Love in the Time of Chronic Illness: Gay and Married With Cystic Fibrosis

"It didn’t matter whether or not we had five, 10, 50, or a hundred years together," says Travis Flores.

Travis Flores is ready to tell his love story.

Diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, an incurable respiratory illness affecting an estimated 30,000 Americans, when he was just four months old, Flores claims he never thought he deserved love. After his condition began to deteriorate around the age of eight, Flores says he spent most of his childhood in and out of the hospital, “dealing with lung infections and battling for [his] life.” When a doctor informed Flores in 2014 that he had just a year to live, his girlfriend of five years broke up with him. Flores blamed himself.

Because he was dying, Flores thought it “wasn’t fair to expect anyone” to be in a relationship with him. He feared it was too much to ask. “There’s a very high likelihood that whoever falls in love with me,” he thought to himself, “I’m not going to be the last love of their life.”

But the breakup had the unintended consequence of opening up Flores—who at the time identified as straight—to greater possibilities of romantic connection. Growing up, he always thought he would marry a girl with blonde hair and blue eyes, but now that he was single, he was ready for “whoever came into [his] life.” If a potential partner was willing to look past his illness, Flores didn’t feel that he could say, “Sorry, you’re a woman, you’re a man, you’re black, you’re white, you’re Christian, or you’re an atheist.”

“I just opened myself up to love,” he tells NewNowNext. “Love is love.”

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Although Flores has been talking about about living with cystic fibrosis since he wrote The Spider Who Never Gave Up, a children’s book released in 2004, he has never opened up about his personal life in public. An actor, motivational speaker, and advocate for people with chronic illnesses, he claims he was worried about impacting the charities that he represents; he claims he has raised more than a half-million dollars for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. “What if one of their board members was conservative?” he wondered. “What it they didn’t approve?”

But in a CW special that will air tonight, May 22, Flores is officially coming out for the first time—not just as a member of the LGBTQ community, but as happy. Around 13 minutes into the fourth season premiere of My Last Days, a docuseries that profiles people with terminal illnesses, he blurts out: “I’m dating a guy now.” Sweaty from the revelation, he pauses to drink a glass of water. He adds that it’s the first time he’s ever said that on camera.

According to Flores, what made the moment special is that it wasn’t scripted or planned ahead of time. “I couldn’t help it,” he says. The episode’s director, Farhoud Meybodi, asked Flores if he wanted to remove the sudden outburst from the final cut, which will be broadcast at 8pm Eastern Time. He said no.

“It’s important for people to see that I’m happy and that I’m proud of who I am,” he claims.

But as Flores makes sure to clarify in conversation with NewNowNext, he is not merely in a relationship with his boyfriend. Reader, he married him. The two tied the knot in a private ceremony last year after meeting in the most millennial of ways: by trading Instagram DMs. After seeing a photo of his now-husband on the social media platform, Flores said out loud to himself, “I don’t know who he is. I don’t know where he is. I don’t know anything about this man, but he’s mine.”

Even though Flores didn’t know if the object of his affections was gay, he sent him a message anyway. “You’re gorgeous,” Flores wrote. He responded back, “Thanks, man,” to which Flores claims he “felt humiliated.”

Instead of being friend-zoned, the two spent the next year continuing to message each other, and they finally went on a date in May 2017. However, the timing of their meeting was inopportune—to say the least. Flores had recently found out that his lungs were failing. He had received a double lung transplant in 2015 and a second just months earlier. Cystic fibrosis leads to the production of sticky mucus that clogs the lungs. Without a successful transplant, most patients eventually experience respiratory failure.

Coronal CT scan of a person with cystic fibrosis.

On their date, Flores decided to be fully honest and up front, laying out his situation in a near 20-minute monologue over dinner. “I have cystic fibrosis,” he said. “I have a lung transplant, but I’m in rejection. I don’t know if I’m going to be alive next year. I hope so, but I’m going to keep fighting.”

After driving his date home at the end of the night, Flores says he barely heard from him for months. He figured it was over until September of the same year, when both of his lungs collapsed. In fear that he was dying, his mother asked him to post on social media explaining the situation. “Travis, if you pass away, I don’t know what to tell people,” she told him, “because in your previous posts, you were doing okay.”

The man who would later become his husband commented on that post. “You’re strong,” he said, accompanied by a yellow heart. The choice in emoji was a reference to the #YellowHeartSquad, a online support network that Flores founded. An hour later, he texted and asked, “Where are you?”

At first, Flores was furious. “You know where I am,” he responded. “I saw you comment on my post.”

But his future partner wasn’t being willfully obtuse. He had come to the emergency room to be with Flores. “He showed up when no one else did, aside from my mom,” he claimed. “I have really great friends, but they all have busy lives. This man was studying for the bar exam and yet he took time to come to the E.R. in the middle of the night and stay with me. From that moment on, he didn’t really leave my side. That was it.”

Teresa Flores

Even after their wedding, the couple is still taking their time with going public. Flores has yet to post a photo of his husband on Instagram, and he was careful not to use his name during the interview. It’s not mentioned during the CW broadcast.

Although he describes his partner as a “very private” person, Flores says he has remained supportive as he continues to battle an illness that is likely to keep them from growing old together. The couple knows the odds are stacked against them. According to the Chicago Tribune, only 11 Americans successfully received a third lung transplant during a 13-year period surveyed by the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS). But as he talked with NewNowNext on the phone on Tuesday, Flores’ husband was still right by his side.

“He made it clear to me that it didn’t matter whether or not we had five, 10, 50, or a hundred years together,” Flores said, “he just wanted to be happy with me.”

While movies like Everything Everything and The Fault in Our Stars have romanticized living with a terminal illness, Flores hopes to dispel the myth that relationships like his are somehow aspirational, a trope often referred to as “trauma porn.” He claims that loving someone when you have cystic fibrosis is anything but a Hollywood fairytale, one that “ends with everyone crying, walking out of the movie theater, and going, ‘Wow, I wish I had love like that.’”

“It’s not easy, it’s not fun, and it’s heartbreaking,” he says. “It’s just the type of love that I have to live with because it’s the only kind of love that I can have.”

But even as Flores fights to beat the odds, he claims that talking about his relationship publicly for the first time has lifted at least one burden in his life. Flores starts to make a joke, but then he laughs because he realizes it’s very dark. He pauses and then decides to tell it anyway. “It feels like I can breathe,” he says.

Nico Lang is an award-winning journalist and editor. His work has been featured in INTO, Rolling Stone, The Guardian, Esquire, and the L.A. Times.