Genderqueer Activist Jacob Tobia on Getting Beyond the Binary

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By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly

Through their writing at Huffington Post and in The Nation, and their positions with the HRC and Out Leadership, Jacob Tobia has emerged as a spokesperson for the genderqueer/gender non-confirming community, sharply critiquing the ways in the gender binary erases and oppresses trans and genderqueer folk.

We caught up with the self-described “queer activist, movement leader, and part-time fashion icon” about street harassment, a possible renaissance for male femininity, and why they wish people would delete the phrase “be a man” from their vocabularies.

            PQ Monthly: There’s very little information about genderqueer and gender non-conforming identities available, even in the LGBTQ community. How did you discover genderqueer identities, and come to identify with them?

Jacob Tobia: For me, it was a really long process of self-exploration. I never had one specific moment where I realized “Oh, I’m genderqueer!” When I first started getting in touch with my feminine expression in high school, I didn’t have access to terms like “genderqueer,” “gender fluid,” or “gender non-conforming.” So I made up my own words. In high school, I identified as a “gender transcendentalist,” which meant that I identified not between the gender binary, but outside of the gender binary. My goal was to transcend gender as it had been taught to me and learn to think of myself outside of the man-woman binary. As I grew older, went to college, and got the opportunity to read queer theory, I began coming across the term genderqueer, and I felt like it helped me to describe who I was. So now I use the term genderqueer to describe my identity all of the time, and have sort of found this position as a leader in the genderqueer/trans community, which is still pretty new to me.

            PQ: There’s still a great stigma directed toward male-assigned people with feminine gender expressions in our culture. What do you think can help create a safe space for people for whom such expression is an authentic, yet often closeted, part of themselves?

Tobia: For me, it all starts with parenting. I think that we need to create a world where parents no longer tell their children “you are a boy, you are a girl, and here is who you have to be according to society’s norms” Instead, I think that we need to ask children open-ended questions and help them to discover their identities for themselves. Instead of saying, “You are a boy, so you like blue,” we should be asking the question, “What colors do you like? What makes you feel most authentic and happy?” So it starts with parenting, and goes from there.
I also think that we’re in a historic moment for male-assigned people. I think we’re really beginning to see a world where male-assigned people have more and more access to femininity than ever before. In the same way that it was once radical for female-assigned people to wear pants but it is now acceptable, I think that male-assigned people expressing femininity and wearing feminine clothing will become more and more acceptable. At least that’s my hope!

            PQ: In a segment you recorded with Laverne Cox for “The T Word,” you describe a horrific experience in which you were harassed and spit on during your morning commute to work because of your gender expression. What do you think helps you remain resilient in the face of such ignorance and intolerance?

Tobia: I’m not going to lie to you, there are still some days when it is really hard to live my truth. There are still days when I’m scared to go out in a dress, scared to wear heels, scared to be seen in public. Particularly in a city like New York, where cat calling and street harassment are so common, my day-to-day life can be pretty profoundly impacted by what other people think of my gender expression. What really helps me to be resilient is having community around me that is supportive both emotionally and practically. When I have a day where I’ve been harassed, I need a lot of emotional support from my friends to get through it and bounce back, but I also need practical help sometimes. If I’m in a skirt late at night, I try to always have someone else with me, because at night, street harassment can lead to horrific acts of violence. Transgender and gender non-conforming people, particularly trans and GNC people of color, are subjected to physical violence far too often. To love and support someone who is genderqueer or trans is to support their very real need for safety.

            PQ: In your article, “Obama’s Morehouse Speech: Was the President Unintentionally Transphobic?” you link the reinforcement of the gender binary (ie: the command to “be a man”) to a marginalization of trans and genderqueer identities. It’s an important point I’d never seen expressed before. Can you say a little about it, for readers who may not have heard it before?

Tobia: In my opinion, the gender binary is the root of all the problems that trans and genderqueer people face in society. The binary says that there are only two ways to exist in the world, as a man or as a woman, and that what you are is determined by what you are assigned at birth. Trans and gender non-conforming people cause a problem within binary thinking because we deviate from what we were assigned at birth and often don’t fall conveniently within one of the two categories. That’s why the idea of gendered spaces, of binary gender identities, feels transphobic to me. Without the binary—if we truly had a society that accepted the plurality of gender diversity—being trans or genderqueer would be much less stigmatized. So when someone talks about “being a good man,” or “becoming a man,” I can’t help but wince a little bit.