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Jenn T. Grace – Episode 85 – Jacob Tobia Shares How to Build a Personal Brand Platform with MeaningThank you for tuning into episode #85 of the podcast. In this episode I speak with Jacob Tobia who is a leading voice for genderqueer, nonbinary and gender nonconforming people. We discussed in great length what it means to be genderqueer, or gender nonconforming, and talked to some degree about the political landscape that our country is in right now. Jacob is originally from North Carolina, so we got a chance to talk a little bit about the bathroom bills in North Carolina. But what we really focused our time on was really just kind of dissecting this whole spectrum of gender, and the fact that it is a nonbinary spectrum. Have a listen and please feel free to comment below and let me know your thoughts! To join the mailing list to have these podcasts sent to you, click here, that way you’ll never have to remember! One less thing to worry about! 🙂
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Jenn T Grace: You are listening to the Personal Branding for the LGBTQ Professional Podcast, episode 85.
Introduction: Welcome to the Personal Branding for the LGBTQ Professional Podcast; the podcast dedicated to helping LGBTQ professionals and business owners grow their business and careers through the power of leveraging their LGBTQ identities in their personal brand. You’ll learn how to market your products and services both broadly, and within the LGBTQ community. You’ll hear from incredible guests who are leveraging the power of their identity for good, as well as those who haven’t yet started, and everyone in between. And now your host. She teaches straight people how to market to gay people, and gay people how to market themselves. Your professional lesbian, Jenn – with two N’s – T Grace.
Jenn T Grace: Well hello and welcome to episode 85 of the Personal Branding for the LGBTQ Professional Podcast. I am your host, Jenn Grace, and today I am so excited to bring you an interview. It’s been a couple of episodes since we’ve had an interview, and this is going to be the first of probably eight or nine to come over the next couple of months. So I’m really excited, and I’m not going to make this intro long at all, but I do want to let you know that we are talking with Jacob Tobia today who is a leading voice for genderqueer, nonbinary and gender nonconforming people. We discussed in great length what it means to be genderqueer, or gender nonconforming, and talked to some degree about the political landscape that our country is in right now. Jacob is originally from North Carolina, so we got a chance to talk a little bit about the bathroom bills in North Carolina. But what we really focused our time on was really just kind of dissecting this whole spectrum of gender, and the fact that it is a nonbinary spectrum. And I asked a lot of pointed questions and Jacob had some amazing, amazing answers to them. So I really hope that you learn something from this interview, and then also follow Jacob on social media; they’re on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr, Instagram, all over the place, and the website is www.JacobTobia.com and you can get all sorts of information about them there. And yeah, so I really hope that you enjoy this interview, it was really awesome, and I will talk to you in episode 86. Thanks so much, and enjoy.
Jacob Tobia: At a 30,000 foot view, I’m Jacob, I am a genderqueer writer and speaker and media person, and some would even say a personality perhaps. And I grew up in North Carolina and went to school in North Carolina, and now I live in New York City. And my sort of mission right now, and my mission probably for a good bit of my life, is just sort of getting beyond this idea that there are only two genders. Getting beyond the idea that gender is somehow this oppositional exercise, but there are only two options that you can understand yourself within. And starting to see what a world could look like that understood gender as thousands of possibilities as part of the spectrum, as it actually is. You know? And it’s something that the idea of sort of like convincing the world of this feels daunting at times, but then other times I also have to remind myself that historically there have been points throughout the world, and across cultures, and across time where people already understood this. I don’t think that what I’m saying is necessarily anything new in the context of like people and history. I think it’s just something that in sort of the modern world that we live in, and particularly in the context of the United States, is something people need to hear again if that makes sense.
Jenn T Grace: I think so.
Jacob Tobia: I do a lot of different kinds of work around that from- I did like reality TV last year, I was on an episode of MTV’s True Life, but I also do a lot of writing, and that kind of work, and then do some political organizing, and also I’m working on a book, and all that kind of stuff. So it’s a broad range of things, and all that’s leading towards I think the idea of gender nonconforming, and gender nonbinary folks being able to reclaim our full humanity.
Jenn T Grace: So if someone’s listening to this, and this is a podcast about kind of personal branding for LGBTQ professionals, and if someone’s listening to this and they may not be completely entrenched in what it means to be genderqueer or nonbinary or gender nonconforming. How would you give kind of a high level overview of the best way to describe that, to get somebody who may not fully understand what you’re saying to really just kind of land the plane for them?
