Dua Saleh on “Sex Education,” Cal’s Sexuality, and the Trans Language Barrier

Even as the industry begins to tell more authentic trans stories, there are still a lot of unique challenges presented to trans actors. And while it’s important we talk about those challenges and continue to push for more equity, a big part of that discussion is highlighting when a show does things (mostly) right.

That’s why I was so excited to talk to Dua Saleh: musician, poet, and the latest addition to Netflix’s Sex Education where they portray non-binary stoner Cal. Cal was my favorite part of the new season and I was surprised by the depth brought to them and their transness — especially from a show made by cis people.

I talked to Dua about the process of creating an authentic trans story, their personal sex education, and what they watch when they need a break from the world.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 


Drew Gregory: We’re at a really interesting moment in trans storytelling where we’re finally starting to be included but often not with a lot of depth. But I didn’t feel that way about this season of Sex Education. So I just want to walk through what the experience was like for you to get a window into what it looks like when it’s done right. Can you start by talking about how you got cast?

Dua Saleh: It was really random because I wasn’t doing acting at the time. I was working on some music stuff and they reached out to my manager and asked me to audition. They liked my self-tape and then they actually got an acting coach to help guide me through the next two auditions. First I auditioned alone and then they had me with Kedar (Williams-Stirling) who plays Jackson and the producers and directors were there.

And then when I got cast they were like oh you’re trans can you help us with this. The writing team had a nonbinary consultant but they wanted me to be comfortable so they asked me questions. How do you feel about this? Do you have any issues? Any questions? That helped a lot with the script. And they also had a nonbinary consultant on set especially when me and Robyn (Holdaway) who plays Layla were there. They especially helped with the binding scenes. And there was an intimacy coordinator who was also very helpful. He was there for the whole cast but he was very attentive to my needs specifically because of all my trans shit and dysphoria and all the different things that I was feeling. Especially leaving a trans and queer-oriented city like Minneapolis to a place like Wales. You can definitely find trans people there — trans people were even reaching out to me from Wales thanking me for being on the show — but I didn’t really see them because I was on set and they were intense about the Covid protocol.

Drew: When you were on set did you feel the crew and the rest of the cast had an understanding of nonbinary identities and transness or did you have to do a lot of educating?

Dua: The producers were really good with informing people about my pronouns. Right before I got on set for each scene they would remind people of my pronouns. And they would have closed sets for me because I was kind of uncomfortable during some of the intimacy scenes and the intimacy coordinator would always check in with me. I had a pretty good experience as a trans actor which I know doesn’t happen very often. It feels really good and kind of dreamlike that this was my debut role. I didn’t have high expectations for it because I know how institutional transphobia occurs in different spaces. Especially having experienced it in the music realm, I wasn’t expecting people to get my pronouns correctly. And people were not that good when I’ve been in the UK for music stuff. But it was much better in Wales and much better with the cast members. Some people had interacted with nonbinary people before especially the queer cast members. And the people who hadn’t were active in trying to challenge themselves and challenge heteropatriarchy and how transphobia occurs within themselves and the world. They were thoughtful of me and very kind to me. I felt affirmed throughout the experience.

Drew: That’s great. When you were asked about the script did you give a lot of feedback?

Dua: Yeah there was definitely some. I feel like they did pretty well for a show that hadn’t touched upon transness before — especially with the nonbinary consultants and with the questions they asked me prior to going in. But when they invited me to talk with them I called them in and was like trans characters and especially nonbinary characters don’t often have much depth to their transness. And Cal is in the main cast — they’re a prominent character — so there was a real opportunity. I pushed discussions on queerness, specifically Cal’s queer identity. There are many different ways nonbinary people can identify and align themselves in terms of romantic and sexual orientation and I thought it would be cool — especially with the show having so many viewers — for them to touch upon that.

Drew: I’m really interested in this dynamic that I think is pretty much always the case for trans actors at this point — unless the directors or writers are trans — where trans actors are also working as consultants. And I don’t think it’s inherently negative — in fact it’s good to ask people who have an experience and are portraying an experience what they feel comfortable with — but it is also additional work that’s being put on trans actors that isn’t being put on cis actors. At least from a place of transness — I think all actors with marginalized identities who are working with people who don’t have those identities end up in that position.

