Q & A with Jacob Tobia (T ’14)

Q: When you designed your major at Duke, did you picture that this was the path it would lead you down? Where do you see yourself 15 years from now?

A: I did a Program II Major—a “make-your-own-major”—and the committee that approves them loved super-long titles. So my formal major title was “Human Rights Advocacy and Leadership: The Intersection of Personal History and Social Change.” It was certainly a mouthful at graduation, but it gets at the core of what my work has always been about: I am a storyteller for social change, and academically, I was most curious about how the way that we tell our stories shapes the policy outcome.

I spent time crisscrossing between disciplines, looking at how different methods of storytelling were employed by different movements and academic areas, from public policy and statistics to history,  documentary studies, and theater. After I graduated, I switched from studying this type of storytelling-for-social-change to practicing it, and that’s what ultimately lead me to write my first book, Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story.

Learn more about Sissy: A Coming of Gender Story

The way that we treat gender nonconforming and transgender people in our world is beyond unacceptable, and I’m seeking specifically to humanize the often-invisible struggles that gender nonconforming people like me go through everyday.

It took a lot of trial and error to make it to this point, but I think that literature, tv/film, and the arts are where my voice and advocacy can best shine and make an impact. These days, in addition to promoting my book and going on book tour, I’m turning my attention toward scripted television and asking the questions: What would it mean to bring gender nonconforming characters to the screen that the entire world can fall in love with? How will doing so shift the way that gender nonconforming people are treated? Also, can I star in the show? In 15 years, I hope to have an Emmy or two. Maybe a Pulitzer, too.

Q: Most people can imagine that writing an entire book in and of itself is a challenge, but not many understand the enormous amount of additional work that goes into developing the media platform that most all publishers demand. Can you give us a glimpse of all that you’ve put into building a platform as strong as yours?

Tobia wrote “Does Gay Hollywood Have Room for Queer Kids?” for The New York Times in March 2018. Image by Laura Breiling for the NYT.

A: Oh my goodness, that is the true bulk of the work (or at least, the most tedious work). It’s taken years to get to this point, where I have enough perceived cultural relevancy in order to have my work supported by major publishers (like my current publisher Putnam Books at Penguin Random House) and by executives in the film and TV world. It’s taken years of posting, posting, and posting some more. In addition, it was about attending almost every fancy event I’ve ever been invited to, making friends, connecting with people in an authentic way, and then staying connected over the years. For some people, this type of platform building can happen overnight—if you’re cast in a popular Netflix series for example, or have a video go viral—but for most of us it takes years and years of dedicated work. What keeps me going through it is remembering the ultimate goals; reminding myself that platform building is not the goal unto itself. Crafting brilliant literature is the goal. Writing incredible television is the goal. Making people laugh and shift their perspective at the same time is the goal. The platform building stuff is only a necessary part of how you get there.

Q: What did it feel like seeing your first New York Times op-ed “Does Gay Hollywood Have Room for Queer Kids?” in print?

A: It was SURREAL and fabulous and wonderful and exhausting. It took four years of pitching to get the NYT to publish my first op-ed. It was not an easy road and I took a lot of false turns, but seeing the words finally in print was life-giving. It was even better because they had this *remarkable* illustration of a bunch of queer femmes of color sitting in director’s chairs gazing at the Hollywood sign and it took up almost half a page in the op-ed section. I bought a ton of copies and one of these days will get around to framing that piece and hanging it on my wall.

Read “Does Gay Hollywood Have Room for Queer Kids?” in The New York Times

Q: You express your vulnerabilities very eloquently on social media, including your Instagram account @jacobtobia. Does this ever take an emotional toll on you, or does it feed you—knowing those who need to hear your words have a way to find them?

A: The ability to express vulnerability is actually the only reason that I stay on Instagram. The part I struggle with is this inescapable feeling that you’re never doing enough. You’re never posting often enough. You never have enough followers. Your content never gets as much engagement as it “could.” Your content is never as good as it “should” be. The numbers game of it all can really get to me, in addition to the body image issues that naturally come with such a visual platform. Pretty much every time I get on Instagram, I’m reminded that I don’t have abs or pecs or a face that fashion people deem “beautiful.” I’m reminded that if my body and my gender were more conventionally attractive, I’d have more success. It can really weigh me down if I’m not careful, and it’s taken a lot of self care work to become comfortable on the platform. The ability to express my vulnerability, to take a platform known for it’s vapidness and “I’m better and richer and prettier an more popular than you”-ness and use it for something else entirely is what keeps me going. When people comment things like “I needed to hear this today” or “Thank you for reminding me that it’s okay to take care of myself,” that is what keeps me coming back. I have the best followers in the world.

Buying books (or any art) crafted by historically marginalized voices is a radical act.

Q: What did I miss? Is there something I should have asked or anything additional you want to highlight?

A: The main thing I want everyone to know right now is that I need help. No matter how hard you work on your book or how much time you spend tweaking every sentence, no one can make the bestseller list in a vacuum. Buying books (or any art) crafted by historically marginalized voices is a radical act. Helping marginalized artists achieve mainstream success is imperative to transforming our world. So I really hope that people will consider buying a copy (or twelve) of Sissy—it makes a great gift.

See Jacob’s Interview on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah