Trans Stories Have Power: An Interview with Sam Dylan Finch

abstract-art-artistic-1407278 (1)

Kira Rakova

As someone who engages in community-based radical mental health work, I believe in the power of narratives in the fight against mentalism. Although not everybody has the privilege, capacity, or desire to share their narrative, the narratives that are shared re-shape the social perception of psychological disorders. These narratives force those who are unaffected to view mental illness from a humanizing and empowered perspective.

Among my favorite writers on the topics of mental health justice is Sam Dylan Finch. His work has been published in a variety of publications, including Everyday Feminism and the NEDA Blog too (check out his great article “Androgynous Bodies Come In Every Shape and Every Size”). Sam is also the founder of Let’s Queer Things Up, which is a blog that explores various topics related to queerness and feminism. Topics he covers include: mental health, gender identity, trans-activism, and body image. With a commitment to intersectionality, he often discusses these topics in conjunction with each other.

Recently, I was lucky enough to interview Sam and learn more about his journey to activism, as well as hear his advice to those wishing to become activist writers themselves.

Kira Rakova: Can you briefly describe the type of activist work that you do and the different intersections that you explore in your writing and through your activism?

Sam Dylan Finch: My writing and my activism explore things like body image, transgender identity, mental health, disability, sexuality and queerness, feminism, and occasionally which Taco Bell menu items are most superior (I’ve decided that it’s their spicy potato tacos, hands down). A lot of what I do is informed by my lived experience as a transgender/genderqueer person grappling with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Basically I have a lot of feelings.

KR: How and/or why did you become an activist for these issues?

SDF: I started identifying more strongly as a feminist when I was in college (damn you, gender studies major!). The phrase “the personal is political” really changed the direction of my entire life. I realized that so many facets of my identity – as a transgender and non-binary person, as someone grappling with mental illness, and as someone who the diet industry deems “overweight” – are impacted enormously by these political and systemic forces that push folks like me to the margins. I became passionate about using my experiences as a way of taking these political forces and making them more personal again. I wanted to take oppression out of the abstract and make it real for people, while also validating and affirming the folks who are struggling alongside me.

KR: You are the founder of “Let’s Queer Things Up”, which has grown tremendously since its founding. What is idea behind this project and how has it changed over time?

SDF: The project was originally intended as a space to open up about what I was passionate about so I could stop annoying my Facebook friends with all my novel-length posts. It’s obviously evolved so much since then! I think of LQTU as a place for exploring important topics from a queer and feminist perspective, and I hope that as time goes on, it can be a platform that amplifies the voices of other marginalized folks who have something important to say.

KR: How do you believe stigma is formed throughout our society?

SDF: What I can say about stigma is that we know it is maintained by a system that empowers and offers privileges to some, while disempowering and disadvantaging others. Much of the media we consume is a reflection of those power dynamics and helps to reinforce it. But the thing about stigma is that it’s very much a cultural phenomenon – and culture is constantly changing and it’s very malleable. I think that’s why the work that I do feels so urgent. I know that by opening up a conversation, I and other activists can hopefully shift that cultural dialogue to hopefully break down the stigma, or at least make a decent dent in it.

KR: What does or has radical self-love meant to you?

SDF: Radical self-love, to me, is the act of affirming my humanity in spite of a culture that devalues my identity, my body, and my being. It’s also a practice, in a way, an ongoing commitment in which I work toward a healthier and more loving relationship with myself. It’s my way of saying “I am enough” to a world that tries to convince me that I need to conform in order to be worthy of love or respect or dignity. And when folks who are oppressed collectively endeavor to love themselves and affirm their worthiness, especially in a world that tries to deny them that or discourages it, self-love can be powerful – it’s revolutionary.

KR: How do you believe institutions (and in particular schools and universities) can better address mental health? 

SDF: That’s a really big question. I can only speak from personal experience on this one. First and foremost, any mental health professional at a school – and there usually are counselors at the very least – should be culturally-competent and able to address the needs of the communities that they will be serving. If they aren’t sure what those needs might be, there should be focus groups or surveys to assess what those needs are, and trainings that prepare counselors to deal with diverse communities (the number of folks of color and queer folks failed by these services is astonishing). 

Any existing resources should be made widely accessible and known by all students. One policy that I tried to push for when I was a student was including on every syllabus a quick note about where students can find counseling services and a reminder that those interactions will remain confidential. One of the biggest failings in our schools is that students don’t even know what resources are available to them or if they will be safe if they reach out. As a university student, I was constantly referring folks to counseling, and was shocked by the sheer number of students that had no idea we had counseling services to begin with.

KR: How has engaging in written and online media activism affected your own self-understanding and/or acceptance?

SDF: I’m lucky that the job that I have is one that requires that I dig deep and learn about myself. I’m constantly analyzing the power and privilege that shapes my life, and the space that I occupy as both privileged in some ways and disadvantaged in other ways. Obviously this impacts the understanding I have of who I am and what I’m about. If you think about it, my workplace is in my own head, and I’ve become very acquainted with it by now because I spend so many hours just rummaging through my own thoughts! I have such a deeper understanding of my identity and a much clearer picture of the kind of person that I aspire to be.

I’d also say that the online community has been instrumental to me accepting and loving myself. I put myself out there not really knowing what to expect – contrary to what people might think, I am not always confident and not always sure of myself – but my readers and fellow activists have always been so validating and encouraging. 

It took a lot of, “whoa, me too!” before I realized I wasn’t alone in my experiences, and that the problem wasn’t with who I was and the problem wasn’t just in my head. The problem was with oppressive norms and stigmas that teach us that there’s something wrong with us. And when we can share in those realizations, powerful stuff starts to happen both within us and outside of us.

KR: What suggestions would you give to someone who is interested in becoming an advocate through their writing?

SDF: Don’t – I repeat, DO NOT – wait for someone else to write your story. Don’t wait because you think someone else could say it better than you. Don’t wait because you think what you have to say isn’t important. Don’t wait because you’re afraid of rejection or not being good enough. I can guarantee you that every single activist that you admire felt the same uncertainty. If I had listened to my fears about being “less than” (believe me, I had a lot of fear), I wouldn’t have written a single word and the impact I made with my work would never have happened.

Your voice and your journey are two of the very few things you have in this world that are uniquely your own. And while other writers may have more experience or more skill, they will never have your voice or your story. You are the only one who can write that. Never underestimate the power of your own voice. 

If your journey winds up being anything like the writers that I know, it’ll surprise you, delight you, scare you, challenge you, and ultimately make you a better person than when you started. But these aren’t things that will happen unless you make yourself vulnerable and put yourself out there. Stop waiting for someone else to write that story, the one that’s floating around in your head that you sometimes scrawl out in a notebook that you won’t show anyone. Stop comparing yourself and using that as an excuse to stay hidden. 

The amazing stuff will start happening when you realize that the only person worth comparing yourself to is the person you were yesterday.

Kira is a senior studying at Macaulay Honors College at the City College of New York, majoring in International Studies and Media Communication Art, with a minor in Anthropology.  Her research interests include: gender justice, mental health justice, and community organizing.  Apart from school work, Kira is also a part of various community based advocacy organizations at City College of New York, including the Gender Resource Center Campaign and the Student Mental Health Initiative. In the future, Kira hopes to pursue a graduate degree in Anthropology. In particular, she hopes to explore how development organizations include and exclude mental health, in a culturally sensitive and intersectional manner.

This content was originally published on in 2014.