I loved the dynamic between Cal and Jackson. The conversations around this being a queer relationship and Cal checking on Jackson’s comfort with that — that’s the kind of thing where I was like oh wow I haven’t seen that on-screen before. So whatever part you had to play in that thank you. I’m very grateful for it and I’m glad that they listened to you. Because that’s another thing — even though cis people ask trans actors to give feedback they don’t always listen.

Dua: No, I definitely felt held. And I don’t know if it was specifically me. I’m not going to take credit, because I don’t know what happened in the writers room or what the nonbinary consultants said. But it was something I cared a lot about. Cal’s sexuality was kind of nebulous before and it’s really cool to see how it developed.

Drew: Something else I love about Cal is they’re not sensitive — the people around them are sensitive. There’s this narrative that trans people are oversensitive and look some of us are — we’re people and some of us are more sensitive than others — but so often it’s the cis people around us who are being sensitive to us just asking for basic respect.

Dua: It’s absolutely necessary to portray. And these are conversations trans people have so often with their cis partners especially if they aren’t as familiar with queerness. There’s a language barrier — trans language, queer language. Having that disconnect be bridged, having authenticity and honesty set first — it’s an act of care for Cal and Jackson so they aren’t inauthentically living or inauthentically engaging with one another. And it adds more dimension to their romantic interest in one another.

Drew: Yeah for sure. Speaking of that trans and queer language, what sources of sex education did you have as a teenager? Where did you learn about queer sexuality and trans sexuality?

Dua: Honestly, Tumblr. And I was in high school policy debate and we were doing a lot of queer theory and reading from Black feminist theorists. The way they address gender caused me to reflect on my own gender. So I was doing a lot of work on my own because the sex education they provided in the American system, at least in the school I went to, was not cool for me. It was cissexist and ableist in how it engaged with bodies and it was obviously misogynistic. And there was transphobia just in being omitted and that erasure. I was in GSA so I was working with other LGBTQIA+ students and we actually did a lot of the education. That’s how I had to learn about sex and about consent and about different ways to understand sex and sex adjacent stuff. It’s really disappointing.

Drew: Yeah I also got to enjoy the American sex education system. That’s something about the show that’s so exciting to me. I think about teenagers watching it and it lives up to its title — it’s better sex education than anything I was being taught in school.

Dua: Facts. Big facts. There’s not a lie that was just told.

Drew: (laughs) So at the start of the season, Cal prefers to have fun than to confront the oppression they’re facing. I know you were outspoken from a young age and I’m wondering where that came from for you and how you find a balance between speaking up for yourself and your communities and finding those escapes.

Dua: I think a balance is necessary. As I’m thrust into the mainstream I’m more hesitant to even be online for stuff unless I’m promoting something. But also online spaces provide me access to learn what’s happening like Black Lives Matter protesters being arrested at the Met Gala. Those are things that are embedded into the essence of my community because of all the organizing stuff I did when I was younger. And I still frequent organizing spaces even though I’m not actively doing it anymore because I don’t have as much time. And sometimes those spaces are also toxic which I feel like people don’t talk about. But finding a balance is essential. Finding time for myself and checking out from the world. Watching stuff like She-Ra or Jujitsui Kaisen. Or trying to get myself to read even though my brain is not there right now — I have a small zimbo galaxy brain thing where I don’t want to read.

Drew: (laughs) As I said, I think this season has some of the best trans storytelling I’ve ever seen. Are there other shows or movies that you’ve connected with in that way? Or that you felt your story was being told in some way?

Dua: Honestly, I feel like animation has provided me access to space like that. She-Ra had a nonbinary person, Double Trouble — they were an alien and the show didn’t go in depth about their identity but that was still cool.

Drew: There is something to be said about an animation space or a fantasy space where — even if it’s not getting into the day to day realities of being trans — they can get at a deeper truth. Though obviously it’s exciting when there’s both.

How different is it expressing yourself through music where the narratives are coming from you versus when you’re acting in a project written by other people?

