When I called Jacob Tobia, 24, they put me on hold. “I’m just gonna take off one dangly earring so that it’s not bumping on my microphone,” they said.
Tobia is one of two subjects (along with 17-year-old Brennen Beckwith) of MTV’s upcoming documentary True Life: I’m Genderqueer. The documentary is airing as part of MTV’s “Look Different” campaign, which coincides with Transgender Awareness Week taking place from November 16-20. The documentary is thus far the largest nonfiction television platform given to genderqueer people, at least in recent memory.
“While transgender men and women continue to reach new levels of visibility, little attention has been paid to genderqueer and gender non-conforming members of the transgender community,” a network spokesperson said in a statement. “This first-of-its-kind episode follows two genderqueer youth who reject traditional gender labels and identify as outside of the categories of man and woman.”
I spoke with Tobia on Monday afternoon about the struggle to define one’s gender identity, what it means to be genderqueer and “professional,” and how filming the documentary helped heal their family.
What was your relationship with gender and with your own gender identity growing up?
Growing up, gender for me was just a confusing thing. I just didn’t get it. I knew that it made me supremely unhappy but I didn’t know why. Right? I just felt like a weirdo, I just felt like a total alien, I felt like I was from Jupiter or something.
It felt like everywhere in my life, people were sorting people into these two groups, neither of which worked for me or for a few other people that I knew. My relationship with gender was mostly one of confusion and also one of trauma, because there’s a profound sense of isolation and hurt that comes along with not fitting in as a kid and feeling like the structures that are in your life don’t make room for you. That was the overwhelming sense I had as a kid.
What was it like to discover the term “genderqueer?”
It’s interesting because the way I think about it, I always had genderqueerness. I always understood myself as genderqueer, I just didn’t have a word for it. I knew that my soul was genderless or gender-free or that an idea of living in a world with only boys and girls didn’t work for me. I knew that this was who I was, and my identity couldn’t be adequately described by the labels I had at my disposal, but I didn’t have a way to label it, or a way to think about myself, other than as a weirdo or as a freak. And while I’ve certainly come to reclaim the labels of freak and weirdo as I’ve gotten older, and wear them with pride, it was really liberating and more than anything comforting when I first heard the term “genderqueer.”
Prior to that, actually, I made up my own word. Instead of using a word that I had known from elsewhere, for probably two years in high school I called myself a gender transcendentalist, you know, like Thoreau. I thought that in metaphorical equivalence, I went off into a little cabin of my own, in my own little Walden pond where I was off in the woods away from society’s construction of gender. I thought that the transcendentalist movement really worked for me in that way, so I called myself a gender transcendentalist which, of course, I thought made me very cool.
And then I discovered the word genderqueer, and the thing that was powerful about discovering the word was not that it gave me a way to label myself, but that it told me that I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. It told me that if a word existed, I knew that other people must use it too. And other people must feel the way that I feel. So with the word came community and a sense of belonging and that’s what was so powerful to me about discovering the word genderqueer.
You went to Duke University, which most people probably assume is fairly conservative. How was your experience there?
It’s interesting because when people think about Duke, they think about a school kind of dominated by basketball players and frat bros. And in many ways, that is true. But I sort of learned to run the place in my own way. I think the thing that was really beautiful about college—about colleges in general and about local communities in general—is that I had a small group of around 5,000 people that I was surrounded with every day. And if I could get those 5,000 people to understand my gender identity, how I felt about myself and what I needed to feel safe in the world, then my day-to-day living was going to be affirming and empathetic and great. Right?
So the thing that was really wonderful about college was that because I had a small community, I was able to build a safe space for myself over four years in so many ways. I mean you can’t undo everything on an institutional level but by my junior year, I was running for the vice presidency of equity and outreach for student government, which is the student government diversity position. When I campaigned for that my campaign slogan was “Vote Tobia, Demand a Higher Platform” and it was a picture of me in five-inch heels and I got elected. Everyone knew me as that person who stomps around in heels and skirts and stuff. And because of that localness about the community, because of that smallness, that actually conferred a lot of safety.
Since I moved to New York, things have been very different. In New York, you run into strangers every single day. You don’t have the ability to influence a local small community. There’s not a finite number of people that you have to convince for you to be safe. In New York as a genderqueer person, or as a transgender person, you’re always in danger. You’re always hypervisible, you’re always mocked, and you constantly have to watch your back. And that’s probably not going to change for most of my lifetime, even despite all of the activism that I do. New York City is a scarier challenge than college, because the realities of violence that face trans and gender-nonconforming people feel really real to me every day.
What sort of activism are you involved in in New York?
My main activism currently is around visibility work and around media and trying to ensure that the voices of gender non-binary and genderqueer people are included in the mainstream narrative about the transgender community. I think that if we have a transgender movement that doesn’t empower and embrace genderqueer and gender non-binary people, then the trans movement can’t ever be done.
