Michael D. Cohen is embracing his truth.
This week, the Nickelodeon actor, who has starred as “Schwoz” on Henry Danger since 2014, revealed that he transitioned female to male nearly 20 years ago.
Cohen, 43, tells PEOPLE that he felt he was assigned the wrong gender at birth and decided to transition to male and align with his “core being and essence” on April 26, 2000 — just before his acting career took off.
“It was an epiphany for me,” Cohen says of the life-changing day. “I said, ‘I need to know, it’s now or never.’ It all came together and from that day on, I was living as a man.”
“Who I am is male, that’s a non-negotiable part of me,” Cohen adds. “I’m born with this… It’s not something that got evolved from the outside. It would’ve been much more convenient if I were female… But this is who I am.”
Growing up in Winnipeg, Canada, Cohen recalled how he always wanted to be an actor but felt there was “something about me that just wasn’t right” and struggled to come to terms with his identity.
“As a kid, I always knew who I was, but that gets suppressed. If you don’t have an environment that understands, and if you don’t have an environment that supports, then the only thing you can do to survive is suppress,” he explains.
“Suppression is one of the biggest disease-causing issues in society — whether it’s mental, physical, emotional, spiritual — we need to be able to express ourselves, it is our birthright and it is what we need in order to be healthy.”
“The suppression lasted a long time and eventually I did understand who I was, but it took a little while especially at that time, there weren’t the resources we had today,” he adds.
After he transitioned in 2000, Cohen admits he was unsure of how to proceed and worried that his trans experience may hinder his career ambitions.
“I was always scared that I wouldn’t be able to realize my dreams because of it,” he explains. “I was terrified of that for so long — even as an adult when I transitioned 20 years ago. I was like, ‘I know this is my path, I know I’m an actor. How am I going to be able to do what I want to do [and] have the career I want and transition? How is that going to be okay?’”
Still, Cohen carried on. “I just kept putting one foot in front of the other and having faith that it’s all gonna work out,” he says.
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And things certainly did work out, as Cohen’s acting career soon began to take off with nearly 20 credits to his name until 2014 when he landed his breakout role of “Schwoz” on Henry Danger.
He has since gone on to reprise his role on Nickelodeon’s Game Shakers and The Adventures of Kid Danger, appeared on NBC’s Powerless and was featured in George Clooney‘s film Suburbicon.
In addition to the screen, Cohen also has plans to put on a one-man play based on his trans experience called “4 Cubits Make a Man” — a project he’s been working on for years, which he initially planned to share his story through.
“As I was writing it, I was also changing and evolving and so the play kept changing and evolving, and it wasn’t quite ready to put up,” he explains of why it kept getting postponed. “I said, ‘I’m not gonna wait until I do my play to share my history because the time is now.’”
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In the play, Cohen says he will discuss coming to terms with his transition, his life beyond, and why he chooses not to identify with the label of “transgender” — though many people do, which he says is “completely valid.”
“My core identity — identity is something that you conform [with], it’s something you don’t necessarily need to be born with — I’m born with this. It’s my core being, it’s my essence,” he explains. “The transgender part, that’s the journey, that’s my history, that’s my situation — it’s not my identity.”
“I don’t want to refer to myself as something that I’m only doing to make it easier for other people to understand me. I did that for too long, for too much of my life,” he adds. “I am a man and I can say I’ve had a trans experience, that my story is transgender and I’m proud of that.”
Though he may not identify as “transgender”, that doesn’t mean he won’t show support for the LGBTQ community. In fact, part of the reason Cohen chose to share his story now is due to the current events that have affected the group.
“What’s going on in recent years with the rollback in rights of people with trans experience, it’s really disturbing to me,” he explains. “When it affects youth and kids, it really gets to me at my core, because they don’t have the life experience yet to be able to speak out or make changes. I feel like they need an advocate.”
Cohen — a previous volunteer at a camp for trans youth and a lifeline counselor for The Trevor Project — also said he felt compelled to share his story due to the fact that millions of kids, who may be going through similar experiences, watch his Nickelodeon series and consider him to be a “role model.”
“In my experience, kids know who they are. I support kids to be their authentic self and express what that is,” he says, adding that he hopes his story will show them that, “there’s always going to be a safe place” for those who need it.
“Sometimes you have to really look for it, but you can always find it. Don’t give up,” he shares. “You can feel alone, but it doesn’t mean that you are alone. Those feelings are real, but they’re not the reality of the world. There will always be people that welcome you with open arms.”
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