Who is Sam Dylan Finch?

(GUEST POST) This piece is brought to you by the lovely guest author and writing/publishing/feminist extraordinaire, Alaina Leary, who interviewed me for this piece. If you’ve ever wondered who the heck I am or where I came from, these (super thoughtful!) questions are a great introduction. I cried a lot while answering. Which will surprise absolutely no one.

Screen Shot 2017-03-19 at 9.06.01 PMAs a disabled and transgender writer, Sam Dylan Finch is passionate about amplifying the voices of marginalized people, as well as drawing from his lived experience to educate and empower.

Currently, Sam is an editor at RESIST and Social Justice U, and the founder of Let’s Queer Things Up!, a blog exploring the intersections of queerness, feminism, and mental illness. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Huffington Post, Everyday Feminism, The Establishment, Rewire, and many more.

I’ve been following Sam’s work since around 2015, and have watched him talk about mental illness, trauma, recovery, transitioning, gender identity, and feminism on multiple public platforms. I’ve been fortunate to work with Sam in a few professional capacities and have had the pleasure of getting to him know on a personal level, which is an absolute joy, because he radiates the same love and light in his everyday life that he does in his work.

I had a chance to ask Sam some questions about writing, activism, and being radically vulnerable in his work.

AL: How did you get your start in writing and activist work?

SDF: I’ve always been writing, but I actually have been blogging since I was 13 years old! Back in the day, we had Freewebs and shitty graphics and used the font “terminal” a little too much.

I’ve loved blogging for all these years. As a mentally ill and queer youth, being “seen” was extremely powerful, and was critical in my survival. It was the ultimate way to take up space in a society that didn’t otherwise offer me that visibility or validation.

As for my activism, it really began when I was participating in a walk to raise awareness about mental health with NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). I think I was 18 years old at that point?

I was so excited to be visible as a mentally ill person for the first time. But I quickly noticed that the stigma persisted, even there. People signed into the walk with fake names. When cameras flashed, they ducked out of the way or hid behind posters. When the news crews came, many people scattered or ran away.

It was my first real political action of any kind. These were my people, my community. And even in that space, people were afraid. Terrified. Afraid of losing their jobs, afraid of being recognized by family and friends and colleagues, afraid of being seen. And I thought, “This isn’t right. This isn’t the kind of world that I want for mentally ill people.”

Not everyone can be visible. But whatever the personal cost, I promised myself that day that I would be. I haven’t looked back.

AL: A lot of your work has followed your journey—transitioning, being diagnosed with mental illnesses, dealing with your recovery. What has it been like to share yourself so vulnerably and honestly in your writing?

SDF: Recently someone messaged me and told me that, because I’d written so openly about my psychiatric hospitalizations, they had found the courage to admit themselves and get help.

So whenever the trolls try to tell me that no one cares about what I have to say, I remember how it felt to get that message – to know that this person was safe that night and that I played a part in that. Even if this one person was the only one that cared about my words, their survival is worth it to me. Their life is worth that much.

Being so honest in your writing can be scary. It opens you up to criticism and hostility that can wound the most tender parts of you. But it’s also an incredible process, because I get to remind folks that they aren’t alone in their struggles, and in return they remind me that I’m not alone, either. We build community. We build connection. We build strength. We build safety.

Society wants marginalized people to believe that sharing their stories is playing a card, playing the victim, or telling lies. But I believe that being visible as mentally ill and transgender has helped illuminate some important truths. And I hope that it’s made folks in my community feel held and affirmed along the way. I honestly can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing.

AL: What has your journey with intersectional feminism been like? Tell me a little about how you came to find feminism and embrace it.

imageSDF: I found feminism in college. Cue all the groaning about those damn “liberal arts” schools. I double-majored in Anthropology and Women’s & Gender Studies, and that radicalized me. When I realized that my personal struggles were deeply political ones, I started to connect the dots. A lot of folks resent “identity politics” (boohoo for them), but understanding that our lived experiences are shaped by a larger system was mind-blowing and important to me.

My studies taught me the ways in which identity, power, and privilege affect us personally, systematically, culturally. I never looked at anything the same way after that – I never looked at myself the same way again.

