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article imageVine star and LGBTQ activist Jeffrey Marsh on 'How To Be You' Special

By A.R. Wilson     Aug 30, 2016 in Entertainment
Vine star and LGBTQ activist Jeffrey Marsh on their new book, 'How To Be You,' and helping people learn to accept themselves.
Jeffrey Marsh became a social media star by being kind. And fabulous.
The TV host, public speaker, and LGBTQ activist has racked up well over 300 million views on Vine and earned hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter, Tumblr, and YouTube by posting positive, inclusive videos focused on self-acceptance. Sporting a beard, mascara, and a disarmingly sincere smile, they — Marsh uses the pronouns "they/them" — tell people "there is nothing wrong with you" and it's okay to be different.
It's a message Marsh says they could have used while growing up genderqueer in rural Pennsylvania. Bullied and isolated, they found solace by running into the woods near their family farm and pretending to be Wonder Woman.
Now 39, Marsh acts as a real-life superhero/heroine to thousands of people around the globe, using the very thing they were bullied for — being gender nonconforming — as a symbol of empowerment and hope for others who feel they don't fit in.
While Marsh's message attracts young people, they get clicks and followers from all age groups and backgrounds.
"It's this incredibly diverse group of people, when you look at analytics," Marsh says. "But I sense that they are not diverse if we were able to look at ideology, that it's open-hearted people, people willing to take a chance, people tired of being put down."
This month, Marsh published their first book How To Be You, an interactive guide designed to help people learn to accept and love themselves. Digital Journal chatted with Marsh via Skype about their book, helping young people, and embracing their genderqueer identity.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Digital Journal: You've built your following around the message, "There's nothing wrong with you." Where did that idea come from?
Jeffrey Marsh: Well, I'm not the first person to say that. We could go back as far as the Buddha saying that if we wanted to. Or we could go back even farther actually because the Buddha learned from other people. The way it entered my life was through an author named Cheri Huber and her book called There Is Nothing Wrong With You. I was in Philly at the time, and that book called to me from across the bookstore. I saw it from across the room and was just magnetized and haven't looked back from that.
DJ: Are you known among your friends as someone who always has an uplifting thing to say to people? How did it occur to you to start putting affirmations on Vine?
JM: I am that friend that always has something nice to say! And it was always part of my mission to try to tell that to other people, whether they were friends or strangers. So, before Vine, I was doing YouTube and I was doing live cabaret performances, and it all had the same vibe. My parents didn't understand me because of my gender expression, but for you it might have been something else, some other category, that made you feel isolated and made fun of and like an outsider. And you don't deserve that, you deserve to feel good, you deserve to have a wonderful life.
DJ: Young people face bullying at school and then on social media throughout the rest of the day. Did you have that in mind when you began putting positive messages on YouTube and Vine?
JM: I wanted to create a safe space. I wanted to counterbalance the hatred. I wanted to give people a chance for intimacy, for acceptance, for love online because there is such hatred. And especially for young people who are just figuring out the world and how to navigate being themselves versus what other people think of them. It's a very tough balance for young people — oh, who am I kidding? — it's a tough balance for everybody.
DJ: How was the workbook concept of How To Be You developed?
JM: It's because the reader is so important to me. We took questions I kept getting online, and still get to this day, by the way. They all seem to fall into certain categories. We're talking about hundreds and thousands and maybe into the millions now of messages, and they all had the same sorts of concerns and desires for advice, and those are the nine chapters. "How do I deal with haters?" "I keep trying to be perfect, it's not working", etc. And we're talking about messages from young people and older people, and not just LGBTQ people, but everybody. And the workbook element naturally grew out of that. Because I made the point to the publisher that I wanted this to be something that we create together, because the reader is so important to me that they're my co-author.
DJ: The concept of trusting yourself is so central to the book. It struck me as a very empowering idea to kids and teens who are told they're too young to know who they are or to have valid opinions.
JM: Yeah, they've been told that their identities are wrong, irrelevant, to be made fun of, to be mocked. I wanted to undercut that.
DJ: You are a Buddhist. Are Buddhist concepts a big part of this book?
JM: I'll let you in [on] a little, tiny secret because you asked about it that I don't really mention in interviews, but this is a Buddhist book. I found myself, because of my spiritual background, being this sort of bridge between like guru, high on the mountain people who teach zen, for example, and everyday people. Taking some of that and translating it and helping those two groups to dialogue with each other.
DJ: Why don't you mention it in interviews?
JM: Well, I am absolutely comfortable with it, but the honest truth, I think it turns people off a little bit. They think it's some sort of religious text. But it's not that really. It's about how to accept yourself and love yourself, which happens to be something that Buddhism has been talking about for millennia.
