On this episode
More than a third of Gen Zers know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns. But the binary view of gender is still deeply ingrained in our society. For this episode of Tilted, we’re taking a close look at what it would mean to really break the gender mold. We talk to two amazing non-binary artists—Joey Soloway, creator of the hit TV series Transparent, and Jacob Tobia, actor, producer, and author of the memoir Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story—about their personal journeys with their gender identities and what we can all do to be more open and inclusive.
A few things you’ll learn:
- Binary thinking isn’t limited to gender. We have a tendency to sort things into only two categories, or to see only two options—and pushing ourselves to break out of binary thinking can open up new possibilities.
- We often assume we know someone’s gender before we even talk to them (for example, a waiter greeting a group of “ladies” in a restaurant). There’s almost always a gender-neutral alternative to gendered greetings—usually, it’s as simple as just saying hello.
- Even for people who identify as cisgender, gender is fluid and complex. We all express and experience our gender in different ways, and for most of us, some aspect of our gender identity goes against the binary norm.
More about our guests:
- Joey Soloway is an American television creator, showrunner, director, and writer. They are best known for creating, writing, executive producing, and directing the Amazon original series Transparent, for which they won two Emmys. They are also the author of two books, Tiny Ladies in Shiny Pants: Based on a True Story and She Wants It: Desire, Power and Toppling the Patriarchy.
- Jacob Tobia is an actor, writer, producer, author of the national bestselling memoir Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story, and member of the Forbes 30 Under 30 and the OUT 100. From interviewing former U.S. presidents to giving Trevor Noah an on-air makeover on The Daily Show, Jacob helps others embrace the full complexity of gender and own their truth, even when that truth is messy as hell.
Whether you’re listening to this episode with friends or your Circle, these questions are designed to help you discuss personal stories, connect over common challenges, and unpack the topic together.
- What are some places (other than gender) where binary thinking shows up in your life? What could you learn or gain by challenging that thinking?
- Have you ever been misgendered or accidentally misgendered someone else? How did you navigate that interaction? If it happened again, what would you do differently?
- As Jacob points out, there is no such thing as “just” a woman or a man. What are some subtleties or complexities in your personal gender identity? Are there ways in which your gender expression goes against what you think of as “expected”?
Rachel Thomas (00:00:01):
Welcome to Tilted: A Lean In Podcast. Tilted brings you conversations at the intersection of gender and culture. We dig into topics we’re curious about, highlight people in stories that inspire us and we hope inspire you too, and share expert advice to help you make the playing field a little less tilted. I’m your host, Rachel Thomas, co-founder and CEO of Lean In. More than a third of Gen Z know someone who uses a gender neutral pronoun, and yet the whole world still seems to be set up around a binary and rigid understanding of gender.
We’ve all been asked to check the male or female box when we’re renting skis, installing apps, and in a hundred other situations where gender doesn’t really seem to matter. As someone who thinks about gender all of the time in my work, I know I need to let go of this age old way of thinking, and I’m excited to bring you on part of that journey.
[00:01:00] Both of our guests for this episode identify as gender non-binary. I learned a lot from them and I hope you do too.
First up, I spoke with Emmy-nominated writer, director, and producer, Joey Soloway. Joey uses the they pronoun, and you likely know them as the creator of the hit TV series, Transparent. Of course, I had to start by asking Joey about the story behind their groundbreaking show. Could you just spend a couple of minutes on Transparent, on how it came to be, why it’s such an important show, and kind of help us informed how you think about your work going forward.
Joey Soloway (00:01:38):
I got a call from my parent coming out as trans and of course that was a giant shift in my relationship with my parent and a giant shift in my understanding of the world and the family I had come from and I poured it all into the writing of a television pilot called Transparent, which I guess can mean transparent. Like you can see through something or also be trans parent titular trans parent. I was at a place in my career where I kind of like couldn’t get anything made.
The culture was very different than it is now. You know how people are saying we really want to find women directors, they were saying the opposite then. They were saying things like, we really don’t think we need women directors, and I was really trying my hardest to just break through that glass ceiling. I had become a showrunner, but I was on other people’s shows and I was never allowed to direct on shows like United States of Tara or Looking.
[00:02:30] I worked on Grey’s Anatomy. I worked on a whole bunch of shows and would often say, I want to direct, but sort of couldn’t punch through that ceiling. I had made a feature called Afternoon Delight right around the same time that my parent was coming out as trans. So I sort of let the dust settle from both things. This co-coming out, my parent was coming out as a woman, I was coming out as a director. Shortly after that, I started to really see the TV show. I wrote it as a pilot.
[00:03:00] Couldn’t really get it sold anywhere. I wanted it to be on Showtime or on HBO. There was kind of no Netflix, no Amazon yet, you had your kind of limited options.
Everybody passed, FX, and everybody passed and the last one standing was Amazon, but they were my only options. I made the pilot and the pilot exploded in the culture around transness—
Rachel Thomas (00:03:21):
The rest is history.
Joey Soloway (00:03:23):
Yeah, the rest is history, and so yeah, five, six, seven years, Transparent. Over those years we were making the show and it was amazing and we were all learning so much about transness. I was learning so much about my own identity, and the world I think was really starting to explode. In somewhere around I think like year four, I also made a TV show called, I Love Dick, which was this weird little feminist stick of dynamite. When I first won my Emmy on stage, I was like yelling, “topple the patriarchy.” Maybe it was the Golden Globe. I don’t know. I yelled, “topple the patriarchy,” on stage apparently. I yelled it twice from people who were watching.
[00:04:00]: A couple of years ago as we all noticed, maybe when Trump was elected, everything kind of started to change, and a movement grew up across the world and exploded in a way in which it also took down our lead star, Jeffrey Tambor, who played Maura. There was already a lot of trouble with the fact that a cis man was playing a trans woman, but this was a major left turn in our story, to lose the actor and also to have this level of problematic behavior on our set.
[00:04:30]: A place that we had really thought of as a safe space.
Rachel Thomas (00:04:31):
Right. It was like an antithesis to everything.
Joey Soloway (00:04:33):
Antithesis to everything.
Joey Soloway (00:04:34):
Yeah. To find out that the space that we thought was so safe wasn’t, and then what happened over the past year, we finally sort of were able to galvanize back up our artistic integrity and our trust with our cast and we made a musical and sent it off into Jewish queer heaven with this crazy two hour fantasia called the Transparent: Musicale Finale and now we’re working on making it into a “Broadway musical.”
Rachel Thomas (00:05:00):
I’m curious when your parent shared with you that they were trans, were you surprised?
Joey Soloway (00:05:06):
Yeah, I think I was surprised. Yeah. It wasn’t anything I ever would have expected. I think first when my parent came out, the first major realization was, “Oh, I come from a queer family.” I had sort of had this idea of us as the sort of “normal” Jewish family. My parent was a psychiatrist. My mom did PR. My sister was the lesbian. I think I was like, that means I’m the straight one. You have your family mantle or your group hypnosis of what your family story is and that was it.
[00:05:30] I had really struggled with this idea of myself as the straight one because I always felt more queer, but I didn’t quite know what that meant in terms of who I was dating, who I was sleeping with and who I was having relationships with. Yeah, I think besides my parent coming out and thinking about making art out of it, I was definitely like, “Oh, maybe I’m not straight.” Maybe I’m not straight, I think it was the first couple of years and then the second couple of years was, maybe I’m not cis.
Rachel Thomas (00:06:00):
You really did go on a journey spending most of your life as a straight cis woman and then now you identify as non-binary and queer and you did a lot of that fairly publicly.
Did that make it harder in a weird way easier? Like how does that all fit together?
Joey Soloway (00:06:14):
There was never this moment where, “Oh, I have to come out as non-binary.” It just felt more like if I didn’t come out, it was inauthentic. I would just find myself in situations or in rooms where people would say like, “okay, well, we’re all ladies here.” Or, “we’re all women here,” or, “this is a woman only space” and I would just feel like this thing that would come up inside me and rise up and be like, “I don’t identify as a woman. I just want to make sure that whatever that means to you as a woman, only space, I may or may not be part of that,” and that felt like something I had to say that felt really right about me and less like I’m coming out.
