drowning

Medically Transitioning Is Not A Walk In The Park (Sometimes, It Actually Sucks).

If you follow me basically anywhere on social media (like this Facebook, that Facebook, my Twitter, or my recent fave, Instagram), you probably already know that my mental health has been garbage recently.

You may have also figured this out when I wrote my last blog entry about my friends helping me through some pretty scary depressive episodes.

What I’m saying, y’all, is that it’s an established fact that the universe is giving me a lot of shit lately (and you know, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to plug my social media #shameless).

I’ve been running back and forth between doctors, all of whom want to know why, after about two years of relative stability on my medication regimen and a life that I am really content with, I would suddenly be rapid cycling and spiraling down so quickly.

If I haven’t been locked in my bathroom, pondering why in the hell I am still alive and how it’s possible to feel this depth of emotional pain, I’ve been hypomanic and convinced I am the singular most important being that has ever walked the earth.

If you’ve never rapid cycled before, take it from me: Neither of these states of mind are particularly fun, especially when they happen in rapid succession.

We thought it was fluctuations in my hormone levels, but after a shift in medications and a stable dose of testosterone, this is starting to seem less and less likely.

And now the doctors are wondering if testosterone is simply a trigger for my bipolar disorder, if it’s my sensitivity to hormones overall, or if it’s severe PMS that necessitates a hysterectomy.

In other words, the hormones are fucking me up.

And I want to talk about this because no one – and I mean no one – prepared me for what hormone replacement therapy can mean for a transgender person with mental illness.

Not just the mood swings that have been the equivalent of a hurricane raging through my life, but the realization that the best thing that has ever happened to me is becoming my worst nightmare.

I still don’t know how to hold space for these two coexisting realities.

Sometimes the very thing that brings you total affirmation and joy can also be the thing that drives you so close to the edge that you almost tumble right over it. Sometimes the very thing you cannot live without is also the thing that leaves you feeling like you can’t continue living.

This contradiction – that these hormones can be both life-giving and life-threatening – is impossibly hard to negotiate and is a testimony to just how complex this intersection of transness and mental illness can really be.

The emotional turmoil of knowing you cannot go back, and yet realizing that it is terrifying and even dangerous to move forward, is not an experience that I was ready for.

Somehow I thought that hormonally transitioning, even with my bipolar disorder and anxiety, could not devastate me the way that it has. I didn’t know that throwing testosterone into the mix could distort my mind so deeply.

But it did.

I didn’t realize hormones could seep into my psyche this way, rattling my brain in ways that I haven’t experienced in many years.

Some days it has felt like the universe is just punishing me for being transgender. Some days I have just blamed myself for all this, as if I had any other option than to start HRT.

This experience has been profoundly lonely, and with it, there have been a lot of emotions and contradictions that I still haven’t been able to process.

And I can’t help but wonder what happens for neurodivergent trans people who do not have competent care and are left struggling – either being given more psychiatric medications to no avail, or being advised to stop HRT altogether, neither of which are real solutions.

I wonder how many folks who occupy this intersection are rendered completely helpless, faced with impossible decisions about whether or not hormones are safe for them, whether or not it’s worth the risk, whether or not the options available to them (like hysterectomy) are even feasible.

I was supposed to increase my testosterone dosage today. I walked away from the clinic being told that it wasn’t yet safe to do so. Because it’s not – not now.

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t grieving that, even if I understand and know that this is the right thing to do.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t walk out of that clinic, turn to my partner and say, “I wish someone had told me this might have happened.”

I wish someone had said that HRT can make you lose your mind. Even if that’s not what we want to hear, sometimes it’s what we need to hear.

But I’m not saying that HRT is the wrong choice for trans folks with mental illness, or that we’re doomed.

If I had known the road would be this difficult, would I have chosen differently?

No. Absolutely not.

I’ve written extensively about all the joy that it’s brought into my life, joy I wouldn’t trade for anything.

Even on my worst days, being able to look in the mirror and see the self I was meant to be is indescribably beautiful. And I would rather endure this than never know what it was like to come home, to fill my own shoes, to be at peace with myself.

HRT was never a “choice.” It was, in many ways, inevitable. And it’s ridiculous to suggest that we should will ourselves to be content without it if it’s what we need.

But no one said testosterone would be this difficult. No one said it could set off a catastrophic episode. No one said that I should be ready for anything.

Nowhere in the literature or in the conversations did they say “psychiatric breakdown.” They said “mood swings, maybe, but it’s uncommon.”

The honest truth is that HRT can be the best decision we make for our mental health. But for a small but still important minority, it can be absolute hell before we get there.

As a part of that minority, I’m left mourning the revelatory experience I had hoped for and even, in the beginning, had. But it has been replaced with an ecstatic turmoil, conflicting emotions that seem impossible to navigate or negotiate.

I’m scrambling to find a space to just affirm that, yes, this is the best thing I’ve ever done and it’s also the hardest thing I’ve ever been through.

I’m left wondering if I’m the only person to fight with my own body like this.

I have to believe that I am not the only person whose body said, “What you need will save you and destroy you all at once.”