In particular – and it’s really important for me to mention her – I wouldn’t be the writer or activist that I am today without Dr. Suzanne Bergeron, who taught my first gender studies course in undergrad and was there every step of the way as I navigated university. As mentally ill and queer, academia was not always a safe place for me, and having a fierce mentor like her is why I was able to succeed despite so many obstacles.

Institutions like universities are not always built with marginalized folks in mind. In fact, when I was a student, we didn’t even have an LGBTQIA+ center on our campus. That’s why mentors are so critically important for the survival of marginalized folks in spaces like universities. I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to drop out, or how many times I showed up for Dr. B’s office hours and had to be talked down. She was so patient.

And that’s what feminism has come to mean for me. It’s not just a philosophical worldview that remains abstract, but a daily practice and a commitment we make to one another. It’s a commitment that we make so that we can resist these systems together and allow marginalized folks to come into their own and truly thrive, especially when these systems aren’t by and for us.

I learned that from her. And I’ve tried to be that person now, like, showing up for folks in my life but also through the public work that I do. I’m trying to carve out space where people like me can show up as themselves, like my mentors did for me.

AL: Has anyone ever reached out to you to tell you how your work has impacted them? What does that feel like?

SDF: Every day. I cry about it. It’s especially intense when it comes from a queer and/or mentally ill youth, because that’s such a difficult and powerless place to be. You know, I was there.

And back in my day… I know, I sound old when I say that, but the world has changed a lot in the last decade. I was never able to find people like me with stories like mine. I genuinely believed that I would never see 18, because I’d never seen an adult like me surviving.

When I started writing publicly in these spaces, the most important thing to me was making sure that young folks who weren’t sure if they could make it would see what might be possible for them. That they could reclaim their power. That they could get older. That there was a future with them in it, maybe even a bright future at that. That you could grow up – like me, severely mentally ill and transgender and traumatized – but still be soft, be brilliant, be alive.

I want that for everyone. That when you reach the end of your rope, you can see other possibilities. You can see them, because you’ve seen someone living them. Someone like you, someone who knows how you feel. I didn’t see those possibilities once upon a time, because I couldn’t find them, and I almost ended my life because of that. So I’m trying to create a world where those possibilities are known, never out of reach, never hard to find.

So when someone tells me that I’ve done that, there’s no way to describe how it feels. There just aren’t words… I’ll never have words to explain what that means to me.

AL: How do you come up with topics for your blog posts and writing you pitch? Where do you draw that inspiration, especially for deeply personal writing?

SDF: My writing just comes from my very messy life! When I started my blog, I wasn’t sure if I’d have a lot to say or how long I could keep it up. But that was a few years ago now, and I haven’t run out of ideas yet.

Being mentally ill, gay, non-binary, and transgender – considering where we are situated historically and culturally, you know, the “transgender tipping point” and the new administration and all that – means that there’s an important place for marginalized communities in the narrative we’re writing about this moment.

And with online media at the center of it all, marginalized folks like me have more power than ever to write that story instead of allowing others to write it for them. That’s the inspiration: making history through our words, to ensure that our lives and our struggles aren’t erased.

AL: What’s the hardest piece you’ve ever written?

Screen Shot 2016-03-05 at 9.51.16 PMSDF: Anything that I’ve written about suicide, to be honest, is the most difficult for me. It’s the most difficult because I know suicidal folks are going to find it, read it, and weigh their options. That feels like an enormous and important responsibility, and I take it very seriously.

Suicide as a topic makes me deeply emotional. I mean, I look at everything I’ve been able to do – and I imagine the other scenario where I never lived to see 18, and everything that might be different otherwise. “Sam Dylan Finch” as a person would’ve never existed. That’s not even a name I had claimed until, I don’t know, four years ago.

My whole body of work, and all the good that it did… you know, there’s an alternative timeline where none of that happened. I can’t even wrap my mind around what that timeline looks like, how many people are affected.

Honestly, I didn’t know I had any potential. Most of my life, I haven’t even had very great self-esteem, because depression can rob you of that. And how many people out there are like me, not even aware of what they’re capable of? So I imagine the collective potential of ALL survivors – everything we could do together, the ways we could shape the world – and the weight of that feels so heavy.