It was more like just telling the truth, and I think I was on Terry Gross. It was my second time on Terry Gross on Fresh Air. I really hadn’t wanted to be like the poster child for non-binary people, but I had been starting to use the they them pronouns and then really noticing that whenever anybody used it, I loved it and it felt so right to me. Starting to believe this idea of, wow, what if there is a third gender and I’m it and that third gender is neither male nor female, both and always changing.
I was like, wow, that would really answer for me all the ways in which I felt super stressed out about my femininity my whole life, that I wasn’t actually a woman. I was this other gender, which was non-binary. Yeah, it just was less, I’m coming out, I’m coming out publicly, and more like I was thinking about what it meant to be authentic and it felt like if I wasn’t telling people the truth and I wasn’t really being authentic.
Rachel Thomas (00:07:30):
I’m curious. Since it was public, do you think that like accelerated the validation? In other words, was there something positive because then people know and they—
Joey Soloway (00:07:39):
Yeah, I love that people know. Most people don’t really get it right, and I often don’t get it right. I think it’s always easier in the world to slip into these are the men and these are the women and even slip into whatever, or these are the femmes and these are the butches. If you’re hanging out with gay people, you can still say these are the butches. They’re over here. These are the femmes, they’re over here. These were the men. These are the women. This ability to divide people into two somewhat quickly.
[00:08:00] There’s a rabbi named Joy Ladin and she explained to me early on, our limbic system goes, what if we had to divide a hundred people into two groups of fifty in a second, what would be the fastest way to do it? Girls over here, boys over here and so that became on the play yard lining up to go into the gym girls, boys. That is the most reliable—
Rachel Thomas (00:08:18):
Yeah, your whole life, that’s how—
Joey Soloway (00:08:21):
... your whole life. It’s the most reliable way. It’s a math thing. It’s the most reliable way to divide a hundred people into two groups of fifty. That became the thing, girls and boys, men and women. As I started to think about what Joy Ladin said, I felt like people were kind of always going around just looking to categorize what they see so you’re standing in the elevator. There’s that chaos. There’s fifteen of us. Who’s going in first and everybody collectively knows, ladies first. Collectively knows women with children first. Women and children first, and then the men.
It’s just these chaos reducers that get you through the day. It’s nothing evil. It’s just people want to know who goes into the elevator first and so they go, women.
Rachel Thomas (00:09:00):
As you have thought about how do we, all of us start to adopt less binary thinking, non-binary thinking?
Joey Soloway (00:09:06):
I think it can be applied to everything. Like the more I start to think about non-binary thinking I realize that going from two to three is the most revolutionary thought in nearly all places. A really huge one for me over the past few months have been that we’ve all been taught fight or flight. Fight or flight, fight or flight. You either fight or you run. Non-binary thinking, fight, flight, or freeze. There’s a third thing which is you’re not running away and you’re not fighting. You’re freezing.
[00:09:30] I find that when I take non-binary thinking and apply it to any area, it opens up a way of seeing the world. It’s really just a queering. I have a friend named Beth Pickens and she has both/and tattooed on her wrist as a way of thinking instead of either or.
Rachel Thomas (00:09:48):
I heard an interview where you even just said, “there’s victim on one side and villain on the other.” We do fall into putting things into those buckets. I’m going to bring you to reflect because as I move through the world, I think that I often fall into the binary trap.
[00:10:00] The other thing you’ve talked about a little bit is the trans as a bridge, and there’s this idea of where you sit on the bridge that I thought was really intellectually interesting. If you’d unpack that for me.
Joey Soloway (00:10:11):
Yeah. Well, another person I learned a lot from her name is Jenny Boylan. She came to the Transparent room when we were first all encountering this stuff and she wrote the word trans on the board and she told us that trans is a bridge. Some people identify as trans because they cross from male to female or female to male but there are a lot of people who like to stay on the bridge and that’s a whole other way of being trans. Staying on the bridge could mean a bunch of things.
[00:10:30] It could be me non-binary, they/them pronouns, the hipster TikTok youth who appear to just love to confuse people with their pronouns. It could also be a drag queen. It could also be somebody assigned female at birth who is a firefighter and who simply does not identify in the way that people assume women identify. It’s like, there are so many ways to be both or neither, or either that I think the bridge is just getting bigger and bigger.
Rachel Thomas (00:10:58):
Talk about language. I’m a big believer that language matters. You like to be called they. Are you upset or offended when people slip into she or her? How do you respond to that?
Joey Soloway (00:11:09):
Yeah. It’s been like this real living experiment, because a year ago I would say, “she and her are fine. They and them is frosting.”
Rachel Thomas (00:11:18):
I actually heard you say that. You moved on the journey.
I have because now when I hear people say she, I feel a little bit like, who are you talking about?
Right. If people are trying to get it right and they slip, are you okay with that?
Joey Soloway (00:11:30):
I also feel like it’s hard for people. It is a thought exercise.
It is hard.
Joey Soloway (00:11:34):
People should think of the they, them pronouns as one of those tapes you get that helps your mind stay sharp. It’s like learning a new language. When people are like, “Oh, it’s too hard. Fuck it.” I just think, “You know what? Just think about what it means.” And what I always remind people of, if we finished this and you said my assistant is going to be on Commonwealth, I might say, what time did they say they’ll be here? Because you haven’t told me their gender. You’ve just said assistant, so I’ll say, “What time are they getting here?”
[00:12:00] So we use the they pronouns all the time when we don’t know somebody’s gender. It’s very natural. I’d really just remind people when you think about me, just remember you don’t know my gender. If there are any listeners who have any restaurants or service industries where hotels... anywhere where anybody greets anybody hello, ma’am. Hello, miss. Hello, sir. Welcome to the table, ladies and gentlemen. Just stop it.
This drives me crazy.
Just don’t gender greetings.
This drives me crazy.
Joey Soloway [00:12:30]:
...in public ever. Probably like I was at a restaurant with a friend of mine and she identifies as femme and identify as butch and the waiter comes up and says, “Hello ladies,” and it’s like the—
Rachel Thomas (00:12:37):
Yeah. Why couldn’t he just say hello?
Joey Soloway (00:12:38):
It’s a buzzkill. It makes me feel awful. I’m wearing a suit. I’m not wearing any makeup. I’m sitting like a man, like that speech I gave which is like this is how men sit in Italian restaurants, like the world belongs to them and I’m feeling very masculine, and he’s like, “Hello ladies,” but it’s a humiliation.
Rachel Thomas (00:12:53):
Do you correct people?
Joey Soloway (00:12:55):
I just did. I’m starting to at restaurants. I feel weird about it because I’m not correcting my bosses. I’m not correcting people I look up to. I’m correcting service workers.
Joey Soloway (00:13:07):
... and that’s something I really want to be careful about because they have it hard enough so I’m always trying to just make sure that they’re open to it. I was at the restaurant and he came over and he said, “Hello ladies, can I get you a drink tonight?”
And I was like, “Actually, we don’t identify as ladies. I identify as non-binary so I don’t use that phrase.” And he goes, “Oh, what do you want me to say?”
[00:13:30] And I thought in that moment, “Well, if you went to a table of all gentlemen, you might say, hello, gentlemen but if you went to a table where there were men and women together—”
You say hello.
Yeah, and it’s easier for young people.
Rachel Thomas (00:13:41):
It’s so much easier for young people. It’s so interesting. A couple of my son’s friends are on a journey. Some of them have changed their names. They’ve asked to be referred to different ways and he just takes it in. His friend asked to be called Keith. From the moment they asked, he was like Keith. He was just off to the races with it so naturally that it’s really amazing like how much more fluid their thinking is naturally.
Joey Soloway (00:14:09):
My son too... I have a ten-year-old, same thing. They’re growing up thinking there is a third gender. It’s that simple that I went down to the DMV and I changed to an X from the... you could choose M or F or X and I was like, I’m taking the X. When I was at the counter, the guy behind the counter was totally mis-gendering me, “She’s here to get her X.” They don’t even know. I don’t think, at the driver’s license place is what they’re doing. I don’t even think they know what the X means.