Here’s what I know for certain: Sometimes the most worthwhile things that we do will hurt. Sometimes they’ll hurt like hell. Sometimes they’ll sneak up on us when we are least prepared, when we aren’t ready, when we’ve just gotten comfortable.

I still believe that it is worth it just the same.

I also believe that there are trans people who struggle with their mental health and are afraid to get help. Afraid that it will simply “prove” that transitioning was a mistake, or lend legitimacy to the idea that trans people should be denied care, especially those of us with preexisting disorders.

I worry about those folks. I was almost one of them this week.

I’m recognizing that we need to create a larger conversation about the complexity of being a trans person with mental illness, especially when it comes to both accessing care (an astonishing number of us lie to our providers so that we won’t be denied hormones or surgery) and as we go through our transitions (during which there are countless triggers, biochemically and emotionally and socially).

Can we just pause for one fucking second and acknowledge that transition is HARD?

Like, y’all, can we take a minute and admit that transition, whether it’s medical or just social, is not always beautiful or magical?

Or that sometimes it is everything at once – sometimes it is both beautiful and awful, affirming and destroying, everything we needed and yet not at all what we hoped for?

Sometimes it’s just a mess of contradictions and that’s okay, too.

And that’s true for those of us with mental health struggles (which, hell, sometimes feels like it’s most of us, right?) but also true of those without.

Transition. Is. Hard.

So I’m writing this now to just hold some space for those of us who are so there, who are so done, so exhausted, so depleted.

Those of us who look in the mirror and say, “I’m happy with what I see but I’m not happy with how I feel.” Those of us who are fighting within themselves to know what the “right thing” to do is. Those of us who feel like there’s no easy choice.

I’m here for those of us who are tripping over obstacles we didn’t know would be there.

I’m pushing back against the reductive narrative that tells us that hormones solve everything, as if it is quick and easy and simple – the be-all and end-all – because while it may be true for some, it is far too simplistic to make room for everyone’s experiences.

And yes, at this messy intersection of queerness and mental illness, I’m here to say that sometimes shit is complicated.

I’m also here to say that we’re gonna get through it.

You and I? We’re in this together.

The (Second) Elephant in the Room: Another Gender Q&A

elephantinroom

The elephant in the room!

About a year ago, I answered some questions that readers had about my gender.

It felt strange to do this, knowing that my identity was constantly in flux and that I was still figuring myself out. But I can never resist a good Q&A!

With 2015 coming to a close, I revisited that article for old time’s sake. And, of course, I was not surprised to find that not every answer held true for me in the present day.

So I figured, why not make this Q&A something of a yearly tradition? It might be interesting to see how my sense of self shifts over the years.

If you’re new to the site and wondering what in the hell my gender is, or if you’re a veteran reader who’s just curious to see what has changed this year, this Q&A will give you some insights into my gender identity and my transition.

It’s a new year and a new Q&A. Let’s do this!

 

What is your gender? What pronouns do you use?

I identify as genderqueer and non-binary.

I use he/him as my pronouns, though I’m also a fan of they/them, so I respond to both!

 

What do those words mean to you?

To me, genderqueer means that I don’t identify exclusively as masculine or feminine. It means I fuck around with gender and I’m content with the ambiguity. Non-binary is essentially the same in that I reject the gender binary.

 

How have your self-descriptors changed since last year?

I used to self-describe as transmasculine, meaning I identified more with masculinity than I did femininity. I realized that this felt safer for me. I thought that I had to reject femininity to be seen as a valid AFAB (assigned female at birth) transgender person.

However, in the last year, I’ve found that language to be really limiting. I’m reconnecting with my own femininity and I’m seeing how there are a lot of layers to my own gender.

So I’m back to using “genderqueer” as my primary descriptor.

 

Are your gender identity (your sense of self) and your gender expression (how you express it on the outside) the same? Different?

Last year, I had a pretty non-binary identity but a decidedly masculine expression, meaning that while I didn’t identify with any particular gender, the way I presented myself to the world was very masculine.

In part, that was motivated by that binarism that says AFAB trans people must transition to be masculine, and AMAB trans people must transition to be feminine (which is SO not true and such a limited understanding of transness).

Part of that was also just the trauma of being misgendered and feeling that I needed to be as masculine as possible in order to avoid being read as a woman.

I’ve slowly moved away from that and have started looking for ways to incorporate all kinds of gender expressions into my everyday life. That’s felt super liberating for me. It’s no longer about other people – it’s just about me now.

 

How did you know you were transgender?

There were so many little moments building up to this that it’s hard to say which one was my “aha” moment. My two biggest moments, I think, were when I saw an androgynous character on television for the first time and when I started wearing a chest binder.

I’d suggest reading this memoir piece (which is easily the best thing I wrote this year) and this article on internalized transphobia (another one of my best pieces) to get a full sense of what my journey has looked like so far.

 

When did you come out and what were the reactions you received?

I came out to close friends a few years ago, and was really lucky to get a mix of affirmations, support, and curiosity.

I came out to my family gradually – subtle conversations, tap dancing around it – but came out completely this last year. There was fear, hesitation, confusion… but underneath all of that, there was love. It’s the love that’s carrying us through right now. I have an incredible family.

 

Does your family know about your writing?

Every single year, I get asked this question a few times.