I’ll be honest: I don’t want to lose anyone else to suicide. I understand better than anyone why people end their own lives, but that doesn’t make it any easier to let folks go. Because that’s not just an individual loss, but a collective loss for us all. We’ll never know what you had to offer. We’ll never know what you could’ve done, the life you could’ve led. And whether it was just for you or for all of us, you deserve to know what you were capable of in this life. That matters to me. Survivors matter to me.

When I write about suicide, it’s the hardest thing of all, because I just want to reach through the screen and say, “We need you. You need you.” It’s gut-wrenching. It’s life and death, for real. It will never get easier to write those words, but I also know they’re the most important words that I write.

AL: What do you like about being on the editorial side of the writer/editor relationship, in your past work at Everyday Feminism and your current role at Resist? Is it more satisfying to you to be an editor or a writer?

SDF: I’m always asking myself, “What needs to be said?” And of course, “Do I need to be the one to say it?” If not (as is often the case, because I have my own privileges), I’m doing everything I can to support the folks who are saying it.

That’s why I pursued editing in addition to being a writer – my voice isn’t the only voice that matters, and I want to do everything I can to get diverse voices out into the world. I learn so much through the process. I don’t think I could ever just write or just edit. I see both as critically important work to be doing.

AL: What are some of the things you’d like to accomplish in the next ten years? How do you want to make your mark?

SDF: This interview is making me super emotional. So many feelings.

Because I’m imagining that like, I’ll be 35 in ten years. That sounds young to a lot of people, but when you aren’t used to imagining yourself getting older, it feels immense. I never thought about getting there. And more queer, trans, and mentally ill kiddos are coming up in the world, and they’re going to need folks to show them that they can make it, too. Now more than ever.

This might sound a little dramatic, but in those moments when I can’t live for myself, I live for them. Every time my heart beats, it’s like a signal – it’s like morse code or something – just making sure they know they aren’t the only ones out there.

That’s how I want to make my mark. I want to survive, for all of us. In ten years, twenty years, fifty years. With every beat, telling them: “I’m here, I’m here, I’m here.”

We need you. You need you. If you ever need support, please consider the following crisis resources:

The National Suicide Prevention Helpline: 1-800-273-8255
The Trevor Lifeline for LGBTQIA+ youth: 1-866-488-7386
Trans Lifeline: 1-877-565-8860

Or check out Sam’s favorite mental health apps at this resource list.

Alaina Leary is an intersectional feminist activist, editor, and publishing professional based in Boston, MA. She is currently a social media assistant for We Need Diverse Books, and is completing her MA in Publishing at Emerson College. Her career focus is on how to increase inclusive, authentic, intersectional representation in the publishing industry. She also edits for several online magazines, including Her Campus, Luna Luna Magazine, Germ Magazine, and Doll Hospital Journal. When she isn’t busy reading, you can find her at the beach or curled up with her girlfriend and their two adopted literary cats. Read her articles here.

 

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You Are Not an “Aspiring Writer.” You’re Already a Writer.

A queer person of color sits before a typewriter, appearing distressed, pondering the question, "Am I really a 'real' writer?"

Illustration by Jessica Krcmarik.

This week, I’m serving up some real talk and I might swear a lot. But I say all of this with love, I promise.

Maybe one of my most frequently asked questions is about the advice I would give aspiring writers or bloggers – especially those who are, like me, marginalized in some sense, be it queer, trans, bipolar, etc.

I have a lot to say about this; I could probably write a book on it. But the first piece of advice I want to tell you is really simple and oh so important: Stop calling yourself an aspiring writing. Start calling yourself a writer.

I used to think that I could only call myself a writer if I were published in some major work, like a book or a magazine, or I couldn’t call myself a writer unless it was my profession. Nowadays? I think that idea is bullshit.

What I didn’t realize at first was that I was feeding into a dangerous idea: that only those who have access to the education, opportunities, and privileges that writers need to succeed in a capitalist society can claim “writer” as an identity or label.

I was upholding a power dynamic. Namely, that a privileged minority of writers are the only “real writers.”

And the reality is, folks who are marginalized are exceedingly less likely to get published or have access to the opportunities they need to become established. We already know that MFA programs, for example, have a huge issue with diversity. We know that most marginalized writers are pigeonholed and are often considered too niche to be acceptable for the mainstream. We know that publishers have prejudice of their own.

Being a “real writer” is much more difficult when you don’t have access to the connections and resources you need to get there, and the system is set up to advantage some and disadvantage others.

