Jacob Tobia: Sissy: A Coming-Of-Gender Story

Thursday, Mar. 7, 7 p.m., free

Quail Ridge Books, Raleigh 

“There’s something so queer to so much of Southern tradition,” Jacob Tobia says with a laugh. “And when I say Southern tradition, I mean that in a kind of reclaimed way. For me, Southern tradition is resistance. Southern tradition is fighting back. Southern tradition is rebelling against the gentry while wearing pearls.” 

The twenty-eight-year-old writer and gender nonconforming activist, who grew up in Raleigh and Cary, has gone on to capture the attention of the country. Through their unique charm and sensibility, Tobia built a name and platform that, in many ways, has aided in shaping mainstream conversations around gender and nonbinary identity over the past several years. Now they’re reflecting on their life growing up in the Triangle in Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story, due out March 5 from Penguin Random House. The memoir, which Tobia brings to Quail Ridge Books on March 7, has already been widely praised, with blurbs from Alan Cumming and Janet Mock. 

Few people have queered Southern culture in such a public way as Tobia, who garnered national attention after moving to New York and being featured, in 2015, on MTV’s True Life: I’m Genderqueer. Over the next few years, Tobia created and hosted NBC News’ series Queer 2.0, moved to the West Coast and worked as a social-media producer for Jill Soloway’s Transparent, and became the spokesperson for trans-and-queer-inclusive makeup company Fluide Beauty.  

But despite spending their young-adult life in bustling metropolitan hubs, Tobia still identifies the Triangle as the true source of the identity exploration that shaped who they are today. 

“The Triangle is a radical place,” Tobia says. “I learned everything I know about being an activist, everything I know about being a queer person, everything I know about my identity on the trans spectrum, in North Carolina.”

Like many other young, queer kids growing up around Raleigh, Tobia cites their early experiences at places like Raleigh Little Theatre, White Rabbit Books, and Cup A Joe—“back when they had a smoking room”—as formative for their early explorations of identity. In fact, they even wrote much of Sissy at Cup A Joe, having come back to North Carolina to pen the majority of the book on a writer’s retreat.

Sissy begins with Tobia’s early experiences of gender and follows them through their life as a young, nonbinary person navigating the trials of adolescence and into the halls of Duke University. 

“I honestly felt safer as a queer teenager in Raleigh than as a queer college student at Duke. It was really tough, especially freshman year, when everyone was rushing fraternities and sororities and everything was so gender normative,” Tobia says. Readers will experience raw, honest portrayals of Tobia’s teen years while being pushed to examine their own perceptions of gender identity. It’s a complex narrative of queerness that, in some ways, challenges the vehemently anti-LGBTQ image of North Carolina often painted by national media. Despite their decision to leave, Tobia rejects the notion that young, LGBTQ people must “escape” the South in order to self-actualize and find an accepting community.  

“I feel like we have this really toxic narrative out there that queer and trans people must leave where we grow up and move to a big, urban center like Los Angeles or New York City or San Francisco in order to ‘find who we are’ or live open, happy lives,” Tobia says. “I say that narrative is toxic not because everyone’s home community is immediately comfortable for them, but it’s the idea in pop culture that you can’t be comfortable where you grow up, that you can’t work to transform it. That’s not a healthy narrative for queer and trans kids who are growing up in places that are deemed by social-media culture to be ‘backwards’ or not progressive enough.”  

It’s important to Tobia, who makes a point of saying that the actions of the N.C. General Assembly are not representative of the state’s culture as a whole, that Sissy contributes to this perception shift. Tobia hopes that their story can serve as a kind a positive possibility model for young LGBTQ kids. Beyond people having their own “gender crisis” while reading the book, Tobia wants queer young people to be reassured that it’s OK to take as much time as they need to figure out who they are and to be patient with themselves throughout the process.   

“It’s OK to take all of the time you need to figure things out and communicate who you are to people in your life,” Tobia says. “There isn’t a script for how you have to do this in order to be a proper member of the LGBTQ community. And you don’t owe your identity to anyone. Share what feels good, natural, and powerful to share, and keep the rest for yourself. I think that I needed someone to say that to me when I was younger.” 

arts@indyweek.com