Dua: It’s just a matter of being able to dig into the mind of another person versus relaying the things that I’m experiencing. There’s a lot of internal work that I do with the music that I create. I have a song called “fitt” that’s coming out on September 24th that’s an Afrobeat song with hyperpop elements where I talk about queerness and transness and ballroom and mysticism. And that’s directly from my core. That’s who I am as a person and I’m reflecting that out.

Whereas the challenge with Cal is they’re very different from me. It made me reflect on the experiences that other trans people have in their relationships with cisness and with battling institutional violence. Cal is a skater and a stoner. They’re very woah I’m not really trying to fuck with all this, fuck y’all, fuck the establishment but I’m not engaging. Versus me when I was a youth I was quoting books and being directly at actions and talking Indigenous trans theory and gender and stuff like that.

We’re very different so it allowed me access to a different artistic space in my mind. I’m not Cal. I would not have made the choices Cal makes. For example, I would not have been with a cis boy.


Sex Education season three is now streaming on Netflix. Dua’s new EP CROSSOVER is out on October 22.

Before you go! It takes funding to keep this publication by and for queer women and trans people of all genders running every day. And support from readers like you keeps the majority of our site free for everyone. Still, 99.9% of our readers do not support. Autostraddle is fundraising right now to keep our site funded through January 2022. Will you join our community of readers in helping to keep us around?

Drew is an LA-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. Her writing can be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Thrillist, I Heart Female Directors, and, of course, Autostraddle. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about trans lesbians. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @draw_gregory.

Drew has written 200 articles for us.

17 Comments

  1. Thank you both for this great interview. I really loved Cal as a character but it was also interesting to hear from Dua and get their perspective on what it was like behind the scenes and their own real life experiences. It’s great to know that there are people like you two who can give adequate education and perspectives when America is still obviously failing us.

  2. To avoid spoilers I will read this after watching.

    Can someone from Autostraddle tell me here in the comments whether I can start with season 3 of Sex Education or do I have to watch from the very beginning? I have not seen any full episodes of any season yet.

  3. Am I the only one who was really disappointed in this season? Dua Saleh acted their heart out, and obviously put so much into the role, but it felt very obviously written by cis people, and not super informed cis people at that. I wish we could’ve seen more of Cal- as it stands, I feel like they were written in for two purposes- to be humiliated and to provide a love interest for Jackson. Watching a nonbinary person be repeatedly publicly humiliated for their identity is not unfamiliar- but it was not handled with the same care that literally any of the other main characters have received. Cal’s storyline undeniably subjects them to violence, which in itself is not great! But the fact that we never get to actually hear from them about that experience or what they need afterwards is just salt in the wound.

    • I had the same feeling – Cal is very clearly a nonbinary character written by cis people and while it’s nice to see nonbinary characters on TV (ESPECIALLY a Black nonbinary person!) their storyline felt unnecessarily cruel in a lot of ways.
      I thought maybe I was being too sensitive at first cause I’ve been having a similarly hard time at work – being constantly and deliberately misgendered and publicly humiliated for being trans – but upon a closer rewatch it really became clear just how messy their storyline was. And as another commenter pointed out, we almost never hear anyone actually use their pronouns, they’re always referred to just as Cal, so their nonbinary identity is essentially reduced to something that brings them constant discomfort and struggle.

      • I think the reason why it didn’t feel unnecessarily cruel to me was that Cal never wore clothes they didn’t feel comfortable in. I can see a worse show choosing to have Cal be forced into the girl’s uniform or at least give in to Hope’s demand that they wear more form fitting clothes. Instead Cal is allowed to hold their ground. Similarly Cal is misgendered in far subtler ways than I would expect. Their pronouns may not be used much but they aren’t directly misgendered much either. It’s more that they’re told to go with the girls or told by Jackson that they’re beautiful.

        Cal is a new character on an ensemble show written by cis people. That’s the reality. Given those circumstances I was really grateful for the nuance they did find time for as well as avoiding any overt trauma. Cal is discriminated against, but their reaction is to dissociate with drugs or fight back. They’re never framed as a victim. It’s really Lily who is most harmed by Hope’s persecution.