In other words, the ways that we measure someone’s success or authenticity as a writer is plagued with inequities. Many folks who are disadvantaged are less likely to call themselves writers in the first place because they are using a standard that is steeped in power and privilege – power and privilege that they simply don’t have access to.

There is a serious problem with reserving the identity “writer” for privileged folks. Creating a hierarchy of writers means that we are reinforcing the idea that some peoples’ contributions – more often than not, privileged writers – are inherently better or more valuable than others.

And honestly, I say fuck that noise. If you are writing and you’re passionate about the craft, call yourself a writer. Claim that identity with gusto. Claim that identity because it’s a part of who you are and what you do.

Reject the idea that the only writers worth valuing are the ones who have attained a certain level of commercial success. Embrace the idea that being a writer is about being empowered through the written word, not replicating systems of power.

Listen: You’re already a writer. If you love the feeling you get when you put words together in evocative or beautiful ways, you are already a writer. If you write once a month, once a week, every day; if you write on the bus, in the library, at your desk, in a shelter; if you write for yourself, for an audience, for a column; no matter where you write, how you write, and who you write for, you are a writer in all of the ways that count.

This advice applies to everyone, but especially to folks for whom getting visibility for your work has been an uphill battle, because when people think of a “real writer,” you weren’t what they had in mind.

For the black writer who was told to “tone down” the racial politics in their YA novel, for the transgender writer who was told that “ze” and “hir” pronouns were too confusing for poetry, for the disabled writer who was asked for inspiration porn instead of a memoir, for the working class writer who was told that poverty was too depressing for a mainstream audience, for the Arab-American who was told that her pro-Palestinian views were “too much,” for the queer woman who was told the world wasn’t ready for a butch lesbian protagonist.

You are already a writer, whether you’re read by millions or only a few, whether a publisher picks your work up or throws it in the trash, whether you self-publish or keep it in your journal, whether the world is ready for you or not.

You are a writer, and that label belongs to you, because you write and that alone is enough.

It took me a long, long time to find the courage to put my words out into the world. I thought that people like me – people with disabilities and people who were unapologetically queer as fuck – didn’t get published, didn’t get to be “real writers.” At least, not without compromising who they are. I missed out because I spent more time worrying that I wasn’t enough than embracing my passions and taking risks.

Since starting this blog, I’ve been fortunate enough to find platforms and opportunities that didn’t ask me to compromise on who I am. I started pursuing an MFA with colleagues and mentors who never once told me that my writing was “too radical” or “too much.” And now, I actually write for a living, something I didn’t think was possible for “people like me.”

Stop “aspiring” to write, and claim the damn label, because it’s yours to take. I hope, not just for your sake but for all our sakes, that you can stop hoping and doubting and questioning, and start being the commanding, confident writer that you are destined to be – because the world needs your voice.

It starts with trusting yourself, and treating yourself with the respect and honor that you deserve.

Because holy hell, in a world where folks who are different find themselves silenced and pushed out of view, your voice is more necessary than ever before. I really need you. Folks of color, trans folks, queer folks, disabled folks, poor folks – we need you.

And I’m not living in a fantasy land, and neither are you. I know that you will face unfair obstacles and you will be turned down at a rate which is unthinkable, discouraging, and infuriating. People will tell you that you’re pushing too hard, you’re being too loud, and that no one will ever read something so “out there.”

But I need you to keep trying, because your voice matters. What you have to say is so important – dare I say, more important than the published writers in their ivory towers.

So my advice, dear writers (yes, writers!): Take pride in the work that you do and the gift that you have.  Your worth is not dependent upon your publishing history or page views.

Don’t allow bullshit hierarchies to undermine your brilliance.

The label is yours. Say it with me now:

I am a writer. I am a writer. I am a writer.

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The “Self-Help” Genre Has a Big Problem with Depression

selfhelp

Self-help articles are great. In this day and age, the internet is one of the largest sources of self-help content — and as someone who loves to uplift others and be uplifted, this is a genre that I have a strong affinity for.

But I’ve noticed this really unfortunate trend as of late – namely, articles that suggest that in order to be happier, we need to avoid the habits of “chronically unhappy people,” or remove “negative people” from our lives altogether.

Is someone bringing you down? Just get rid of them! Don’t want to be a downer? Fix yourself!

