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BOOKS Sissy Pride, Talking With Gender Activist and Author Jacob Tobia
by Owen Keehnen
2019-03-07

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Sissy: A Coming of Gender Storyis a smart, compelling, honest and very funny new memoir by Jacob Tobia.

In the book, the activist, writer and co-producer/host of the MSNBC television series Queer 2.0 shares the personal journey of being a gender anarchist and how reclaiming a primary insult of youth ("sissy") eventually became a doorway to freedom.

Windy City Times: Give me an elevator pitch for Sissy.

Jacob Tobia: Sissy is a comedic, silly, effervescent memoir about a trans weirdo who simply couldn't keep her gender to herself. (Also, I find the term "Elevator Pitch" to be so funny. I can't tell you the last time I've even spoken to another human being in an elevator. They always make me so nervous. The last thing I want to do when I'm trapped in a tin can hurtling towards the sky is make small talk, let alone have someone pitch me a project!)

WCT: That brings me to my next question. Something I loved about Sissywas the humor you bring to the subject. Gender never seems a terribly fun topic but you, like [author] Kate Bornstein, bring a needed levity to it all. What made that approach so essential for you?

JT: While gender is often a source of oppression, trauma and shame for so many of us, it shouldn't be. We deserve to live in a world where gender is simply fun, where gender is a source of bliss and happiness for everyone. To me, the first step towards building that world is learning not to take gender so seriously, giving ourselves permission to laugh at the absurdity of it all.

If we stop taking gender seriously as a culture, patriarchy will lose much of its sting and power. A world in which we don't take gender seriously is a world where we no longer feel the need to separate clothes or bathrooms into "men's" and "women's." It's a world in which being trans or nonbinary isn't a big deal because no part of gender is. That's why I wanted to make Sissyfunny. Also, I'm messy/raunchy/silly as hell, so there's no way I can write anything that is too, too serious.

WCT: In the book really put yourself out there again and again. How therapeutic was writing Sissy?

JT: Writing this book has been the single most healing thing I've ever done in my life—much more so than I'd anticipated. I worried the process of writing the book was going to be painful, that curating my most private thoughts and greatest failures was going to be exhausting, but the beauty about a book is that you can't phone it in. You have to write from the heart. You have to write the book that is burning inside of you. And the book burning inside of me was, first and foremost, one that I wanted to read.

I wrote this book for myself, to make sense of what navigating the world has felt like; to try to stitch my broken heart back together. But the beautiful thing about healing is that it's contagious. I only learned to heal from my trauma after watching other people in my life do it. As a book, Sissydocuments the journey that I've undertaken to heal my gender-based trauma. My hope is that it inspires everyone it touches to do the same. I'm trying to be part of a movement of people rising up and claiming that gender has hurt us all, and that we owe it to each other to heal together and in public.

WCT: What was the most difficult part of the book for you to include?

JT: Revisiting my childhood was hard. I think it is for all queer and trans people. There's something about looking back on trans childhood that feels like a pit. There's this void where your joy should be, this blank space where your childhood innocence should live. I didn't have a childhood that was particularly "dramatic." As a feminine little boy, the ways that the world mistreated me were not drastic or shocking; at the time, they were understood as routine. Looking back on the way that my gender was taken from me so early on, the way that my gender was desecrated before I had a strong enough sense of self to push back, is tough. It's still hard to talk about, but that's why it's so important to do so.

WCT: Although Sissyis your story, a bigger story is also being told. What do you want people to take away from your book?

JT: I hope that every single person who reads Sissy walks away with an existential crisis. I want people to read Sissy and realize that they have a ton of thinking to do about their own experience with gender. There's a reason why the subtitle for Sissy is "*A* Coming-of-Gender Story," and that's because it's only one among millions.

Everyone has a coming-of-gender story to tell. Everyone has had a journey with what it meant to live on this planet in their gender. I hope that people take away a newfound curiosity about their own lives, that this book prompts both introspection and existential angst.

I want people to read Sissy, giggle a ton, write in their journal for seven hours straight, call their mom to talk about their childhood, then run to the bathroom and cut off all of their hair (or run to Walgreens and buy seven tubes of lipstick, whatever works for you). I want this book to change people in big, historic ways. I also hope that at least one in every three readers has to change their underwear after they read the book, because they laughed so hard that they peed a little.

WCT: And Sissy just might do that. The book is wonderful. Give a brief comparison to coming out as gay at 16 versus coming out as non-binary?

JT: When coming out as gay, I had a script. I had lines that I'd learned from pop culture about how you're "supposed" to tell the world that you're different. And I stuck to those lines faithfully. I did a formal announcement on Facebook, I had a formal, sit-down conversation with family and friends, I was very structured and dramatic about the thing, because I was told by pop culture that that's how you're supposed to do it.

But "coming out" as nonbinary isn't something I ever had to do. You don't have to "come out" as nonbinary when you're a male-bodied person wearing lipstick and heels. Living as nonbinary was coming out as nonbinary. By the time I finally started using the term "nonbinary" to describe myself, coming out would've been redundant. After I've already walked into the room in a dress, it felt a little silly to be like "Mom, Dad, I'm non-binary," y'know?

WCT: That makes sense. In terms of gender, what would your utopia look like and what is the first step in that direction.

JT: Utopia looks like a world where cisgender and transgender don't even exist as terms anymore. I want a world where no one has to "come out" or label themselves as anything. I want a world without a gender binary, where gender is constant play, fun for everyone. Gender should feel less like fascist government rule and more like perpetual dress-up time.

Every day, you should have the ability to explore how you're feeling in your body and what clothes feel good on your body. Every day you should have the right for your gender to shift without social reproach. Every day should be fun and blissful and full of vitality, and we can't build that reality until we get rid of the gender binary altogether. Also in my personal utopia, everyone gets healthcare. Period. Healthcare in this country is an atrocity and the businessmen who run insurance companies and hospitals are crooks. Just sayin.

WCT: I'm curious about demographics of the Sissy readership. Have you had much response from older queer readers regarding gender non-conformity and if so how has that varied from your younger audience?

JT: I wrote this book with a deep reverence for all of the queers and gender freaks and trans people and rabble-rousers who came before me. I could not exist today without the courage, audacity, brilliance, and power of my trans and queer elders. They paved the road I walk on; laid it out brick by brick. My hope is that trans and queer elders can love this book, too. That they feel it to be a love letter to everything that they've accomplished, an ode to their political organizing and tireless fight for our rights. And I hope that this book also helps younger queers to have a greater sense of appreciation for our elders. We need to know that being nonbinary is nothing new. We need to know that being trans is nothing new. We need to know that our elders were fighting for us decades before we were even born. It's imperative that we celebrate and honor them.

WCT: Do you have some personal heroes who guided your way?

JT: There are too many to count! I thank goddess every day for Marsha P. Johnson and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy and Flawless Sabrina and Joan of Arc. I thank goddess every day for the millions of women who participated in the feminist movement and refused to be put in boxes. I thank goddess every day for Freddie Mercury and Elton John and David Bowie and Prince and glam rock. There are so many people who have built a world where I am possible. Daily, they bring me strength and joy.

WCT: Historically, the place beyond gender has sometimes been a sacred, spiritual, and magical place, as with the shaman and two-spirit people. Has it been that way for you and if so can you describe the landscape there?

JT: My gender is one of the greatest gifts that I have. It helps me see the world as it is. It's a source of great empathy and fuels me as an artist. It has challenged me and put me in closer touch with God. My gender has deepened my spiritual journey in ways I can't begin to describe. There's a reason why gender-variant people have been historically understood as sacred, as prophets, and as healers. It's because we are!

WCT: I know you have a whirlwind book tour and promotion for Sissy. What do you see as next for you?

JT: Other than writing many, many more books, I'd really love to turn Sissy into a TV show. We have some things in the works for that, but nothing concrete enough to report back on. You'll just have to wait and see!

For more on Tobia, visit https://jacobtobia.com/.

On Tuesday, March 12, Chicago Tribune's Unscripted will present Jacob Tobia discussing Sissy, gender and much more at WeWork, 515 N. State St., 6:30-8 p.m. Visit Eventbrite for tickets and additional information.


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