Meet Jacob Tobia, a genderqueer identifying writer, speaker, and activist who fights for the justice of transgender, genderqueer, and gender non-conforming individuals. Jacob utilizes various forms of media to evoke discussion on the harm and banality associated with living in a gender binary society. This interview offers a window into Jacob’s mind, and their thoughts on what a more fluid world may look like.
Who is Jacob Tobia?
It’s always challenging to summarize who anyone is, but maybe the best way to frame who I am today and where I am going, is that my quest in life at the moment is to get in touch with who I was when I was four years old. I am trying to get back in touch with who I was before I started school, before I really started hanging out with lots and lots of kids in the neighborhood, before the politics of the gender binary were so rigorously imposed on me. I am trying to get back to the essence of myself. It’s confusing sometimes, because I think we have so many layers that we build up over time and so many cages that we are put inside of, so it can be really difficult to see who you used to be clearly, and to really get back to your core being. So much of my journey with gender has been trying to do just that, it has been trying to work backwards and undo so much of the repression and stigma that I feel the world has put on my gender identity and expression. I am trying to get back in touch with the joy of wearing a tutu, or wearing frilly fabrics, or wearing shiny fabrics. Or, you know, the thrill of putting on a new outfit or experiencing a new color or texture for the first time. And it’s interesting because every time that I allow myself to open up to new experiences again, I am able to shed a layer that was put on me and get back to a truer sense of a self – a more authentic sense of self.
Can you tell me more about your views on gender as a spectrum, rather than a dichotomy?
The real shame about the way that Western culture views gender is that we take all of the playfulness out of it, we take the beauty, and artistry, and poetry out of it because we have such confined boxes that we have created around what it means to be man and what it means to be woman. I think it is such a loss for us because there are cultures around the world and throughout history that have seen gender in a more expansive way. And really, part of my goal as an activist is to be able to get us back, as a culture, to a place where we see gender more creatively and see it as something that is beautiful to play with, to experiment with--a forum to try out new things. We would approach gender with a sense of curiosity and with a sense of appreciation rather than with a sense of obligation. My ultimate goal is that the boxes get expanded so far that they no longer make sense, that we expand womanhood and manhood so far that we lose the necessity for either and instead we are left with this lovely spectrum where anyone can go in and out of any identity, at any time, without fear of retribution, or discrimination, or harassment, or violence. That’s really how I see the gender spectrum versus the gender binary. I think the former is all about creativity and joy and the latter is about obligation, and I don’t know, sadness, I guess.
Why do you think so often, people are uncomfortable with the in-between? Why are we so intent on ascribing to traditional gender roles?
I think so much of it is about how we are raised. From the earliest age, children are taught about gender difference almost as if it is sacred. They’re taught about this absolute difference that exists between two fundamentally different types of people. And children put a great deal of mental effort into learning how to distinguish those two different groups of people in all facets of life: from colors, to foods, to TV shows, to toys, to aspirations, to family roles. In every single sector of human life, children learn the difference between what one group does and what the other group does. I think that’s why people are so uncomfortable, because it’s something we’ve learned so early on, and people are scared to think of who they might be, or the questions that might come up, if their gender were allowed to be a little more fluid and free. People have set identities, and they don’t want to think about how that identity came to be when a simpler explanation helps them feel more comfortable about the world. And the sad part is that that basic level of uncomfortability creates immense, immense, immense violence for gender non- binary and transgender people in the world. I’m talking about it in abstract terms, but that uncomfortability with gender non-conformity has very real consequences.
How do you think fashion plays a role in dismantling the gender binary?
Most people literally wear their gender identity on their sleeve, which means that we should really care what that sleeve looks like. Fashion plays a fundamental role in dismantling the gender binary because the way that we dress is often the greatest signifier of our gender identity. Through how we dress, we give people context for how to understand who we are. When I wear a suit, people look at me, assume that I am a man and treat me like a man. When I wear a dress, people look at me, assume that I am gender non-conforming or transgender, and treat me accordingly. In this way, the clothes that I put on my body become politicized--my dresses are transformed from aesthetic augmentations into tools for the gender revolution. In a world where fashion is seen as something that only female-assigned people are supposed to care about, it's pretty subversive for me, as a male-assigned person, to care about it too. More importantly though, fashion can be a profound means of self-empowerment. For transgender and genderqueer people, wearing clothes that correspond to your gender identity for the first time is life-changing. The first time that you put on a pair of high heels or a bowtie - when you've been told your whole life that that was wrong - is a step towards liberation.
As a genderqueer person, fashion has often been my enemy, but it's also been one of the only things to set me free.
Interview By Maytal Eyal
Photos By Camille Breslin