Jacob Tobia’s memoir, Sissy: A Coming of Gender Story, garnered the nonbinary trans actor, author, and activist a six-figure deal with Putnam Books. Sissy takes fans from Tobia’s earliest nonconforming gender experiences through the intense gender policing that eventually drove those explorations underground, to their coming out gay in high school, and blossoming in college. Having trailed glitter through the years, in Sissy, Tobia eventually uses those sparkly bread crumbs to rediscover their identity and embrace a feminine-genderqueer expression.
“Most people experience just a profound level of gender policing throughout their entire lives, and it starts at such an early age that people don’t even realize their gender had been policed,” Tobia says now. “I’m [still] spending a lot of time excavating who I was, kind of organically and naturally and effervescently as a child.… What are the dreams that were foreclosed on by the gender policing I experienced?”
“As trans and queer people,” Tobia explains, many of us think about, “How did my gender as I understand it now, become my gender? And what parts of my gender do I take for granted that perhaps were built for me? I want to bring everyone into that conversation.… [Sissy] is a clarion call to everyone, to interrogate their own coming-of-gender story. What we are told we must do in order to be adults is so often aligned with what we are told we must do in order to be men or women… [and] everyone has a coming-of-gender story to tell.”
Now 27, Tobia has worked with the Human Rights Campaign, been featured on MTV’s The T Word and True Life: I’m Genderqueer, served as social media producer on Amazon’s Emmy Award-winning Transparent, been recognized on both the Forbes 30 Under 30 and Out 100 lists, and been featured in numerous publications. In addition, they have represented the LGBTQ-inclusive makeup line Fluide Beauty, spoken at conferences and on campuses across the country, and most recently performed in an all-trans reading of I Am My Own Wife.
In Sissy, Tobia, who grew up in North Carolina, recalls numerous moments when someone — often a well-meaning cis woman — schooled them about what is “appropriate” attire for a particular venue. To those who question what’s wrong with telling someone not to wear six-inch stilettos and the world’s shortest skirt if they want to be taken seriously at work, Tobia says, “‘Professionalism totally excludes my gender [and] I’m not the only person whose identity is almost completely excluded by [it].”
“All language around propriety, around what’s ‘appropriate’ is coded,” they explain. “Whenever someone says, ‘Well that’s not proper’… or ‘That’s not really the culture here,’ my immediate question is always, ‘Well who is that culture designed to help? And who is that culture designed to hurt?’ For example, why is it rude to talk about money in our culture? The people who most benefit from not talking about money are the wealthy. And the same thing is true about any rules about what’s appropriate for gender, or appropriate for how to present your body. Are [those rules] made in the interest of people who don’t have power and need support, or are they made in the interest of people who already have all the power?”
Tobia has a very feminine presentation but a masculine, hirsute body and permanent five o’clock shadow — gifts from a Lebanese-American father. Simply walking down the street garners stares.
“People do look at gender nonconforming people like, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re living this level of authenticity and also this level of audacity… how could I ever?’ And it’s interesting because one of the things that we don’t talk about is that transphobia, specifically from cisgender men, is, I would say, 50 to 75 percent rooted in jealousy.”
“Cisgender men, when confronted with someone like me, sometimes have a gut response that is really challenging,” Tobia continues. “[These men think] I had physical violence done to my body for the slightest deviation from masculinity, and you just get to walk around in heels and a skirt and be OK? Like, Fuck that, right? We are able to own our gender in a way that they cannot possibly begin to imagine.”
Within this understanding, Tobia sees hope. “If we can all acknowledge our trauma and our pain, and if cis men come to the table and name their trauma, we can work through it together and then they don’t have to be jealous anymore. They can just be the other 25 percent — which is turned on.” Tobia laughs, but is actually quite serious.
“There’s a reason why trans porn is such a huge category. It’s not coming out of nowhere. Trans people are deeply and profoundly desired across all spectrums of bodies. From trans women who have fully transitioned; to trans women who have had top surgery but not bottom surgery; to gender nonconforming men like me who haven’t had any surgery, who are super hairy, who have very male bodies but have feminine gender presentations; and to sleek androgynous nonbinary trans men who maybe have less body hair and more androgynous features but haven’t necessarily had any medical transitions. Across spectrums of trans bodies, there are people who think that we’re really, really gorgeous. And who seriously want to get it [sexually]. But the culture we live in makes it so shameful to name that desire — people instead express that by violence.”
Tobia argues that spotlighting the existence of this attraction is not only important to their own “liberation as a full human being,” but is also “profoundly intertwined with the liberation of bi and pansexual guys. Because culturally, we make no space for bi or pan men. And I really want to work on that from a place of profound selfishness. I can pretend it’s altruistic, but really I’m just trying to get some fucking dick!”
A year ago, Tobia wrote a piece for Them about dating while nonbinary, admitting “my dry spells are calculated not in days or weeks or months, but in years. In a world that both desexualizes and hypersexualizes trans-feminine people and treats us like street garbage, I am desperate to find companionship and touch.”
“Where I am right now, I’m still in a years’ long dry spell,” Tobia acknowledges to The Advocate. “I feel like I have to make the decision between expressing my gender in a way that feels good, or getting fucked. It sort of feels like they are mutually exclusive enterprises. I don’t just want a partner who thinks my body is attractive as long as there aren’t any feminine things on it. I need someone who’s profoundly attracted to me for exactly how sexy I am, and if it means that I be very single for a very long time in order for the world to catch up, so be it. I’ll be a great cougar!”
Tobia sees delving into sexual relationships not just as a personal goal, but a professional one as well.
“Digging into what it feels like to be in a sexual trans body is my next frontier. We live in this moment where we are working to liberate trans people to exist in public, but it’s like we haven’t even gotten to what sex liberation looks like for trans people.”
“But,” they add, “I’m hoping I won’t have to wait another decade to have a cute partner.”