At a Wednesday talk, Jacob Tobia, Trinity ’14, shed light on the Duke experience as a member of the queer community and a trans person, and how their time as a Duke student was marked with highs and lows.
Gracing the stage in a self-described “fringe cowgirl Dolly Parton’s long lost niece” outfit, Tobia read through excerpts from their debut memoir, “Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story.” Throughout the talk, Tobia emphasized that the responsibility of improving the lives of queer students lays with the Duke administration.
Tobia underscored that new students are impressionable and that vested change should begin with these “doughy-eyed students.”
“It’s a point where patterns can break and you can shift your behaviors, where you can become a more empathetic, bigger person and often, especially with the first-year experience, campuses will really shy away from owning up to that challenge because of some of the existing power structures that are in place,” Tobia said.
Tobia touched specifically on a few key experiences, namely harassment experienced as a non-binary person at Duke, the “tokenization” that Tobia fell victim to as one of few trans people out at the time and their pre-orientation program, Project WILD.
They discussed the nature experienced in P-WILD as a powerful force that transcends gender and binaries.
“What is our modern concept of gender to a 480-million-year-old outcropping of rock?” Tobia said, quoting from their book. “Overnight, gender as division was gone, replaced only by the imperative to be good to one another, care for one another and treat one another with dignity.”
But this feeling did not last, as the transition back to campus led Tobia’s close P-WILD friends to snap right back into the status quo.
“It’s like there were two different versions of these friends. One when we were together in the woods, the other when we stepped on a competitive, gender segregated, etc. etc. etc. campus,” Tobia said.
This segregation was only brought to a heat in January, a month characterized by all things rush, a system that greatly disturbed Tobia.
“A two-gender system was consolidated across campus, the binary fortified in stone,” they read from their book. “It touched everything, crawling through the consciousness of the entire first-year class. We were being sorted. We were being evaluated.”
Tobia decided to fight back against the rigid system by donning lipstick and nail polish to the dining hall. It was then that Tobia was intimidated by a member of the football team.
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“As I was about to pass, one of the players, someone with easily a hundred pounds on me, slid out into the middle of the aisle,” Tobia read. “‘You’ve got something on your lips,’ he spit menacingly, looking to his teammates for approval.”
The incident left Tobia feeling ashamed and shaken.
Yet as the token trans person, Tobia said that they felt the need to stifle their emotions.
“When people of difference find ourselves at an institution, company, culture or society where we are the only person like us, we become representative of all of us,” Tobia explained. “You trade in your right to be angry, to be dissatisfied, for the right to be hugged and affirmed by those around you.”
Tobia expressed their dissatisfaction with the Duke’s lack of response to their book.
“Frankly, I’m a little disappointed that after publishing this no one has even talked to me about it,” Tobia said. “You don’t even have the courtesy to reach out and say ‘Damn, we really f***ed up on that one.’”
Tobia closed their speech with a call for change, stating that the next class of Duke students should be greeted by a campus with co-ed and gender segregated bathrooms that enforce a “healthy gender culture” and a shrinking Greek system, which they said “created problems around class, around race, around gender and pretty much everything else.”
“And you know what the first-years would say?” Tobia said. “They’d be like, ‘Dope. Cool. Where’s the beer?’”