Courtesy of Penguin Random House
DJ: Do you think you would be creating Vine videos or writing books if you hadn't become a Buddhist?
JM: Oh, that's interesting. Probably not. Or I would be doing it in a way that would be for other reasons. Trying to get fame or trying to get money or trying to fill a need that I wasn't able to fill in some other way.
DJ: Explain what being genderqueer means to you.
JM: It's asked more bluntly in interviews sometimes. People will say, "Aren't [you] just a really gay man?" And the reason that's not the case is because my gender story, my whole life, has been a lot more complicated than Box A or Box B.
There are some people who are agender — that's another label who feel like they don't have gender at all — and my personal feeling has always been that I just have buckets and buckets of gender. I just have a wheelbarrow full. I just have plenty for me and everybody. And I've always wanted to express all of it and never understood why people kept saying, "Why can't you just wear pants all the time? Why can't you just play baseball?" And it's like, yes, I'll play baseball and, yes, I'll wear pants, but I'll also do these other things that society says that only women can do, only girls can do.
DJ: You haven't always used the pronouns "they/them." When did you decide those pronouns made the most sense for you?
JM: I decided about six to eight months ago. Up until that point, I felt it would be impolite to do such a thing and was sort of falling for the mentality that — I'm going to use a Tumblr phrase — it felt "special snowflake." And at a certain point I had this incredible spiritual awakening and realization that I am a special snowflake and so is everybody else on the planet, and we all deserve to be respected in certain ways. And for me to be in conversation with people and have them go "he" and "him" and have that feel, not only not right, but have that feel a little — and this is going to sound over the top, but I'm gonna say it anyway — have that feel violent to me. Like, wow, this person does not really understand me, or know me, or respect me. And to have that happen all day long and repeatedly, over and over, it just felt like it was time to start asking people for something else.
DJ: Did you feel that way about the pronoun "he" from a very young age?
JM: I've felt that way about "he" and about being treated certain gendered ways since I was a young kid. But I'm always careful to give a little caveat in interviews because even if somebody came to this realization last week, they still deserve respect, and it's not like because I've always been this way that I'm trying to validate calling myself genderqueer. You're valid if that's your experience regardless.
It's important because it's a matter of respect. That's all. It's a matter of respect for the individual you're speaking to, and I know we've been working through this idea for a long time through humanity, where most human beings are taught that there are only two genders and you can only express yourself in certain ways and on and on. But there have always been people outside of that binary, and now it's time for language to catch up.
DJ: So many young people write to you for advice. Have there been times when someone needed more help than you could give?
I get messages almost every day still saying, "I was feeling suicidal, but I've decided to stick around," "My friend sent your video," or "I saw your tweet." I get many, many messages, and I can't get to everybody always, but if somebody seems to be in really deep need, I will point them to the Trevor Project or GLSEN, organizations that work with these populations already. Because at the end of the day, I'm not a psychologist, I'm not a therapist, I'm not a school counselor. I'm not trained in those ways, and I wouldn't want to pretend that that's my forte. But I think it's important, and here's that theme again, that the person gets the most respectful help and the most hopeful help that they possibly can. And sometimes that's not me, and I'm very, very aware of that.
DJ: You've helped a lot of LGBTQ youth, but you have a pretty diverse following overall, don't you?
JM: If you look at who's following me online and analytics, it is all over the map. Older people, younger people, every region, most of the countries in the world. It's this incredibly diverse group of people, when you look at analytics. But I sense that they are not diverse if we were able to look at ideology, that it's open-hearted people, people willing to take a chance, people tired of being put down. That it's people who suspect what they are taught is not true. I was shocked a little bit to find that my biggest demographic is actually heterosexual teen girls. I think they get the message that what you're taught about who you're supposed to be should be questioned.
DJ: What can adults get out of How To Be You?
JM: Some of the messages I love the most on Twitter is when a young person tweets me and says, "I bought your book for my mom." The thing that younger people can offer the world, I think, is that they have not learned to fake it yet. They haven't quite learned to fake when they're upset, that they're not upset. Things are dramatic to them because they still have their feelings intact. They still have their raw emotions close to the surface. And so I think being able to get back to that place of being in touch with how you feel is something older people — older in quotes — can get from How to Be You. Realizing your validity, forgetting the haters, knowing that you'll be okay no matter what. These are things adults need as much as young people.
How To Be You
Published by TarcherPerigree
208 pages
Find out more about Jeffrey Marsh here.
Follow A.R. Wilson on Twitter.
More about Jeffrey Marsh, How To Be You, vine
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