We spoke with Canadian actor and host Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman to learn about his personal story and advice for the 2SLGBTQ+ community.
Coming out may have been challenging and being queer in this world may still be challenging, but it’s also our greatest strength and superpower.
What do pride and empowerment mean to you?
To me, pride is a celebration of self and of authenticity. Empowerment means having the audacity to courageously participate in your own life — to tap into the truest and deepest parts of who you are at your soul’s core, regardless of what the world around you tells you who or what you should be or not be, and refusing to dim your light in the face of a world that tells you that ‘you’re too much or that you’re not enough. It means really getting clear on who you are. I think that it’s so important for all of us to really answer that question within ourselves.
Empowerment is being able to bring all of our inherent personal superpowers to the table. I feel like that’s where so many of us go wrong — we tend to listen to outside sources and try to please everyone around us
, . There are so many things that just aren’t true to who we are, and it ends in us being in a state of confusion. It creates a very confusing energy for everyone around us, too.
It’s also important to cultivate a certain level of compassion and empathy for those around us — to know that we’re all doing our best and to be able to look at someone and say, “I know you’re doing your best and you’re just trying to be the best version of yourself.” When we all strive to be used for a purpose greater than ourselves, I think that we can wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and be proud of ourselves. We can really embrace self-pride and when you have that ability to be able to ask the tough questions of yourself and to be able to dig through the depths of who you are, that’s the fiercest form of self-empowerment.
Did you struggle with your identity growing up? If so, how did you overcome these struggles?
I think that everybody struggles with their sexuality and identity, no matter where you’re from or how you identify. I believe that patriarchy and colonialism set this false narrative that we live in a binary of male/female, black/white, and straight/gay, and it’s a story that isn’t true because nobody truly exists within those binaries.
I was raised in a really small farm town in Alberta, and I was the only Black person and the only identifiable queer person, and because people tend to attack what is misunderstood, I was often attacked in my youth. I was just an easy target in many ways. As challenging as those years were, I look at
it them as a blessing because had things been easy for me, I would have stayed, and I wouldn’t have challenged myself to expand my consciousness and go beyond myself and explore the world. I put myself up to the test to see what I was capable of, and so as challenging as it was dealing with a tremendous amount of racism, homophobia, and otherism, it ended up proving to be my biggest blessing in many ways.
I also had to be aware of those who came before me, although I had very few examples — in my youth I only had queer public figures like Ellen DeGeneres and Rupert Everett. There was only a small handful of us in the industry at that time, but I could still see the choices and the mistakes that they made and learn from them from a distance and figure out a formula for me: how I could navigate through this world and through this industry in a way that would be impactful. I’m still figuring it out.
What advice can you give to aspiring entertainers and young adults?
I really believe in the power of meditation, visualization, self-awareness, and knowing oneself. The greatest tool that we all have and that we’re all born with is this internal GPS system — this guidance system telling us to go left or right, what feels good, and what feels bad. We all tend to ignore it after a while, but if you start listening to it again and dusting it off, you’ll find that the muscle is still there, and it’s hugely effective. I know that when I’ve been in some of the darkest and most challenging periods of my life, the thing that has gotten me out of them has been that internal GPS system —knowing where I am currently and then having a vision for where I want to be. And just listening to my own intuition as the days go on to figure out how to navigate my way there.
If you’re lucky enough to have the means to be able to seek mental health professionals and to find a counsellor or a therapist, I recommend it to everybody. Everybody —straight, gay, queer, anybody! If you’re human, you have trauma, and all trauma is worthy of being explored and healed. It’s been the greatest tool of self-awareness and self-acceptance for me.
Were there challenges with you coming out and if so, how did you overcome them?