[00:14:30] I know a lot of intersex people and I think of them as really our shining lights out in front of this non-binary movement. I met a person named Pidgeon Pagonis who’s non-binary and intersex. When you meet people who are intersex you understand that yeah, that there actually is a third sex that you can see with your eyes. We know that there are people who will have a third sex because everybody knows they are intersex people. It’s really just like that but it’s like, you can’t see it. It’s more like in your blood or anything.
Rachel Thomas (00:15:01):
I have to confess. I’m not familiar with the term intersex.
Joey Soloway (00:15:04):
It’s as common as being born with red hair, born with a certain type of genetically being intersex. I think there are a hundred different intersex variations. As often as you get a baby who’s redhead, you get a baby where the doctor says, there’s something going on here. This child is really both or neither. It can be an enlarged clitoris that starts to look like a penis. It can be vulva that are fused and look like scrotum. There are lots of different ways to be intersex.
[00:15:30] One of the things about being intersex is that it proves to the world of medicine that there is a third gender. Unfortunately, many, many hospitals across the world are doing surgeries on babies to make them look like one or the other and Pidgeon is an activist who was one of those children who is now making amazing work about what life they deserved, which would have been to be treated as a baby as they were: sacred and beautiful as they were having characteristics of both genders.
Rachel Thomas (00:16:00):
That’s amazing works. Switching gears a little bit. You mentioned that you’re a parent. How do you talk to your two sons—
Two sons. Yeah.
Two sons. How do you talk to them about gender and sexuality? You must be so good at it. I wanted to know what do you say?
Joey Soloway (00:16:16):
Well, my older son really came of age with me. He’s in his 20s, and first we watched my parent transition and all switched our pronouns to she from my parent.
[00:16:30] For my kids, I’d let them know that I was starting to use the they pronouns and that I felt non-binary but didn’t also make it a big deal. Like if my kids call me mom or people call me anything female in front of my children I don’t correct them.
Rachel Thomas (00:16:41):
Talking about kids, I know that your journey started later kind of. Yeah, but when you look back at your child in hindsight, do puzzle pieces fall into place that—
About my children?
Rachel Thomas (00:16:51):
Yeah. No, about your own childhood.
Like when you in hindsight, I imagine all these puzzle pieces suddenly falling into place for you.
Joey Soloway (00:16:58):
Yeah. I’m really still moving the puzzle pieces around as we speak, so many things. The biggest thing that I’m finding is that I want to be able to live in a world without gender in my mind. There are a lot of things that I sort of attach to being female and being a girl and there are a lot of things that if I were a boy, I would have. If I was a guy I could have. I’m trying to just take all of that out of my life and it goes with everything. How I talk, how I stand, how I use my hands, how I care for people. If I can move from the feminine to the masculine, it always makes everything easier for me.
Rachel Thomas [00:17:30]:
Oh, that’s interesting.
Joey Soloway (00:17:32):
But then I ultimately want to move back to that middle place. For example, this constant thought exercise that’s in my head. I was at Water Tower Place in Chicago where I grew up, the mall I grew up in, and I was with both of my parents, my mom and my mom and we were going to the food court, and that awful food court dilemma who is going to sit, somebody going to hold the tables. Is somebody going to go pick up the food and what will happen if somebody else wants the table? Whatever that’s called.
Yeah, I’ve been there. Yep.
Joey Soloway (00:17:56):
And so I said to both my parents, “Go ahead and sit down over here. Tell me what you want.” My [inaudible 00:18:01] said, “I want a cup of decaf tea,” and my mom said, “I want a sandwich or whatever,” and I said, “Great, I’ll go get it.” I really felt in that whole experience of setting them down at the table and going to get their food, that if I thought of myself as their son, it felt really easy for me. It was very loving.
I felt very much like a strong man and I felt like I wanted to care for them and I felt like it was my job to care for them and it just felt like this beautiful dignified action to let them sit down and feel safe and I would go get their food, but what if I thought of myself as their daughter, I saw myself as like harried, resentful. I can’t believe this is my job. Why do I have to do this? Why do I have to do everything? Why is everything my job?
Rachel Thomas (00:18:42):
So interesting. That’s a lot of gender coming in. Like all the stereotypes and what it means to be a woman or man kind of all hitting you at once.
Joey Soloway (00:18:51):
Yes. Like for the past few years, I’ve sort of been moving into that thing of like, I’m a son, I’m a man, I’m a guy and I just live in my maleness and it really helps my life feel more like it’s mine but now I’m trying to like get back into the middle.
Rachel Thomas (00:19:04):
Well, my question was related to that. Are there other times where like moving into your feminine side feels good or it feels liberating in a—
Joey Soloway (00:19:14):
I spent so much time in my feminine side and I’m so confused about it because it was really a lot about acquiescing against my will. Trying to make men feel good, unpaid emotional labor, hoping to be seen as cute.
[00:19:30] I can name like a hundred things that were woven into my personality that had to do with feeling feminine. I will come back to my femininity, I’m sure in a couple of years. I know I will, and the only way for me to think about it is to not think of myself as a woman, but think of myself almost as like a gay man who loves his femininity. That can get there that way.
Just the idea of being seen as a woman is no longer resonant. I couldn’t do it. I have dresses in my closet from my femme days five years ago and I look at them and I literally couldn’t put one on and walk out the front door. It would feel like I was wearing a costume.
Rachel Thomas (00:20:02):
Yeah, it feels so—
Joey Soloway (00:20:03):
... and it did feel like I was wearing a costume at the time when I was always protesting and I was always getting in fights with my husband if I had to get dressed up. Date night was code for, we’re going to have a fight in a couple hours and I would get dressed up then.
That just sounds like an awful... that’s tough.
Joey Soloway (00:20:17):
Yeah. I just did... I didn’t know why I was doing it.
Yeah. Didn’t feel good. Yeah.
I didn’t feel pretty in the way I was supposed to feel pretty.
Rachel Thomas (00:20:23):
I’m going to push you on something you said because I’m curious. You said, “I wouldn’t correct a boss or someone more.”
Joey Soloway (00:20:30):
No I wouldn’t. Yeah.
Yeah. You’re not there yet. Yeah.
They notice. People start to notice. I’ll have people who are—
Rachel Thomas (00:20:37):
By the way there’s no judgment in saying you’re not there yet.
Yeah. I know, because none of us are, right? Yeah.
I mean, like, oh, by the way—Yeah.
Because it’s also scary.
Yeah. I mean—
Joey Soloway (00:20:42):
I was like, cognitive dissonance to say no to somebody, which is another thing I’m always reminding people about consent. The person who’s asking for consent actually has the most power, has 95% of the power because they’re asking the questions and if that person also happens to have any power, be a boss, be a teacher, be older, the person’s almost always going to say yes because it kind of breaks reality to say no.
[00:21:00] Yeah. It’s very unlikely for me to say to somebody who has status above me, “You’re using the wrong pronoun,” because it could inflame a situation that I wouldn’t want to be inflamed.
So yeah. That’s something that people need to recognize with privilege and power, is that people aren’t going to say no, don’t hug me or get my pronoun right. They can’t, if they’re your employee.
Rachel Thomas (00:21:23):
Yeah. That’s like, if you want to hug a coworker, that might be okay, but if you’re the boss you’re walking into a completely different situation and if you don’t get that, you got to step back and get it. Yeah.
[00:21:30] Your relationship with gender, what do you think that tells us about gender stereotypes? How do you think that as we talk more about non-binary, that experience and our understanding of gender just continues to expand, like we keep opening the aperture, what do you think that does with gender stereotypes? Or what’s your hope?
Yeah. I mean, I think it destroys it all.
Joey Soloway (00:21:58):
And also it does this weird thing where every time you really try to look at something and ask if there’s a reason for it to be double gendered, to have a two gender world, it never really does. There’s nothing that needs to be gendered, honestly. The young people on the TikTok who are non-binary and who are talking about whether they were AFAB or AMAB, which means assigned female at birth, assigned male at birth. When you ask these questions, what was this person assigned at birth? The only answer you can come to is, what do you care you fucking Boomer pervert? Why are you here—
Rachel Thomas [00:22:30]:
Actually why does it matter?
It’s such a good question. Why does it matter?
Joey Soloway (00:22:36):
Yeah. Like why do you have to know what somebody’s genitals are? There are so many young people these days who really skate the center and you can’t tell, and as you’re trying to figure out which, you interrogate yourself and say, what is it I’m actually trying to find out.
