Writer and Activist Sam Dylan Finch on Being Vulnerable, Creating a Supportive Space, and Going Viral

Sam Dylan Finch, a transgender activist and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area, blogs at Let’s Queer Things Up! He writes across different topics, from mental health to gender identity. I talked to Sam about the rewards and challenges of blogging, his site as a vehicle for support and awareness, and the experience of going viral on the internet.

How did Let’s Queer Things Up! come about?

I wanted to start conversations about the stuff that matters. It’s a space where I can explore topics that mean a lot to me — and inspire compassionate and honest conversation.

Sometimes I talk about what it’s like to be transgender, or struggles I’ve had with bipolar disorder. Or I talk about street harassment or Amanda Bynes. Regardless of the topic, I’m trying to start a conversation about how something that seems personal often points to larger societal issues.

When did you know you were ready to come out in public, on a blog?

Coming out publicly felt like a natural extension of what I was already doing in my personal life. I think my friends knew I was ready for a blog before I did. They jokingly pointed out my long Facebook statuses. I had a lot to say about different articles, topics, and everyday interactions, and I turned to social media to vent.

Many friends told me that my Facebook posts changed their perspective on things or helped them through difficult times. It dawned on me that these were the beginnings of really great blog content. I guess I had a trial run before I finally went public.

You use the word “genderqueer” to describe your gender identity. What does this mean to you?

This word means a lot of things to a lot of different people. For me, this means that I don’t identify as a man or as a woman. I am an androgynous person. I don’t really relate to strict gender categories.

Illustration by Jessica Krcmarik
Illustration by Jessica Krcmarik

In a post about having generalized anxiety disorder, you wrote that sometimes, when talking about mental health, it’s hard to pick and choose what to disclose. How do you know when “it’s time” to blog about something?

That’s tricky. It’s important to ask yourself what’s at stake, and if you’re okay with the possibility that anyone can read what you write. That seems obvious, right? But sometimes the reality doesn’t sink in, especially if our audience is small and we’re comfortable with our tiny little corner of the internet.

Because the internet works in mysterious ways, and what was once a blog with five page views a day could become a blog with five million page views the following week.

Even if you don’t have much of a following today, that can change literally overnight — it did for me. So what happens if your grandma reads it? What happens if your boss reads it? Consider and weigh the risks. Because the internet works in mysterious ways, and what was once a blog with five page views a day could become a blog with five million page views the following week. That’s a true story, by the way.

I know I’m ready to share something if I keep coming back to it. Before I wrote that post on anxiety, I thought a lot about my experiences, was reminded of it throughout the week, came up with headlines, and contemplated how I would discuss it if I wrote it. I knew I was ready because I kept circling back to it. I wrote that post in my head long before I typed a single word.

Illustration by Jessica Krcmarik
Illustration by Jessica Krcmarik

You receive emails from queer and transgender people who silently deal with mental illness. What can genderqueer people do to help others who struggle? What can your readers do?

When it’s safe, and when we feel ready, it’s important that queer folks tell their stories. A lot of people in my community are struggling with their mental health, and yet they’re convinced that they are the only ones.

If more queer and trans folks talk frankly about their struggles with mental illness, we create a culture where it isn’t shameful to struggle, it isn’t burdensome to ask for help when we need it, and we won’t have to hide.

If we’re all boosting the signal, we can reach more people. . . . Some people call that ‘slacktivism,’ but I believe it’s vital work.

Visibility is so important, and if we’re visible as queer AND neuroatypical, we create safer spaces for people to be authentically themselves. That’s a really beautiful and powerful thing.

As for my readers? Amplify the voices of people who are doing this important work. Support writers, artists, and activists who are fighting the stigma. Share their articles, buy their books, donate to their organizations, and show up to their events.

If we’re all boosting the signal, we can reach more people. And when we reach more people, the impact is greater. It’s as simple as tweeting an article or posting a link on Facebook. Some people call that “slacktivism,” but I believe it’s vital work.

Describing your experience as trans by comparing it to things like cooking or getting a tattoo makes your writing relatable to those who might not otherwise identify with your experience. What type of writing do readers respond to the most?