Yes! And they’ll read it from time to time. Hi, Mom, I love you.

Some of my extended family found my work online and they’ve been wonderfully supportive. Hey, cousins, what’s up?

 

How has your transition been so far?

Last year I used an equal number of negative and positive adjectives when answering this question, even using the word “painful.” It definitely speaks to where I was at the time with my transition.

This year I have almost exclusively positive adjectives: Beautiful. Affirming. Life-giving. Scary. Magical.

And like I said before, only with more conviction this time: Exactly what I needed.

 

Are you taking testosterone? Do you plan to?

Last year I said I wasn’t sure. It’s funny to me, because I couldn’t be more sure now.

Back in May, I had this realization – that I couldn’t keep living my life in this body and in this way. It’s the kind of epiphany that you feel at the core of your heart. I knew from that point on that it was something I needed to do.

On December 9th, 2015, I started testosterone (and every Wednesday, I write a weekly column at Ravishly, “Testosterone and Tea,” where I reflect on that week’s experiences – you should follow along if you haven’t been already!).

It was absolutely the right choice for me and I’m glad that I waited until I felt ready.

 

Have you always known that you were transgender?

It seems like every day, as I let go of the shame that I felt around being trans and I start to heal, I am able to really connect with my past and begin to see the ways in which I was struggling with my gender for a long time.

I haven’t always known and I definitely wasn’t born this way. I also think the trauma of having bipolar disorder meant that I had to focus, first and foremost, on my own survival.

But in all the reflecting I’ve done this last year, I can see that this was a long time coming.

 

If you aren’t a man or a woman, what is your sexual orientation?

Hahaha. I laugh because it’s like, I could care less about my sexual orientation. I am at that point in my life where it’s just irrelevant. I’m queer, and I’m polyamorous, and I’m happy; I date whoever I want.

I will say that I date mostly other trans people and/or folks with mental illness. It’s not on purpose. I think it’s because I just feel understood and validated and safe around folks who have struggled with similar shit. It allows me to build the kind of closeness that I need to be with someone.

 

What has been the hardest part of being trans?

I want to be more specific this year and say that it’s hard to be non-binary.

Because so few people understand or want to understand, so few people see you as you actually are, and you’re juggling a lot of different forms of oppression coming from cisgender and [binary] trans people alike.

This year I decided to stop playing it safe and calling myself “transgender” all the time when what I really mean is non-binary.

I realized that it was a revolutionary act to openly and urgently name myself as a non-binary writer and advocate. And I knew that my community needed me to be upfront about this, because we’re so invisible in so many spaces.

With that has been an avalanche of really important self-reflection. Reflections on how to claim my identity, how to stop apologizing for it, and how to navigate what it means to be a public figure who is also genderqueer.

It’s been a worthwhile process. Because while it is true that I am transgender, it is equally, if not more true that I am non-binary. And opting for neutral language just because it’s more accessible does not challenge people to learn about me or my community.

Sometimes we have to work a little harder to be seen and understood, even if it means taking a stance that isn’t neutral or palatable, because being seen is a fundamentally important part of our liberation.

Shout-out to my non-binary readers who encouraged me to start using this language, and continue to boost the signal on my work. You are the heart and soul of this blog.

 

What do you think is in store for you in 2016?

A lot of body hair (thanks, testosterone!). A lot of selfies (thanks, Instagram!).

And kind of unrelated, but I’m determined to launch a YouTube channel (which you can subscribe to early if you’d like, follow the link!) and to get a cat.

Because seriously. Why don’t I have a cat yet?

When Your Violin is Supposed to Be a Cello

This article was originally published by Ravishly.

cello.

They promised I would “grow into it.”

When I was small and new to this world, my parents placed a radio beside my crib.

“We used to play classical music for you,” they told me. “You loved Bach.” For years, I fell asleep to the sounds of 12 different violin concertos, the music bouncing off the walls and into my tiny ears.

My mother swears that this is why I took up violin.

My parents eagerly exposed me to any and every song with a violin solo. I went from Bach to Riverdance to Dixie Chicks, the music captivating me. By the time I was 12, I told my parents that I wanted to make beautiful music like the people on the CDs.

They made me promise that I wouldn’t quit after just a few weeks. I would’ve promised them the moon in the sky or my allowance for every week of my life to have a violin of my own.

They conceded. We went to a store filled with violins from countries all over the world. I had my eye on one that came from Germany. I remember holding it, expecting to make a triumphant sound like all the musicians I’d listened to since infancy, and was shocked that I could hardly make it croak.

“You’ll get better after some lessons,” they told me.

“And after you get some rosin on the bow, of course,” the salesman added with a wink.

It was a little too big for me, but the music teacher at school promised that I would “grow into it.”

I’m not sure I ever did.

* * *

I believed that Lily Peters was the prettiest girl at Rhode Middle School.

And I was the luckiest kid at Rhode Middle School, I reasoned, because I was one of her closest friends. We were cast in the school play together and for those three months, we were inseparable.

I remember looking at Lily with so much envy.

Lily was idyllic in my mind. I grew out my hair and wore it just likes hers, with the messy bun perched right on top of my head. I got contact lenses and I carefully applied the same powdery shade of blue around my eyes. I begged my mother to let me wear high heels for the school dances, the slip-on sort that Lily would wear.

