Jacob Tobia: 'Gender Is Simple for Nobody'

Jacob Tobia: 'Gender Is Simple for Nobody'

by Greg Mania

As a contributor for publications like The New York Times, TIME, and Teen Vogue and a producer for the Emmy Award-winning series Transparent, nonbinary writer and performer Jacob Tobia has emerged as a prevalent voice for the nonbinary, genderqueer, and trans communities. They currently serve as a member of the Biden Foundation Advisory Council for Advancing LGBTQ+ Equality in addition to named one of Forbes' 30 Under 30 and one of the OUT100. With a Rolodex of accomplishments in tow, it was only a matter of time before they added "author" to their already-impressive string of hyphenates.

In Tobia's debut memoir, Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story, out now from Putnam, the illustrious gender nonconforming author offers readers a nuanced and deeply complex examination of the contemporary gender nonconforming experience. Right from the get-go, Tobia departs from the archetypal trans and gender nonconforming storytelling we've come across in the past by explaining how everyone — regardless of their gender identity — experiences challenges based on their gender to some extent. In a culmination of vulnerability, honesty, and heart, Tobia highlights the connective tissue that exists beyond gender and encourages their readers to embrace what remains undefined of their identity markers.

PAPER caught up with Jacob before their book tour to talk about the degree of gender-based trauma we all experience, their religious upbringing and profound disappointment in the United Methodist Church following its recent regressive vote, and how gender identity, and the perpetual unveiling of it, is not unlike peeling an onion.

You write that gender-based trauma isn't exclusive to trans and gender nonconforming people. Can you tell me more about that?

I think one thing that's been misunderstood about what the trans movement has been saying is that trans people are the only people with complicated genders. I feel like there's this idea that there's only cis people and trans people, and trans people have the complicated genders and cis people have the simple genders. That could not be further from the truth — gender is simple for nobody. Even people who think that they've experienced gender "simply" have a nuanced, complicated, and multidimensional gender experience. Even the most cisgender, masculine man has a multifaceted diamond of a gender identity whether or not he can realize it, and whether or not he has the language to think about it that way.

Everyone, to some degree, has a relationship with gender-based trauma.

It's never been a question of if people have trauma or challenges based on their gender, it's a question of what degree or type of trauma you have based on your gender. For me, this goes along with the idea of toxic masculinity, too. I think there's been a lot of misunderstanding in that regard because I feel like a lot of cis people think that their struggles with gender have been dismissed because they're not trans, as if their struggles don't matter and their journeys in gender aren't important. That's not what we're saying as a movement — it's certainly not what I'm saying — because I care as much about cis people's experience with gender as I do trans people's experience. I want everyone to be treated with empathy and kindness. I don't want anyone — cis, trans, or otherwise — to be pressured into an identity that isn't natural or good for them.

"Even the most cisgender, masculine man has a multifaceted diamond of a gender identity whether or not he can realize it."

Do you think we need to reapproach how we define and talk about toxic masculinity as a culture?

Yes, because a lot of people think that when I talk about toxic masculinity, I'm calling men toxic. That's not what I'm saying. The masculinity itself is toxic for everyone who's put into it. It's toxic for cisgender men who are compelled to abide by masculinity, as well as people who have to deal with the repression of toxic masculinity. The toxicity goes both ways. I just hope that we can build a bigger movement where it isn't just trans people fighting the gender binary, but it's about everyone acknowledging that we deserve better than to be compelled to fit into one of two gender categories.

You talk about the narrative archetype that trans and gender nonconforming storytelling has formed. You shy away from oversimplifying or watering your story down to make it more digestible. Why is it important to place an emphasis on vulnerability and write your story in a way that's antithetical to the type of trans storytelling that we've come across in the past?

It comes down to why I wanted to write this book in the first place. I wanted to write this book because I got tired of trying to answer a complicated question simply. People ask me what my gender is, and trying to answer that is like telling the story of your family in one sentence. It's like saying, "I have a mom and a dad and a brother," and that's it, that's all you're allowed to say, as if that tells you anything about the family. Gender is such a complicated, long-form essay question. I wanted space and time, narratively speaking, to not have to oversimplify my story.

"People ask me what my gender is, and trying to answer that is like telling the story of your family in one sentence."

You compare gender to pulling apart an onion, that you are many layers that you are still, to this day, discovering. Did you discover another layer by writing this book. If so, what did you unearth?

That's a really good question. I definitely discovered a lot about myself in the process of writing this book. When you have to put together something of a story arc, you have to not just take the time to look at who you are today, but think about the shape of what your journey has been. That has been really transformative to me. In the process of writing I was able to put some connective tissue between all these parts of my life that I thought were very different. I was also able to wrap up a lot of loose ends and reintroduce myself to a lot of people in my life. Being able to revisit moments from my past and reconcile them with who I am today was healing in a profound way.

