Jacob Tobia is one of the few famous gender-nonconforming artists living their life to the fiercest in tinsel town. They have appeared on The Daily Show With Trevor Noah, preaching a ‘chill’ approach to gender in their stunning red gown and pearl necklace. They were announced as the voice of Double Trouble, a shape-shifting mercenary in Netflix’s animated series She-Ra and The Princesses of Power. They also sent literary enthusiasts into a tizzy with their latest work Sissy, a dazzlingly bright soul-baring memoir whose pop-art inspired cover page perfectly radiates Tobia’s glitter-obsessed ‘shiniest, queenliest, sparkliest faggot(ry)” (their word choice, not mine!).
The book opens with Tobia’s childhood in the section Kiddo, where they speak about their fixation with Barbie (and the hunky-dory Ken too!) and their curiosity about ‘pee-pees’ and ‘wee-wees’ if you know what I mean. In Teenage Dreams, they are candid in confiding their sexual explorations (or lack of thereof), their hyper-feminine adolescence and the social awkwardness experienced for being different. In the juiciest chapter aptly titled ‘Big Queen on Campus’, they unpack several things, from being a fabulous femme goddess at Duke University, undertaking a memorable hiking trip amidst the Appalachian mountains, running across the Brooklyn Bridge in high heels for fundraising, meeting the former President Barack Obama and a famous rockstar whose name I won’t reveal (just read the book to figure out!).
Sissy touches upon the many nuances of gender politics but maintains a conversational tone throughout. It makes the book an apt starter kit to grasp the lived experiences of gender-nonconforming individuals. The readers feel they are flipping through Tobia’s diary or blog posts, which is hilarious, heartfelt, frivolous, garrulous, ranty, and inspiring, all at once. The simplified metaphors employed in narrating the coming-of-gender story make it accessible for all readers. Enduring gender trauma is compared to chronic back pain. Self-discovery becomes layered like an onion. The example of a snail illustrates the ‘coming out’ journey better than a closet. Another strength of this book is that Tobia refuses to villainize their family (which is particularly tempting when you have experienced years of alienation). They call out their dad for their transmisogyny all the while hailing their little displays of support. Their mummy and grandma remain absolute sweethearts. We realize that the process of questioning, unlearning, and relearning is not restricted to the genderqueer individuals themselves but even to those in their lives.
The weakness of Sissy is that it often stagnates into triviality, digressions, and superfluous ‘woke’ moments. For instance, Tobia writes about wanting to dress like Pocahontas for Halloween when they were six. Rather than a clear-cut narration of this incident, there is a needless disclaimer on their lack of awareness about cultural appropriation. Jacob, we know you were just six and naïve – you do not need to clarify. The writing gets crisper, more interesting and introspective in Big Queen on Campus. The constant self-imposed pressure of performing to escape ridicule, the systemic privilege towards hetero and cis masculinity, the cruel compromises expected from genderqueer persons in the name of professionalism, and the smaller moments of victory will resonate among young queer folks who constantly negotiate their identities throughout early adulthood.
Sissy’s release is momentous in the times of the pushback on queer politics and queer culture through divisive politics and hate propaganda. Like that puking rainbow emoji, the book is in no mood to conform, hold back on its views, and make compromises for wider public acceptance. The current President of the United States, the elitist Ivy League institutes, the American sports-obsessed masculinity are all in the firing line of proud ‘sore-loser’ Tobia’s queer rage. They are quick to cut out binary and hetero talk with characteristic sass and larger-than-life persona. Also rejected is the promise of a sappy trauma narrative, common to stereotypical transgender representations. Being gender non-normative need not be as miserable as some would think. In Tobia’s utopia, gender transgressions are welcome with open arms, manicured nails, and a blow of glitter!