I dragged my mother to the store to buy pleated skirts, but they could only be pink — Lily only wore the pink ones. And they could only be from Limited Too, the only acceptable store for Lily’s taste.

I tried doing all the same things — like it was an equation, and if I did the math just right the product would be the same — but was left with the lingering sense that it was some sort of farce.

When Lily became friends with Cameron from Speech class a month after the play was over, I could feel myself being pushed to the sidelines. I started to feel less and less important. Not even my pool party at the local recreation center — the one with the amazing water slide and the lazy river — was enough to regain her favor.

It all came crashing down one day in English class, when a giggling and mischievous Lily passed a note to Cameron. Cameron, delighted by what she saw, started to giggle uncontrollably behind me.

“Can I see?” I asked, feeling left out.

“I don’t think you want to,” Cameron said, smirking and shooting Lily a look.

Grabbing the note from Cameron’s desk, I opened it up expecting to laugh along with them. Instead, I saw the words, “Don’t you think Sam is really weird?” scribbled in Lily’s flawless cursive writing, a heart dotting each “i.”

My face began to burn, tears blurring my vision. Lily’s assessment was not unfamiliar. It was one that I’d pondered many times — why, no matter the equation or the formula or the number of pleated skirts I squeezed my body into, was girlhood so evasive?

Why didn’t I belong?

Lily never said. But the farce was confirmed, on perfect pink floral stationery, no less.

* * *

The teacher said that I was a gifted musician.

I was first chair in the Rhode Middle School Honors Orchestra, the best of the best. I was ecstatic to be the best at something. I was on my way to making beautiful music, like the violinists I now listened to on my CD player on the bus every morning.

I tried to move my wrists like they did, to make the vibrations hum and tremble, to make my violin weep the ways that theirs did.

We didn’t have anything but violinists in my old orchestra, but it was at Rhode that I heard a cello for the first time. While the violin made me excited, the cello had a stranger effect on me. The cello was deeper, more emotive, and twisted my heart until I thought it might burst.

Every day in orchestra practice I would stare at the cello players in awe. Their music made my high-pitched violin — something I once felt so accomplished in — seem so inadequate, so empty.

But it was too late, I reasoned. My parents had bought the violin and they would never stand to invest in another more expensive instrument, to pay for more lessons, to start over.

Besides, this is what I was destined to do. From the crib, remember? I recalled the stories my mother told me, when the Bach violin concertos lulled me to sleep. I remembered the Dixie Chicks concert when it was broadcast on the television, when they pointed at the violinist under the spotlight and said, “That’ll be you someday.”

I practiced diligently every day after school. Remembering, as I went over my scales repeatedly, the way my mother would squeeze my hand when the violinist at Riverdance played faster, and faster, and faster.

But sometimes, when I was all alone, I’d stand the violin up on my lap and pretend, just for a moment, that it was a cello. I would close my eyes and imagine the deep bellowing of Bach’s Suite No. 1 rattling in my chest, the most dizzying and captivating melody I’d ever heard.

But the vibrations of my violin against my chest, too high a pitch, were a tragic reminder of what I lacked.

I grieved — and the grief, at the time, was so unexplainable to me — contemplating the mistake I could not utter aloud. The mistake, the very undeniable fact that my violin could never produce such rich and deep and lovely sounds.

My violin would never be a cello.

* * *

I wanted to be good at femininity, the kind of femininity that girls like Lily and Jessica and Courtney could wear so effortlessly but I never could.

I wore the homecoming dress with the high heels, my feet aching, my stubbornness forcing me to wear them until everyone, especially the boy I liked, had seen me.

It was a performance, I knew it, but I gave it my best — lusting after the affirmations, the encore, someone or anyone to tell me that I had done good.

I didn’t want to be myself, but that was OK. I just wanted to be beautiful, to be worthy.

So I practiced applying mascara the way I practiced my scales: repeatedly, persistently, and with great attention to every lash and every note.

* * *

My best friend in high school, Lucas, was a cellist. At our director’s urging, Lucas decided that we should enter the state competition as a duet. He chose a concerto by Mozart and invited me over to his house after school one day to give it a whirl.

He brought me down to his basement and into a makeshift practice room, with sheet music strewn about and his cello leaned precariously on its side. He carefully tipped it upright again and, sitting down, drew it close to him.

As I removed my violin from its case, he began to warm up with a G major scale. I paused, letting the notes wrap around me and echo in my ears.

I wondered what it must feel like, to keep your instrument so close to your heart.

He looked up at me and smiled, setting down his bow.

“Hey,” he said with a laugh. “Do you want to switch instruments? For fun?”

“Yes!” I exclaimed, with a little too much excitement in my voice.

Handing over the violin to Lucas, I made my way to the cello, hands trembling.

What if I was terrible at it and all my dreams dissolved in a single moment? Or what if, miraculously, I was so proficient that I could convince my parents to let me switch instruments? The moment was ripe with possibility and heavy all at once.

Bringing the cello near — tilting my head and bringing my ear as close to the strings as I could — I took a deep breath. I pulled the bow across the strings in a hesitant, slow glide, and felt the weight of each note in my chest.

