Travis Alabanza has said everything they want to say about gender. After spending the first eight years of their career creating ground-breaking theatre work, and writing their first non-fiction book focused on trans and gender nonconforming identities, they want to continue the conversation - but in a different way.
‘We all grow as artists, and as I've got older, my way of wanting to do it is in a more incidental way,’ Travis tells The Lead. ‘I want to cast trans people in a show about something else. Maybe I can write a love story, but the characters just happened to be trans. I'm always going to have trans people in my work, because I want to create jobs for us, and I want space for our stories. But we don’t only have one story.
‘Now, if anyone asks me what I think about gender identity I can just tell them to read my book.’
When it comes to identity, society is still hung up on labels and clear definitions. While conversations around race, gender and sexuality have progressed in many ways, we still have a tendency to demand answers, certainty, and a definitive choice. Which box will you tick? Which bathroom will you use?
But Travis is more interested in the spaces that exist between the definitions - the murkier, more human realm of uncertainty. They don’t have all the answers, and they don’t expect anyone else to, either.
‘I was tired of trans literature in the non-fiction space only ever being allowed to educate,’ says Travis. ‘We weren't allowed to have space to question. I wanted to create work that was forced to question and interrogate.’
In their deeply personal and unflinchingly honest debut book None Of The Above, the playwright and author from Bristol examines certain phrases people have said to them throughout their life, and uses them to reflect on what it means to be gender nonconforming and racialised in this country.
‘I come back to the question; can I grow old and still look visibly gender nonconforming? Or do I need to become a man or a woman?’ they say. ‘I purposefully leave the book with an open-ended conclusion, mainly because I wanted to have some privacy, but also, I wanted uncertainty and a lack of conviction to be an OK place to land as a trans person. Rather than having everything sorted.
‘So many trans people feel they have to know everything about themselves, because we so frequently have to argue and defend ourselves. It feels like we have always had to make our work in opposition, which is understandable, knowing the climate.'
The climate Travis is referring to is one that is increasingly hostile and negative. Anti-trans rhetoric is rife in both mainstream and social media, and very little is being done to tackle it. It is making the UK a dangerous place for trans people to exist - the number of transphobic hate crimes has risen by 332% since 2014-15.
This violence is being fuelled by state policy. Earlier this month, it was reported that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak plans to remove legal protections for trans people from the Equality Act 2010. For Travis, the shift in attitudes over the last decade is stark.
‘As a society, we have lost a lot of our generosity,’ says Travis. ‘Maybe eight years ago, there was a curiosity around us, but now there is just a real vindictiveness.
‘It means that, more than ever, trans people should continue to make art and continue to be autonomous. But it's really hard. During the tour for the book, there was this awful moment of transphobia, and I remember pausing. I'm someone who has been through the wringer before, but even for me, this was a lot. If I'm finding this a lot, when I have already had large-scale attacks against me in the press, what does it mean for new trans people coming in?’
Travis makes an enormous effort to remain hopeful and positive. They are generous in the way they speak about people who are ignorant about trans issues - and take care not to dwell on instances of hate - but, at just 26, Travis already describes themselves as ‘weathered’. The pressure of their work has taken its toll. But they take solace in thinking about the future.
‘I see all these young trans people being even more fearless and even more boundary pushing and even more experimental,’ they say.
‘It's disorienting because we have this kind of dual reality. Lots of different communities are facing huge struggles, and in some ways, being trans is the hardest it's ever been in this country. And then you have that flip-side where we just had a Black trans woman on the cover of Vogue.
‘So, in some ways, representation is making us feel like we're having this huge moment. And in other ways, people are poorer than ever and disenfranchised from the world around them. I don't think that is exclusive to trans people, a lot of marginalised groups that are facing this right now.’
Travis has created two critically acclaimed plays that grapple with gender identity and trans safety. Both works - Burgerz and Overflow - draw on personal experiences. Travis says they were both collaborative processes, and shifting to the solo endeavour of writing a book during lockdown was a difficult transition.
‘Luckily I’m good at tough transitions,’ says Travis, laughing. ‘Compared to my previous work, it felt like it was less revealing in some senses, because I wrote it in private. It took a year and a half to write it. And then when it's released, you have a different experience than with theatre. You don’t get that instant applause, that instant gratification where you get to say - “great, that went well”.’
Travis likes the permanence of putting a book in the world. The impact is slower and ripples outwards, reaching audiences he never expected to be able to engage with.
‘One of my favourite responses to the book was from my friend's grandma. That is obviously a demographic that I wouldn't expect to really get it. She made it her book club read. So, there were all of these white, middle-class grandmas reading the book. I just love that image.
‘With the stage, there is less of a widening participation. Whereas with a book, people might just like the cover in a bookstore, or see it randomly in a train station or whatever and can get it.’
Inevitably, our conversation returns to exhaustion. Creating work that centres your own identity is draining. Travis is not only producing plays and books about what it means to be gender noncomforming, they are also living it.
‘I find that you get more of a respite living it than you do working within it, which is weird,’ says Travis. ‘Living it, you're surrounded by friends that love you. And you don’t talk about it all the time. My friends and I, a lot of us are queer and trans, but we don't really speak about it that much when we're just hanging out. But when you’re working and creating art, it is all you speak about.
‘Transness has obviously had a lot more attention in negative ways in recent years,’ Travis says. ‘But also, it means there have been lots of new trans writers and creatives putting out work. So it has motivated me to be part of that powerful movement.’
Promoting the book hasn’t always been easy, and there are pressures and concerns that Travis faces that other authors never need to consider. They describe the pain and frustration at seeing their book sent out to the same papers that consistently target their community. They believe the publishing industry still has some catching up to do in this area.
‘However, there was a nice moment in the summer, both mine and Juno Dawson's book were on the Waterstones best-selling list in the Sunday Times in between two articles that were being horrible about trans people. So you know, there's pain, but that's the way you also get them to talk. Because if you write a successful book, then they have to acknowledge it - no matter their political leanings. It definitely felt satisfying.’
Travis Alabanza is the keynote speaker at the Tottenham Literature Festival, which will take place at Bernie Grant Arts Centre, 14 November – 20 November 2022.