Jacob Tobia: Yeah I mean I think nonbinary gender is really brilliantly simple when you get down to it, right? Every system in nature, every system in the world that we live in has nuance and is built across a wide array of representations, right? Anytime you categorize something, there are going to be things in between the categories that you’ve created. Especially when you create two categories for a wide array of types of people. So I think a lot about gender like I think about color. The visible color spectrum, if you try to divide the visible color spectrum into two types of color, you’re going to have a very difficult time parsing out many of the shades, and figuring out sort of where they belong. And I think what the nonbinary movement, and what genderqueer people sort of claim is that it’s okay to sort of say, ‘Well we have this world where we’re classifying people as warm colors and cool colors, and I’m actually kind of like a yellow green.’ Like I’m somewhere in the middle of that, and actually all of us are somewhere in the middle of that, and no one of us really matches the architype of this sort of general thing that we’ve created. So in short form, I think that’s a kind of good way to explain it and a good way to conceptualize it. The idea that lumping people into two categories of gender is sloppy. People fall all over the map.
Jenn T Grace: And just as you were talking I was thinking about how there have been times where my wife and I will be talking, and both trying to- because I feel like there’s this stereotype that in any type of same sex relationship, that somebody is going to be the more masculine one, or somebody’s going to be the more feminine one. There’s just kind of the people want to put us all into these very rigid buckets, and we’ve had conversations before where neither of us fall in either direction to an extreme. Like we’re both in this very much a gray area. So that’s for us who are more enlightened to the varied spectrum, if you will. What do you say to the straight folks who may be falling in this gender spectrum somewhere, but don’t even recognize that they’re falling in it? Have you had audiences where you’re talking to folks like this? Because I think of- if I think back to a job I had well over a decade ago, there was a woman who I worked with who everyone made this assumption that she was a lesbian, everyone did, and she was not, she was married to a man and just happened to fall on this gender expression spectrum, and everyone just assumed that that’s who she was and she was hiding. So do you encounter people that need education around I guess that type of component to it as well? Am I making sense?
Jacob Tobia: Yeah so I have a few reactions to that, right? I think one feeling that I have increasingly is that there’s a really strong degree to which sexuality and gender identity have been conflated in pop culture that’s really to the detriment of everybody, right? Because a lot of times- and I think it’s really interesting when you look at sort of discourse through the nineties and early 2000’s around LGBT rights, or a lot of times in that period, gay rights. A lot of things that we’re talked about as anti-gay were actually anti-femme, right? Or anti a certain kind of gender expression. And they used the word gay as a sort of coverall, but like I think it’s really interesting talking about this woman at your office who was more masculine and was assumed to be a lesbian. Like the adversity that she faced has probably little to do- like the primary root of the adversity she faced was that she was gender nonconforming, right? Not that she had- the perceived sexuality came secondarily to that, right?
Jenn T Grace: Correct.
Jacob Tobia: So I think that it’s interesting when we talk about gay and lesbian folks in the context of gender diversity, and oftentimes there are deep gender issues within the community that impact some people and don’t impact others because we aren’t good at applying the label gender nonconforming to ourselves and others, right? Because it’s interesting when you sort of said like, “Oh well how would you talk to straight folks about this?” First my gut reaction, my initial reaction was like well actually I mean how do you talk to gay folks about it? Like I actually think that in this sort of modern understanding of gay and lesbian identity, most gay and lesbian folks that I know are relatively attached to their identity as men or women. Most people who use the word gay or lesbian that I know don’t dis-identify with the gender binary.
Jenn T Grace: Good point.
Jacob Tobia: Don’t identify outside of manhood or womanhood. And so I think that there’s a lot of education that we need to do within our own community around creating safer spaces for gender expression, and allowing people the ability to express themselves. So I think it’s making the imperative for understanding one that only applies to heterosexual folks is really limits the scope is a way that doesn’t keep the LGBT community accountable to its own prejudice, because we have a great number of prejudices baked into our community because we are a really wide diverse community, right? Like there have been masculine gay men who have been worse to me as a femme than straight men have been. Like and I think it’s important to mark that, that this isn’t- like gender nonconformity is not innately understood by people because they are gay or lesbian if their gender identity has always fallen within the lines. So there’s sort of that thought. I know it’s a complicated kind of like answer.
Jenn T Grace: No I think this is great.
