Healing in Public
Jacob Tobia on their upcoming memoir, social acceptance, and becoming less afraid.
By Siena Oristaglio
Jacob Tobia is a writer, producer, and author of the forthcoming memoir Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story with Putnam Books at Penguin Random House. Currently living in Los Angeles, Jacob was recently named to the Biden Foundation’s Advisory Council for Advancing LGBTQ Equality. In spring of 2018, Jacob produced and starred in a critically acclaimed revival reading of the Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning play I Am My Own Wife by Doug Wright, and was announced as the new face of Fluide Beauty, a line of trans and queer-inclusive makeup. We chatted with them about their upcoming memoir, building emotional sustainability as an artist, and the artists whose work they've been engaging with recently.
How do you describe your work?
I'd say that, first and foremost, I'm a storyteller and a healer. I try to use the power of language, performance, and the written word to help people reconnect with their own trauma around gender — from small slights to major incidents. We live in a world that destroys our ability to authentically connect with our gender before we can even walk, before we can make a choice for ourselves. We are taught early on which parts of ourselves we must augment and which parts of ourselves we must erase in order to be acceptable in society. For most people, that process is deeply hurtful, even if we can't recall the pain. It is what makes growing up so difficult. We make horcruxes early in our lives by murdering parts of ourselves. As a healer and a storyteller, I believe it's my job to help people find and heal the parts of themselves, however minuscule, that they killed in order fit into the gender binary. That looks like a lot of different things. It looks like pitching and creating TV shows. It looks like writing my first book. It looks like authoring op-eds. It looks like engaging with public policy thinkers and think tanks. And it looks like posting a fuck-ton on Instagram.
What current projects that you're working on are you most excited about? What excites you about them?
Right now, my book Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story is almost all that I can think about. It'll be coming out in Spring of 2019 and we're at a really exciting part of the process, where we're doing things like finalizing fonts and finishing up the cover design and planning the marketing/PR rollout and it's all so thrilling. I can't wait for it to live and breathe in the world. It's my heart and soul and I am so excited to share it with the universe.
I'd love to hear about your upcoming memoir, Sissy. What prompted you to write it? What was the most challenging part of the writing process?
I started writing Sissy because I couldn't help myself. In my life, I have written so many short, 800-1500 word essays about different facets of my gender identity, but there are more complicated truths that you simply cannot explain in short form. There are certain stories and memories and ideas and concepts that require context and volume in which to be expressed. I needed to write a book because I was desperate to share a fuller version of myself and my story with the world. What's been beautiful about the project is that it's surprised me. Going into it, I assumed that writing the book would just be a lot of grueling work, but it couldn't have been further from that. Writing Sissy is the single most healing, restorative thing I have ever done. I mean, think about it: how often do we center ourselves as the protagonists in our own lives? How often do we take the time to rewrite our historical trauma and challenges, but with our younger selves as the heroes of the story? Writing Sissy was the best therapy I've ever undertaken, because I had to stare my demons in the face and extend radical empathy to them. It's my hope that, the more I can heal in public, the more other queer and trans people can, too.
We're interested in the notion that creative success means something different to every artist. Can you describe a moment in recent history when you felt that you succeeded creatively?
About a month ago, I was working on the final version of my manuscript before it was to be sent off to my publisher to be formatted into book pages, and there was one part of the book centering around college graduation where I just knew that I hadn't written my best work. I knew that I was glazing over things, but didn't think I had the creative energy or time to fix it. And then, like an eleventh hour miracle, I finally figured out what I needed to say. I sat down at my computer at noon on the day that the draft was set to be finalized and I wrote what was perhaps the most brilliant seven paragraphs of my entire life. It was like nirvana. It was like electricity. It was transcendence. In those moments, when something is just flowing through you from goddess knows where, you almost feel like a prophet. It's sublime. I live for moments like that. That's what success looks like for me.
What are some of channels you use to connect with your audience? How do you most like to make use of these channels?
I mostly use Instagram, but it's hard. I never feel like I'm enough for the platform. It fills me to the brim with feelings of inadequacy. Every time I log on and see who is getting engagement and who isn't, it makes me feel ugly and boring and undesirable and poor. It's something I'm increasingly trying to work on, because on the one hand, people tell me that seeing me on Instagram gives helps them to feel supported and powerful in the world. But participating in Instagram culture makes me feel terrible about myself. So how can I engage with my main audience-building platform when it is also the thing that most undoes me? How can your main source of support also be your greatest trigger, your greatest mental health challenge? That's the unbearable conundrum of queer and trans visibility I guess.
What is something that you've done that has helped you build sustainability (emotional, financial, or otherwise) into your practice?