Faith played a pivotal role in your life growing up. What is your relationship with the church like now?

I think it's even more complicated than it use to be. I still feel like a very spiritual person, and I'm very flexible with the kind of language I use to describe my spirituality. I feel very comfortable saying that trans people are one of God's most beautiful creations. I know that deeply in my heart to be true. But as someone who grew up in the United Methodist Church, I am very disappointed and hurt.

"In the process of writing I was able to put some connective tissue between all these parts of my life that I thought were very different."

Are you referring to the delegates of the church who recently voted to reinforce the stance against ordaining gay clergy and performing same-sex weddings?

It's uncanny. Literally a week before this book comes out, a book where I write about my relationship with my Methodist Church and how they ended up coming around, the United Methodist Church, on a global level, makes the most regressive decision regarding their LGBTQ+ congregants that they've ever made. For decades the Methodist Church was very ambivalent about it; they had an official doctrine but it wasn't strongly enforced. They just let every church find their own doctrine and faith separately. And now, there's this global homophobia that's been spread across the whole church and it's heartbreaking. I thought we were done with this. I'm furious; I feel hurt and abandoned. But also, I'm going on a book tour and I'm going to be sure everyone knows that as a Methodist, I am pissed. This is not okay and this is not what God's love is about. This is absolutely antithetical to everything that Jesus has taught us.

Not only is it regressive, but quite literally a grave mistake.

Yeah, I mean, queer kids are going to die because of this. Being ostracized from your faith and its community is a fatal blow for so many children. I want the UMC to know they have blood on their hands. If queer kids who grew up in faith-based communities spiral into depression, it's on the Methodist Church.

"Being ostracized from your faith and its community is a fatal blow for so many children. I want the UMC to know they have blood on their hands."

We are living in a time where the political is personal and the personal is political, a time when voices are actively being silenced by those who are fervent to uphold their idea of the status quo. Did the current sociopolitical climate have anything to do with your choice to write Sissy when you did?

I didn't write Sissy as a reaction to the current political climate, nor did this environment color the narrative too much, because so much of this book is about the past. It's a political manifesto about a closed period of history; it's about my experience as a child with real suggestions for what we need to do in the world. But what I will say, though, is that while this book wasn't a response to our current political reality, I had no idea how politically vital this book would feel. Trans people, today, are under a greater political threat, so now Sissy feels much more like a political text. I believe that Sissy has the ability to cross lines: I wrote it to be equally appreciated and accessible for my radical queer friends that I've met in New York City as much as for my next-door neighbor.

It's funny, my friend and I were recently talking about how much queer people love nature — I didn't realize it until I looked around and saw that I'm surrounded by no fewer than 87,000 succulents and a light therapy lamp — and then I read about your 12-day excursion through the Appalachian Mountains that served as your pre-orientation at Duke. You achieved a sense of euphoria during this time. Why do you think queer people have such an intense connection with the wild?

I think there's something profound about being in nature; it returns us to our roots as humans. The historical tradition, globally, for thousands of centuries, has been to affirm, love, and care for gender nonconforming people. We've always been a part of every society. Indigenous cultures around the world had rich traditions that affirmed, loved, and celebrated gender nonconforming people in one way or another.

I think when you get out of an overpopulated urban center and you become a small group of people surviving in the woods and living in nature, all of a sudden the idea that any one person could be disposable is ridiculous. You have to support each other to survive. Nature reminds you how indisposable and precious life is. You also cut through the bullshit: gender is not just socially constructed, but archaeologically built. Physical buildings and the way we build our structures — like gendered bathrooms — changes our psychology and makes us think that that is normal. It's not normal. It's actually profoundly irregular. Gendered bathrooms, historically speaking, are a fairly modern invention. There's nothing natural or inherent about them, but when you see them everywhere in our modern environment, you start to make assumptions. The beautiful thing about nature is that it fundamentally takes you out of your comfort zone and so outside of what you're used to. All of a sudden you're open to so much more.

"I'm tired of gender nonconforming people not being on screen. I think it's time that stops."

You're a performer, an author, a producer, a comedian, a professional goddess...I could go on. What facet would you like to take on next and why?

Other than writing books for the rest of my life, I'm really committed to getting a lot more work as an actor right now. I'm tired of gender nonconforming people not being on screen. I think it's time that stops. Casting directors look at me like I'm impossible. They wonder how they can possibly put me in the world they're working to create on screen. I'm not impossible because I'm literally sitting in front of you. If I were impossible, I would not be here. So please put me and other people like me on screen.

Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender story is available for purchase here. To see Jacob on tour, click here.