Jacob Tobia: The other thought that I have around sort of how you talk to people who identify in a binary way about the fact that they are also on a spectrum of gender. And I think it’s actually not very hard. I don’t think it’s rocket science to talk to people about where they fall on the gender spectrum because everyone, even people who identify as men or as women, have had moments where their gender was policed, or they’ve policed the gender of somebody else. And the one thing that’s been really cool that I’ve seen involved in my work over the past year or so, I started doing more and more speaking, more and more public speaking, and talking all kinds of places. I gave a talk at Princeton Theological Seminary to a very religious audience, I’ve given talks to high schools and middle schools, I’ve given talks at colleges to radical queers, I’ve given talks to corporate audience; I’ve been talking in a lot of different types of rooms, but it’s interesting because every room, no matter what the sort of political leanings of the room are, or how queer the room is or not, it’s been incredible that kind of the same core message resonates with people in the same way. When I ask people, “When was a time when you were told that you were not good enough because of the way you were performing your gender. When was a time that you were told that you couldn’t do something because it wasn’t something that boys or girls do?” And every single person I have ever spoken to in my entire life has an answer to that question, and has a moment they remember when their gender was policed. And I think that that’s where we can really think about like this is something that’s fundamental to all of humanity, right? Like everyone experiences this, and it doesn’t take a lot of effort to sort of mainstream the discourse because it necessarily is baked into everyone’s experience. So I just got better at tapping into that and talking to people honestly about that. And probably my biggest moment of triumph in that regard was that I spoke to a high school in lower Manhattan actually, and I was talking to this group of high schoolers, and gave my whole presentation, and at the end of it I said, “I’d love to hear from some of you. Like when are moments that you have had your gender policed, or been told that your gender was not acceptable?” And it’s easy I think given where we come and sort of how we talk about femininity versus masculinity culturally; it’s easier for young girls to talk about ways in which their gender has been policed or their gender has limited them. I think that young women and femmes are taught from an early age to think about their gender broadly, right? I think to think about their gender. Whereas I think that a lot of young boys and young men and young masculine people aren’t taught to think about their gender as something other than a static entity. They’re not taught to interrogate it or think about it. So in the context of a high school assembly, it’s pretty easy for a girl to stand up and socially acceptable almost for a girl to stand up and say, “Oh well I was told that I couldn’t play this sport because that wasn’t girly enough.” Or “I was told that I wasn’t allowed to wear my hair a certain way because that’s not what girls are supposed to do.” But getting young men to stand up in front of their peers in a classroom setting and say something about how their gender has been policed is a lot harder, and one of the biggest markers of success for me, is if I can get men in the audience to talk critically about their gender, then I know that people have really heard me. And I was in this assembly, and I was talking to 150 high school students, and it was the end of the assembly and at the end of it I asked that question, and a few girls answered, and then I said, “Is there anyone who identifies as a guy who would be willing to answer this? Is there anyone who’s courageous enough to step up to talk about it? I mean I’ve told a million examples in my life of when this has happened, but like is someone willing to talk about this in their own experience? Because I know that ya’ll have been through it.” And this one guy just raised his hand and he seemed to be like one of the cool kids or whatever, and he was just like, “Yeah I’m Brazilian, and in Brazilian culture guys dance a lot. And when I moved to the US, people told me that I wasn’t- that it was too girly to dance the way that I dance. But like I’m going to keep dancing the way that I dance because I’m awesome.” And I was just sort of like- it was a real moment for me when he felt able to speak to the ways in which the policing of masculinity had hurt him, or had sought to interfere with his authenticity. So I think that this bridge is not that hard to build, we just need to create the space for it. I think you just need to create the time and the place for people to think about these things critically.
Jenn T Grace: And do you find that there are more people or even a percentage of people within the LGBTQ community that are more critical of what you’re doing? Because for me personally, I find that there is a very big divide, a little bit of what you were touching on a few minutes ago, between people who identify as lesbian and gay versus even people who identify as trans. There seems to be this divide that not everyone understands each other. And then there’s the argument that not everyone should be lumped under the same umbrella. So for you who this is what you’re doing for a living, you are out there advocating on behalf of this particular subject, do you find that trying to move the needle within the L, G piece of the community tends to be a rough road at times?
Jacob Tobia: To be frank, I generally have really positive interaction with folks who identify as lesbian. Because I think that within queer women’s communities and within lesbian women’s communities, there has always been kind of baked in an appreciation for gender diversity, and like you could be butch or you could be femme, and if you’re a queer woman both of those are attractive positions. Like I know butch women who date other butch women, I know femme women who date other femme women, I know butches who date femmes, like I know femmes who date butches, and that is sort of baked into the experience of so many queer women that I know. And there’s sort of this- I think this real freedom there in queer and lesbian women’s communities that I deeply admire. I don’t think that most of the queer lesbian women that I’ve talked to have really had any kind of deep issues with the message that I’m bringing. Because also I’m very quick to note that the message I’m bringing into the community is not really a new one. It’s not a new one at all. Like gender nonconforming people have been part of the queer community since the queer community started, and will always be. I think it’s just that in the context of the current LGBT movement, one that has focused for a decade now on assimilation and sort of mainstreaming our bodies and ourselves- and making ourselves palatable to the ‘moveable middle.’ I think that in that context we’ve really lost a lot of our roots. We’ve really lost a lot of the natural and fabulous understanding of gender diversity that queer community has always had in the interest of gaining political rights. So the people that I really have issues with are the gay men. What it really comes down to for me is just unresolved trauma. There are so many gay men out there who were just bullied mercilessly, or have felt isolated for their entire lives, and they finally get to a city where they can feel okay, and then they have a very defensive, aggressive and closed minded masculinity that when they see someone who’s femme and unashamed and happy about it like I am, it can be hard. Because it’s kind of like when you haven’t recovered and you haven’t healed, and you see someone who’s done that healing, it can engender a lot of jealousy, it can bring about a lot of pain, or there’s like some trauma that you just haven’t coped with that you don’t know how to cope with, and you’re not ready for someone like me to sashay in the room and remind you of that.
