"Fabulous" is a word that gets bandied about willy-nilly in the LGBTQ+ community. I'm fabulous, you're fabulous, everyone is fabulous. But Jeffrey Marsh is truly fabulous. And what's more, they think you are, too.
Jeffrey Marsh (whose preferred pronouns are they, them, theirs) is a non-binary, gender-fluid activist and social media star with over 350 million views; best-selling author of the memoir/self-help book How To Be You, which was called an excellent book by Ted-Ed and even topped O Magazine's Gratitude Meter; and is known as one of the world's foremost commentators on non-binary activism in America. With their messages of inclusivity, Marsh was called a "transgender superheroine" by Digg.com.
I first discovered and fell in love with Marsh on Twitter and Facebook. They post encouraging statuses and video messages every day, unapologetically adorned in barrettes or bows or a stylish scarf, lip gloss, a flutter of eyelashes, and a little 5 o'clock shadow. In the social media muck of political rudeness and celebrity soap operas, Marsh's luminous, smiling face shows up in my feed and tells me (well, all their followers, but it feels like they are just talking to me) that I'm beautiful, that my feelings are valid, that everything is going to be okay.
I caught up with the delightful Marsh for a phone call recently, in which we discussed their journey of self-discovery, the worth of everyone's story, and the confusion surrounding proper pronouns.
Charles Sanchez: Hi, Jeffrey.
Jeffrey Marsh: You know I'm excited to talk to you.
CS: I'm … I'm kind of a little star-struck, to be quite frank.
JM: Oh, come on!
CS: I just love you! I find that your messages on social media are always so encouraging and positive and inclusive to everyone and not the usual, especially on Twitter. Can you please tell me a little bit about your journey?
JM: I grew up in Pennsylvania. My mother is a Lutheran pastor. My father, for basically my whole childhood, thought that it was his job as a parent to get me to grow up and not be myself. And he used many tactics to try to do that, including some violent tactics. You may have noticed it did not work. (Giggles) But it did serve to create a lot of tension, and years and years of me almost hating myself into oblivion. I got so desperate with self-hate that I went to live at a Buddhist monastery for a while. But I ended up finding a lot of fulfillment through social media and have found how to embrace and love all of who I am.
CS: How did you discover that you were non-binary?
JM: I'm old. I was born 7/7/77. Old but also magical. When I was growing up, the only context was gay people. I first came out to my mom I was 11 years old, and I told her, "I think I like boys." That was the only way that I had to conceptualize and think about it.
It must be said that every time an interviewer asks me, "When did you know you were different?" I usually don't answer their question. I usually say that never happened. I have never in my life felt like an outcast. People are/were weird to me and people are mean to me, and I thought all of that stuff, but I have never ever felt subhuman or less-than, and talking about it as "When did you know you were different?" implies that queer people are different when we're not. We're human beings that have the same love and wants and desires [as everyone else]. I did know from a very early age that other people had a problem with me, which is something else entirely.
And so I started this lifelong journey of being able to discuss who I am and talk about it and tell people. And when I was famous on the Internet wearing makeup, having facial hair, telling people to love themselves, dancing on my roof in New York City, celebrating who I am, and this kid said, "Oh, you're non-binary. What's your pronoun?" I all of a sudden felt completely at home. I had a complete revolution in the way that I could respect myself by being able to talk about who I am. Who I am didn't really feel like it changed throughout my life, but I finally had a word (non-binary) for who I am that felt authentic and accurate.
I joke around that non-binary is the label that feels the most like not having a label at all. I worry sometimes that our pride in having found our label tips over into separating us and making us lonely when we have so much in common.
CS: I have a friend who was complaining to me recently that we keep adding letters to LGBTQ and it's annoying. I said that we're going to keep adding letters until it's the whole alphabet and includes everybody.
JM: That's right. The rainbow umbrella keeps expanding.
CS: I want to ask you something that's at the forefront of my mind, and it's about the pronouns (they, them, theirs, used by most gender non-binary people). The pronouns are a big question and challenge. Do you know the evolution of using they/them pronouns, and how do you feel about people using them?
JM: What it reminds me of, and just because we're having this discussion today, is conceptions of the HIV community. All kinds of people have ideas of what it's like, and then they meet someone who is part of the community or is living with HIV or is working with people that are in the community. They see that it's not what they thought. So in that sense, there is society's view of what things should be, and then there's the reality that's different. I think grammar and pronouns -- and I'm not saying they're the same thing at all or it's the same struggle or anything like that, but I'm just saying people have a lot of assumptions about what it means to be non-binary. And then there's the reality of it.
They/them pronouns have been in use … wait. Let me take a step back. Singular they/them, using they to refer to one person, has been part of the English language since the 1300s. Shakespeare. Jane Austen. There're just a lot of examples. And we do it today: "Someone left their umbrella here. I wonder if they'll come back." Right? That's already part of our language. I think what me, as a non-binary person, I'm most clamoring for language to reflect who I am and my whole humanity. I have seen language change around HIV and stigma to be more inclusive and to be more reflective of the full humanity of people in the same way. And that really excites me to think of English as a living changeable language and one that can morph into being more inclusive.
At the same time, I admit that it is a struggle, and the habit is to use "he" or "she." But it even goes beyond habit: It's the truth for people. It's a reality for people. And to use "they" to refer to one person that you know … you know, the example I gave earlier was one person, that anonymous "they." You don't know their gender, so use "their" gender. I just did it! You don't know their gender, right?
CS: Oh my God, right!
JM: So you see it. It's simpler. But to use "they" for someone you know, it's a very, very difficult habit to break. Right? We can't gloss over that part of it.
CS: I think that's a great thing to acknowledge. That's the challenge, because we're so in the habit of "their" being plural.
JM: It's obviously something that our community has considered for quite a long time and has thought about. The reason they/them is our best choice for now is that it already exists in the language. Every example you can think of, of our movement trying to invent a word from scratch, has totally failed. Whenever someone creates a pronoun, whenever someone just invents one, almost nobody can wrap their mind around using it. They/them has received quite a lot of adoption within the community and some adoption outside the community, which is much more success than inventing a word has had. So yeah, it seems really clunky, and grandmothers in your hometown are really going to have a tough time with it! But right now, it's our best hope at having a language that reflects who we are that makes sense to me.
CS: I also think that it's OK to be uncomfortable. As a society, we hate to be uncomfortable.
JM: You know, I think that's a really brilliant point. I just want to underline that there is such a personal aversion to getting something wrong, to be seen as though you've made a mistake. And I think it's one of the things that the LGBT community in general can offer: the chance to let our hair down and just be ourselves without shame, and no matter the way it comes out, if it's the wrong way, we can address it and talk about it, and befriend it.
CS: I think there's also a great example of growth in our community, because each of us has had to, in our own ways, discover who we are, and be able to say, "I am not what you think I am or what I was brought up to be, necessarily." I've had friends who have discovered their gender identity in their thirties and forties and went through a process of, "Wait, first I'm gay, and then I'm not gay, I'm actually the opposite sex. That growth, that evolution is something that we have in common in our community in one way or another, and we can provide as an example to other people.
JM: Yes. And I think that you might phrase that as "an ever-growing commitment to telling the truth."
CS: Absolutely! Jeffrey, thank you so much for taking time to talk today.
JM: I've thoroughly enjoyed our conversation.
CS: And if we ever meet, I'm going to have to kiss you on the face.