Why do I care?
Joey Soloway (00:22:53):
Let’s just say you and I, if somebody said that I was coming to do this podcast and the person I was doing a podcast with was a trans woman or very, very femme gay man and I came down here and spoke to you, how would I be treating you differently than knowing that you’re a cis woman? Would I be treating you at all differently? Would I accept you more or accept you less? I’m always playing with these questions in my head to figure out what gender is for. Is there ever a purpose for it?
I think it’s really important when talking about the past, so a lot of people are, we need an all women’s space or we needed an all women’s space, or there were times when women were excluded. We absolutely need these words to talk about the past, but I don’t think they’re going to be much help to us in the future.
Rachel Thomas (00:23:33):
It is interesting because obviously I run an organization that is rooted in understanding gender stereotypes and bias and intersecting biases and discrimination. I’ve often thought right now so much of the research is binary.
Yes, women and men.
Rachel Thomas (00:23:49):
Women and men. That’s our language because that’s the work we do to try to highlight the different experiences women are having and the barriers they are facing and the everyday sexism and they’re facing, but it’s a little while because at some point, those lines are all going to start blurring.
Joey Soloway (00:24:04):
Except for there’s one big line, that the binary is really this and nobody wants to say it because it’s really uncomfortable and embarrassing. The binary is this. White cis men, everybody else. Because white men have the benefit of the system of white supremacy and cis men have the benefit of the system of patriarchy. We live in a white supremacist patriarchal world. If you’re a white cis man, you actually grow up feeling like you’re the main object.
[00:24:30] Everybody else, women, people of color, queer people, trans people, bi people, disabled people, other otherized people, everybody else is constantly struggling to just feel okay. When you’re naming your organization, you can’t say... you’re talking about women’s activism. It’s too long to say women, non-binary people, queer people, trans people, otherize people and all other... but that’s really what that is.
But that is actually really what it is.
... it out loud because it makes white cis men feel bad, so we actually find ambiguous ways to say it.
I always try to tell my white cis husband that it’s hard.
They feel bad.
Rachel Thomas (00:25:00):
They do feel bad, they feel defensive. They feel back on their heels with a lot of these conversations because they don’t understand it, that threatens their power, whether they realize it or not. That’s what they’re responding to.
Joey Soloway (00:25:10):
Yeah. I think we’re actually self-selecting into these smaller groups so as not to really upset the apple cart, because if you said to your husband, “Hey, you have more in common with all other white cis men and I actually have more in common with queer people, brown people, disabled people, other otherized people.” He’d say, “That’s not true and you’re putting me in a box. I’m not that guy.” I think in some ways we’re all doing the emotional labor.
Rachel Thomas (00:25:30):
Although I do... I mean the white privilege does make me feel like it’s harder to say that. Do you know what I’m saying?
You’re a woman, and you have to imagine—
I am a woman but—
... you’ve grown up in a world where Jesus was a woman. God was a woman. Every genius was a woman. Every painter was a woman. Every book—
Oh, God. If you could see me I’m smiling, you know ear to ear, right?
Yeah. You have to imagine it. We can’t even begin to imagine what it would be like—
Joey Soloway (00:25:52):
... to move through the world with privilege, not be afraid of being raped. To believe that the world was created for us and we’re all doing this emotional labor, this unpaid emotional labor trying to make white cis straight men not feel bad. But the truth is they’ve been really hoarding all opportunities and the point of view and the microphone and the checkbook for centuries. We’re trying to burn it all down.
Rachel Thomas (00:26:14):
Yeah. The patriarchy. What are you working on now? What are you working on to do that? What does that look like in terms of day to day projects?
Joey Soloway (00:26:21):
So many things. Yes. Well, I am trying to do it all day long. I’m writing and directing a movie called Red Sonja. She’s a superhero who’s very non-binary. She’s not blonde. She’s not brown. She’s red.
[00:26:30] She’s really trying to take down the king and calling on the powers of the Goddess to do so. Producing quite a few other movies of heroines, people like Sally Ride.
There was a female ice road trucker named Joy Mothertrucker. I’m working on a movie with Julianne Moore, it’s Joy Mothertrucker. Anything where a woman or non-binary person, queer person, person of color, other otherized person, person with disabilities is the subject instead of the object. We’re just trying to make content that repositions the world.
Rachel Thomas (00:27:00):
Do you have any white cis men on your team?
Joey Soloway (00:27:07):
It gets very weird when I see them now. I really notice when I’m around men, period, and I really noticed when I’m around straight cis men and yeah, I really notice when I’m around straight cis white men. I really notice. It’s not their fault, but I just find that they’re assuming that they need to convene reality, so they do a taking over that they’ve been told they have to do. That’s when I notice, is everybody’s kind of on guard because if a white cis man enters the room, he assumes that he has to summarize and convene what’s happening. It stops other people from having the space to think.
[00:27:30] I notice so many times, as soon as a man will leave the room, if there’s four people sitting at a table—
The oxygen changes.
Joey Soloway (00:27:46):
The oxygen changes because women, queer people, trans people, people of color, disabled people and other otherized people don’t feel as much of that responsibility, I notice. Yeah. Sometimes a sentence will get set and there’ll be like a little bit of silence afterwards and then the next person’s sentence might open onto something else whereas white cis men’s next sentence might come at the heels of the previous sentence and it might be one that disqualifies everything that was said. Like a closing of boxes instead of an opening of boxes, it wants to conflict.
[00:28:00] I don’t know if that’s masculine or if that’s men or if that’s masculinity. I don’t know what it is, but I do think it would be an amazing skill for white cis straight men to learn. Actually, there’s an amazing activist. His name is Rocco Kayiatos. He founded a camp for trans men. He’s doing work right now with trans men talking to cis men about masculinity and what it means to be a good man and what it means to have a holy masculinity instead of a toxic masculinity.
I think that’s really a great path for any cis men who are listening, is to really pay attention to trans men because they’re so intentional about their masculinity. They thought it through in a way that cis men haven’t. I would love to see allies between social organizations, where the men who are standing around going, “What do we do? You don’t want us to have a men’s movement. You don’t want us in the woods pounding drums. What do we do? We don’t know where to go.”
[00:29:00] Talk to queer men and especially talk to trans men.
Rachel Thomas [00:29:09]:
Joey really pushed my thinking about gender and I left our conversation wanting to learn more, especially about what it’s like to grow up as a non-binary person and what we can do to be more inclusive of people of all gender identities. For that, I turned to writer, producer, and actor, Jacob Tobia.
[00:29:30] Jacob uses the they pronoun and they’re the author of the memoir Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story, which is currently being adapted for television by Showtime. I asked Jacob to open our conversation by reading an excerpt from their book, and wow, does their writing pack a punch. Here’s Jacob.
Jacob Tobia [00:29:48]:
Professionalism is without a doubt one of my least favorite words in the English language. The reason I loathe it with such intensity is because as a word, it’s seriously dishonest. Like three-day-old seafood it looks fine enough on the surface, but the moment you ingest it and your stomach begins to pull its various components apart, it becomes oh-so-clear that it’s actually vile. After only a few moments digestion, your stomach rumbles, your bowels quiver, and you’d better make it to a gender neutral bathroom fast.
[00:30:30] At first glance, professionalism tries to convince you it’s a neutral word merely meant to signify a collection of behaviors, clothing, and norms “appropriate” for the workplace. “We just ask that everyone be professional,” the cis white men will say, smiles on their faces as if they’re not asking for much. “We try to maintain a professional office environment.” But never has a word in the English language been so loaded with racism, sexism, heteronormativity, or trans exclusion. Whenever someone is telling you to “be professional,” they’re really saying, “be more like me.”
[00:31:00] If you’re Black, being professional can often mean speaking differently, avoiding Black cultural references or not wearing natural hair. If you’re not American, being professional can mean abandoning your cultural dress for Western business clothes. If you’re not Christian, being professional can mean potentially removing your hijab to fit in, sitting by while your office mates ignore your need for kosher or halal food, sucking up the facts that your office puts up a giant Christmas tree every year. If you’re low income or working class, being professional can mean spending money you don’t have on work clothes, dressing nicely for a job that may not pay you enough to really afford to do so.