Jenn T Grace: Yeah.
Jacob Tobia: And you know my thing is I’m kind of like- it’s hard for me because I want to get angry and frustrated with cis gay men for being so exclusionary, and in the context of political worlds I do. Like I also am a queer historian in my academic community, and the sort of degree to which gay white men in particular sort of whitewashed and masculine washed the gay rights movement, and made gay something synonymous with being cisgender, and with being gender conforming, and with being two dudes in tuxes at a wedding alter. Like the way in which gay men proactively created and then recreated images of the most palatable types of gay men I think is an incredible front against our own community that like one day I think we’ll be able to see in its full historical context. Right? Like I think one day we’ll be able to understand the fight for marriage equality as a fight that deeply harmed so many within our community, and told so many within our community that they did not have worth or value in the quest of getting those who wanted mainstream worth or value, who had not healed from their isolation as children, who had not healed from their queer trauma, to sort of stay in a place where they didn’t have to feel. I don’t know, I get all heavy about it, that’s where it lives, that’s where these things live. And I think that the proof in the pudding is just that like if you go on any sort of dating app, if you look at any gay magazine, like what bodies are there? Who is celebrated and who is excluded? And it’s not hard, you don’t have to look far. One of my friends, Jamal, is currently directing a film called ‘No Fats, No Femmes,’ and it’s all about exploring these mysteries and these lineages of white supremacy and masculine supremacy, patriarchy and body shaming within the gay community, and how we got to a place where all of those things seem to be so profoundly socially acceptable.
Jenn T Grace: And they’re perpetuated in advertising and marketing. Yeah I totally agree. So I am not a queer history buff in any way. I have my own experiences and I have at least my limited knowledge, but my thought now is that I should be looking into it because I feel like if we look at what marketers and advertisers are doing, or large corporations, or even big and small companies that are reaching out to the LGBT community, they’re really reaching out to that one segment of the community that you were just speaking so specifically about. Where it’s masculine men, white, in perfect shape, and people are like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re LGBT friendly, or we’re welcoming of the community,’ and in reality all they’re really looking at are affluent gay, white men specifically who are very specific in gender conforming. So I guess maybe that’s where all these marketers and advertisers originally got that thought that that’s how they should do it, is from what you’re describing now.
Jacob Tobia: Yeah and I think the view is just so deeply myopic. Right? And this is something that even in my own work, like right now I’m working on selling a book proposal, and it’s interesting because I think that a lot of people who in sort of the corporate world particularly, it’s not just that they have so little imagination. It’s that they’ve been taught for so long that these are the stories and the ways that you have to talk about being gay. And I still think using the word gay is important there, or being trans even now, I think there’s starting to be some of a discourse around that, that it has to be kind of this very polished, rounded out, self-serious reverent thing. And that like the only worthwhile endeavor than to building a base within the LGBT community are tapping into the rich, white, gay men who buy vodka. Like it’s sort of- I think that that’s really the approach that people take in a lot of the corporate world, at least when it comes to sort of marketing. And it’s interesting because I think that that actually creates this really nasty feedback loop where what we have now is we have this series of corporations that are used to telling gay men- particularly gay men what their desires are, and then gay men learn those behaviors and see those behaviors modeled by others. And then like you have this sort of feedback loop of a company says, ‘Oh you want to buy a lot of vodka and fancy underwear and designer jeans, and those are the things that matter to you as a gay man. If you’re going to blend in, you need to be able to deal with all of those, right?
Jenn T Grace: Yes.
Jacob Tobia: And then the companies say that to you, and all the magazines that you’re reading like if you go to Out Magazine or Advocate or something and look at the ads. And then you internalize that as a gay person, and then create the demand for that to be advertised more. And so I think that we have this way in which the sort of marketing endeavors that have been undertaken by a lot of consumer brands aimed at the gay community specifically have created a specific kind of gay identity that is so bad for us as a group, right? And it’s just funny to me because it’s like when are we going to sort of disrupt that economy? Right? When are we going to say that we’re not playing that game anymore? When are we going to acknowledge that there’s an entire generation of young people for whom that has no resonance? There’s an entire generation of young people for whom Tumblr and social justice meme, and Gender Fabulosity, and Gender Transgression, and authenticity, and power, and talking about feeling and all those things is much more relevant than any vodka ad could ever be.