Something about the richness and depth of the sound, reverberating in every bone in my body, felt so tremendously right.

Playing each note so carefully, I looked at Lucas and confessed, “I should’ve played the cello.” The confession was drowned beneath the vibrations that filled the room.

In a single scale, I broke my own heart.

* * *

I can tell you the exact moment I realized, without a doubt, that I was not a woman.

It was when I put a chest binder on for the first time, during a freezing Michigan winter, late at night. It was when I recognized my own queerness for the first time.

Shocked by my own silhouette, I could feel everything shifting. I ran my fingers across my chest, studying myself intensely in the mirror, trying to resist the joy that was coming over me. I did not want to love what I saw, but I could not take it back.

“What do you think?” my partner asked me from the other side of the room.

What would the future be now? Now that I knew the truth?

“I think it’s…” I was holding back tears. “I’m trans. I really am transgender.”

“Yes, I know. Why are you sad?” they replied.

I recalled the moment that I held Lucas’ cello near me, and all the years after, when, no matter how beautifully I played my violin, I never felt whole or satisfied. The way my scales withered on the vine, how every pass across the strings was empty, and how the notes were always too shrill.

And the regret that washed over me — intense, relentless — when I watched Lucas every afternoon, swaying side to side as his cello beckoned so sweetly from across the room.

“Because nothing will ever be the same,” I whispered.

A thousand Bach violin concertos swirling around my crib, imprinting those melodies on my brain, had not changed the fact that I was meant to be a cellist. And a thousand “she”s, beginning from the moment that I was born, had not changed the fact that I had grown up to be a “he.”

It was in that moment — imagining who I might be, and the terrifying and glorious possibilities that it held — that I realized that the instrument we’re given is not always the one we’re meant to play.

Starbucks, Please Don’t ‘Out’ Your Transgender Patrons

The image features a wooden table with coffee cups on it, with a large storefront window in the distance.

“Guess what, Starbucks? That isn’t my name.”

As a transgender person, I like to refer to my birth name – the name my parents bestowed upon me when I arrived on this planet – as my “dead name,” because it’s been dead to me for years now.

I’m in the process of legally changing it now for that exact reason.

My birth name represents the gender that was incorrectly imposed upon me. It’s a name that reminds me of all the struggles that I have faced as a trans person in a society that still struggles to affirm or recognize me. It’s a name that I never wanted and a name that makes my skin crawl.

So imagine my surprise when I heard this name flying out of the mouth of my barista and then scrawled on the cup of my beloved iced chai.

Ugh. Staaaaaarbucks! Why? We had such a good thing going.

Let me explain the full spectrum of emotions that I felt in that moment:

Embarrassed, because my birth name is private and not something I wanted to share with the entire café. Afraid, because I knew that folks might see my masculine presentation and hear my traditionally “feminine” name and figure out that I was transgender. Hurt, because this was a name that still caused me a great deal of pain.

And angry – like, ready to dump my iced chai on the barista’s head if I’m being honest – because guess what, Starbucks? That isn’t my name and, despite your usual policy, you didn’t ask me what my name actually was.

The barista looked at the name on my debit card and jumped to the conclusion that it must be the name that I prefer. In doing so, they assumed that all of us have the privilege of having legal names that align with our preferences or our gender identities.

That is simply not true.

There are countless trans folks who cannot legally change their names or don’t feel safe doing so. And should they walk into that Starbucks, they might have their birth name – a name that causes them distress and could potentially out them as transgender – called out in the café or written on a cup to broadcast an intimate piece of information to the rest of the world.

Not only could that make trans folks feel unsafe at Starbucks, but it might also make them feel completely unwelcome.

Respecting and affirming the identities of transgender people begins with calling us by our actual names, instead of assuming that what was written on our birth certificates or bank statements is an appropriate thing to call us.

Not long from now, the name your barista wrote on my cup will finally be buried in a sea of court records as my real name is finally legalized. But not every trans person has the privilege of being able to legally change their name. And they shouldn’t have to go through legal hoops and court dates just to be treated with respect.

Simply asking us for our name – every single time – can help us to feel safe in your café, knowing that we won’t be outed or humiliated just for ordering a drink.

I fought tirelessly to reclaim my identity from a society that tried, from the day that I was born, to force me into a role I did not want and give me a name that only obscured who I really was. And trans folks everywhere find empowerment in the names that we choose – names that help us capture the people that we were meant to become.

Starbucks, if you truly believe that transgender people are deserving of dignity in your café and beyond, here’s a place to start: Don’t call us by our “dead names” and out us to other patrons. Call us by our actual names and make sure that every barista understands how important this policy really is.

Help us in creating a culture in which we determine who we are and what we should be called. It’s one small step towards affirming the identities of transgender people everywhere.

And my name is Sam Dylan Finch, by the way. You can call me Sam. You didn’t ask, but I thought you should know.

 Sam Dylan Finch is a queer activist and feminist writer, based in the SF Bay. He is the founder of Let’s Queer Things Up!, his blog and labor of love. With a passion for impacting change through personal narrative, Sam writes about his struggles and triumphs as genderqueer and bipolar with the hopes of teaching others about his identity and community. When he isn’t writing, he’s probably eating takeout and dancing to Taylor Swift.

