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VIDEO: Travon Free, headlining Laugh Out Proud show, feels left out as the "B" in LGBT

SAN DIEGO -- Seasoned comedy veterans who sell out arenas and sign premium-channel deals are successful because they provoke insightful thoughts while poking fun at society’s serious political and cultural issues. Rarely do you encounter such talent in a young comedian, but then Travon Free is not your ordinary comic.

Born and raised in Compton, Calif., Free is a proud bisexual, African-American man. His success story is that of a former basketball star, turned comic, writer and actor. In addition to headlining at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles, Free has also appeared on several TV shows such as “Chelsea Lately,” “Tosh.0,” “House” and “Southland.”

Experience Free live when he headlines Laugh Out Proud Comedy Show’s all-LGBT comedy night special at Martinis Above Fourth on Thursday, June 9. The show kicks off at 8 pm with San Francisco’s Yuri Kagan and local comedic talents Star Dell’Era, Sean Wherley and Sarah Burford.

Armed with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, Free claims to have Ivy League brains with none of the student loan debt. Although his comedy performances prod lightly at social issues, his online blog is an educated perspective on the absurdities of politics, features videos from people like Cornel West, and provides education with a humorous slant on topics such as Republicans and Jesus.

Free spoke with San Diego Gay & Lesbian News about embracing his bisexuality, what it is like being the ‘B’ in LGBT, intolerance, and the African-American community’s long history with homophobia and its continuing denial of the HIV virus.

Bisexuality and African-American Culture

Free was out to his family and friends at the age of 20, but he came out publically in January of this year. In a recent blog entry he reflected on his decision and vividly recalled the brief conservation he had at 14 years old that, "shoved [him] as far back into the closet a person could go without coming out on the other side in Narnia."

Free grew up in Compton, a rough-and-tumble community that expects a certain level of toughness. Although he notes that some of his family members were well-known gang members, Free exhibited his strength on the basketball court. He was popular enough to suffer no visible repercussions when his fellow teammate responded with an adamant "hell no" response to his question, "If I was gay, would you still be my friend?"

Free went onto become the basketball team’s captain, dated only girls, and maintained his popularity. He would not explore or discuss those feelings again until his sophomore year at Long Beach State.

"Growing up in the church and the stuff I was taught, made it difficult to accept myself," Free said. "The thought that God hated me bothered me the most. I had to deprogram myself from that way of thinking to get my sanity back."

Due to those same religious beliefs, it was difficult for some in his family to accept his bisexuality.

"My sister did not care, but my mom, grandmother and cousin took it very hard," Free recalled. "My mom didn’t talk to me for like a month afterward, and my grandmother had a lot of misconceptions."

At the time, Free was also wrapping up his first book, "Stop Hetero-Supremacy: How to Save Our Children and Our Future While Creating a World That Works for Everyone." In it, he challenges society’s perceptions of the LGBT community with discussions on homosexuality’s acceptance in pre-biblical times, science, legislation and reasons why being gay is the new black.

"It helped to open up the dialogue between me and my mom, and it challenged them to confront what they had been taught for years,” Free said. "When you go back to the days of slavery, black people had only two things - the Bible and church, and they clung onto that."

He credits those antiquated views for the African-American community’s unwillingness to address the issue of being gay in black America. "This lack of education and overall ignorance contributes to the fact that 50% of new HIV cases every year are black men and women, and rappers with relative freedom use ‘gay’ as an attack on masculinity," he said.

Although Free’s artistic form is still growing, he wants to challenge the African-American community’s intolerance.

"The current generation is driven by pop culture and celebrities," Free said. “I have a hard time today identifying a true leader for black America, let alone black entertainment. Yes, there is Wanda Sykes, but how many other out, black celebrities do you know? There are plenty of black closeted kids looking for hope, for an example of how they can fit in black America and be gay."

For Free, that hope came in small steps. Acceptance from his family was a work in progress. Through his comedy, blog and book, he wants to help make it easier for others, especially those within the bisexual community.

Discrimination From Within

"People underestimate how hard it is being bisexual,” Free said. "You take shit from both the straight and the gay community. Dating is also more difficult, people think you have more options, but you really have less."

Free uses an article by Chris O’Guinn to discuss what he agrees are the four myths about bisexuality:

  • Bisexuality doesn’t really exist
  • Bisexuals can easily lead a hetero normal life
  • Bisexuals will seek out opposite sex partners when they want to settle down
  • People only identify as bisexual to avoid the negative social impact of identifying as gay

"Most women I have dated don’t have a problem with it, but I always have to worry about telling them I am bisexual," Free said. "With guys it is even more difficult. I meet many gay men who say they only date gay men. I have been single for over a year."

