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BOOK REVIEW Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story
by Terri Schlichenmeyer
2019-06-26

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By Jacob Tobia; $26; Putnam; 336 pages

Nobody can tell you what to do.

To think otherwise is tantamount to telling you what not to do. No, you have your own mind, and you'll make it up just fine by yourself. Nobody tells you what to do and, as in the new memoir Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story, by Jacob Tobia, they can't tell you who you are, either.

Many people who are non-binary, says Tobia, equate coming to terms with gender as "a journey." Tobias considers theirs "more like an onion," with layers of discovery "veiled beneath a thin skin."

It started with Tobia's parents, both role models: their mother, who was a tomboy at heart; and their father, who ignored stereotypical women's work and instead, pitched in around the house. The next layer consists of Tobia's brother and kids in the neighborhood who didn't think twice about a child who play-fought in the mud one minute, and loved pink tutus and Barbies the next.

But then Tobia started school, and the teasing began. They "went from being a person to being a sissy" and shame accompanied the label. When it became apparent that the taunts would be flung at them no matter what, Tobia considered suicide. Church was the only place they "felt unequivocally and unconditionally loved."

Things changed for the better when puberty hit Tobia and their peers. Cis boys wanted desperately to be with cis girls, which was something Tobia did effortlessly and it made them "cool" even as it highlighted their differences from other adolescents. By the end of high school, Tobia had chosen the word "gay" to describe themselves, even though it wasn't quite right.

They came out to a church counselor. They came out to their gay best friend. Years later, they came out to their parents as "gay." It wasn't until college, the acquisition of several pairs of high heels, lipstick, and a sheltered sense of security that Tobia realized that their work toward understanding had only started. Maybe they were boy and girl and neither and both, and not having to question that would be a battle they'd "have to do… all over again."

Sissy is a 100-percent solid, smack-in-the-middle, okay kind of book. It's not the best thing you'll ever read; it's far, far from the worst.

After a considerable, two-chapter throat-clearing, author Tobia promises hilarity and then gets down to business about their life, their experiences as a gender nonconforming person making their way through and the gender-acceptance work to be done. Yes, that may seem like a familiar story, but there is uniqueness to be had here: Tobia's memories of their later adolescence and attendance at a prestigious Eastern college offer something different in this genre, in freshness of voice. Also uncommon: their willingness to admit regret for advice not taken.

Finally, yes, this book is amusing but outright hilarity? Not so much: you'll enjoy Sissy, but your gut is in no danger of busting. Still, if memoirs are your thing and your TBR pile is short, you know what to do.

Want more? Then look for Nonbinary: Memoirs of Gender and Identity, by Micah Rajunov and Scott Duane ( out April 9 ); or Modern HERstory: Stories of Women and Nonbinary People Rewriting History, by Blair Imani and other writers.


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