Jenn T Grace: Absolutely.
Jacob Tobia: How do we create a broader, more expansive public face around all of that?
Jenn T Grace: So when we’re looking at what you’re doing. So you had started off saying that you have been in corporate environments talking to people, and just kind of educating them around this stuff, and you’ve been in environments where it might be a middle school, high school, college. For you personally, where are you getting the most enjoyment as far as knowing that you’re making a difference? Because I feel like- so my whole thing is teaching around the LGBT community kind of at large, and I also am in corporate settings as well as speaking with schools. So I have my own frame of where I think you can really make an impact, but I feel like everyone just has that ‘I love talking to this particular audience because I can just see the lightbulb moment,’ or whatever it happens to be. So for you, like where are you really finding that you’re just completely inspired and want to keep giving of yourself, because you can see the impact happening so quickly.
Jacob Tobia: Well I think there are two answers to that, right? The speaking engagements that feel most difficult are often the ones that are most rewarding, right? But the ones where I have to really sort of work where I’m sort of like dodging bullets the whole time, where I’m kind of doing a unique sort of acrobatic to make sure that my message is heard by everyone in the room. Those are definitely more challenging, and certainly aren’t as comfortable, but are I think probably the most important kind of work that I do. So for example, if you start saying what is the most naturally energizing, fabulous place for me and the kind of stuff that I do? The most fabulous engagements that I do are definitely on college campuses, right? Because people are at a point in their identity in their development, they’re at a point in their lives where they are ready for the kind of analysis that I’m bringing and they’re energized about it, and they want to hear it, and we are moving this thing together. So those spaces are really exciting and rewarding but they’re also relatively easy, right? Like I’m not scared going in to speak to a college queer straight alliance. Or a queer student union at a university. Or even like a women’s studies conference. Like none of those things are particularly scary for me because I know that I’m going into really sort of friendly territory where people are not only like capable of hearing what I’m saying, but they like actively want to, right? The rooms that are a little more challenging are the corporate engagements that I do, and the primary school engagements that I do. So like talking to high schools and middle schools is definitely a unique challenge because you are constantly going back and forth between making sure that you’re speaking in a way that isn’t going to bother administrators, but also acknowledging that actually the students you’re speaking to are way further along in their development than their administrators want to admit. Right? So learning to sort of find a way to make these complicated ideas about queer liberation, and all that stuff accessible to a really young audience in the context of being super biased by teachers and administrators. Figuring out how to do that dance takes a bit of choreography, but sometimes when you’re able to pull it off it feels like more of an accomplishment because you’re balancing something that’s more nuanced. And I think the same thing goes for corporate spaces, right? Where you have to be able to challenge people just enough. Like there is sort of- and you have to be able to have just the right amount of the irreverence, and just the right amount of sort of outside instigator energy without sort of turning people off completely. Because the change in the corporate world matters. Also I can be transparent about the fact that corporate audiences can be a challenge because a lot of times in corporate audiences I may be speaking to an organization where a lot of their structure and what they do in the world is something that I don’t- I’m not really here for all the time, right? But do I know that a lot of the bad behavior of Corporate America comes from the fact that patriarchal people with a lot of masculine trauma are running it? Absolutely. And is me being able to be there hopefully a step towards healing some of that trauma for people and creating a space where men are able to interrogate the way that masculinity has traumatized them, and think about how that’s shaped their behavior and the way that they feel they must relate to the world? And then will that in turn potentially help them think about how they think masculinity has informed the way they feel they must approach business, and must approach other people, and must approach accountability, and community in the broader context? I sure hope so. It’s hard to say at any point if you’re really making the transformation that you want, but that challenge too is more rewarding when you’re able to do it right because it is such a challenge.
Jenn T Grace: Yeah. So let’s go back for a second. How did you decide- because in looking at your bio, and knowing that you’re from North Carolina I’m not going to not ask you about the bathroom situation at some point. However, in looking at your bio, you have a lot of places that you’ve worked, everything’s advocacy related. At what point I guess did you realize that you had a voice that could be bigger than you, and that you had a platform that you could stand on and go in and start speaking publicly? And then also the fact that you’re working on your book proposal right now. So I guess was there a specific point in time where you just knew that you almost had the obligation to bring your message to the world to help educate people around this?