Connect with SDF: Website ; Facebook ; Twitter ; Tumblr

Join our (rad, amazing) community at LQTU’s official Facebook page!

Why I’m “Out” as a Person with Mental Illness

This piece was originally published at The Body Is Not An Apology.

The image features the author, SDF, smilling at the camera. He is an androgynous white person wearing large, round glasses and a striped t-shirt.

Out and proud!

Far and away, the most frequently asked question I receive as a writer with bipolar and anxiety is, “How did you get to a place where you could be this open about your struggles?”

It’s usually followed with a question like, “Aren’t you scared?”

I used to be terrified. Like many folks with a mental illness, one of the first things we’re told is to keep it to ourselves. At times, I existed in a cloud of shame that followed me around wherever I went.

But that’s just it – that’s exactly why I came out and became such a vocal advocate for my community. It’s because of that shame that I started talking about what I had been through. I was tired of feeling afraid, tired of feeling ashamed, and tired of seeing the stories of my community being told by people who just didn’t get it.

I wanted to tell my own story and to reach people like me who needed to know, without a doubt, that they were not alone.

Yes, it’s scary to put yourself out there and tell the whole world – let alone family or friends – about what can be the darkest, most vulnerable part of our journeys. There are real risks involved, too, that people need to weigh when deciding who to tell about their illness(es) and when.

Our safety, our security, our housing, and our jobs can all be at stake because mental illness, unfortunately, is a highly stigmatized status to hold in our society.

But when I weighed all of these risks, and I thought about my fourteen-year-old self, who was contemplating suicide because he felt utterly alone, I knew that I had an obligation to speak up. For me, if I could help make someone’s burden a little bit lighter by being outspoken about my illnesses, the benefits far outweighed the risks.

I remember that the first place I looked for help as a teen was not a guidance counselor, not a parent or guardian, not a friend. Instead, I turned to Google. I searched for things like, “Help, I want to die” and “I’m depressed and I don’t know what to do.” I remember, vividly, scouring the search results, looking for some kind of affirmation or something to hold onto.

The reality is that the stigma around mental health keeps us so silent that we’d rather ask Google what to do than ask our friends or family. We go it alone because we’re ashamed, we’re afraid, we’re confused, we’re overwhelmed, and we think that our struggles make us too much of a burden for others to deal with.

There was a time when Google knew more about my mental illnesses than my best friend did.

After spending too many years feeling isolated, disconnected, and self-hating, I began to write about what I had been through. And, with time, that writing ceased to be a private exercise and instead, became the beginnings of a blog. That blog, which came to be known as Let’s Queer Things Up!, helped bring into sharp focus all of the reasons why being out as someone with bipolar and anxiety was the right decision for me.

Why am I out?

Because I want to build community around mental illness, especially for those who, like myself, are transgender and also grapple with these illnesses.

Because, too many times, I’ve received emails that said, “You’re genderqueer and bipolar? I thought I was the only one.”

Because too many people think of folks with mental illness as anything but people – as criminals, or “psychos,” or burdens on society rather than fully human and deserving of every bit of compassion, respect, and dignity that all people should be afforded.

Because, when you take away the rights of people with mental illnesses – when you vote against important legislation or elect a politician who wants to strip us of the resources and support that we need – I want you to remember my face and remember my words.

Because visibility matters, and because I want teens to grow up in a world where, when they are searching for people who have lived through what they’re going through, they can find them.

Because a teenager sent me a letter that said, “I found you through Google. I’m trans and I have bipolar. I didn’t think I could be successful, but I look at everything you’re doing, and you make me believe in something.”

Because I want to create a safe space for others to use their voices, too, so that together, the collective vibration of our voices will be an undeniable force.

Because you cannot deny our personhood, our worth, our brilliance, or our power when we work together.

Because teens would rather tell me they’re suicidal through my Tumblr ask box than pick up the phone and call a hotline or a friend.

Because an article I wrote asking people not to ridicule someone with a mental illness was read in over 180 countries by millions of people around the world.

Because it was an article I never should have had to write in the first place.

Because no one with a mental illness should ever feel alone.

Because there is enough shame surrounding mental illness that we have to even consider whether or not to “come out.”

Because we shouldn’t wait to have our stories told for us. They are ours to tell.

Telling the world that I have bipolar disorder (and later, anxiety) was not an easy choice to make. Friends and family expressed concern, asking me whether I was sure I would want the word “bipolar” forever attached to my name for anyone in the world to see. Others told me it would be a career-ruining move that would haunt me for the rest of my professional life.

But in order for other people with mental illness to have a life – to have careers, to have a future – they first need to know, unequivocally, that they are not alone, and that others now thrive with these same illnesses that threatened to pull them under.

When seeing is believing, visibility is everything. If living visibly means that I give someone with a mental illness the chance to keep going, I will keep the word “bipolar” forever, and I will proudly do the work that I’m doing, even if it means that a lousy potential employer puts my resume in the garbage.

There’s something poetic about the fact that Google was the first place that I found people like me, and nowadays, I am the person that people are finding when they search for help. The tables really have turned.

