Jacob Tobia is an advocate for gender nonconforming, genderqueer, and transgender people. Tobia currently works for Out Leadership, an advising firm that partners leaders across industries to promote LGBT equality.
Harvard Political Review: You’ve spoken with many different audiences and student groups. Let’s say you’re speaking with a group of people who are less familiar with LGBT issues or are more socially conservative. How do you explain what it means to be genderqueer and the importance of your advocacy work?
Jacob Tobia: When you’re trying to frame your message for people who don’t share your experience, it’s really critical to find some sort of common thread that can pull them into your story and the issues that impact your community. The main thing that I think is most effective when you’re talking to people about gender diversity and the trans community and genderqueer and gender nonconforming people is to talk about the general idea of difference. If you ask any person on this planet, “When is a time you felt different? When is a time you didn’t feel like everybody else” every single person has an answer. And every single person has an answer of when it felt good to be different, and they felt like they were special and exceptional and felt like they were unique and wonderful. And everybody has a story of where it felt really bad to be different.
As simple and perhaps pedantic as that may sound, I think if you talk to people about “When is a time you felt different?” and they tell you any story, you can say, “Exactly. That’s how the gender binary feels to me. That’s how I feel when it comes to gender.” I think that’s something everybody can relate to.
When you take the lingo out of it, it really is something that is fundamentally about difference and about respect.
HPR: How did you come to celebrate your differences? To cherish them and share them with the rest of the world?
JT: It wasn’t easy. I feel like I spent the first 16 years of my life being put in the cage. I spent the past six, seven years try to break out [of it]. From a very early age I was aware that I was different when it came to gender. The binary never really worked for me from my earliest memories of childhood. Most of my earliest memories are of some kind of gender dysphoric experience. Some kind of experience where I wanted to navigate the world in a way that felt natural to me, but the world said I couldn’t because it didn’t work with the dominant scheme of gender.
I have memories about being made fun of for not learning how to ride my bike early enough because I was a boy and boys were supposed to learn how to ride their bikes really early, and if I were a girl no one would have cared this much … I remember having a day where I came home in tears and watched all the other kids and their bikes.
I remember I formed friendships very naturally that didn’t conform to the gender expectations. I was friends with girls and very effeminate people very naturally in my childhood, and I remember being made fun of mercilessly for that. Boys aren’t supposed to be friends with girls, and I was breaking the rules. And what did that make me? That made me a sissy, that made me inadequate, that made me weird.
So I’ve always known that this thing didn’t work for me. I feel like I spent a good part of my early life negotiating how to survive in the world in a way that felt half authentic. I gravitated a lot towards music and the arts and towards theater, because they were places where I wouldn’t have to suffer some of the persecution that comes with being a feminine child. I was able to express that in a way.
HPR: There have been few representations of gender nonconforming people in the mass media, especially compared to other minority groups. How did you come to discover and articulate your identity when you were trying to figure out who you are and how you want to define yourself?
JT: It was clumsy. There wasn’t representation for me to see, and there wasn’t language that was put into my life to describe who I was and to conceptualize my identity. Because I didn’t have little possibility models I didn’t start to figure things out until much later. I remember what really started to change that was access to education, and particularly starting my high school career when I started to hang out with college LGBT organizers as part of my high school LGBT organizing work. I started attending college queer conferences at UNC Chapel Hill and a few other places, and I think that was the first time I was really first exposed to the language such as “genderqueer” or “gender nonconforming” or “trans” that helped me to understand myself better.
For me, I think my journey towards it was really through literature and through theory. It finally started to explain in a way that made sense to me how I was experiencing the world.
HPR: The past few years have seen progress with LGBTQ issues and with gay rights in particular. Do you think that this national trend has been all inclusive? Has it encompassed the entire LGBTQ community? Or have you felt that certain groups under that umbrella have been excluded or given less preference?
JT: I think that the LGBTQ movement right now is in a very precarious place, perhaps more precarious than ever, at least since the 80s. I think what’s really happened over the past 20 years is that the gay rights movement—and I say “gay rights” very specifically here—has really latched onto the notion that gay people are just like you. We love just like you love, and that all love is equal. Nationally, we’ve taken a short term strategy in order to gain same sex marriage that has often worked in opposition to long term strategies that will help liberate trans people, queer people of color, working class people of color, working class LGBT people, and people who have intersectional ideas where they might not look just like the “average” American.
I think we’ve had a very majoritarian strategy that’s been aimed at appealing to a majority of voters in the American public. I worry because that strategy hasn’t pulled from the least common denominator of the LGBT community. It hasn’t risen everybody equally. It’s risen white LGBT people, and given rights to white LGBT people. It’s given more rights to men than women within the LGBT community, and given more rights to cis people than to trans people in the LGBT community, and given more rights to gay white cis men overall over everyone else.
Overall there’s still maybe been some progress for everyone else on the coattails of that, but I really worry that on the eve of getting same sex marriage legalized by the Supreme Court on a national level, perhaps this April or May, I really worry that we’re going to see a huge drop-off where the people who have the most power in our community are going to sort of lose interest now that they’ve gotten everything that they need. I really hope that we won’t have that kind of falling out, that we’ll stay together, but I really worry about that.
HPR: How would you like to reverse these trends?
JT: The main thing I’ve seen is that we need a complete refocus on issues of racial justice, on issues specifically impacting trans people, on issues impacting women, and on issues impacting immigrant communities. I think we need to be much more intentional in targeting those intersections which have been left behind in the pursuit of same sex marriage. My hope is that the people who are donating so generously to the pursuit of same sex marriage will turn right back around and then donate to all of these other issues and will put their money behind the trans community and will put their money behind queer people of color and will put their money behind women’s rights and will put their money behind an intersecting approach for the LGBT community. But I worry that may not happen.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Image credit: Jacob Tobia