Related writing that Sam recommends:

Black Girl Dangerous

Everyday Feminism

The Body is Not An Apology

Neutrois Nonsense

That’s what I always hope for! I want my writing to be conversational and personal. I want folks to feel like we’re sitting down and chatting about something I’m really geeked about. I try to use humor and I try to be down-to-earth. I also use a lot of analogies. My experiences can be really specific, so I have to find a way to make it universal.

I think being vulnerable in my writing disarms people.

I also think it’s important to be vulnerable as a writer, which I think is what readers connect to the most. I’m honest and open about my experiences. I’m writing about queerness, and feminism, and politics — all intense stuff that folks aren’t always willing to hear — but the defenses go down as soon as I open up about my lived experience. I think being vulnerable in my writing disarms people. So I try to stick to that whenever I can.

What’s been the biggest challenge of blogging so far?

The biggest challenge is the negative feedback. You can have hundreds of amazing comments, but that one lousy comment can ruin things if you aren’t prepared for it. Some readers assume that because they’ve read your article, they know everything about you and can use you as an emotional dartboard. That’s the nature of the internet, I guess? I wish they would remember that, behind the blog, you’re an actual human being with feelings.

Illustration by Jessica Krcmarik
Illustration by Jessica Krcmarik

What’s your approach to handling negative comments?

A lot of folks tell me not to read the comments at all. But instead, I’ve tried to compromise, because I value feedback from readers and I want the site to be interactive.

I turned the comments off on a post that went viral after receiving one too many lousy comments, and I never looked back. It was definitely the right decision.

When I feel overwhelmed, I bring in moderators and have them filter out the rubbish. Then I can resume going through the comments that are worth reading, and aren’t just, “You suck! You’re the worst!”

If I had any advice, it would be to take care of yourself. Know your limits. Don’t go through the comments if you aren’t in an emotional state to handle what you might find.

And also, here’s the best advice I’ve been given — turn the comments off if it’s turning into a circus or if you’re not ready. Commenting isn’t a right that is enshrined by the constitution. It’s something in your control, and you can choose to allow it or not.

I turned the comments off on a post that went viral after receiving one too many lousy comments, and I never looked back. It was definitely the right decision.

Right — I wanted to ask about your post on Amanda Bynes, Robin Williams, and the spectacle of mental illness, which went viral in 2014. What did you learn from that experience?

That was a whirlwind. I woke up one morning and I had 500,000 views before breakfast.

Maybe it’s just me, but going viral is an emotional experience, especially when the article means so much to you. I cried a few times during that first week. I was so moved by the reader responses, which were passionate, articulate, encouraging, and brave.

I couldn’t believe that one person’s words could have such an impact around the world, and that they were my words. If I could do that in my pajamas — some weird kid just sitting in front of a computer — imagine what we all could do if we used our voices to say the stuff that really matters.

Looking back, I wish I had spent less time responding to negative comments and more time responding to the positive ones. I also wish I’d had the superhuman ability to respond to every email, because they meant a lot to me.

How did Chara Bui’s animated video, based on this viral post, come about?

It was entirely Chara’s vision! I received an email asking if I’d be open to an animated version of the post. We were fortunate enough to both live in the Bay Area at the time, so after exchanging emails, we met for coffee and brainstormed. Chara is a gem and the video is amazing.

How would you like to see your blog evolve?

I think about this all the time. I’ve thought about bringing other writers in, doing book reviews, doing a video series, and diversifying the content. I’d like to see more community building — a larger readership, more people interacting in the comments section, and connecting with other bloggers and platforms.

I also want to do more speaking engagements, because while the written word is amazing, there’s something about standing in front of folks and saying what needs to be said, person to person, without the computer screen between us.

At the end of the day, I want to keep doing what I set out to do: to have a conversation, and to reach people in my community who need to know that they aren’t alone. And if that’s what the future holds for LQTU!, I’ll be proud of what I’ve done no matter what.

Read more from Sam Dylan Finch at Let’s Queer Things Up!, or follow him on Facebook (Sam Dylan Finch), Twitter (@samdylanfinch), Tumblr (Sam Dylan Finch), and YouTube (launching on February 15).

Jessica Krcmarik is an illustrator and designer in Detroit. She formerly cofounded Riopelle, an art collective in Eastern Market, and is currently working to preserve historic type with Gratiot and Riopelle. She also designs for Cosmos Labs.

February 1, 2016Gender, Interviews, LGBTQ, Mental Health, , ,