Jacob Tobia: I don’t think that I really came into it with an understanding of obligation really. It was more that like I wanted to be able to be myself and feel good in that, and necessarily had to learn to explain that to other people. It wasn’t like I sort of came about all this work necessarily selflessly. I think it’s that I sort of tried to enter into the professional world, I tried to sort of like start moving, and I realized how little space there was for people like me, and I realized how hard the world was fighting to keep me in a box I guess. To keep me within sort of a safe, masculine space. And really what that did for me, was I realized look, if you ever want to sort of be able to be yourself, you’re going to have to explain this to people, and you’re going to have to figure out a way to do it. And you can do that in this sort of bubble, like you can explain that to a small number of people and create a safe space for yourself, and feel good in it, like build your cool queer community in New York where you can feel good, and don’t worry so much about everybody else, but that never felt satisfying. I don’t like the idea that I can only be accepted or heard, or affirmed, or seen, or valued in one small specific space. Like I don’t like that idea at all. And so I think it was also for my own stubbornness, about being like, ‘Dammit I should be able to go anywhere and speak with anyone, and be fully validated and heard and understood by them. Like that should not be something that is impossible, or should not seem difficult in the world.’ And so I think that a lot of that is what really inspired me to sort of push into this advocacy work, and to take it on in a substantial way which was just a desire to get my humanity back. And a sort of unwillingness to accept a world where I’m supposed to be erased. And so I think it’s necessarily gone more public because- the other thing I’m deeply committed to is when I always think about my activism, I think a lot about my younger self. I think about kids growing up in suburban or non-major urban center areas, who have a sort of culture and an understanding of gender that is informed so much by national media, and by what national media is telling them around how gender is allowed to exist. And I want to make sure that my work is able to be heard and seen in those communities, like the ones I grew up in, right? Which is why I refuse to just find my safe community in New York, and stick with that. I want to build my safe community here, and use that as the sort of strength for me to then go out into the rest of the world and really stick it to them.
Jenn T Grace: So in talking about the media, what do you think those messages- at least from your vantage point, do you think that young queer LGBTQ, gender nonconforming, however we’re defining that; what do you think those messages are that they’re getting in those suburban areas? Especially when we look at the really heated political landscape that we’re in right now, and the fact that even our Attorney General made such a profound declaration just a couple of days ago as we’re recording this in May of 2016. What do you think- do you think that younger people are getting- I guess it doesn’t even have to be younger people. Do you think people are getting mixed messages? Or are they getting a really kind of clear cut message that’s not inclusive? What is your kind of take on that?
Jacob Tobia: No I think they’re definitely getting mixed messages. I think that in most of the country, MSNBC and Fox are seen as two legitimate sides of the opinion. And in that context, like what the hell are you supposed to think as a young person, or as any person, right? When both perspectives are seen as fully valid, and one is deeply transphobic and the other is deeply supportive of the trans community? I think that trans people right now are in this moment of visibility that is healing and builds awareness to some extent, but also creates as many challenges of actually living as trans, as some of the invisibility did, right? Like I think that as a community we have been flying under the radar for a long time, and now we’re out in the open and that’s a vulnerable position. I think that vulnerability is starting to come out, and that’s what all this bathroom bill stuff is about. Like when you come out of the shadows as it were, although I would argue that trans people have never been in the shadows, but when you come into a kind of mainstream visibility there’s going to be a reaction because you’re putting yourself out there in a major way for the first time. Or at least for the first time in recent memory. And so I think that what’s happening right now is that half of the world is telling young trans people, ‘Oh there are all these role models and icons, and trans people are making progress, and you should be proud of who you are, and you should own who you are, and that’s wonderful.’ And then the other half of the world is telling young trans people that there’s nothing to be happy about, and that they are abominations, and that they don’t deserve the same rights and freedoms as everybody else. It’s definitely a step forward from where we were, where most trans people prior to this were just told by everyone that their identity was an impossibility. Right? So it’s better to have conflict than nothing, certainly. But I think it’s also important to remember that like that conflict is real for people. It takes a lot of emotional energy to navigate, and it’s not going away anytime soon. Like this is a much, much longer, more prolonged conversation, even than gay rights or LGB rights were, right? Like I think that if we think that the trans community is going to see progress at the same rate as like the sort of gay and lesbian community has, I’m not even sure about that because we’re talking now about gender, and not one aspect of gender nonconformity, but about all of it. And so the other thing I think about too is I worry that right now particularly the visibility of trans people, there’s only a certain kind of trans person who’s very visible right now. And for the most part, the trans people who are visible are passing gender conforming trans men or trans women. And those are who are held up as sort of the icons of the community. And while I don’t see gender conforming and gender nonconforming trans people as in opposition, I think that the desperate visibility that’s imposed on our community gender media is a challenge that we’re going to have to overcome and think about, right? And think about how do we respond to this as a community in a strategic way, not just sort of like accept that it’s an inevitability and move along. Because right now the most marginalized trans people are not even close to visible. Because I think about the bathroom bills issue. Like think about whose selfies have blown up, like whose have gone viral, or who’s been the big spokespeople around this bathroom bill stuff; most of the spokespeople have been passing trans folks who actually aren’t in a lot of risk when they use a public restroom anymore, right?