This all seems to be code for, “depressed people are shitty, and here’s how to avoid them and avoid being like them.”

This is basically saying that folks who are suffering from depression – because that’s what it means, right, let’s call a spade a spade – are not worthy of our patience, love, and support.

Further, we should aspire to be the exact opposite of them, as there is nothing redeeming about them. Let’s observe their struggles, and from that extract all the “what not to do’s.” I think that’s a really problematic response to have to someone who has depression.

When we treat people with depression as though they’re a burden or plague, it perpetuates the stigma that comes with depression, and encourages people to ostracize those who suffer from depression.

Further, mainstream self-help articles push this dichotomy of happy versus unhappy people, oversimplifying the complexities of real people. Moods, and even mood disorders, do not define the entirety of a person.

If it were just one article, I wouldn’t be as concerned. But there are many articles that continually make these vague, and sometimes not so vague, references to people who very well may suffer from depression – treating them as undesirable, broken, and negative forces that need to be eliminated from our lives. They are dehumanized and reduced to their illness, rather than seen as whole, worthwhile, complete people.

If someone in your life is depressed or going through a difficult time, it can be tempting to run for the hills. And of course, I’ll never undermine the importance of self-care. We are responsible to our friends, but never for our friends. But there’s a consistent problem in our society with ignoring depression when we see it, or worse yet, expecting folks with this struggle to fix it themselves, and not “burden” others with what they’re going through.

This creates a culture that is particularly hostile to those with mental illnesses. Criticizing them for feeling victimized, for being unhappy, and for not meeting your criteria for “trying hard enough” or “problem-solving,” all uphold awful stereotypes about the disorder and about people who suffer from it.

Personally, I’d like to create a culture in which folks who are unhappy can find support — and that we don’t ignore or opt out the moment we realize they might not be all sunshine and rainbows.

There’s also this terrible habit in self-help to look down on this idea of “victimhood,” without being critical of where those perspectives come from. If someone is conditioned to expect that their life will be difficult, perhaps it’s not an issue with attitude, and maybe, just maybe, a problem with the culture and society at large. If someone expects that their life will be difficult, maybe that isn’t an attitude problem and instead, their lived reality.

I suspect that if you’re looking down on folks who see life as primarily a struggle, you might be some combination of white, able-bodied, heterosexual, cisgender, middle or upper class, and more generally not feeling the full gravity of systematic oppression. When we write these articles, we need to ensure we are being intersectional, and being mindful of our privilege. Invalidating victims is not self-help — it’s oppressive.

The self-help genre could benefit from taking into account that diverse life experiences condition us to form different expectations and attitudes – ones that you may not have experienced before. Instead of placing the blame on the victim, maybe we should be pointing at the system that victimizes us every day.

The reality is, depression is hard. Mental illness is hard. And it’s not something that can be fixed over night with an attitude change. We’ve been saying this for decades – this isn’t our fault, and if we could make it better, don’t you think we would’ve already done that?

Yet, at times, self-help as a genre has been completely out of touch with the lived experiences of those with mental illness, as well as other marginalized groups, like folks of color and those in poverty.

There are certainly unhealthy habits that we could all afford to kick, but placing this in the framework of chronic unhappiness and depression is the wrong way to go. It does a huge disservice to people who are genuinely doing their best to cope with these illnesses. It creates bigger obstacles for people whose lives are devastated by depression.

There are better ways to offer advice and perspective in ways that aren’t ableist, and don’t kick folks while they’re down. Regardless of our good intentions, we must consider the impact of our work when it reaches a broader audience of people.

Perhaps most importantly, people with depression do not exist to teach you life lessons. And if you have someone in your life who is “chronically unhappy,” instead of taking notes for your next article like you’re on some mentally ill safari, maybe reaching out to them and checking in is the more appropriate response.

Self-help is a genre with a lot of potential to do good in the world. But if it only seeks to empower some while upholding the struggles of others, it is doing more harm than good. There needs to be accountability to our audiences, starting with those who are struggling the most.

Creating a greater stigma around depression, rather than dismantling that stigma, is the exact opposite of what self-help should be doing.

This genre could really benefit from a reality check. And maybe, just maybe, it could start by realizing that there are better ways to approach the “chronically unhappy” and depressed – starting with a little compassion.

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