It’s no surprise that Jacob Tobia’s debut book, the memoir “Sissy,” has garnered blurbs from the likes of Billie Jean King, Monica Lewinsky and Alan Cumming. Tobia’s gay rights advocacy in college paved the way to an invitation to the White House (not the current administration) and a spot on the Out Magazine 100 and Forbes 30 under 30 lists. A creator and host of the MSNBC series Queer 2.0, Tobia was recently named to the Biden Foundation’s Advisory Council for Advancing LGBTQ Equality and the Clinton Global Initiative Honor Roll. And Tobia did it all wearing both a five o’clock shadow and a flattering shade of lipstick.
“Sissy” is a candid, unapologetic look at Tobia’s journey from child assigned male at birth in a semi-liberal North Carolina family to genderqueer activist on the national stage. In this thought-provoking account, Tobia, who prefers the pronoun “they,” shows how exposure to the world, and gentle, persistent expansion toward the femme, led to a self-knowledge of non-binary gender identity. The author writes with passion and candor (when meeting Obama, Tobia confesses to crushing on him), and what Tobia’s personal story lacks in drama, it makes up for in brash confessions.
Tobia narrates early, definitive incidents charmingly and wisely. In sixth grade, they win a “male beauty pageant” put on, unfathomably, by their Methodist church. Tobia truly enjoys the moment, while noting that the event had a more insidious effect: to create a “public spectacle that created shame around femininity.” Tobia does not miss an opportunity to note what drag shows mean in a heteronormative world. “That night, I learned a toxic lesson, one that would take years to undo,” they write: “People like you are a laughingstock.” About age 16, Tobia comes out to friends and family, and with a few exceptions — most notably their father — is treated with kindness. By the time the author heads off to Duke University, on a full scholarship, Tobia is reasonably comfortable not being straight, but still in some turmoil about what they are, if not gay.
And then Tobia lands in the same dorm with some of the most high-profile young men on campus: Duke basketball players. This seems like a recipe for confrontation, but the players are live-and-let-live types: Sharing dorm space (including a communal bathroom) with Tyler Thornton, Josh Hairston and Kyrie Irving created some awkward situations, Tobia writes, but the athletes were “nothing but kind to me — even when I was wearing heels, even when I had on lipstick.” So much for that minefield.
Still, Duke poses other challenges. Tobia bristles at the school’s Greek system: “Seemingly overnight, a two-gender system was consolidated across campus, the binary fortified in stone.” Tobia’s reaction? To buy a tube of lipstick. It turns out to be a life-changing choice: “Looking back at me in that mirror, I saw something I could never unsee, an image that would both support me and haunt me in the years to come: I saw myself. Truly and deeply.” When Tobia steps out into the world so adorned, the author expects drama but instead finds that “my classmates were either chill about it or too self-absorbed to even notice.”
So goes much of Tobia’s college experience. Other than one incident with a football player, the author’s time at Duke was filled with success and plaudits. Toward the end of their senior year, they “won so many diversity and leadership awards that it was kind of embarrassing.” Still, Tobia self-flagellates for giving in to tokenism: “I was everywhere and uncontainable, a voice for the marginalized, a clarion call for a better world. I was quoted in the campus newspaper so often it became an inside joke. I was given positions of power and prestige, accolades and recognition. By almost everyone who held power, I was beloved. By a significant portion of the student body, I was beloved. By almost all my professors, I was beloved. In all its contradictory weight, I was a beloved token.”
Amid the backhanded self-congratulation of that passage is a poignant realization of the special challenges that come with being a genderqueer activist. As a wise mentor tells Tobia during a coveted internship at the United Nations, “discrimination was going to be part of my reality, and I’d be better off if I could plan for it and make my own decision about how to maneuver.” Determining how to maneuver through life with an unusual gender identity may be the whole purpose of “Sissy,” even if at times it feels like Tobia, now 27, hasn’t quite processed the experience.
As narrator, Tobia is by turns snarky, self-centered, foul-mouthed, wildly intelligent, entertaining and, in places, grating. Sometimes the book dips into self-indulgence rather than self-study, and the word “glitter” appears so often that it might have served as a title. Still, “Sissy” is a valuable dispatch from a new generation of queer activists and artists — the first generation with the power to connect to themselves en masse without apology — and it would be a blessing if all such voices were as articulate and charismatic as this one.
Katharine Coldiron is a critic and essayist based in Los Angeles.
A Coming-of-Gender Story
By Jacob Tobia
Putnam. 319 pp. $26