On the Heels of Change



Genderqueer activist Jacob Tobia speaks at Harvard. 

Genderqueer activist and binary non-conforming Jacob Tobia spoke on the current state of genderqueer identities and their place within current LGBTQ communities and movements on April 4, 2015. Tobia’s talk, “On the Heels of Change,” addressed the issues faced when identifying outside the gender binary and discussed, as Tobia said, “How I came to understand my own gender identity and come to live it, love it, and work it.”

Tobia reflected on how their experiments with gender and learning that there are more gender options to choose from have shaped their activism. During high school, Tobia started seeing gender as something that they could play with, stating, “I had never thought of gender as something fun before.” Tobia recalls the internal conflict when a friend suggested they buy their first pair of high heels, recalling that they thought, “I have to say no because I’m supposed to say no but I don’t want to say no, I want to say yes.”

Tobia explains that it’s difficult to see where in their own life they found gender liberation, making activism more difficult. The first step is defining what gender is and how it’s misconstrued as a binary. In reality, gender is a spectrum and a cultural-specific social construct acting as a system of power. Gender, they explain, is a method of organizing bodies and behavior that functions as a system. “Gender roles gender roles create differentiation that sustains patriarchy and men’s power,” and by not fitting into the gender binary, it threatens the current power structure.

Introduced with a trigger warning, Tobia commemorates the members of the genderqueer community that were targeted in the past year. Posing the question of who is subjected to violence and marginalization, Tobia highlights the consequences to disobeying gender expectations. This emphasizes public safety as a necessity so that people won’t feel the need to resort to violence when confronted with genderqueer expression.

This spectrum, made up of physical sex, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation, determine one’s role in society and often depends on whether one comfortably fits the binary or is somewhere in the middle, as Tobia defines themselves. Tobia’s hope is not for a third acceptable gender, but rather a world where there are multiple definitions and genders in between male and female. When outlining the marginalization of genderqueer people within the trans movement, the question of whether the trans movement seeks to maintain or abandon the gender binary and where that leaves genderqueer individuals was posed.

Cultural representation and visibility as well as having a place within the trans movement will encourage the genderqueer movement. Genderqueer people are often ignored in the broader transgender movement partly because the media’s definition of transgender excludes genderqueer experiences. It will take more political organizations and media recognition working with genderqueer issues. Social changes call for decentralizing gender, creating spaces for diverse gender identities, redefining bullying as a gender problem, and looking at parenting methods. It will also take new political actions to reform prisons and the police, support transition-related health care, raise awareness of the vulnerability within the homeless community, and bring light to workplace and hiring discrimination.

Closing the discussion, Tobia poses the key questions concerning how we define gender, why we choose to define it in this way and whether the media is able to redefine transgender. Tobia admits it will be hard to enact change and it is a long process but ends with the encouraging message: “Honey, we can do it!”

In the questions that followed Tobia’s talk, they explained how staying positive keeps their activism strong. Tobia advocates for self-care and making gender more playful so that people feel comfortable experimenting. They are intentionally less political and more playful because showing “that gender is just play” encourages conversation and makes femininity more accessible. There are so few chances where someone is offered the opportunity to experiment with femininity, which influences Tobia to create a safe space for people interested in expressing different gender identities. Though they don’t like calling it activism too loudly because that would take away from its playful nature, Tobia hopes this fun experimenting will allow people to more freely traverse the gender binary. Tobia loves sharing their femininity with the world because, “Like anything good that you have and love, you share it with other folks.”

Hunter Richards ’18 (hunterrichards@college.harvard.edu) wants to dismantle the patriarchy one step at a time.