Even on the days when I feel afraid and question my decision to go public with my disorders, I remember what it felt like to turn the internet upside-down as a teen, looking for someone, anyone, who knew how I felt. If I can be that person for someone else — the link that opens up their world and keeps them going — it’s all been worth it.

 Sam Dylan Finch is a queer activist and feminist writer, based in the SF Bay. He is the founder of Let’s Queer Things Up!, his blog and labor of love. With a passion for impacting change through personal narrative, Sam writes about his struggles and triumphs as genderqueer and bipolar with the hopes of teaching others about his identity and community. When he isn’t writing, he’s probably eating takeout and dancing to Taylor Swift.

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No Justice, No Peace: Why Civil Rights Doesn’t End With Baltimore

Let’s Queer Things Up! is proud to present its very first guest post, written by Melissa Monier.

melissaBlack, White, Transfeminine, Queer.

I live in a world where two movements are happening simultaneously.

And I am told, as the future of my marriage waits on the line, that I need to be on the “right side of history.” There are people celebrating love, marriage, and equality; there are people mourning the loss of another man that was turned into a criminal to justify his murder.

I am tired of having to choose a side.

I want to talk about race. I want to talk about Baltimore. I want to talk about black lives, and queer lives. I want to talk about the lives that America likes to pretend don’t exist.

Lives like mine. People like me.

People aren’t listening to the communities that are hurting, and now isn’t the time for apologies. Communities want action, families want justice. And I think it’s time we started listening.

Black America is hurting.

But somehow you turn a blind eye because it is easier than to confront your privilege.

You are able to turn to any outlet and find a representation of yourself, your friends, your families, your relationships; you are told by the government, by the media, by society that you matter.

But do I?

Yesterday, six police officers were charged with the murder of Freddy Gray. And yet, this won’t really change the climate for queer people of color across the country.

This movement is as diverse as the people out on the front lines speaking out against injustice, for their rights, for what’s right. To ignore the intersectionality of the citizens of Baltimore supports the structures and institutions that continue to silence their voices.

This is the boiling point, and it has been reached through the neglect to acknowledge the intersectionality of race, class, gender, sexuality, American citizenship, and how those facets of identity have left citizens in New York, Baltimore, Ferguson, Detroit, and many others marginalized and oppressed.

I am not a cisgender black man. But my life matters and my life is at stake.

I have participated in protests; I have participated in die-ins, sit-ins, and marches. And I can tell you that there is not one moment that I didn’t look at a police officer and fear for my life.

And to those that believe that this will all be solved by protesting peacefully, I advise you to check your privilege. Being able to walk openly in the streets and speak your mind is not a privilege allotted to all of us – some of us have much more at stake.

You are supporting the structures keeping people subordinate. You are working against their movement, and supporting the status quo that is killing people on the streets.

How long can you peacefully exist within the system, because “white people are scared?” White America sees “thugs” destroying their own cities. They shake their heads and call people in Baltimore “animals” and preach respectability as a means to rise above their conditions.

But I see broken communities disowning the very structures, the physical representations of the institutions keeping them subordinate.

This country was never built to support black or brown people; it was never built to support women, and it certainly was not meant to support queer people. But that does not mean that we should accept our place as subordinate, living in a nation that refuses to acknowledge our existence.

I will not stand for forced assimilation because America does not want to change.

I want marriage equality, but I also want the world to know that it’s not a solution.

I want to make sure it’s safe for me to walk down the street before walking down the aisle without hearing racial slurs or being misgendered.

I want medical protection, and my insurance to cover the possibility of transitioning, or starting a family.

I want my relationship to be recognized.

I want legal protection from discrimination.

I want to raise a family without fearing that they won’t come home because someone abused their power, because someone truly believed that the life of a child was worth less than their own.

I want to exist in a space where I don’t have to unlearn everything I know about my culture to assimilate into white spaces, for my voice to be heard, for my body to be respected.

I want change. I want police to be trained in sensitivity, I want them to take rape, trans issues, and the lives of colored children seriously.

This is not just an issue of race, and those that believe it is are also a part of the problem. This is an issue of class, race, economic status, political systems, citizenship, and gender.

This is intersectional, and this is important.

This is about the structures that have been put in place that have yet to change, that have yet to treat people of color and other marginalized folks as equal. Sadly, the benefit of privilege is not knowing that these systems are still in place, because they don’t affect you.

But they affect me.

I am tired of having to justify my existence to white America. I am tired of having to prove that I’m hurting, or that my pain is valid.

Your privilege is not an excuse for your ignorance. Your apologies do not excuse you from educating yourself on issues even if they do not directly impact your life.

The reality is, these fights aren’t over. We need to educate ourselves and be aware of our privileges, and use them to advocate, NOT speak for our marginalized brothers and sisters and siblings.

We need to create safe spaces to let the silenced speak. We need to continue to stand with Baltimore. We need to stand with our queer, trans, black, brown communities, even when the protests stop.

We need to stand together in solidarity.

Melissa Monier is a 21-year old Queer blogger, feminist, and gender, sexual, and racial justice advocate from Metro Detroit. She spends her free time drinking way too much coffee, writing shitty poetry, finding new reasons to fall in love with her home-city every day, and loves her dog more than most people. She is a Communications major and WGST minor at the University of Michigan – Dearborn. Visit her blog at lalavandemenace.tumblr.com

How Did You Know You Were Non-Binary?

