Interview by Paula Gilovich
Jeffrey Marsh is genderqueer, Buddhist, and an author, singer, dancer, host, public speaker, youth advocate, + social media guru with over a quarter billion views. With #NoTimeToHateMyself, Jeffrey leads with the exacting message on just how to wean ourselves from self-hate.
TC took the opportunity to speak to Jeffrey in this momentous week, just days after their first interview on ultra-conservative cable news television, and just days before their book, How To Be You, hits the shelves.
Do you remember the moment when you had the liberating understanding that you are both genders/all genders/no gender?
As a child, the woods were my sanctuary. Growing up next to the woods, on a farm, it was at once isolating, and it helped me to cultivate a rich interior life. I wouldn’t be who I am without the trees. You could say that the trees called to me. It was out in the middle of the woods, alone, amongst the trees where I first learned who I am.
Where were you raised exactly?
A rural farm in the middle of Pennsylvania. Out in the middle of nowhere, 320 acres of farmland. To give you a sense, my mother is a pastor and the church we attended was also the local Klan meeting spot. Rural, ultra-conservative America.
Was she aligned or opposed to such hatred?
Oh, she was opposed. She is a Lutheran pastor, and if you know the Lutheran church, on one side of the church it is very conservative and on the other side, liberal. She is by definition on the liberal side because the conservative side of the church doesn’t allow for women pastors.
You write and speak openly about struggling, even physically, with your father. Has that relationship healed? Do you have a good relationship with your father at this time? Also, with your mother?
Yes, I have a great relationship with them—this is the good news, the story’s outcome. They came around relatively quickly. I came out at 11, again at 16, and then at 18, and that last one finally stuck. My mother joined PFLAG, and so she made her way to church basements, she cried, she figured it out…When I was younger, I had dreams of coming out to my family and them kicking me out. I wanted off the farm. I wanted them to kick me out.
And your father is supportive now?
Are they still married?
How are they with your pronouns?
Ah, they struggle. But that’s ok. My executive level decision is never to make anyone feel bad. When I correct people I choose kindness, compassion, understanding—do you now what I mean?
Do these beliefs pre-date the discovery of Buddhism?
It seems that kindness, compassion, understanding are more than just ideals for you, but together they create a true belief system.
We need to go through a transition to arrive here, you know? I went through years of suffering, sometimes not being very nice to people.
What helped that transition along? Was there a moment, or an event in your life?
I was living in Philadelphia at the time, and there was a quote-unquote spiritual bookstore. I think they are still in business. It’s probably still there. They would burn incense and they had dream catchers, and they had all kinds of spiritual books from all traditions all around the world. And for some reason, I was always drawn to this place. I don’t know why but I just loved going in there, looking around at crystals…and one day I saw from across the room, on a table, a book called: There is Nothing Wrong with You. And something extremely profound happened inside me. There was a complete washing away of anything that had occurred before and I knew that book was the absolute truth, and I knew the cover was speaking directly to me. And then immediately, a voice inside the head, “That’s not true, that’s stupid, that’s not for you.” The brain started to take over the profoundness that had happened. Very luckily, as that voice was in my mind, as the mind was trying to undo that profound experience, my hands were already reaching for that book. The body knew. I was already walking across the bookstore. I picked up that book. It was by a Zen Teacher, Cheri Huber…
I lived at the monastery for a while, I’ve been on retreat with her, I’ve studied with her for years.
Your book, and its title, How to Be You, is about you continuing the legacy of that profound moment?
Ah! I’m so happy you caught onto that! You’ve seen the cover online? There was a very specific direction that I gave Danny, my friend who did the illustrations and drew that beautiful cover: All I want is for someone’s heart to see it across the bookstore and to have the profound experience I had.
What do you mean by being yourself?
It’s a really important question, isn’t it? Especially in the context of Buddhism, we talk about transcending the self. I’m going to let you in on a tiny little secret…I’ve never said this in an interview before…but I feel like I can serve as the bridge between high-brow, traditional Buddhism and someone who has never heard anything about it. For those who know Buddhism, many things are recognizable in the book. But because of my social media pedigree, I can phrase things so they are ultra-accessible, and they will speak to that queer, genderqueer kid.
Because most of my social media fans are young people, I hope to speak to them. But Penguin Random House in their wisdom decided to market the book as a general title, not YA [Young Adult]. Because they feel that accessibility is key…this message is so important for anybody. Anyone can join, anyone belongs.
It’s not for people who are young; it’s for people who are young-at-heart. 8 or 80. There are fun elements in it on purpose. It’s very sneaky because it is going to introduce to you to how to accept and love yourself, which (total secret) is one of the points along the path to transcending the self.