[00:31:30] If you’re a woman, being professional can be navigating a veritable minefield of double standards: show some skin but don’t be a slut. Wear heels, but not too high and not too low either. Wear form fitting clothes, but not too form fitting. We have a maternity leave, but don’t “interrupt your career” by taking it. If you’re trans, like me, being professional can mean putting your identity away unless it conforms to dominant gender norms.
[00:32:00] To this day, when I walk into an office in lipstick, a bolero jacket, and earrings, people perceive my behavior as unprofessional. My intellect, my competency, and my ability are called into question simply because my gender is different. There are countless geographic areas and professions where I couldn’t even consider having a career because I am perceived to be so unprofessional.
Plainly put, the imperative to be professional is the imperative to be whiter, straighter, wealthier, and more masculine. A wolf in sheep’s clothing masquerading as a neutral term, professionalism hangs over the head of anyone who’s different. Who deviates from the hegemony of white men. Needless to say, in the formal gendered world of professional dress, I was seriously out of my element.
[00:32:30] And we’ll end with that little chunk.
Rachel Thomas [00:32:38]:
I love it. You get so much packed in there. I’m curious, if I were going to introduce you at a dinner party, what would you want me to say about you?
Jacob Tobia [00:32:49]:
I would want you to say, “Hi, this is messy sweet artist friend, Jacob. They have too many hyphens in terms of what they do in their career. They can’t choose a profession nor can they choose a gender, but they make really fun cheesy jokes and I hope that you’ll enjoy their presence at this table. Also they’re vegetarian so please don’t try and serve them meat, although they will politely eat it if you do.”
I’m still learning to stand up for myself.
Yeah. Love. One of the things that’s interesting is your gender identity is in there. It’s just like a little sliver. Talk about that a little bit. And it shouldn’t be, but it’s just like a little sliver of like a really big full rich life and set of experiences. I like the way you did that.
Jacob Tobia [00:33:29]:
These days, part of what my self-love journey has looked like and part of what my journey in terms of understanding myself has been, has been learning to see who I am beyond my gender and the way it expresses in the world. Being gender nonconforming has very much impacted the quality and material conditions of my life. Don’t get me wrong. It’s changed a lot of trajectories. It’s really influenced where I’ve gone in the world, where I’ve been able to go, and has been something that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, but these days I’m really trying to figure out beyond that, who am I in this world and who do I want to claim myself to be? And what do I want to stand up for?
[00:34:00] It’s funny because the way I think about identities of difference in general is that it’s like that classic saying where you can’t go around it, you can’t go above it. You can’t go under it. You got to go right through, and I tell you what, the best way to go right through your identity is to write a memoir about it because then you process a hell a lot of shit real, real quick, and I feel like there’s this way in which on the other side of writing Sissy, on the other side of memoiring the first journey of my gender, there was a sense of closure and a sense of permanence actually.
[00:34:30] Because I think for years of my life, I was really afraid that my gender freedom would be a use it or lose it proposition.
Jacob Tobia [00:34:43]:
That if I didn’t wear a dress all the time, if I didn’t make sure to wear lipstick every day, if I didn’t do the high femme thing every waking moment of my existence, someone would see that I didn’t one day and be like, “Ha, we caught you. You can wear pants.” And then I would never be allowed to wear a dress again.
[00:35:00] I sort of had this fear that if I didn’t talk about it all the time, if I didn’t name it all the time, if I wasn’t constantly showing it to people, even when it didn’t feel safe, that I would lose the ability to express myself in this world.
Part of, for me, maturing has been realizing, no, my gender is mine for life. I don’t have to earn it. I don’t have to defend it. It just is and it can sit with me in all the most lovely ways and it influences and touches every part of my consciousness in the same way that being raised in the church has done that, in the same way that being a Southerner has done that, in the same way that now being an Angeleno is starting to do that.
Rachel Thomas [00:35:36]:
There was a little bit in there that at least at some point, maybe on your journey, but maybe not, and I don’t want to ever put words in your mouth, that you entered a room and there was, like I’m leading with this identity because it’s visible. It’s different.
Jacob Tobia [00:35:50]:
Yeah. There was definitely a period of my life where I thought I had to really lead with the gender part. I thought that I had to sort of come in and be like, “Hi, my name is Jacob I’m gender queer. I use they/them pronouns and you will respect me.”
[00:36:00] There was a moment when my identity was so new to me and putting it publicly was so new to me that I was defensive, and these days my whole goal in life, both for my own mental health and well-being, but also because strategically it’s most effective, I found, is to be gender-chill.
Rachel Thomas [00:36:18]:
I was going to ask you about this. Yeah.
Jacob Tobia [00:36:19]:
That’s my favorite new term. I’m gender-chill. I’ll probably write another book called gender-chill one day, all about how to be gender-chill.
[00:36:30] For me, what I found is that the best way to introduce someone to what it means to be a non-binary gender queer trans is for me to come into a room, be effortlessly myself and just glide on in, or in some cases just bulldoze past the awkwardness with a few good jokes and a few witty remarks and like a hello and a smile, and then by the time they even get the courage to ask the question of, “Wait, what is your gender? And how does it work?” They’re already aware that they like you and they want you around.
[00:37:00] I feel like I’ve finally given myself permission to just exist in spaces without having to name all this stuff so specifically all the time, because let’s also be very clear. I don’t have to worry about it not showing. The moment I put on lipstick it’s not like I’m hiding anything. The signifiers of gender, at least in this historical moment, do that work for me. All I have to do is just be charming and sweet and say y’all a lot because that’s my favorite gender neutral term.
When people are like, “you guys,” I’m like, I mean, that’s fine. Like I’m not going to spend my feminist labor on fighting the term you guys. Some people chose to, bless them. Love you. I just instead advocate for y’all because it’s the best.
Rachel Thomas (00:37:30):
I love it. It’s also very friendly.
Right. It’s cute.
Rachel Thomas (00:37:38):
You mentioned your book, you read from your book, which is amazing. It’s interesting that the title of your book is Sissy, which is a [inaudible]. What made you go with Sissy? What other titles did you consider and how did you land there?
Oh, gosh. For memoirs at least, the money is a sexy one-word title if you can find it.
Well, you got it, right?
Jacob Tobia (00:37:55):
I feel really good about it, and I was actually kind of shocked that there wasn’t a book called just straight up sissy out there. There is a book that is an incredible book called Mississippi Sissy. Can we talk about the alliteration in that? The assonance and the consonance. I mean, it’s really brilliant. There wasn’t a book called just sissy and I was like, cool. That works for me. There’s a few different kind of underpinnings of why that title matters a lot to me. One, is just the sort of basic idea of reclamation.
I think it is so powerful and fabulous and wonderful to reclaim the labels that have been used to shame us. In a similar way to slut walk or the term slut. There’s people who reclaim it and are like, “Oh no, I’m a big old slut.” As a way to be like, you can’t shame me for my sex practices and my desires because I love ‘em. The same thing I think can be true of the term sissy. I think there’s a way to own it and be like, you can’t shame me for my gender expression because I love it. It feels like a really fun way to take power away from people who desperately would like to have power over me and that always feels very good, but on a more reflective and tender level, it’s the origin story.
[00:39:00] When I was growing up, I certainly knew I was different. I knew I was weird, but the first label I had to describe my gender difference and what gender was in my experience was the label sissy, and that preceeded the word gay, that preceeded the word trans, certainly. Proceeded the word non-binary. Preceded any of that other language.
[00:39:30] This book for me was so much about honoring my childhood self and naming that young male children who are mostly by their parents understood to be boys, that male children deserve a kinder and more empathetic world and deserve to have gender freedom and gender self-determination even at the earliest age and so it was a way to honor that and to really tap into an origin story. The other reason I love the term sissy is because I wanted to pick a term that wasn’t an identity that a lot of people use. Most people don’t identify as sissies. There are some people who do, but that’s not like LGBTQS and I wanted to pick a term that actually is very unifying because when you’re talking about gay men, trans women, non-binary people like me, all of us were called sissies as kids, even some straight men were called sissies for being gender nonconforming.
