Q&A: Jacob Tobia on Why Gender Is Like an Onion and Why Trans Stories Can Be Funny

'I want everyone to get to the end of this book and have some kind of gender and/or fashion crisis,' says Jacob Tobia, author of the new memoir 'Sissy.'

Jacob Tobia.
Jacob Tobia. Oriana Koren

As a child I once dressed up as Margaret Thatcher, replete with a wig that my local hairdresser styled and fitted. That same day, I won the “Boys Under 9” sack race—as the Iron Lady—and have a vivid memory of the winking referee entering my address on the certificate as 10 Downing St. Like many children, I found something alluring in my mother’s wardrobe, and I must have rummaged through her jewelry box countless times. I hadn’t given much thought to these memories in years, but they came flooding back to me as I read Jacob Tobia’s new book, Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story, in which the activist, writer and producer (who has worked on Amazon (AMZN)’s Transparent and the NBC Out video series Queer 2.0) makes a compelling case for why we might all benefit from ridding ourselves of gender’s artificial binaries.

Tobia’s life story is exhibit number one. By the end, your life story will be exhibit number two. Tobia is a wonderfully droll, often self-deprecating tour guide of the cruel ways in which we have taught children to police gender by revering boys for hyper-masculinity and girls for hyper-femininity. For those who don’t conform to such stereotypes the penalties are high, as all queer and trans kids have discovered. But Tobia—who is gender-nonconforming and uses the pronoun “they”—doesn’t wish to replicate the “born in the wrong body” trans narrative, which often switches out one set of rules about gender with another. Those stories are important, and have their place, but they are not the only narrative. For Tobia, gender is not a fixed destination, but something that evolves throughout our lives—if only we allow ourselves to have fun with it.

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“Perhaps the most exhausting thing about the classical trans narrative, and the thing that most strongly violates my personal pet peeves, is that it’s not funny, they write in the book’s introduction. “Within the way that we are accustomed to talking about gender, there seems to be no place for humor.” In other words: Not all stories are traumatic. “I refuse to take my experience with gender too seriously,” Tobia writes. “I refuse to talk about my childhood confusion without also laughing at how dramatic I am.” This is not to diminish anyone’s pain, but to reconsider gender as expansive rather than reductive. Only then, argues Tobia, will we be free of the tyranny of binaries.

Observer: You touch on something very important in Sissy, which is that we all suffer from the way gender is constructed. In that sense, isn’t this more than a trans issue, but rather a human issue?
Tobia: I get this overwhelming sense that as a culture we are very guilty of oversimplifying gender, and specifically oversimplifying what a gendered experience means. That’s what the gender binary is all about: this idea that there are two genders, and they are easily discernible—that there’s one type of experience in one box, and one in another. Every single person on this planet has always been, and will always be, much messier than that.

You talk about gender as an onion—made of layers, rather than a destination.
The reason the metaphor of the onions feels perfect is that once you get through one skin, there’s another there. It’s just layers that you pull apart forever. There isn’t really a core—it’s the dissecting that’s important. And, of course, they can be acidic and sour, and if you rub your eyes you might cry a little bit. Gender is like that, too, in the way we experience it.

Our baseline as a society is that gender has this stinging undercurrent, that everyone has been stung by it, that everyone has some pain around the way we’ve created gender in our culture. It takes processing in order for that stinging quality to caramelize into something sweet and delicious. The raw ingredient, the thing we think we know, isn’t enough—it’s just going to leave you with bad breath for a very long time. Wow, I love long-form metaphors [laughs]—my poor therapist. Every conversation we have is just a metaphor. An alternative subtitle for this book could have been “A Gender-Nonconforming Person Makes a Thousand Metaphors About Gender.”

Something else you argue for is a diversification of trans narratives. You have this line in which you say that trans stories are not valued if they are gentle.
It’s funny because calling anything a classical trans narrative is an oxymoron, because what trans-ness does is opens up all possibilities within gender. Trans-ness is, by necessity, impossible to pin down. There is no such thing as “the” trans story or “the” trans experience. There is only “a” trans story or “a” trans experience, because the whole point of trans-ness is that it says the way we’ve been taught gender is wrong. The way we’ve been taught that we must pass, in one way or another, is incorrect—gender is whatever possibility we choose to give it. Trans-ness opens up gender beyond any cod science, or any boundaries and labels, and allows bodies and identities and stories to exist all over the place in any number of permutations, and in an infinite number of experiences.

It’s funny to me that in the quest to educate middle America about who trans people are, about what our experiences are, we’ve created as a movement this classical trans narrative: “This is the template.” For me that template has never really worked—it’s not my story, and it’s never been my story. There’s nothing wrong for people for whom the template story is closer to their experience—that’s still a beautiful story—but the idea that there is a template is monumentally silly. It’s like trying to take a photograph of an electron and saying, “No, it’s there, it’s there.” No, it’s bouncing around—you can’t make it stay still. The point is the motion. The point is the fluidity.

You talk a lot about pre-shame, before we realize that there is a stigma attached to gender nonconformity. And then shame often begins when we’re getting policed by other kids at school.
My hope in writing this was to ultimately undo the idea that personal narrative is separate from collective truth. I think that so often what happens to trans storytellers is that our stories are looked at as this precious thing that is behind glass, or like the rose in Beauty and the Beast. We’re this contained thing. The reality is that gender-nonconforming people are the canaries in the coal mine. We know gender better than anyone else, because we have experienced it in such a complicated and multifaceted way. That’s the whole point of Sissy. You start reading the book thinking, I’m reading about this person. And then you end the book thinking, Fuck, what do I know about myself?