The best thing I've done for myself lately is learned to walk to work. I never, ever start my day working from home. I always make myself get up, get showered, and walk to the coffeeshop near my apartment to check emails and start my day. Getting out of the house each morning, first thing, puts me on track for a productive day most every day and it's the only reason I'm able to have a career. It's ironic, but Hollywood is extremely difficult for extroverts. As someone who thrives when surrounded by dozens of colleagues and coworkers and other people each day, the isolation of developing my career and building up to making my own show can be punishing. And then I'll get a gig, or a project will move forward, and for about a month or so, I'll be super super busy and back to back and completely surrounded by other people. And then it'll dry up again and I'll be alone. So finding a ritual to combat the feeling of isolation — walking to the coffeeshop first thing, getting out into the world first thing every single day and accepting that that means paying $4 for a latte — is the only way that I've been able to make it through the precarity of my early career. It's been worth every single dollar. Cups of coffee are the best investment I have ever made in my mental and professional health.
Whose work have you been engaging with this summer? How has the work of others influenced your own over the past few months?
I've been super inspired by my friend Blake (@JohnDeeriere on Instagram). His work is such a refreshing rebellion for me. He talks so openly about being a queer person from the south/midwest and feeling completely alienated living in cities like Los Angeles and New York, which is 100% my experience. As someone who grew up in North Carolina, as someone from the "underdeveloped" "uncultured" part of the country, I've always held a lot of resentment about the fact that I HAD TO move to Los Angeles or New York if I wanted to have a career as an artist. It's so unfair that I had to leave behind my family and home community in order to have my voice heard, but it's how our entertainment and media industries are built, even in the internet age. Blake has helped me to be less afraid of claiming my dissonance from Los Angeles, from New York City, from "big cities," and from wealthy/connected/cultured people. These are places and people that have mistreated me as much (if not more) than they have treated me well, and I felt afraid to talk about that for a long time. So I'm super inspired by Blake.
I'm also really inspired by Roxane Gay and her book Hunger. There is something so compelling about her prose. It is accessible yet sublime, literary while effortless. She aches onto the page and compels her audience to face that without remedy. Her work is an exercise in the limits of empathy, in compelling people to feel the kind of powerlessness that unruly bodies (of many types) are subjected to in our world. In a media landscape where I feel constant and relentless pressure to be a "perky trans writer," Roxane is a shining beacon of how you can have a career as a person of difference by simply aching, by bleeding onto the page and not apologizing for the mess.
Where is the best place for people to keep up with your work?
Sadly, Instagram is where I do most of my announcements and stuff. It's the social media platform that is least destructive for my mental health (which is not to say that it isn't destructive for my mental health, just to say that it is least destructive) so it's what I use most often. Follow me if you please, but much, much more importantly, buy my book Sissy when it comes out next Spring <3 And please buy from your local bookstore if you can afford to! And be sure to pass the book around to friends who don't have a lot of money right now so that they can read it too. Borrowed books are happy books 🙂
Jacob Tobia is a writer, producer, and author of the forthcoming memoir Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story with Putnam Books at Penguin Random House. As a performer, visionary, and internet personality, Jacob helps others embrace the full complexity of gender and own their truth, even when that truth is messy as hell. Currently living in Los Angeles, Jacob was recently named to the Biden Foundation’s Advisory Council for Advancing LGBTQ Equality. In spring of 2018, Jacob produced and starred in a critically acclaimed revival reading of the Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning play I Am My Own Wife by Doug Wright, and was announced as the new face of Fluide Beauty, a line of trans and queer-inclusive makeup.
A member of both the Forbes 30 Under 30 and the OUT 100, Jacob made their debut on the national stage when they were interviewed by Laverne Cox as part of MTV’s The T Word. In 2015, Jacob was profiled by MTV in the one hour, GLAAD Award-nominated episode of True Life: I’m Genderqueer, and in 2016, Jacob created, coproduced, and hosted Queer 2.0, a first-of-its-kind LGBTQ series on NBC News. In 2017, they served as the Social Media Producer on Season 4 of Amazon’s Emmy Award-winning series, Transparent and collaborated with Instagram and GLAAD to produce #KindComments, a custom campaign for Trans Day of Visibility that was viewed over 14 million times.
A Point Foundation Scholar, Harry S. Truman Scholar, and recipient of the Campus Pride National Voice and Action Award, Jacob has captivated audiences at Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, South by Southwest, and conferences across the country with their message of personal fabulosity and social change. Their writing and advocacy have been featured on MSNBC, MTV, The Washington Post, The New York Times, TIME, New York Magazine, Teen Vogue, Playboy, The Guardian, and Jezebel, among others.
Originally from Raleigh, North Carolina, Jacob graduated Summa Cum Laude from Duke University with a degree in Human Rights Advocacy. Prior to their career in television, Jacob worked at the United Nations Foundation, the Human Rights Campaign, and the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice. Jacob is an avid Sriracha devotee and has worn high heels in the White House twice (take that Donald!)
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