[00:40:00] It’s a way to call people into the conversation who if I focused on one facet or one word of how I describe my identity would think, “Oh, this book isn’t for me.” That was the other reason is I think that as a unifying term, it’s really powerful, and the last one is that I grew up in the South and sissy is kind of like cute slang for sister. It’s like, “Hey, sissy.” So there’s an endearment in the title too.
Rachel Thomas (00:40:30):
You mention your childhood and that this is your word. It felt weird.
Jacob Tobia (00:40:34):
Yeah. I feel like some people’s gender journey in sort of the non-binary and agender community and all that stuff is like, “Oh, I just didn’t have that much of a feeling about gender.” People were just like, “Are you a boy or a girl?” And I was just like—
“I don’t know.”
Jacob Tobia (00:40:48):
“What?” Whereas for me it was like, I just had way too much of the stuff. I just had gender coming out of my ears. I wanted all of the expression and all of the exploration and all of the possibilities and truly the only part of gender stereotypes that I excluded that I didn’t want a part in was stuff that required hand eye coordination, because that just wasn’t me and some of the violence part that comes with boyhood. Other than that, even all the boy stuff I wanted.
My dream day would be running around the creek by my house, getting super muddy, making a little clay pot out of the clay in the creek bed, baking in the oven, picking some flowers to make a bouquet for my mom, cleaning up and watching a science documentary about planets or something while I play with my bug collection and Barbies.
[00:41:30] I just wanted all the things and it was just confusing to me why I couldn’t have them. It was weird because it was like half of everything I wanted was forbidden or was not okay or would just make all the people around me get all weird and uncomfortable all of a sudden. Yeah, it kind of felt like I didn’t have a shame relationship to my gender naturally. There’s nothing natural about shame. There’s nothing organic about shame.
[00:42:00] My connection to my gender was effortless and effervescent and beautiful and bubbly and cute when I was a kid, and then the world came in and intervened and the world corrupted something that was so pure and beautiful.
Part of the journey of my adulthood and the journey of the rest of my life, frankly, is trying to get back to who I was when I was four. I say this in the book, there’s a way in which being made to understand gender, having the gender binary imposed on my child body was like being cast out of Eden. It was like being thrown out of the most beautiful garden and I feel like I’m going to spend the rest of my life trying to figure out how to recreate it.
[00:42:30] The world I dream of is one where no kid has to be cast out of that garden. Where like every gender expression is just understood as beautiful. Where every child, for many reasons, but on the basis of gender too, is treated with empathy and kindness and where people don’t have to spend decades unearthing shame in order to get back to who they always knew themselves to be.
Rachel Thomas (00:43:00):
That is such a beautiful and reasonable vision of what is...
It’s not even that hard. That’s the funny part.
Rachel Thomas (00:43:06):
Yeah, I know.
One of the things I think is really interesting is the... you say that cis people, that we’re kidding ourselves if we think gender is simple, and that really hit me because I’ve kind of actually spent my life thinking my gender was pretty simple. Why is it not simple?
Jacob Tobia (00:43:21):
Oh my God. The number of times people have said to me, “Well, I’m just a cis woman.” Just. What the fuck is just a woman? Are you at all trying to claim that being a woman is a simple thing, that there isn’t this massive range in terms of what being a woman is in this world in terms of what your experience with womanhood has been as if there’s not an entire journey that took your entire life for you to become the woman you are today, or like, “Oh, I’m just a guy.” Just. What the fuck is this just? If I said, “Oh, I’m just gender nonconforming.” People would be like, “You need to explain that,” and I feel the same way when people say like, “Oh, I’m just a man.” I’m like, “Sorry, what do you mean by man? How did you understand it? Let’s go back to third grade.”
[00:44:00] I would love to read a memoir from a cis guy, from like a cis man explaining how he came into his manhood, how he came to own manhood in his life and hold that identity and all the complexity that comes in that. I would love more storytelling like that.
Rachel Thomas (00:44:16):
You’ve become really a leading voice in the LGBTQ+ community and you’re in your 20s. Is that a lot of pressure? How do you feel about it? Where do you want to take it next?
Jacob Tobia (00:44:25):
No. It’s actually not a lot of pressure, but here’s why. I feel like one thing I’ve relinquished is the idea that I have to speak on behalf of my community. This idea that I am some way representative of my community, the idea that I wrote the non-binary book is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. The idea that I am somehow the voice of gender queer people or gender nonconforming people is stupid. It’s so silly as to seem asinine to me. I know that I’m speaking only from a place of personal experience. I know that I’m speaking to how I understand and see the world and I don’t feel this pressure to speak on behalf of the entire community.
[00:45:00] The pressure that does keep me up at night is the pressure around, on this journey how do I keep pulling people with me? That’s the real responsibility. That’s the actual terrifying responsibility of getting validation, of getting power, of getting opportunity. I feel a massive obligation to pull as many gender nonconforming and trans and queer people along with me into these systems that have not valued us so that I’m not the only one, because I never want to be the only one. When Sissy gets made into a TV show, I’m going to be grumpy if there aren’t three other trans creator stars who also have comedies out.
I don’t want to be competing to be the only trans thing. I don’t want to be competing to be the only non-binary thing. That’s a lonely and sad place.
Rachel Thomas (00:45:48):
Yeah. It is lonely.
Jacob Tobia (00:45:50):
I want to build with abundance but the hard part is that things start moving faster and faster and it takes more and more work to be intentional about bringing people with you, and my fear is that what’s going to happen is that I’m going to like get this show and get some trophies or whatever, do well and I’m somehow going to like lose sight or the door’s going to close behind me or I’m going to try to hold it open and other people will yank it out of my hands and say, “No, we have to shut that door. Enough people like you have made it in.” My goal in life is to be a doorstop and that is the pressure I feel. I just want to keep the door open for everyone else.
Rachel Thomas (00:46:24):
I have never heard a more aspirational reference to a doorstop. My goal in life is to be... like normally if you heard that, you’d be like, really?
That makes a lot of—
I mean, it’s—
No, no. The metaphor—
I do like to be a screwdriver and take the door off its hinges.
Rachel Thomas (00:46:42):
Right. The metaphor of holding the door open, which is really powerful, particularly early in your career, you write. You act. You’re kind of a creator on a number of dimensions, that you had a really hard time getting acting roles. Is that true or does that still feel right?
Jacob Tobia (00:46:56):
I have not booked an acting role with me on camera since I moved to LA.
I’ve been auditioning for like two and a half years since I got here.
So how many auditions and like what happens?
Jacob Tobia (00:47:05):
Part of it... What people want to hear is they want to hear me say like, I’ve been on 400 auditions and I haven’t booked anything, but the reality is that there are so few interesting roles.
I mean, that would depress the hell out of me so I’m not sure I want to hear that, but I get your point.
Jacob Tobia (00:47:16):
Right. Well, but what they want to hear is that I’ve been so persistent and been auditioning every single day. They want that, but the reality is the number of roles where casting directors even want to see me is so small and so few and far between.
They’re like realistically, I’m maybe auditioning once or twice a month. It doesn’t give me a lot of shots. It means that the shots I take are really important, but it’s tough because in the casting environment, casting is all about someone having already imagined a role for someone like you in the world that they’ve built and people build the world based on how they understand it.
[00:48:00] When someone’s writing a political drama, they don’t think, what if there’s this cool 28-year-old or like 29-year-old Congressperson who’s a non-binary elected official from North Carolina from progressive town who just terrorizes DC with all of their progressive antics. No one imagines that in their show. The little bit of negotiating that I’m doing is okay. I’ll audition to play a gay boy and will maybe have the conversation about the fact that I’m non-binary afterwards and see if we could adapt the role a little bit, or I’ll audition to play a role that isn’t coded as non-binary or trans or queer.
[00:48:30] I’ll wear a T-shirt and no makeup and like no femme anything and just look like a boy for the audition tape so that you can see me as a person and then when you see me as a person, perhaps you could see me as a talented person, but, Joey, no one can see your talent when they’re only looking at your fucking lipstick, which is very much how a lot of people in this town watch my tapes. I’m making some compromises there, which don’t feel sad because on the other side of that coin, I’m creating my own show for myself to star in.
