As Toronto prepares for today’s Pride parade, one of the largest in the world, CBC’s The Weekly spoke to a social media influencer and LGBTQ activist who is critical of the faith leaders who deny the rights of trans and queer people.
Jacob Tobia, author of Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story, doesn’t identify as a man or as a woman, but prefers something more fluid. Not “he” or “she” but “they.”
This Pride month has been particularly difficult for LGBTQ Catholics, he said. The Vatican this month issued a directive rejecting the idea that people can choose their gender, calling gender fluidity a “confused concept.”
Tobia is part of a growing movement that’s trying to challenge conventional thinking about gender and push for respect and acceptance at a time when non-binary people are becoming more visible in pop culture.
Watch: Jacob Tobia talks about faith and non-binary people
Jonathan Van Ness, one of the stars of Queer Eye, came out just last week as non-binary.
Fashion icon Rain Dove alternates between male and female in their photo shoots for brands like Calvin Klein. And award-winning actor Billy Porter is a fixture on the red carpet in gender-bending outfits. He identifies as a man, but says he’s had it with gender expectations.
Tobia sat down with Wendy Mesley, host of The Weekly, to explain the making of a movement.
We’ve heard over the years a lot of stories about trauma and suicide and so on. But I’m struck by the way you’re influencing people on this issue, more with humour and with patience. Where does that come from?
JT: You know, I would never want to downplay the real challenges that gender non-conforming and non-binary and trans folks face in this world. It is not easy to grow up being a gender non-conforming person in a culture or in a society that tells you that you must be one of two things.
But when it comes to sharing my journey with the world, you know I’m just, I’m a funny, I’m a funny lady right! I can’t take myself seriously for too long in any given sentence, and joy is really what leads my exploration of gender.
You know there’s another stereotype that is out there about trans and gender non-conforming people, that we are the way we are because we’re somehow broken — and I am not this way because I am broken. I’m this way because I am whole. I express my gender freely because I have found healing and because I’m reconnecting with the joy of what it means to express myself in a way that feels good. At the heart of all of this is joy.
You were raised in the U.S South. You were raised in the church. How did you manage that?
JT: I spent a lot of time with my congregation and with people at my church who really mentored me and supported me and understood me. As I began to explore my gender and my queer identity it was just a matter of them kind of figuring it out with me. You mentioned patience earlier, and that’s where I think patience really comes in, right? I’m figuring out my identity and it took me five to 10 years to really kind of figure out how I wanted to be in this world. So, of course, it’s going to take everyone else a little time to catch up.
But, these days I’m happy to report that my church is a really affirming place for me. It’s a community where I feel celebrated, where I feel loved. I show up to church just like this when I’m home in North Carolina with my mom. Everyone at my church could not be prouder of the fact that I published my first book. I’m out in Los Angeles making my dreams come true, all that kind of stuff. I have a really beautiful, healing, healthy, gorgeous relationship with my faith community. I wish we told that story more often of queer and trans people really reconciling with their churches and learning to be loved in a more radical way.
What do you say to the Pope, who just a few days ago was saying that teaching kids that they can choose their gender, that this idea of fluidity, harms children?
JT: The Pope is wrong. Teaching children about gender fluidity, is teaching children how to be more empathetic and kind and sweet and gentle with each other. The reality is that God made all of us, if we’re really going to get into it. My spiritual belief is that God made me exactly the way that I am. I have no shame about who I am. I know that I was put on this planet and in this world for a reason. I don’t think that any faith leaders should deny the divine worth of queer and trans people. We are everywhere. We are part of the human family. We are part of God’s creation. I think it’s a real shame if the Pope can’t see that.
You’re a huge success in mainstream pop culture. How did that happen? Is a big part of it social media?
JT: Well, social media definitely plays a role in connecting gender non-conforming and trans young people to each other and helping, you know, that you’re not alone, knowing that there are other people out there like you, knowing that you can be embraced by your community, knowing that you can be celebrated in this world. It’s really powerful that gender non-conforming people who have often been hidden in cultures throughout the world and have been sort of pushed away or pushed into the shadows historically, are speaking. It’s really powerful that we now are able to just live and shimmer and shine and glisten and sparkle in the light.
(Answers have been edited for length and clarity.)