For Jacob Tobia, learning that you can play with gender was a life-changing experience.
It wasn’t always an easy decision. But as a teenager, Jacob went to a conference and discovered that you could play with gender and expression and appearance, that being gender non-conforming was ok, that there were a lot of these people out there.
Finding out you’re not alone is a life-changing experience.
In Jacob’s words:
My name is Jacob Tobia and I’m from Raleigh, North Carolina. By the time I was around 16, I came out to my parents as gay. I thought I was done, that was it. And then I started doing a bunch of gay activism. As part of that I started going to some local LGBT events in the community. And one of the things I went to, because I grew up in Raleigh and Chapel Hill is a 40 minute drive away or so, and I went to this conference called the Unity Conference.
The workshop was facilitated by this person Terri Phoenix who was the director of the LGBT center at UNC Chapel Hill. And one of the things I learned at the very beginning was that not all people use the pronouns “he” or “she.” Some people use the pronoun “they” or “ze” or “hir.” I didn’t know that there were even options that I could choose from. And so Terri used the pronoun “they” for the whole workshop.
They were saying, “Oh, I play with gender, gender is this thing that I play with. It’s like this game. Some days I’m more masculine, some days I’m more feminine, and that’s okay, and that’s part of the fun.”
And I had never thought about gender as something fun before. I went into school the next day, or the next week, and talked to some of my friends who are also organizing in the GSA with me, the Gay-Straight Alliance. And I talked to them about, “I learned all these things at this conference. I learned that gender is this spectrum, not this binary, that you can play with gender, and I think that we should encourage the people at our school to do that. We should have a Gender Bender Day. Or a Gender Nonconforming Day, let’s have a Gender Nonconforming Day! That would be so cool, right?”
The two people who were most excited about it with me were my, these two friends that I had that were dating at the time, and they were a heterosexual couple, but they were super jazzed about this Gender Nonconforming Day idea.
Then a week later I was hanging out with one of my friends, who was the male counterpart of the couple, and we were hanging out at the mall. We were talking about the idea that we had and he says to me, “Do you think we should buy some high heels?”
I didn’t even have the script to respond, because I was like, “I have to say ‘no,’ because I’m supposed to say no, I’m supposed to brush that idea off as stupid, but I don’t want to say no, I want to say, ‘yes!’”
And so I said yes.
And so we went to Charlotte Russe, and we go into this store, and it’s an all women’s store, so immediately I’m terrified. And so we’re sort of breezing past all this various anxiety and the other shoppers, and we go to the clearance rack of shoes. I find a size 10 pair of black leather pumps. They’re about five inches. I grab them off the shelf, and I try them on. They hurt like hell and getting my feet in them is a big challenge, but they went on. And they were the only pair of shoes in the whole store that went on my feet. So I found that pair of shoes, and my friend found this pair of like purple velvet, I think they had velcro, they were really weird.
So we’re walking around with our newly acquired purchase, and about 20 to 30 minutes later his girlfriend picks us up. So we drive to a McDonald’s, as one is wont to do, and we got some food. We were telling her all about the process of buying them, sort of the trials and tribulations of the store and how people were looking at us or whatever, and then we both realized, “We don’t know how to walk in these things.” We’d never actually walked, up and down, more than three yards in them.
And so we decide, let’s learn, because she can teach us. And so we have this kind of runway coaching moment in the parking lot of this McDonald’s in north Raleigh. And I’m pretty sure I was terrible, but I can’t decide if I was terrible just because I wasn’t that good and had to get used to them, or if I was so giddy that I couldn’t focus.
You know, I was like an overachieving high school student, so I was staying up late to do homework. My parents would always go to bed before me. So after my parents would go to bed I would scurry up to my room, I would grab these shoes, then I would go back downstairs and I would just sit on the couch in my heels, doing my U.S. history homework. And just sitting in these shoes, that I realize now were too small for me, like by a lot, it was so empowering to be in my home space finally allowing myself to feel a little more like me.
I wish I could show myself at 13 who I am now. And be like, “You’re going to wear gowns! You’re not just going to wear heels, you’re not just going to paint your nails once, you’re not just going to put your mom’s lipstick on. You are going to wear a gown at a fancy event, at a dinner, and you are going to turn heads in it. That’s what’s in store for you, kid. Just embrace this faster, don’t be afraid of it. Love it.”
Originally published at ImFromDriftwood.com. I’m From Driftwood envisions a world where every lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer person feels understood and accepted, and every straight person is an ally.