[00:49:00] The irony is that my situation in Hollywood is like, well, no, one’s casting me in their shows. I guess I have to create my own show and sell my own show so that I can have a role. In some ways that’s awful and in some ways it is the biggest blessing of my life because I’ve done it and it’s funny because selling Sissy, like a show based off of Sissy, which we’re currently in development at Showtime—
I was going to ask, but it sounded like you were but then I was like, what if he’s pitching it and it’s not so—
They, I’m so sorry.
It’s okay. No, it’s good, it’s good.
Yeah, no I’m...
We just do casual corrections.
I was going to ask—
It’s no big deal.
I know, but it feels like a big deal.
You didn’t mean it. You didn’t mean anything by it.
I know, but it feels like a big deal.
We’re just floating in a gender pool. Okay.
It feels like a big deal.
Jacob Tobia (00:49:31):
Take a sip of your piña colada before we keep going.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for that [inaudible 00:49:38].
Jacob Tobia (00:49:40):
I fuck up people’s pronouns all the time. Let me be very clear. Right? When people mess up my pronouns and they’re like, “Oh my God, I’m a bad person and I’m transphobic.” I’m like, “Girl, please.” I, A, struggle to remember many of my friends’ pronouns because some of my friends have been changing them quite a lot recently, and B, just sometimes just slip up and get it wrong.
Rachel Thomas (00:49:55):
You know what I will say, using the pronoun they is super new to me. Why I’m so mad at myself is I’ve been practicing. I want to get it right but what I do like about messing up and then your kind of empathy and understanding is, it’s like when you’re a kid and you mess up something that you really want to get right, it moves you along so much more quickly. You have to—
You have to mess up in order to learn.
That’s how learning works.
Rachel Thomas (00:50:20):
Because it was such a moment for me. I was like, “Oh, it left my lips and you accepted it so generously.” Which is a good... actually, since we’re here, but how do you want people to engage with you? What are your expectations? What is okay to goof up? What is not okay, what frustrates you to no end? I know there’s a lot of practical tips in the book. How can we learn?
Jacob Tobia (00:50:45):
There are some very simple things that I want, which almost feels silly to ask for it because they’re so basic. Just be nice to someone who’s visibly gender nonconforming. Don’t ask them a bunch of questions about their gender until you’re like actually getting to know each other.
Does that happen to people just like jump—
Jacob Tobia (00:50:58):
Oh yeah, sometimes people will meet me at a party and be like, “So I have a kid who’s trans and what do I do?” And I respect that they’re just flailing, right? And they’re like literally, what the fuck do I do? And I’m like well—
I do have a lot of empathy for that as a parent.
Right. No, and I’m just like well—
They’re probably literally like, “Seriously help me.”
Jacob Tobia (00:51:19):
In those moments I’m like, “Okay, we are standing in line at Trader Joe’s, but can we check out first? And then we can chat.” The basic imperative is like, please treat me with kindness. Please treat anyone you see on the street who is visibly gender nonconforming with kindness. It doesn’t mean necessarily singling them out to be like, “You look so great.” Although I don’t mind that when it’s yelled at me, but not everybody.
But I can see that might be over the top.
Jacob Tobia (00:51:32):
Not everybody loves that. There’s some stuff that’s like slightly technical, but not even really. If you aren’t sure of someone’s pronouns, ask. When you’re meeting a new person, ask. Put your pronouns in your email signature and that doesn’t just help non-binary or gender nonconforming or trans folks, it also helps anyone with a slightly gender ambiguous name. Like if your name is Lee, it’s really nice to have your pronouns in your email because you’re not sure how to refer to Lee in the third person, because that could be a girl or a boy or a non-binary person and then there’s the deeper stuff, which is the structural things and that’s not going to be solved overnight.
[00:52:00] In general, I tend to question, where does gender segregation and gender differentiation manifest in public policy and in public life. In every place that it manifests, is it actually necessary and constructive or is it in fact simply reinforcing a world of stigma and shame for gender nonconforming and trans people?
Rachel Thomas (00:52:26):
In your own life, what are examples that you just want to bang your head against a wall?
Jacob Tobia (00:52:31):
One of them is like having an M or an F on your ID documents. I actually do not understand. I’ve never heard a good reason why that is necessary, and even for doctors in documents, an M or an F is only sort of helpful because if you’re a trans woman and you have not had bottom surgery and you have a penis, what the fuck do you put on your form? What they should really ask is like, what genitalia do you have? What’s the surgical history of your genitalia? There’s just very basic questions about medical history that are the actual questions we need to know about what your body is and what equipment you have that actually don’t have anything to do with an M or an F and are oversimplified by an M or an F.
[00:53:00] Again, even in medical practice, it should be more complicated in order for everyone to get good care. The doctor should not look at an F and think they know your body. A doctor shouldn’t look at an M and think they understand. There’s questions they should ask for each person, and then there’s like smaller easier things, which... I mean, there’s an even smaller easy, but like to me the whole restroom debate is so simple. Everyone’s like, “Oh my God, but if we make restrooms gender neutral, then like we’re going to have people doing creepy things in bathrooms.”
[00:53:30] And I’m like A, that’s some classic strategy used by oppressive violent people. When a community is oppressed, you make them into the perpetrator of violence when in fact they are the victims of violence, they are the survivors of violence.
[00:54:00] There’s this idea of, “Oh, if we have gender neutral restrooms, we’re going to have people impersonating women, going into women’s restrooms and assaulting women.” That is supported by no facts, no feminist organization corroborates that narrative. It’s made up by oppressive conservative men, and the real reason that people want to keep bathrooms segregated is because it maintains the mystique of the gender divide, which maintains the ability to regulate women’s bodies. That’s the legislative imperative. That’s why Republican men want bathrooms separate. They’re not trying to protect you. They’re trying to regulate your body and we should say no to any attempts that men make to regulate women’s bodies.
Jacob Tobia (00:54:24):
That’s ridiculous, and that straw man of the person who is going to commit assault, it’s like, no, what happens is a trans woman walks into a bathroom or me, a gender nonconforming person, walks into a bathroom and you’re verbally assaulted or worse. There are places where I know I cannot wear what I would like, because I know better or because I’m too scared. When I was driving cross country to move to LA, you bet your ass I did not wear lipstick or a skirt or anything like that. I only wore like pants and T-shirts and dressed like a boy, because I was not about to go into a gas station men’s bathroom or a gas station women’s bathroom, and risk running into someone who decides to be physically violent with me in a random place where I don’t know anybody.
[00:55:00] What happens is that gender segregated bathrooms allow for the regulation of women’s bodies, are about the regulation of women’s bodies and are about perpetuating and maintaining violence and stigma against gender nonconforming and trans people.
Rachel Thomas (00:55:10):
One of the things that I’m struck by is you seem to have so much empathy for people who don’t necessarily have empathy for you. How were you able to do that? And where does that come from?
Jacob Tobia (00:55:21):
I could pretend that I have empathy because I’m a good person, but that’s not really true. For me, empathy is a tool and also a little bit of a curse. I don’t know why. I feel like I’ve been empathetic my whole life. I just feel when other people are feeling and there are times when that’s really held me back. Like in college, if I had a little less empathy and a little less sort of social connection to other people, I could have been maybe a little more fearless. I could have told an institutional culture that didn’t work for me to just fuck off and then be who I am, and it’s taken me a long time to kind of learn how to be that way in the world and to really claim myself against what my empathy and social connection is sometimes telling me.
[00:56:00] On a deeper level, and this sounds so rainbows and butterflies as to almost be trite, but it is true. I have found that empathy is the only thing that sets me free and the only thing that actually helps me feel like there might be justice in the world. And by that, I mean when I’m walking down the street and it doesn’t happen as much these days, because I don’t live in New York anymore so I don’t have to take public transportation in the same way. One of the reasons I stayed in LA is because I get to drive in a car and it’s safer.
[00:56:30] When I’m walking down the street and a dress or wearing lipstick or whatever, and someone calls me a faggot across the street or a group of teenagers say, “What the fuck is that?” Which has been said to me more times than I can count, anger doesn’t fix it. Yelling back at them doesn’t fix it. Nothing gets me through that experience because it is so dehumanizing.