The reality is that, even for transgender people who identify as women or as men along the gender binary, when you are mid-transition, you are going to most likely be read as gender non-conforming. So until all gender non-conforming people—whether that’s a place that you’re in temporarily or if that is where you are all the time—are safe, then every trans person is going to encounter discrimination, even if they identify as a trans man or as a trans woman.
So a big part of my mission and my activist work is ensuring that genderqueer people are included and embraced on a representation level and on a policy level within the transgender movement. And that’s just about building coalition and also about helping people understand that there’s not tension between binary-identified and non-binary-identified trans people. We have so much more in common than we do in difference, and if we can embrace one another then we can really make waves as a movement, even more than we already have.
You’ve written before about professionalism—what was it like to join the workforce?
When I graduated, I had to enter the workforce like anybody else and get a job. It was funny because I had spent four years exuberantly being myself and not worrying at all really about what people thought about it, because, you know, I was in college and everyone really liked the fact or seemed at least to be ambivalent about the fact that I had a gender identity that they understood as “experimental,” right? In college you’re supposed to be experimenting with things and learning things and testing boundaries.
But then the fact that I entered the work force, people were treating me as an “adult” and suddenly I was expected to conform to gender again, which was just never going to work for me. I really struggled internally first with taking myself seriously and being comfortable expressing my gender identity in the workplace and feeling confident in it. And that process happened over the course of internships in undergrad and after I graduated.
Since then I think I’ve learned a few things, the first of which is there absolutely are industries and companies in the world where—and I would say it’s a majority of them—where being genderqueer or gender nonconforming is totally unacceptable and you won’t be hired. Or if you are hired, you’ll be discriminated against; odds are you’ll never be promoted.
But what I’ve also learned is that there are ways to maneuver around that. There are ways to build allies and create safe space for yourself within a community and within a workplace that isn’t as affirming from the start. For me, that process starts with me learning to embrace and love myself fully. Because if I go into a meeting in high heels and a skirt and I feel uncomfortable about that or insecure about that, people pick up on that insecurity and feel that much more welcome to discriminate against me. Whereas, if I walk into a board room, know my shit, and confident in who I am, and get down to the work at hand, that really changes how people perceive you. Because they realize that maybe they can’t get away with messing with you, that maybe they have to take you seriously and treat you with basic human dignity. Maybe they have to accept you the way that you are.
It’s hard because I didn’t grow up in a world that taught me to love myself or be confident as who I am. But I had to really pull that resilience out of me as so many trans and gender non-conforming people do all the time.
How did the MTV documentary come about?
It honestly came about because I have been doing a little public speaking recently and I guess that someone at the production company saw one of my speeches or read my stuff online. They reached out to me and said, “Hey, would you want to be involved in this project?”And I was like, “Oh my god, I’ve been watching True Life since I was like 12, like, of course. That’s so exciting.” And so I really jumped both feet in and it was just—it’s been a really incredible journey and a really incredible process.
The hard part for me has been that, in the episode, they wanted to focus on my family. And there are still things that I’m working through with my family. I was worried about bringing camera crews and MTV into my family life, but it was actually kind of magical—because what happened was instead of my family sort of shutting down, everyone really stepped up and took risks and learned to think about things differently. And learned to embrace me in a different way. It was actually magical the way that bringing a camera crew to my house helped repair my relationship with my father. I was like, whoa, who would’ve thunk that this was the way that this was gonna happen? But it did, it really did. And I think we have a more open line of communication than we’ve ever been before.
I’m so happy to hear that.
It was crazy. I thought it was gonna implode and it just did the opposite.
Do you have any advice or thoughts for teenagers who are struggling with their own gender identity?
I think my biggest piece of advice for people who are struggling with their gender identity is really just to try to be patient. And I don’t say that in a patronizing way. I don’t say that in a “slow down, you can’t expect too much from the world around you” kind of way. I say that as an indicator of self-love. Because in a world that doesn’t want you to love your gender authentically or be yourself, in a world that tells you that who you are isn’t okay, it takes time to learn to love yourself. It takes time to figure out who you really are and it takes time to learn to show that to the world.
I think that sometimes there’s this idea in activist communities that if you don’t immediately figure it out and know all the answers and proclaim your identity from a mountaintop, then you’re somehow cowardly or somehow indicates that you’re not serious about your identity. And nothing could be farther from the truth. All these things take time and it’s important to give yourself and the people that you love in your life the time to really sit with this and heal and learn to love differently.
But the bottom line—and what everyone who’s struggling with their gender identity should know—is that you deserve to be loved and affirmed in the fullest extent of who you are. And you deserve to live in a world that loves you and supports you. You may not feel like you’re close to that world sometimes. There are times when I don’t feel like I’m close to that world, but knowing that you deserve it, I think, can make these things a lot easier. So claim what you deserve and be patient with yourself.
True Life: I’m Genderqueer airs Tuesday, November 17 at 11 p.m. ET/PT on MTV.
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Image via Ashley Tsai.