Jacob Tobia is a writer, producer, and author of the forthcoming memoir Sissy. Jacob speaks publicly across the country on themes relating to gender and sexuality, writes for television, and hopes to soon create their own show. Currently, they are producing the reading of a play about a trans German woman who survived Nazi rule in Berlin and Stasi rule in East Berlin. Diego Arango spoke to Jacob over the phone on January 30, 2018.
Diego Arango: What is a label to you? How do you define it, and how does it differ from identity?
Jacob Tobia: To me, on a sort of 3000-foot intellectual level, a label is something that is placed on you, and identity is something that you put on yourself. A label is something that someone printed up for you, like when you go to an event, and there are those pre-made name tags. And identity is like, “we bought a bunch of blank name tags and doodle on it how you want, write what’s important to you or a fun fact or something.”
DA: Do you ever think of label as something you have agency over … that allows you to control narrative?
JT: Yes … labeling is something that I respond to, and strategize around. It’s most interesting and important to me when I’m not presenting in as femme of a way. When I’m wearing lipstick and heels and a skirt, it’s very easy for people to label me as trans or gender nonconforming. But because I have not physically transitioned and my body is still labeled as male, I’m not labeled a member of the trans community. I am labeled as a member of the queer community, because even when I’m wearing something very butch, the way I hang my wrists and talk is very queer. But often I won’t get labeled as gender nonconforming unless I’m presenting as gender nonconforming. I can profess identity as much as I want, but if that doesn’t correspond to the way someone’s already labeled me, I can’t control that. It’s about emancipating yourself from the idea that it is your responsibility to ensure that how others label you is correct.
DA: Can the same term be both label and identity?
JT: Oh, totally! That’s the process of reclamation, of realizing that something’s been placed on you, and finding a way to subvert it. The whole title of my book is that kind of inversion. The label “sissy” was placed on me as a child and then I grabbed it and transformed it into my identity and internalized it and said, “No, no, no, fuck you, I’m going to take this nametag, I’m going to take this little scarlet letter, and embroider it into a fucking gown and wear it all the time.”
DA: What would you say to someone who says that labels give them inclusion in a community, visibility, or pragmatism in daily life?
JT: That’s fine. You’re allowed to use other people’s crude estimations of your identity to your advantage when it’s something that helps you. In a dream world, I would wear dresses a lot of the time. But that’s not possible if I want to live a basic, happy life. Because I can’t casually walk around my neighborhood anymore if I‘m wearing a dress. I’ll get catcalled, I’ll get stared at, it might be violent. So I’ve made a strategic decision. There are moments when I fly under the radar and under the label. I’ll wear pants and a t-shirt and I can go get some writing done about my trans identity. And that’s a dance that so many people do.
DA: Do you see room for humor and liberation in labels?
JT: Oh my god, humor is the only way I get through all of it. One of my favorite labels placed on me is trans-woman-who’s-really-bad-at-this-woman-thing. When I’m presenting as femme, people are like, “She’s great!” They think of me as a woman, they’ll write female pronouns. “But I guess … she didn’t feel like shaving today. Did she forget to pad her dress?” I have to laugh, I think it’s hilarious, and it’s a way of making light of something that could be too scary to think about all the time.
DA: I noticed in your Playboy article and some of your other recent writing that your voice has evolved from a more didactic role of “awareness builder” (your term), to a role of unpacking complicated ideas for yourself. Would you agree with that?
JT: Well that’s super fucking perceptive of you. Because that’s a very real change in how I understand myself, and how I approached my work in the last year and a half of my life. I think I got crushed at the beginning of my career with this pressure to educate as representative. In current identity politics, it’s increasingly dangerous to try to speak as a representative, because claiming representation of a group generally ends up erasing a possibility of intersectionality in your own analysis … even if you’re someone who sits at a bunch of intersections. I can only speak for myself. If I try to speak for other people it’s going to fuck shit up. It’s also about creative freedom. I realized I have no creative freedom anymore because I’m always trying to speak for this entire community of people. I don’t want to have to write the gender-queer-nonbinary-book. That’s not what I’m working on right now. I don’t want to be a gender nonconforming writer any more than David Sedaris is a gay writer. Yeah, he is a gay writer, but it’s not like he claims his writing to be the gay American experience.
DA: That’s why the Playboy piece stood out to me. The discourse around identity actually benefits a lot from that more introspective look that you take.
JT: And the reality is that it also makes more space. For example, the fetishization of “the first trans blank”: “the first trans person on the cover of Life,” “the first trans person to be in the army.” People are so into that kind of coverage that they don’t realize that it’s tokenizing and it creates the idea of scarcity. I am clear nowadays that I am not the trans writer or the gender queer anything. I am a queer chick who lives in Los Angeles right now and grew up in a half Arab, half southern, white family in North Carolina in a mostly white suburb, with pretty chill access to class privilege, and this sort of cute, kitschy, Methodist queer upbringing. If you want to say I’m the first that, go ahead. I don’t want the world to be able to reduce me or people like me, because that limits our ability to actually proliferate.
DA: How do you negotiate your uneasiness about tokenizing labels with the reality of working in an industry that expects you to have a soundbite, one-sentence summary of who you are?
JT: I am definitely okay with mobilizing the identity of writer, producer, performer, because those are things that I do and things that I’m good at. Over the past year, I have come to embrace softer or messier identity terms when I can. There’s a reason why I’m titling my book Sissy. Because sissy is a really messy, complicated, confusing, disorienting word that still holds a ton of meaning. It’s not an identity label that anyone has used per se, except in spaces where people use it for kink based things. It makes people think deeper because they are not sure what it’s about.
DA: So now that you’ve been living in Los Angeles a year—LA or New York?
JT: Right now, LA. I love New York, but New York is more ruled by office culture and full-time culture. Being a freelancer in New York is fucking miserable. Being a freelancer in LA is kind of cute.
Interview has been condensed and edited.