The image features the silhouette of a person filled with question marks.

Illustration by Jessica Krcmarik

I was watching an episode of Bones, oddly enough, when I first realized that I might be transgender.

No, I’m not kidding. I wish it were a more exciting story, but I have to be honest. I was just sitting on my couch, watching television, when the light bulb began to flicker.

In this particular episode, there was a distinguished anthropologist who had joined the team temporarily to help solve a case. I remember, vividly, the first moment that I saw this anthropologist on screen. They were androgynous — visibly outside the binary, sending the other characters into a complete panic as they tripped over pronouns and social conventions.

My heart raced throughout the entire episode. I don’t remember the murder, much less who the culprit was, but I do recall how captivated I felt by this character and their androgyny.

And then there was a thought that bubbled to the surface, one that changed my life.

“I want to be them.”

I wanted to be this person. Desperately. No, not an accomplished scientist, though that would be cool. I wanted to be androgynous and have everything that I imagined went with it.

I thought about how I might achieve that androgynous look, to confuse others and exist beyond categorization. But more than that, I wanted the freedom I felt they had — the freedom to be who they were without others forcing a label onto them.

Maybe I felt this way because, for a long time, I could feel so many gendered assumptions being forced onto me.

“Woman” had always felt like a filter that reduced me somehow, like it diluted me or masked me. I felt like an outsider to it, like it was a story I was told but never believed with any certainty. I had been wrestling with my gender, trying to fit in or at least coexist with it, but instead I came up empty and I didn’t know why.

I didn’t know at that time who or what I was. But I had a sense of what I was not. And I had known, for a long time, that I was not what people told me I was. I felt lonely and misunderstood without the words to express why. There was something about being perceived as a girl, and then as a woman, that made me feel alienated.

The image features the author, Sam, looking down contemplatively. I often wished that these labels didn’t exist at all; being called a woman was like being backed into a corner I couldn’t get out of, and the sense that I was trapped was, at times, suffocating.

I took baby steps at first. I cut off my hair and immediately felt a weight lifted. I stopped wearing makeup. And I started reading up about androgyny, contemplating my next move. And then something amazing happened — I met someone like me.

I met Ray, a genderqueer classmate who, much like the character in Bones, was spectacularly androgynous. And again, I could feel my heart bursting at the seams. I was envious, too, of how they seemed to blur so many boundaries. I thought of how liberating it must feel. I thought of how much I wanted to be rid of the labels that made me feel so uncomfortable.

Ray gave me resources, guidance, support, and yes, the language that I needed to begin to describe how I felt. I finally understood. I was drawn to androgyny — people like the doctor on Bones, Ray, and other queer people that I met not long after — not because of how they looked, but because my assigned gender itself was making me unhappy.

I realized that I wasn’t a woman because I knew, on an intrinsic level, that this did not align with how I experienced my gender and myself.

The discomfort with parts of my body and how I was seen, the deep longing for escape, the sense that I didn’t belong, the inexplicable sense that I was misunderstood, the painful desire to be “something else” but not knowing what that was, and finally, the uncontainable excitement that I felt each time I met someone who was visibly androgynous made me realize that I felt this way because my gender was something other than what I had been told.

Maybe I had other options. Maybe, instead of calling myself a woman, I could embrace this androgynous space that I felt so at home in.

I was transgender, and at age 19, I finally understood.

I knew that this angst around being seen as a woman, and my fantasies about “escaping” my assigned gender, meant that something was not aligning with how others saw me and how I really saw myself.

It’s hard to explain how we know our own gender. It’s often just a sense of who we are, filtered through culture and the words we have available to us. We know, with tragic cases like that of David Reimer, the existence of third and even fourth genders around the world, and the countless stories and experiences of transgender people, that gender is more than just anatomy.

But with something so intangible, it can be difficult to express who we are. When the language around gender is still evolving, we are limited in what we can say. It’s approximations, it’s our best guess, it’s prodding at the unknown.

So here’s what I know: Each step I took towards the gray — the in-between, the neither here nor there — made me feel more comfortable, more at home, more whole. And calling myself genderqueer has been perhaps the most honest thing I’ve ever said.

Identifying as non-binary was my way of saying to the world, “I know what I am not. And I am on a journey to discover what I am.”

I am still on that journey. And the excitement I felt when I saw that androgynous scientist for the first time is now the excitement I get to feel each day, when I get closer and closer to articulating what it is I feel and who it is I want to be.

There is a conviction I cannot shake, one that urges me forward, a certainty in my bones that tells me that who I am exists beyond this binary. A binary that, no, cannot contain me and no, was never meant to.

Sam Dylan Finch is a queer activist and feminist writer, based in the SF Bay. He is the founder of Let’s Queer Things Up!, his blog and labor of love. With a passion for impacting change through personal narrative, Sam writes about his struggles and triumphs as genderqueer and bipolar with the hopes of teaching others about his identity and community. When he isn’t writing, he’s probably eating takeout and dancing to Taylor Swift.

Connect with SDF: Website ; Facebook ; Twitter ; Tumblr