Jenn T Grace: Correct.
Jacob Tobia: And the people who this bill is mostly targeting, and the people who have issues in the bathroom, and have issues in either bathroom no matter which bathroom they go into, are gender nonconforming people, genderqueer people, and lower income trans folks who cannot afford to transition in a way that ‘allows’ them to pass. So I think that that’s kind of the conversation we need to be having in this new media landscape around trans identity, is which people in the trans community are being heard, and which people in the trans community are being silenced, and who is imposing that silence, and who is granting that visibility, and how do we engage with all this?
Jenn T Grace: Yeah, how do we engage with the folks that are being silenced, and have their voices recognized? Because no one’s recognizing them currently.
Jacob Tobia: That’s a tough question. I’m not going to act like I have all the answers at this point.
Jenn T Grace: Yeah and I don’t think we can compare it completely apples to apples between the L and the G of the community to the T in terms of covering and passing and all that. But I do see that there is a parallel within the L and G specifically when the conversation comes up of people who are passing as straight. So the perhaps masculine looking man, or the feminine looking woman who doesn’t ‘look’ gay. So there is that- I feel like there’s that perception that the media kind of continues to portray as well, which is also harmful. I don’t think it’s nearly as harmful as what’s happening within the trans community, but there’s definitely that happening as well.
Jacob Tobia: Well it’s ironic, right? Because actually what’s happening now in the trans community is the same thing that the gay community did to the trans community in like the eighties and nineties and 2000’s, right? The people who are gender nonconforming are being pushed to the back, and that’s what’s been happening in the LGBT community and the queer community for decades now, right? In the nineties, the logic was like God forbid we put a gay man with a lisp as a spokesperson of anything. Or a gay man who has like slightly more fluid wrists as a spokesperson for anything. God forbid we put an actual stone butch woman as a spokesperson for anything in our community, or ever as sort of a focus of media attention. And the same thing is true- and that was about gender conformity or gender nonconformity, right? Gender conforming gay and lesbian people were picked to sort of be the voices. They were the only voices that really ‘made sense’ in the time. And now we have the trans community doing the same thing to itself that was done to it by other people, where we are only preferencing the voices of gender conforming people and pushing gender conforming and passing trans people to the front of the line, and ensuring that anyone who’s gender nonconforming- like God forbid you wear lipstick and have facial hair. Like we’re pushing those folks to the back, and so I think the very radical proposition of genderqueer and nonbinary activists right now is just sort of refusing two things. A, refusing to be pushed out of the trans community or silenced as a member of the trans community. Like ensuring that we don’t sort of have to create this world where trans is seen as trans people are trans binary people, and nonbinary genderqueer people are something else. Right? Like sort of rejecting that logic, and also just rejecting invisibility. Just refusing to be invisible and using all the tools within our power to refuse that. It’s an exhausting fight, sure.
Jenn T Grace: Of course.
Jacob Tobia: But it’s the most worthwhile fight that I’ve participated in in a while.
Jenn T Grace: Yeah, absolutely. And where do you think- and I’m trying to figure out what the best way to phrase this would be, but where do you think the folks who are part of the trans community who have ‘assimilated,’ and they truly want nothing to do with the fight for equality within the trans community? So the people who are passing as gender conforming, the person that you ‘would never know’ that’s part of the trans community, and it is the people in the media right now that you were just saying are getting the most attention when they’re doing the selfies in the bathroom. It’s the folks that you would just never guess. So where do you think- and those people are obviously advocating because they’re taking selfies in the bathroom to prove a point. But what about- and I don’t know what percentage of the trans community people would fall into in this, but I know plenty of trans people who have no desire to be labeled as such, or have any involvement in moving this equality needle, moving forward?