        I think we do see how Cal reacts to the cruelty they face — by disengaging. Just because they aren’t the most emotional character doesn’t mean we don’t spend time with their reaction.

  4. I loved Dua and hope to see so much more from them, but this season disappointed me as well. First of all, did we hear another character actually use Cal’s or Layla’s pronouns… ever? Second, the evil head of school repeatedly used Black students as pawns, assumed Black students weren’t as smart or accomplished as their white peers, and chose Layla, the only other trans character, to be the one good queer as opposed to any of the cis queer characters, so I read a lot of her hatred of Cal as racism more so than transphobia, which was addressed in such a way that made it seem like she was just a liberal white lady using Vivienne for diversity points, not actively harming Black students. I also hated that the explanation for her being a racist transphobe was that she was insecure about her infertility, which was cured by a teenage cis white boy (instead of his mother, a pregnant licensed therapist she had an ongoing rivalry with???). Thirdly, I really hated that there wasn’t any thought given to letting the nonbinary students be “one of the guys”– they were viewed by everyone else as “one of the girls” and their happy endings were more or less being alone together. Fourth, I’m confused why the nonbinary students never interacted with the cis queer characters! Cal was singled out for public shaming alongside two cis queer characters and zero straight ones, and everyone just acted like the entire student body was all equally affected! Also, because Cal (and Layla) were grouped in with the girls they missed the only plot point aside from Cal’s gender expression that did explicitly deal with homophobia (outside of the Nigeria plotline, which I loved) during the sex ed scene. And fifth, I just simply found Layla’s storyline too lacking for them to carry the part of the show that was supposed to let us know Cal was doing what they had to do and an inspiration to the other trans kids instead of a rebellious loner who doesn’t like gender roles. All that said, I enjoyed the season and thought the actors did bring real authenticity, specificity, and joy to the two trans characters, I just wish they’d gotten the same investment from the writers’ room that the cis characters do, especially since it did take so long and so many mistakes to include them and the audience is fairly mainstream. While we’re at it, I’d love to see a more varied portrayal of trans people and queer girls in general from this show, in line with what they afford cis queer men and straight people!

  5. I am simultaneously excited by and struggling with Cal this season. I am a sober nonbinary person who finds substance use triggering, and to see a nonbinary character for whom a large part of their identity is “stoner” just reminds me of how alone and alienated I often feel in queer spaces or friend groups that revolve around drinking and drugs.

    • I think in general the way this show portrays drugs and drinking is…less than great. So much casual alcohol/drug consumption by students who are all definitely underage, smoking still being portrayed as cool, and why the hell were the teachers not more concerned about a student bringing shrooms on a school trip??? They try to cover addiction in Maeve’s subplot with her mother but the way they handle it is pretty insensitive and really messy.

      • Oh I absolutely agree! I have fast forwarded through many a scene in this show for that very reason. I think the only character we’ve ever seen actively abstain from substances is Jackson because of swimming, but that’s obviously not the case this season. I get they are trying to depict realistic high school whatever, but surely there are some people who aren’t drinking or using drugs in high school?? I think it just hits harder for me with Cal because there’s so little nonbinary representation in media.

  6. I found it odd that they were described as a “stoner” here actually, because I didn’t get that impression from the show, I just saw them smoke once (or twice?) and we’ve also seen Adam smoke weed, as well as Jean… That doesn’t take away from your reaction to it, of course, I just never thought it was part of Cal’s identity when watching!

    • They use other substances in later episodes including hallucinogenic mushrooms, but I think it’s also in large part about the “chill” vibe they give off (when they’re not actively angry about something horrible the new headmistress is doing).

  7. Apologies if I completely missed this, but, I thought Dua identified as non-binary — not trans. Just looking for clarification because I’ve read this elsewhere until now (and just finished the season which is why I’m late to this great interview!)

  8. You can, however, contact our online service, https://takemyexamonline.com/ ​where the best specialists are ready to take on jobs of any complexity. Your manager will contact you, and you can get help in the live chat. Find the courage to write to us; it will be the best decision you ever made. You’ll enjoy your time with us and want to come back again and again

Contribute to the conversation...

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated by the guidelines laid out in our comment policy. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation and thanks for stopping by!