experience, I’m sure I’ve done something. But this is the reason I work so hard to ensure that I’m doing it as little as possible. Whether it’s gender, sexuality, or race, if we actually think about these things on a daily basis, it can help alleviate a lot of our missteps around the issues.

10. What’s the best advice you’ve received from another man, and what’s your best advice for young men today?

This is a great question, as I’ve received advice from a host of great men and I could probably list a number of them. But what immediately comes to mind is from two men: Jon Stewart said to always trust your discomfort and it applies to many facets of life. When you feel uncomfortable, your body is trying to tell you something and you shouldn’t ignore it. The second is from a great man I’ve come to know, photographer Ruddy Roye, who reminds me constantly to act with intention and purpose. If you know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it you can rarely go wrong.

My advice to young men today is to think critically about what it means to be a “man.” Are you moving, breathing, behaving, and being the person you want to be, the man you want to be, or are you performing manhood and masculinity as it’s been prescribed to you by society? The answers may surprise them. This is how we begin to create a new generation of men who see equity as beneficial and not detrimental to their advancement.