Jacob Tobia: I mean my view about that, it’s an issue of coming out. It’s the same question of like, ‘Oh do all gay people have the responsibility to come out?’ It’s that sort of same interrogation, it’s just in the life cycle of a trans person you have two opportunities to be in the closet. In the story of the binary trans man or trans woman who has access to the resources necessary to transition in a way that allows them to pass. You have two choices about being in the closet. You have to come out of the closet when you decide to transition, and then you have the option to go back into it, and then sort of go stealth after you’ve transitioned and you are able to sort of embody the gender in a way that doesn’t flag for others your trans experience. And when it comes to coming out, like I’m not going to prescribe for anybody what they should do. I’m not going to tell anybody that it’s wrong to want to finally live your life and feel happy in it. But I am going to say that like we need to not kid ourselves if we act like a world in which trans people have to be invisible after they transition. Like let’s not kid ourselves and act like that’s a world where we’re free, right? But let’s acknowledge that people have an incredible amount of hurt and pain, and sometimes after a long journey you want to rest a little bit, you’re exhausted a little bit. And you know I think I do something equivalent to that, but it’s on a more day to day basis, right? You know there are definitely moments when I’m just like, ‘I don’t have the energy for this right now. Like I’m not going to wear a dress. I kind of want to, but I’m not going to because I’m exhausted.’ When I travel, I almost always wear like jeans and a tee shirt and I look like just a normal dude. Because I just don’t- I’m like traveling is so exhausting already, I don’t want to have to deal with TSA in a skirt, I just don’t. You know? And so I have my own moments when I sort of re-assimilate in order to just like feel okay for a little bit. And so I think those moments, we’re allowed to have them, they’re an important part of healing actually. But for me it’s about I do that so I can save my energy for a longer fight, and for bigger battles, right? Because it’s like I don’t need to engage in every small battle every day. I don’t need to advocate and explain everything to every person who stares at me or catcalls me on the subway, or whatever, right? Like I need to save my energy for the real battles, and for the big battles that I can do. Like I need to save my energy for my activism, and my advocacy, and my broad structural work. Because if I try to fix every little thing every day, then-
Jenn T Grace: You’d be exhausted.
Jacob Tobia: Yeah, and I think the same thing goes for gender nonconforming or for passing trans people, right? The idea of whether or not to sort of disclose or live into the fullness of your identity is a daily decision that you have to make based on kind of like where you’re at, you know? So I just don’t want to moralize about it. I don’t want to act like one position is this really moral high ground, and the other is somehow shameful. I think it’s about us being exhausted, and I think it’s about us having struggled for a very long time.
Jenn T Grace: It’s about finding a balance.
Jacob Tobia: Yeah and sometimes just wanting a release from struggling for a little bit. You know? I’m not going condemn any trans person for how we curate our identities and think about them, because it’s tough. It’s tough out there.
Jenn T Grace: I think that was very well put. So I know that we’re getting close to an hour of recording, and I honestly feel like we could record for five days because there’s so much to talk about. But one of the things in your bio on your website I thought was interesting, and I thought maybe you’d share a little bit. Is that you have worn high heels twice to the White House. I’m more curious- less about the high heels and more curious about what brought you to the White House to begin with.
Jacob Tobia: So every year since the Obama Administration started, the White House has an annual LGBT pride reception that happens in June during Pride Month. And so I’ve been to it twice, once when I was a little baby queer in 2012. It was the year of Amendment 1 in North Carolina which was an amendment that banned all legal recognition of same sex relationships in the state, and it passed in 2012. And so the White House extended a lot of invitations to North Carolina activists who had been fighting it. And so I got to go as part of that. And I wore a big pair of like- they were black, leather five inch heels.
Jenn T Grace: Jeez.
Jacob Tobia: I was like if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this.
Jenn T Grace: All in.
Jacob Tobia: And then last time I went this past June, and that time I had a really cute pair of slingbacks that were I think only three inches. So a little bit more modest. So it was fun though. It was cool sort of like strutting around the east wing, and all that stuff. Like looking at all the pictures, and sort of being in that space, and being like as queer and as fabulous as I am. But also it’s not like- that certainly doesn’t- I think everyone has complicated feelings about the White House as an institution, but I think that there’s been some incredible work that’s been done. So it was certainly really fun to go, and they had lovely snacks.
Jenn T Grace: It’s all about the food, right? So if someone who’s listening wants to reach out and connect with you, I know you are available on a lot of different social media outlets, but where would your preference be to have people connect with you?
Jacob Tobia: If you want to reach out to me, just go to www.JacobTobia.com and there’s a little contact path that you can send a request to, and we can get in touch that way. You can also email just firstname.lastname@example.org and that should go too.
Jenn T Grace: Perfect. Well thank you so much, I feel like this was such an enlightening interview for my audience, and I really appreciate all of the work that you’re doing for the community, because we know that it’s not easy day in and day out. So I feel like you’re onto something amazing.
Jacob Tobia: Well thank you, it was great talking with you, Jenn.
Jenn T Grace: You are very welcome, I appreciate it.
Thank you for listening to today’s podcast. If there are any links from today’s show that you are interested in finding, save yourself a step and head on over to www.JennTGrace.com/thepodcast. And there you will find a backlog of all of the past podcast episodes including transcripts, links to articles, reviews, books, you name it. It is all there on the website for your convenience. Additionally if you would like to get in touch with me for any reason, you can head on over to the website and click the contact form, send me a message, you can find me on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter all at JennTGrace. And as always I really appreciate you as a listener, and I highly encourage you to reach out to me whenever you can. Have a great one, and I will talk to you in the next episode.