My literary agent and I, we took all of the messages I’ve gotten over the years, collected them…as you can imagine kids on social media who are drawn to my work suspect that I love and accept myself, and they want to know how did you do that. They ask me a ton of questions. So my literary agent and I gathered all of those questions, and realized my fans were always asking about 9 or 10 different subjects, and guess what? That’s how many chapters there are in the book. Take each subject and put it through its Buddhist pieces.
So you said: audience, we wrote this together.
It’s better than that. We continue to create together, because this book is also a workbook. My whole message is you are valuable and lovable, so of course I want to write this book with you.
So the book is one-third workbook, you fill things in, tear out pages. And then it’s one-third direct, accessible, me-talking-to-you advice, this is what I’ve learned sort of stuff, and then it’s one-third memoir. It’s important to include how I encountered all of these subjects.
There’s nothing like writing something down to become aware of what you really think.
Let alone draw it, let alone add sparkles…
You mention in a video we are both/neither, with/without, we are all human, we get to be all of it, we get to be everything and we get to be nothing, and this is an extraordinary articulation of moving away from the binary. In this articulation, what you are doing is accounting for time, accounting for a whole life, that we are varied from birth to death, and that we get to be who we want to be both authentically and in performativity, in the moment and in the full arc of our lives. In this freedom, what is one of your favorite genderqueer moments in recent history in your own life?
It was very, very profound for me, this interview on conservative news. The interviewer was filled with so much loathing for me, he couldn’t look at me. He could not even validate that there was a human being across the table. And in that lions’ den, in that pack of wolves, over at the cable news network, I had complete, total freedom. I was queer as you can possible be, and I was a person of agency. You see in this interview, I had fun, I talked about the book, and I enjoyed myself, which is my responsibility in every situation. To be able to do that in an environment filled with intense hatred was a true moment of glory for me.
Because at the end of the day, it didn’t have a thing to do with them—the host or the staff. I wasn’t being queer because I needed to be in their face and show them that queer was ok, I was just being me and enjoying life. And if that isn’t a triumph for a queer person, I don’t know what is.
NOTE TO THE READER: Do yourself the incredible favor and watch this interview.
What does a genderqueer future look like? Or what does the future look like?
Here is a dream I have: I want to be on a science fiction TV show, playing a nonbinary character. And at one point somewhere in the TV show, I say, “Oh I am from a planet where we don’t have binary genders.” And the other person in the scene says, “Oh, my gosh! Where is that?!” And I say, “Earth!”
That’s it, that’s the answer!
Science Fiction! That’s the answer! Sci-fi TV is the answer. Sci-fi TV is always the answer…there’s something else I want to say here though. Where the LGBTQ movement is going is towards self-acceptance. In pre-stonewall days, leading to Stonewall, it was: Hello! We exist! And then it became about proving something, it got political, getting laws passed, marriage, and this whole wonderful story. And now we are setting up for a time where we can purposefully care for ourselves instead of battling so hard. That’s my opinion.
You’re voice is a non-righteous one.
You mean, not being bitter? I call being bitter the playground school of relating, the playground method, that something happened to me on the playground and now as an adult everyone I encounter in life is going to have to pay for what happened to me on that playground. No, that’s not what we’re called to do. We are actually called – if I may preach again – we are actually called to realize that something happened on the playground to everyone. Yes, we are hated. Yes, queer people are hated. But being told something is wrong with you is universal to the human experience.
What would you tell readers who are friends, allies, mothers, fathers – to help them to better understand the use of the singular pronouns “They/Them”?
It’s always good to talk about your own experience when you are in these conversations. For me, it was emotionally painful to hear “he”. It would be emotionally painful to hear “she” too. They are just both restrictive and both don’t apply. So every time they come up, it’s like, oh, that person doesn’t understand me.
You just did a genderqueer wedding gown look book with fellow model, Aine Rose Campbell and photographer Angela Cappetta for The Cotton Bride. It was posted on Lover.ly, and in their words: Our Country could use a reminder about the freedom and ubiquity of love.
Totally amazing…and so fun. And they got my pronouns right! Plus, they called it “powerful”.
The wedding industry is a cisgender, ultra-straight run world. This is success.
I think so.
Wedding gown look books, conservative television news spots, your book releases August 2nd., your vine/insta/social media work continues, so what would you love to do next—on that ultimate dream level of being on a sci-fi show?
The ultimate dream would be to do what Oprah has done for black folks, but for queer folks. What Oprah has done for black people in America, is what I would like to do for queer people. Ellen is on that track, but she is very different because it’s not the same spiritual elements that Oprah brings to the table—and that I would bring to the table.
I hope to make connections between queer people and the broader culture. There are not a lot of queer people who will go on conservative TV. But I want to speak to middle America. I want to create those bridges.
Paula Gilovich is queer, an ally to all those who are trans and non-conforming, a youth advocate and a playwright, essayist and regular contributor to trans.cafe. She is also the Director of Content + Production for abc home, where she is the producer of the Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh’s legacy calligraphy exhibit: “I have arrived, I am home.”