I want everyone to get to the end of this book and have some kind of gender and/or fashion crisis. I want them to go to Goodwill and buy something they wouldn’t normally wear, because it’s not their gender identity, or go to Sephora and get something they wouldn’t usually think was their thing. And I also want them to go and change their underwear because they might have peed themselves from laughing so much.  

As someone who grew up in the ’80s, I often envy those in this millennium who seem so much freer to be gender-nonconforming. There’s a part of me that feels that if I was 20 now, I’d be so much more self-expressed.
Don’t I know it. It’s incredible what’s happened even in the last five to 10 years. I already feel like a stegosaurus. The world I’m in now is so different than when I was coming up in it. I went to the Teen Vogue Hollywood party and was like, “Oh my gosh, just like the ’80s high school movie, I’m like the sixth-year senior who just won’t leave. I’m in a grandma dress and a bad influence and I don’t care anymore.” But it was fascinating, because I was walking around and was never more than a stone’s throw from someone who was visibly gender-nonconforming, and all the kids are like, “We don’t even have gender anymore—that’s so old-school.”

They live in this world I am so honored we were able to build together, but there are moments when I think about what I was contending with when I was 18 versus what I’m contending with now. Grieving over what we were denied as queer and trans children, adolescents and young adults—when we were coming of age at a time that didn’t know how to see us—is a rite of passage for all of us, and it’s something I wish we’d explore more because it gets in the way of building intergenerational relationships in the queer and trans communities. It’s a painful emotion, and one that many queer and trans people are filled to the brim with. We deserved to go to prom with someone we loved. We deserved not to feel like such outsiders as children.

You also point out that it’s not because queer and trans people lack courage that the closet exists, but because of the hostility of the world in which we find ourselves. But hasn’t that closet changed? People are out of it sooner now.
I don’t think it’s that people are out of the closet sooner so much as that for many, the closet never existed. And that’s so beautiful. I can’t wait until I’m truly a stegosaurus, like a real-ass trans granny, on my porch in my caftan with my mint julep having the kids over—all the little queers in my community—and I can sit down and say, “Well, back in the day we had this thing called the closet,” and they’ll just think, That’s so weird. The same thing will be true of gender; soon enough we won’t live in a world where stepping out of the house as a male-bodied person in a dress will come with a barrage of questions, because people won’t feel such a need to pin anything down in the first place.

'Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story' by Jacob Tobia
Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story by Jacob Tobia. Tal Goretsky

You talk about a painful incident when your older brother brought your Barbie doll to school and hacked off her hair with the other kids. You eventually found her dangling from a piece of floss tied around her neck.
My brother is a gem, and I love him so much, and he was a complete cheerleader for me when I started exploring my gender in my adult life—he just thought it was the coolest thing. In my childhood, he didn’t know how to stand up for me because standing up for your little brother is almost every bit as difficult as me standing up for myself. My brother was not the orchestrator of cruelty in my life at that point—it was more that when you’re a younger brother, your older brother is put in this really painful situation I have a great deal of empathy for: When his friends started to bully me, he either had to protect me, and thereby put himself in harm’s way and take the brunt, or he had to step out of the way. There wasn’t really a middle ground.

I really empathize with how awful it was for him to have to choose that, and I know it fucked him up, too. Which is what I mean when I say that gender policing hurts everyone. Every person who watches a feminine little boy get bullied or shamed or harassed, every single person takes that into their body and soul. My brother was just as traumatized by watching his friends bully me as I was being bullied by them, if not more, because I think the guilt of that lived with him for a really long time.

You won the first annual Miss St. Francis United Methodist Church Beauty Pageant, in drag. While the other contestants were parodying women, you took it seriously. You did drag again at Duke University. What did you learn from those experiences?
I think drag is such a powerful tool in gender exploration, period. Whether or not people want to own it, every person who has done drag has learned something profound and fundamental about themselves. Increasingly I think we have a culture that is acknowledging that trans identity and drag are not oppositional things. They are both critiquing gender. My favorite drag queen on the whole planet is called Imp Queen, and she’s based in Chicago, and she’s a trans woman and a drag queen. She’s both.

It seems incredibly courageous to wear lipstick and heels at college, as you did.
The older I get, the more I’m able to appreciate that in moments where I was brave it is only ever because I was building on everything that had come before me. I’m very much a beneficiary of decades and centuries of activism that have allowed me to live the life that I live. In college, specifically, it gave me courage and helped me feel fierce and powerful enough to wear lipstick on the quad.

So much of that came from pop divas like Lady Gaga—I had the Fame Monster poster on my wall. And who taught Gaga everything she knows? Well, drag culture. And who fought alongside drag queens? It’s three steps from Gaga to Stonewall. I feel like my trans elders have been channeling to me through every facet of pop culture imaginable. My courage doesn’t come from nowhere. It comes from somewhere, because somewhere along the way my transcestors were able to whisper self-love to me, or they shouted it, and the echoes got to me. I will never act like bravery is something that happens in a vacuum, because bravery is another word for community. You can’t be brave on your own.

Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story is available now through G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Q&A: Jacob Tobia on Why Gender Is Like an Onion and Why Trans Stories Can Be Funny