[00:57:00] Nothing gets me through it other than thinking to myself, that boy or that man did that to me because they have been so hurt, and that’s the only thing that gets me through it because I just have to remember how much pain they are in, and then I’m just really fucked up because I don’t know how to fix it sometimes, and now I’m crying in an interview.
Oh, I’m sorry.
Jacob Tobia (00:57:19):
I just hate what the world does to people sometimes and I hate what the world does to little boys. I want people to not be abused, and it’s so complicated to ask for that when it is so simple to do.
It should seem so.
Jacob Tobia (00:57:34):
I don’t usually get emotional in interviews because I do so many of them, but just every now and then, just someone takes me there and I—
Rachel Thomas (00:57:42):
I’m a mom and so every time... I always just imagine the experiences through the eyes of my kids, but a couple of the stories you told, it really hit me, like dressing differently when you drive across country for fear of going into a certain bathroom. It’s really heartbreaking.
None of these are—
... and unfortunately it’s probably very common.
Jacob Tobia (00:58:02):
Yeah, and these aren’t things that are foreign to cis women either. Feeling unsafe because the outfit you’re wearing and where you have to walk.
It’s such a good point.
Such a good point.
Jacob Tobia (00:58:12):
As a unifying thing, I’m not... gender nonconforming people, we experience different kinds of harassment and maybe a slightly different flavor but harassment is harassment.
I honestly... I love you for saying that you are so generous of spirit.
But it’s true.
I know it is true, but you are like—
Getting catcalled sucks no matter how your catcalled and by who.
It’s such a good point [inaudible 00:58:31].
Feeling unsafe in public is so common for so many people.
Yeah. I know you’re right.
Jacob Tobia (00:58:34):
Yeah. I don’t want to act as if it’s an experience that gender nonconforming people have that is solely unique. It’s like, no. There’s connective tissue here. We all need better.
Rachel Thomas (00:58:43):
No, we definitely all need better. Can you imagine a world where we don’t think about gender? Like we get beyond gender.
I don’t want a world where we get beyond gender.
Okay. Good. Interesting.
Jacob Tobia (00:58:55):
I want a world where gender and power have nothing to do with each other. Where gender is about fun and self-expression and doesn’t come with stakes. Can you imagine being able to celebrate your gender as a cultural tradition, which it is in fact, but not having to worry about your safety or economic opportunity or ability to do what you need to in the world. That would be such a cool place to live.
Some people think what a non-binary future looks like, is like everyone in like gray sweat pants.
It’s like Star Trek plus.
Jacob Tobia (00:59:30):
And like a chic ASOS gray hoodie. Nothing against a chic ASOS gray hoodie but it’s like, no, it’s not about taking away everyone’s gender. It’s about filling everyone’s gender to the brim and allowing everyone any kind of self-expression they want. If that’s minimalist, architectural weird, you go for it. If that’s like grunge ripped-up pants, you go for it. If that’s like a gym outfit everyday for always, you go for it as long as it’s like not too smelly preferably. If that’s shoulder pads to the Gods and a giant chunky clip on earrings, you go for it.
[01:00:00] I just want people to have freedom of expression and gender self-determination, but it doesn’t mean a world without gender. It means the world that just celebrates all gender, and that’s possible. We can celebrate all gender in the same way we celebrate all movie genres.
Yeah. I love that.
Jacob Tobia (01:00:15):
And there can be crossovers. You can have a dramedy of gender. My gender is just a dramedy. I actually made that joke in my TV pitches. Much like my gender, this show is non-binary.
That’s funny. I hope people laugh.
Jacob Tobia (01:00:30):
Oh no. It killed every time. Yeah. Every like they’re going-
Rachel Thomas (1:00:34):
Yeah. I was going to say your delivery is so good. Yeah. You mentioned kids a little bit and I don’t want to put you on the spot because this is like a hard one, but if someone’s listening and a son or a daughter has come to them and said, “I think I’m non-binary. I think I’m not gender conforming.” Do you have any practical recommendations for what to say in the moment? Because I know as a parent, I’m always afraid. At those moments, whatever they are for my kids, like I’m just going to fuck it up. Right? Like I’m hungry for like anyone listening and like what can we do to get it right?
Jacob Tobia (01:01:02):
Yeah. You know how when you have a young kid and they fall, what you’re supposed to do, if you go, “Oh my gosh, are you okay?” Then your kid starts crying and it becomes a traumatic thing. Whereas like most of the time when your kid falls, if you’re like, “Good fall, Timmy!” They’ll just go like, “Yeah, that was a good fall. I guess I’m fine,” and then kind of toddle on. I think the same principle applies to coming out. If your kid says to you, “Hey mom, I think I’m non-binary.”
It’s totally okay to be like, “Awesome! That’s so cool! Tell me more!” It’s okay to say, “Oh my gosh, congratulations! That’s so exciting!” It’s okay. To just be like, “I love that. I want to know more about that. How did you start thinking about that? Or what does that mean to you? That’s so cool.”
It’s okay to just be like a little fascinated and pleasantly surprised. If you lead with that, then all of a sudden this thing that was supposed to be this traumatic interaction turns into just like this moment of play and exploration and especially when it comes to gender related care for young people, because I think is a common misunderstanding. When we talk about allowing children and teens to transition, what we mean is a social transition. We are not talking about having an eight-year-old get surgery. That’s ridiculous.
What we’re talking about is like, let your eight-year-old child who you’ve understood as a boy who wants to explore being a girl, grow out his hair and let her live as her for a while and wear dresses and whatever, and then if you’re talking about someone who’s at the age of puberty, it’s not about immediately putting your kid on the hormones and like immediately getting surgeries. It’s about doing puberty blockers. All they do is buy you a little time to feel things out and figure out if that’s the direction you want to go or not.
We’re not talking any drastic medical steps here. We are only talking about social affirmation and basic buying time while people figure out what’s best for them. And it sounds simple, but I know people have so much anxiety about it. When you’re raising kids, let your kid lead.
[01:03:00] Every child knows their gender and if they don’t know it exactly in that moment, it’s because they’re exploring and if they’re exploring, that’s a wonderful thing and just because you’re a boy child wears a dress doesn’t mean that your boy child is trans, but it might mean that your boy child is trans, but just let them wear the dress and feel cute. Just because your girl child is obsessed with trucks, it might mean she’s a lesbian. I don’t know. It might not, but just like let her play with the trucks because they’re cool.
It’s just about like, let kids lead on their agenda and don’t introduce shame or stigma and don’t worry about protecting your kids from an abusive world by then abusing them in the home when people are like, “Oh, well I need to teach my son the rules of the road so that he doesn’t get in trouble out there.” And I’m like, okay what you’re saying is that because people are going to be cruel to him outside of your home, you must also be cruel to him inside your home. That’s ridiculous.
At least make your home be a safe place where your kids can feel cute and affirmed and where they can come to you and saying, “Hey, I’m getting bullied because I’m coloring with the wrong crayons.” And you can be like, “That sucks. Do you want to color with some pink right now? Let’s find a playgroup where you’re not getting bullied. I’ll have to go talk to your teacher.” It’s just let your kids lead because they know what’s up.
Thank you for that.
Jacob Tobia (1:04:03):
And you’re going to get it right. You’re going to be okay. You’re going to get it right. You’re going to fuck some few things up. You’re going to be okay.
In your honor I’m going to say this was fucking amazing.
Thank you so much.
Jacob Tobia (01:04:12):
Yeah, thank you for having me.
Yeah. No, thank you. This is awesome.
It’s been really special.
Yeah. Thank you.
Rachel Thomas (1:04:20):
Wow. Huge thanks to Joey and Jacob for joining me on Tilted. They really opened my eyes to just how gendered the world is. One thing is clear from talking to them, it is time to start expanding the way we think.
[01:04:30] That’s it for today’s episode of Tilted. You can subscribe to Tilted on Apple podcast, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts. Our executive producer is Sandy Smallens and special thanks to Ali Bohrer, Chelsea Paul, Kate Urban, Madison Long, and Nicole Roman from the Lean In team, and Caitlin Thompson, Erling Ntcham, Jacob Kramer-Duffield, and Matt Noble at Audiation.
I’m your host, Rachel Thomas and I’ll join you next time on Tilted.