Bookforum talks with Jacob Tobia

Jacob Tobia. Photo: Oriana Koren

I first discovered Jacob Tobia, the LGBTQ activist, actor, and producer, on Instagram, where their exuberance nearly shatters the three-across, forever-down grid. Jacob’s work advocating for greater trans and queer media representation has landed them on the Forbes “30 Under 30” and OUT magazine’s “OUT 100.” Their writing has appeared in the New York Times, Them., and The Guardian, among other publications. Now, they’re aiming for the best-seller list with their memoir, Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story.

Sissy follows Jacob from their Methodist childhood in Cary, North Carolina to Duke University, telling their story of coming to identify as gender nonconforming. But Jacob didn’t write Sissy to define their gender; instead, it’s a way of processing their trauma and, as they explain, letting their “internal healing ripple throughout the world around me.” On a rainy day in a few months ago, I hopped on the phone with Jacob to talk about their experience writing Sissy.

You live in Los Angeles now, but you returned to your hometown in North Carolina to write Sissy. Why?

When I physically remove myself from Los Angeles, everyone just leaves me alone. It carves out some of that really sacred, placid space I need in order to reflect on and process trauma. But going home was also about being surrounded by the spaces in which all of the events in the book happened. It was about being able to go visit some of my high school teachers while I was writing about my high school experience, for example. The majority of this memoir is about coming to understand my gender and growing into my identity in North Carolina specifically, so it felt good to be back there.

Did working on the book there change your relationship to home?

I have a lot of grief about my childhood and my adolescence. I think most queer and trans people do; I think most people do. There’s so much that we aren’t able to have because we’re different or we’re not what we’re expected to be. And I think that there was a lot of grieving that I needed to do in order to really reflect on what that actually felt like growing up. I felt like I had all these bags that I was carrying around. And by going home to North Carolina, I had the opportunity to fully Marie Kondo them—unpack them, figure out what was sparking joy, and then leave behind the stuff that I needed to leave behind. I felt so much lighter after that process. And it did a great deal for my relationship with my parents, because we were able to reflect on what this experience was collectively. Home really feels more like home after writing this book there.

Do you think your queer identity is compatible with your Southern upbringing?

It’s kind of funny, actually, that the South has this reputation for being not that queer, because so many elements of Southern femininity are just the gayest things on the planet. Rhinestones are most celebrated in the South, as well as sequins and big hair, among other things.

Part of why I set the book in North Carolina, rather than New York or LA, where I’ve also lived, was to bust this myth that queer and trans people are only able to realize their identities and understand who we are by abandoning home. There’s this idea that if you’re queer or trans or different in whatever way, that you have to leave home—especially if you’re from the South. The narrative is that you have to get out of where you grew up in order to understand who you are, and you can’t really return. That idea can be really damaging to queer and trans kids. I want gender-nonconforming kids to know that they don’t necessarily have to wait until they can get away. Obviously, sometimes you do have to get away, but I think the idea that you must is kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

How did you balance your desire to write a book that trans and queer people would see themselves in, while also appealing to an audience that might not be familiar with this experience?

It was a complicated dance to get that right. The greatest artistic challenge in writing Sissy was answering this question: How do I create a book that will resonate as deeply with my most-radical activist trans friends in New York as with my next-door neighbor from childhood? It often feels like we have to choose whether we’re writing for our community or for everyone else. That dichotomy can be really damaging sometimes, especially for queer and trans artists who are trying to stay true to their voice while also wanting to communicate to a broad audience.

For me, part of the solution was using humor to bring everything together. I also chose not to be overly concerned about whether “mainstream readers"—whoever that is—understood every single bit of terminology or every gender-studies concept. We don’t need to write a “Trans and Nonbinary 101” book for readers to fully understand the heartbreak of being a queer, feminine child. You also don’t need to fully understand the term “nonbinary” in order to laugh at my jokes and read about my struggle with figuring out what femininity means to me.

My editor asked if we should define the word cisgender the first time it comes up. But that felt like such a 101 gesture. Instead, I added this footnote: “If you don’t know what cisgender means by now, that’s probably because you are cisgender. Bless your heart.” And that’s, honestly, I think some of my finest work. I think it’s important for readers who aren’t totally familiar with all this to push themselves a little bit. This is a workout video. If you don’t feel like you’re moving and getting some mental cardio in, then I haven’t done my job.

On the subject of terminology, I wanted to ask about the decision to call the book Sissy. What drew you to that word as opposed to any number of the other cruel words that are hurled at queer kids?

I chose that title because it was the first label that was put on me as a child. Before I even knew what the word gay meant, I knew that I was a sissy. One thing that’s beautiful about that word is that because it isn’t used as an identity label in a formal sense, it bridges the experiences of many different folks in the queer, gender nonconforming, and trans communities. Lots of trans women were called sissies when they were children and lots of gay men were called sissies when they were kids. Even straight men are called sissies when their gender is policed. For me, it was about reclaiming a term that is deployed against so many of us and really unites almost everyone—both on and off on the LGBTQ spectrum—when it comes to how we experience our childhood and adolescence.

The other thing that I love about the term is that it’s also an abbreviation for sister. Like, “Hey, sissy. What’s up?” There’s something so beautiful about that, too. It communicates a sense of sisterhood that I share with all women and feminine people, and it’s also about connecting the shame that gender nonconforming, trans, gay, bi, and queer children experience. It felt like a reclamation and like connective tissue. And it’s also a bit of a “fuck you” to all the people who thought that it was a bad thing. I’m like, “No, I was such a cute little sissy.”

Colin Laidley is an editor at Cakeboy magazine.