Jacob Tobia recently took the internet by storm with a powerful op-ed in which gender identity and expression, feminism, masculinity, and professionalism all come together in the perfect storm to express Jacob’s quest to navigate the office space as a gender queer individual.
I was able to sit down with Jacob this week to discuss what it means to be gender queer and chatted about gender expression, professionalism, and LGBTQ issues in the workplace.
Thought Catalog: Your Huffington Post bio says that you are a “queer activist, movement organizer, and part-time fashion icon.” What does the term queer activist mean?
Jacob Tobia: The term queer functions both as a general term and a specific identity. In a broad sense it allows to you avoid the LGBTQQIA (laughs) alphabet soup of identity that has emerged in the last few years. Queer is for anyone with a non-normative sexuality, degenerate orientation, or identity. It isn’t really embraced by older generations but it is by young activists. It’s deliberately ambiguous.
JT: There’s an endless number of checking your identity on applications and in society. Look, if you want to know who I am or how I express myself you have to get to know me. I’m not a man. I’m not a woman. I’m somewhere in between and I’m just me. On any given day that could be different and that should be okay. Gender queer claims that we should have a plurality of gender expression in society.
TC: When asked how you identify, what do you respond?
JT: I’m gender queer and can express my gender in many ways. I’m gender non-conforming and whenever I see the “Other” boxes on applications I always think of the most ridiculous thing to put in it. I want to put that I’m a snail. If I feel safe then I’m out of my shell and I’ll leave a glittery trail everywhere I go. If I don’t feel safe I’ll be in my shell.
TC: Should you limit yourself to a checkbox on an application?
JT: I should never be in a box. I can wear a suit and dress shoes and tie one day and not be in a box. The next day I can wear heels and a dress. Both allow me to express my gender dichotomy fully.
TC: In your HuffPo piece you mention the term “masculine shame.” What is masculine shame?
JT: Anyone who was raised as a male has experienced it. It’s the way of growing up and femininity is systematically shameful. If you express weakness, or what’s seen as weakness, you’re seen as feminine or less than or disrespected. If you have the audacity to express your emotions as man that’s somehow seen as wrong. Masculine shame is the fact that men have a preoccupation with violence and are taught to always go after the ball. You’re told to be G.I. Joe, not Barbie or not even Ken.
TC: How do you navigate the workplace? What constitutes professional attire for an openly gender queer individual?
JT: When I think of professionalism, I think that it demands conformity and a reverence for tradition. Professionalism is defined around those with power and I say in my HuffPo piece that it means white, western, capitalist, masculine, etc. Professionalism has always felt like the antagonist in the story of my life. I’m constantly fighting because the way gender is embedded in professionalism I’ll never be billed or seen as “professional” as a gender queer person.
TC: Can this conformity change? How so?
JT: Continuing to gain visibility to alternative expressions of masculinity in culture more generally is the key. Growing up the only images I saw of alternative expressions of gender identity was Dr. Frankenfurter in Rocky Horror Picture Show, and he wasn’t even real. It’s not a war that can be won entirely with policy. It’s a cultural thing. It’s nice to know that under current law and jurisprudence that my gender identity and gender expression is protected.
[Note: DC provides protection for LGBT workers and for gender identity and expression.]
TC: Tell me a little about your experience at Duke coming out as gender queer.
JT: My gender really blossomed over my four years at Duke. People not familiar with Duke might find that counterintuitive but it’s true. I came onto campus and it was a very gendered place; gender played a very real role in how the social structuring of the school was set up.
I experimented, I reclaimed, experimented, and reclaimed, and cyclical process allowed me to understand that femininity wasn’t an experiment but something that I was forced to lose touch with long ago. Every time I took these risks, I was affirmed by my peers and friends. By the time I graduated there was a great transition in my life and on campus.
TC: Is visibility an issue with gender queer individuals?
JT: So many people don’t understand and we live in a society where it hasn’t been allowed [to exist]. The second you do get to know someone who expresses their gender non traditionally it becomes a non-issue. My goal is to help to get to know as many people as possible. People like me have been made invisible throughout history. Opening up conversations online and in the media is incredibly important. At the end of the day I’d be happy to be remembered as America’s Boy Next Door in Heels.
TC: Your post detailed your struggle in approaching your first day of work as a gender queer individual. How did it go?
JT: Other than being sweaty as hell from the DC humidity it went quite well. Working at an LGBT organization means I am safe and that my experiences are valued. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) wants me on their team. My experiences are valued. It was a surprise to me. I’ve taught myself that my gender was a liability and that’s beginning to change. I have wonderfully affirming supervisors and bosses.
TC: Is the fight for gender queer equality a feminist fight?
JT: I see the struggle as profoundly feminist because only 50 years ago, hell even 30 years ago, this was very much a struggle that women in the workplace went through. Women who had the audacity to wear pants in the workplace was unheard of. I hope to be a trailblazer in a similar way. If we live in a world where only women can express masculinity and where man can’t express femininity then we don’t have gender equality. I don’t want to be seen as a new flash in the pan — I’m a part of the larger movement of gender non-transforming people who have survived and changed the course of history around them.
For many throughout the country there are serious consequences of being openly LGBT in the workplace. While the US Senate has passed legislation to prevent workplace discrimination the House of Representatives has failed to act and 29 states have no protections for LGBT employees. President Obama has pledged action to protect federal contractors and this is a major step forward in the quest to protect LGBT employees. Unfortunately, even such a measure can’t guarantee that discrimination will not occur as so much of workplace discrimination and harassment is next to impossible to prove in a court of law.