Concerning the gay rights movement, Free said he feels left out as a bisexual man.

"We don’t get a big enough voice," he said. "It also doesn’t help when you have people like Dan Savage attempting to discredit [bisexuality]."

To illustrate his point, Free alludes to the comment strings in the articles published by LGBT media sources that discussed his coming out.

"A lot people made comments like 'this is just the first step towards you admitting you are gay,' it came up so many times that it makes me think people do not really believe you can be bisexual," Free said. "I know I am not straight. I know I am not completely gay. I love men. I love women. For people to say that it is not possible, is disheartening. It makes me feel that I am not truly accepted within my community."

His decision to come out publicly several years after doing so with his family and friends is partly so that he could give the bisexual community a voice.

Basketball & Artistic Liberty

As an artist, Free believes in freedom of speech and crossing boundaries, however he stresses the importance of knowing where to draw the line between artistic integrity and hate speech.

The one word he takes the most issue with is the use of the word "faggot." Recent headlines were made by NBA stars like Kobe Bryant and Joakim Noah over their use of that word on national TV.

"I think Kobe’s [$100,000] fine was completely justified," Free said. "Using that word today when people are struggling for equal rights and kids are committing suicide, is not acceptable. It is like using the n-word in the '60s. But I am more upset about Noah only being fined half of what Kobe was because he said the word to a fan and not a referee. That sends a mixed message."

A former basketball player, Free is used to hearing profanity on the court, but said none of his teammates ever used that word.

"It is actually kind of funny, because in my experience, basketball teammates are the gayest group of guys," he said. "I don’t know how to put it into words, but on the road, in the locker room, these guys were always acting gay for each other and doing the gayest things.

"Although I was not open with my teammates, I never felt like their actions were coming from a place of hate or homophobia. It was just guys being guys."

After graduation, Free learned that thanks to the rumor mill, his entire team already knew he was bisexual by his senior year.

"My two best friends on the team, Kevin and Luis, who are like my brothers to this day, told me no one believed it because I [always] had girlfriends. They also said they considered it disrespectful to ask, and that it didn’t matter to them, anyway.

"To this day, it means a lot that my teammates never treated me differently," he said.

The real problems are off the court, according to Free, with rappers -- like the newest sensation Tyler -- who have a great influence over African-American youth.

"I have to admit that I grew up hearing that word a lot on the streets," Free said. "I understand the line between art and life. I would prefer that rappers not use it, but I can see how for some that word fits into what they are doing, so in a lot of ways, it is a catch-22.

"When Eminem said it, I got why he did, but with rappers like Tyler, the message in their lyrics is kill gay people and gay people should not have rights. That is definitely not acceptable, but few in the African-America community bat an eyelash over it.”

Laugh Out proud comedy show

Free fondly recalls listening to his mother's comedy records, those of legends like Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor.

"All the comics I grew up liking were at the time crossing some line that people thought should not be crossed,” Free said. “As it turned out, a lot of those things were the things that people should have been talking about, the things that sparked change.

"It is important to cross the line properly on social issues, because that is when you get people thinking and talking, and that’s how you create change."

Free is looking forward to sharing his comedy with San Diegans on June 9. The show is free with a two-menu item purchase from Martinis Above Fourth. The Laughter begins promptly at 8 pm.

Additional information is available HERE.

Challenging the hetero-supremacy

The culmination of two years worth of work, Free decided to write the book when he was a manager at Target. It was an election year with significant relevance to the LGBT community because Californians had yet to vote on Proposition 8.

“One of the employees I managed brought up Prop. 8 casually at first,” Free recalled. “She was adamantly for it and had a lot of stereotypes and misconceptions that I helped to challenge.” Over the course of three weeks and various conversations, things went from the employee’s inability to keep from referring to gay people in a derogatory manner, to her favorite nephew coming out and having her acceptance.

“That’s when I thought I should write a book,” Free said. “If I can do that to one person, maybe I can do it to ten, and they can turn around and reach another 100. If you’re straight, gay, confused, a student, a parent, a teacher, or whoever you may be, this book will change not only your view of the LGBT community, but how you see and think about yourself and the world as it relates to love, peace, acceptance, and social progress."

Free’s book is available online .



A comedic sample: