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Duke alum Jacob Tobia discusses new book 'Sissy,' gender and activism

Jacob Tobia, T'14, released their book "Sissy: A Coming of Gender Story" earlier this year.
Jacob Tobia, T'14, released their book "Sissy: A Coming of Gender Story" earlier this year.

Member of Forbes 30 under 30 and Out 100, Jacob Tobia, T’14, is a writer and producer, known for their work as the creator and producer of MSNBC’s “Queer 2.0” and as producer of “Transparent.” They recently wrote the book “Sissy: A Coming of Gender Story,” a memoir that questions societal binaries in gender. The Chronicle spoke with Tobia about their new book and career in activism. 

The Chronicle: Can you talk a little about your book, “Sissy,” and what inspired it?

Jacob Tobia: “Sissy” is the long form answer to the question, “What’s your gender?" We live in this world where people treat gender like a check the box question. My philosophy is that gender is an abstract term that should live alongside words like “family,” rather than some easily reducible thing that you can fill out on a survey. I want everyone to view the question “what’s your gender” as an invitation for a long-term answer. Asking someone their gender or to describe their gender and expecting a one-word answer is like asking someone to tell you about their family and expecting a one-word answer. And while you can talk about it in simple terms, it’s much more nuanced and beautiful when you’re able to give it 336 pages worth of space. I also had stories that I wanted to put together and bring to life, all in one place for them to stand the test of time. 

TC: Why did you pick the title “Sissy” to capture that message? 

JT: The title “Sissy” is about reclamation. But, it is also an acknowledgement of the fact that sissy was the first word that I had to describe my gender. Before I heard the word "gay," before I heard the word "trans," I knew the word "sissy," and I knew that being a "sissy" was something bad. But it was the first term I was given to describe my difference. It was the first gender identity that I had. This book is all about reclaiming and naming what happens to gender-nonconforming people in our young lives. It is also a way to reclaim a term. There is something about when someone uses a word as a slur and you make it the title of your book, a certain power to that. You can say I own that word now. They don’t own that term. They don’t own me. They don’t own my story. I own all aspects of my story and all facets of who I am. And you don’t get to take that away from me anymore. 

And the last reason I like the word "sissy" is that it also stands for sister. And so much of my journey and so much of me learning to own my identity and celebrate my transness and my femininity, I learned through my sisters, through cisgender, powerful women who showed me what it would mean to be a feminine person in this world and what it would mean to navigate the misogyny and sexism that people have to navigate once you put on a skirt. 

TC: How has your connection to Duke influenced this book? 

JT: For me, Duke has been and always will be this kind of paradox because there are so many things about Duke that I loathe. Yet, on the other hand, there were so many brilliant people on campus who helped me deepen my political consciousness, who encouraged me as an activist, who helped me grow as a person and who helped me figure out who I was. But the important thing is that most of the people who supported me in my gender exploration was in spite of the way that the institution is structured, not because of it. And while there were brilliant people on campus who supported me, I probably wouldn’t have needed so much support if the entire social structure of the place wasn’t rooted in this gender binary. 

TC: And since your time at Duke, you have had quite an impressive career. What are some things you feel most proud of since leaving Duke?

JT: I’m most proud of this book. And everything in my career up until this point has led to it. And when I wasn’t writing it, I was establishing myself as a public voice that could get a book deal. I’m also very proud of the work I did for my show with MSNBC News and getting to work on “Transparent.” There is so much you are going to have to unlearn after graduation about how achievement works and how careers work. If you are doing anything of worth, almost always, you are going to float around, take risks and feel ridiculous. You are going to have to jump with very little safety net. That kind of grit and that learning how to exist without institutional support when you are trying to do something visionary, that is one of the skills I’ve learned in my adult life that I’m most proud of. 

TC: For those at Duke and beyond who are interested in becoming aspiring social activists and media influencers, in what ways have you found success? 

JT: The best advice I can give anyone right now is to get really good at spreadsheets. And by that I mean to keep track of everyone you know. There is nothing quite like have a multi-tab spreadsheet where you track different contacts you’ve made and little notes on what you want to ask about them across different industries. Particularly in media and activism, it is all about who you know. It is all about connections. It is all about networking. The best thing to do for yourself is to track how you’ve networked. The other thing I would say is, coming from Durham, which is not a media hub of any sorts, it might take you awhile to get really established if you don’t already have existing connections. And Duke alumni network in terms of the arts and media is super tight community. And shout out to people at Duke like Amy Unell who really helped me make those connections. 

TC: What do you hope can be gained from your book on both a personal and broader scale?

JT: The next step for me is developing “Sissy” into a TV show to help secure a longer life for the book and amplify its message in a major way. On a more spiritual or global level, I hope that “Sissy” provides a way for people who thought they couldn’t understand this nonbinary thing to access what it means to go through the world as a nonbinary person in a way that is effortless and full of heart. No child should ever be told that their gender is wrong or that their gender is not enough or that the way that they are expressing themselves is not appropriate for a boy or a girl. There is no such thing. And the only way to end the cycle of abuse is by healing. And that is what “Sissy” is about.

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