Busting Gender Stereotypes on MTV

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Photo: MTV

Picture your gender as an ice cream flavor. Are you strawberry (pink, with a lot of real fruit)? Are you cookies and cream (the part that’s a little broken up is actually what makes you delicious)? Are you butter pecan (smooth, smooth, smooth, and very attractive to everyone)?

This is an exercise that Jacob Tobia, 24, a genderqueer activist from the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice in New York, and organization that funds LGBTQ activists worldwide, uses to begin seminars they give about genderqueer identity. They see it as a way for people to disconnect from thinking that they have to be male or female — just the two options — and suggest that there are many ways to identify, loosely grouped under the umbrella “genderqueer.”

Last night, Tobia appeared along with 17-year-old Brennan Beckwith in a groundbreaking iteration of MTV’s True Life series called True Life: I’m Genderqueer. Tobia is eager to show genderqueer life as a reality, and one of just many reasons to smash the gender binary. “Even transmen and transwomen who identify in a binary way have been hurt by the gender binary because it’s what made the idea of transitioning so difficult in the first place,” they say. “Binary gender roles aren’t good for anyone. They get in the way of everyone’s self-expression, and everyone’s sense of their own worth. And that applies to cisgender people, transgender people, genderqueer folks, binary transpeople, and everyone. The sooner that we can embrace that gender is not two options, the sooner that we can have a less oppressive world.”

The Cut chatted with Tobia about the future of feminism, femme solidarity, and the way the bathrooms are arranged in the White House. Oh, and if you need to know: Their gender is Cherry Garcia.

In the first episode you attend a fashion show and are shown as a street-style star. We’re seeing a lot of playfulness around gender roles in the fashion world — how do these explorations affect the reality of life for your community?
There was an issue of Vogue this year that had a spread about “Androgynous Fashion.” Androgyny in fashion has had a moment recently. As a genderqueer person I have two reactions. The first is identification. Looking at that visual in magazines makes me happy that it’s there — that’s what my day to day looks like. That’s what my fashion looks like. To see it visible in elite fashion publications does give me a sense of validation.

But underneath that there are more complicated feelings. Androgyny is so fetishized in the fashion world. It’s looked at as avant-garde and “edgy” and new, it’s coded with this glamour, and as a kind of optional costume — and that’s actually really dangerous for genderqueer, gender nonconforming and transgender people like me. When androgyny is understood as a statement, it makes people assume that we’re trying to make a statement, not just live our lives.

There was a period of time in my life when I was first discovering my gender identity and I was in a more radical and angry place. Then, I really got off on that edginess. I wanted to prove everyone wrong and show them that they didn’t understand the world. But now that I’m a little bit older and I’m  just trying to live my life and have a partner and a cute apartment and the ability to walk safely on the street, I don’t want my gender identity to be considered a radical statement. It’s hard when I see androgyny marketed in a specific way, because I know that for the most part those models wear their androgynous things for the shoot and then they take it off, dress in something gender conforming and then they go home. They don’t have to go on the subway in that skirt.

The second you’re in the world in that skirt it stops being fashion and fun and starts being terrifying. You go from being some sort of idol or fashionable muse to being a target for violence, ridicule, discrimination and harassment. It’s not actually glamorous to be gender nonconforming when you’re riding the subway at 7:15 in the morning and someone spits on you. So, it’s a mixed bag.

One of the most moving parts of the episode is when your dad overhears you talking about the threat of violence you face every day, just by dressing and presenting as you are. It’s not that you were born in the wrong body, but in the wrong society, and your dad realizes that being a person who wears dresses means that you’re now threatened in a way that you weren’t before.
One thing I’ve come to embrace recently is that my struggle as a femme-identified genderqueer person is not substantively different than the struggle any femme-identified person faces, whether they’re a cisgender woman or a transgender woman or a genderqueer woman. Expressing femininity in a patriarchal world is risky and comes with the real possibility of violence. … I hope that genderqueer and nonbinary people can help create a bridge between people who are assigned male at birth and people who are assigned female at birth.

Talk to me about how you feel feminism can become more inclusive of genderqueer and transgender folks.
One thing that’s been really powerful for me in the past year is that I’ve realized that the best mentors I can have in my life are just femme-identified people. I think that I stopped caring so much about whatever the other labels are that come with someone being femme-identified. I feel like we have so much more in common than we have different. That’s my hope for the feminist movement, that we are able to claim the femininity that connects all of us across a broad group of identities. That femininity may not always come paired with the label
of woman.

I understand that that’s a mind-fuck. It’s not a small task. If it were, we would have done it already. But even seeing some of the ways in which conversations assume that all women have vaginas — maybe it’s better not to think about womanhood as it relates to a vagina, but to think about it in how it relates to identifying as a woman. And maybe let’s think about femininity not as it relates to being a woman, but think about femininity as it is, which is a set of cultural tropes and behaviors that are socially constructed. But it’s also empowered and wonderful and fabulous in its own way! Let’s have a real plurality of labels and ideas that orient our feminism. I think that’s what it is: reorienting feminism to a pluralistic place, rather than a majoritarian place.

It’s such a complicated thing and yet all we want is for all people to recognize each other’s humanity and love each other and be treated equally.
Here’s a story from the ground: There’s been a lot of discussion about transpeople using restrooms recently; it’s a huge beat in pop culture at the moment. And I was recently at the White House for the LGBT Pride Month reception. I had on a fabulous skirt-suit Jackie Kennedy number. As my friend and I were leaving the event I noticed the bathrooms.

We were on the first floor of the East Wing and there is a men’s bathroom and a women’s bathroom, each with a sort of hallway before you enter. The women’s antechamber has portraits of all the First Ladies, and men’s hallway has a bunch of books and a smoking lounge kind of vibe. These decor choices have all kinds of cultural value, and then the bathrooms are gendered. So I was like, “Which one am I going to use?” (There is a gender neutral bathroom in the White House but it’s in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, nowhere near the East Wing, where we were.)

Then my friend just casually said “Let’s go to the bathroom,” and I walked in with her. It was a beautiful moment. She didn’t even think about what she was saying. So I walked with her, past the portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt, past the portrait of Jackie Kennedy herself, and I went into the restroom in the White House and no one gave me a second glance other than to tell me that I looked great. And I peed and washed my hands and I primped in the mirror with my other femmes, and I left and the Secret Service didn’t say anything, no one said anything! It was just fine. When people looked at me, they saw me expressing a femme identity. They understood that we don’t live in a world where facial hair precludes someone from being or being around women in a way that’s important.

Me walking into that restroom meant I belonged there. That’s so much about what the future of feminism looks like. I’m not going to tell you what does and does not make a woman or what does and does not make a man. I’m going to let you tell me that you want to be here and build community with us in a way that matters.

An earlier version of this post misspelled Jacob Tobia’s last name.

Busting Gender Stereotypes on MTV