I have a very similar story to anybody who has come out. I was raised in a world that told me that being gay was wrong and that it was a sin. But I never truly believed those things of myself. I knew that I was a good person, I knew that I came from a place of love,and I knew that there was nothing wrong with me. Truly in my heart and soul’s core, I knew that the stories being told to me were wrong and that I was not the wrong one. That didn’t make coming out easier, necessarily, because I still had to navigate my way through a world of violent homophobia. Being rejected by parental figures, authority figures, and parents of friends made me see how disappointing it was that the people I grew up around may not have been the best versions of themselves. But they were allowed to make mistakes and they were allowed to really test the boundaries of authority. They were allowed to mess up in a way that I was never allowed to because I had these targets on my back. I was Black and queer so therefore any false moves that I made would have a spotlight shone upon them, and that’s something that I still experience to this day.
Luckily at this point in time, at 36 years old, I’ve carved a path for myself in this industry where I’ve made it very clear from the beginning that I was only going to be an openly queer person. I would only play openly queer characters and I would never hide or shy away from the truth of who I am. So, I didn’t even have to struggle with the public scrutiny of pretending to be straight and then one day coming out and having it be this huge headline. That’s something that I learned from Ellen. I just learned that it was easier to never be in the closet, but we don’t always have the safety and freedom to make that choice. I think that very often as queer people we’re in situations where we just intuitively know that it’s not physically or emotionally safe to choose the truest version of ourselves. Coming out may have been challenging and being queer in this world may still be challenging, but it’s also our greatest strength and superpower.
What was your most memorable experience in the industry and how did it shape you into the person you are today?
My first job and first audition come to mind immediately. I was 21and living in Vancouver, modelling. I had always wanted to act, but had never even set foot in a drama class or theatre. Long story short, I was sitting in a restaurant and a director came up to me to ask me if I would read for his film and I did the next day, and booked it. I was playing an openly queer character and the reason why it was so impactful to me was because the path to me getting there was just me being myself. From the moment I met him sitting in that restaurant, I was just myself — I was just Jeffrey — I was openly queer and openly me. At the audition, I didn’t know what I was doing because I had no acting training so all I could do was just bring myself to the words on the page and try to make it as real as possible. On the last day on set, the director pulled me aside as we were shooting our last scene, and he put his hands on my shoulders and gave me some advice that I’ll never forget because it really did shape the path for the rest of my life and my career. He looked me in the eyes and said, “There’s a void in this industry, and you’re here to fill it. Never compromise your integrity.” At 21, I heard him, and I felt it, but I didn’t really know what it meant, until I continued on in this industry and I realized why his words were so impactful — because I was going to be faced for years to come with people who were trying to make me something that I wasn’t. So, the advice to never compromise my integrity was so hugely important because without it, I think I would have gone down a very different path in my career. I would have played straight roles, and I would have remained quiet and closeted in some ways. I wouldn’t have been the truest and fullest versions of myself — the good, the bad, and the ugly.
I now know, love and accept myself for all of me. I’m as human as I can be, and I have no shame about it. Give yourself permission to be the truest version of yourself. Perfection doesn’t exist and I don’t think we should be punished for our humanity. Humans are messy and humanity is complex, nuanced, terrifying and beautiful. I think that we should be able to accept and embrace all parts of ourselves because anything else is false and unsustainable.
Would you be able to share some of your experience in your new Disney+ series, Doogie Kamealoha MD?
It’s a project that I’m so incredibly proud of and so blessed to be a part of. Each time I finish reading a script, I just feel so warm, light and optimistic. There’s always a powerful moral lesson in every single episode. I have the blessing of playing an openly queer character, who once again isn’t necessarily me and doesn’t necessarily have the same history or life experiences as I do, but who I relate to. And if I relate to him, I know that millions of other kids will be able to turn on their TVs to Disney+ and see elements of themselves in him as well. He’s funny, complex, and learns as he goes along. He’s one of Doogie’s hospital besties and he wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for all the powerful Black men who came before him and who paved the way in all the medical dramas and comedies before him.
There have been really powerful and impactful Black actors as doctors in shows, but not enough for me to fully see myself in. I just know that it’s such a blessing to be able to carry on this legacy and I still flip out every day when I’m on set because I get to play an openly gay character in a Disney show. The world still has a long way to go and much evolution to occur, but the fact that I get to show up to work every day and just be myself and be celebrated for it is something that I don’t take for granted for even a second.