NCMA Director Emeritus Larry Wheeler catches up with a Cary native who’s getting national attention
Jacob Tobia, Cary native and current resident of Los Angeles, is the author of Sissy: A Coming of Gender Story, published this year in hardcover by Penguin. This autobiographical account of Jacob’s reckoning with their gender identification from childhood to their present adult self is humorous, but consistently sensitive. And brave. In telling their personal story, Jacob engages us in topics much discussed these days: gender nonconformity, fluidity, male/female labels and queerness. Just how does one communicate gender in the contemporary world? And how does one live to thine own self truly? Jacob has a thing or two to tell us about these matters.
By the way: When I refer to Jacob as they or them, it is not a mistake. These are the pronouns for stripping away gender-specific identity. It’s not intuitive for me, but I am learning, committed to embracing the new way.
Sissy has created quite a stir. The New York Times compared Jacob’s writing to that of David Sedaris, the internationally-acclaimed author from Raleigh. Various television appearances—including an interview with Trevor Noah on The Daily Show—plus a major presence on Instagram have propelled Jacob into celebrityhood.
And to think, I knew Jacob when. I met them in 2008 when they were a senior at Raleigh Charter High School and working as an intern for their State Senator, Richard Stevens of Cary. Richard, a friend, called me one day to see if I would take some time to chat with a bright young person who was exploring their identity. “Of course,” I replied. (I, too, had done a good bit of gender searching over a lifetime as I accepted and expressed my gay self in a largely straight society.) Jacob came to NCMA and we had a lively and entertaining gab about all kinds of things. Then I lost track of Jacob.
At a recent civic club meeting, Richard mentioned to me that Jacob had just published a book, entitled Sissy. Whoa, I thought. I ordered it immediately. In Sissy, Jacob catches us up on their “just live it” life in a panoply of colorful, exquisitely
crafted stories that describe Jacob’s growing confidence in being gender-fluid.
At Governor’s School in 2006, a summer program for gifted and aspiring high school leaders, Jacob determined to dress more boldly, express their gender-nonconforming heart and advocate for gender honesty. This was a public coming out, as it were, which shaped the college admissions essays that soon followed. Jacob was accepted at major Ivy Leagues and their kin, and ultimately chose Duke, where they received full financial backing. There they continued to express the full Jacob in dress, attitude and full-throttled advocacy, which was honored by the university and community.
In 2014, Jacob graduated summa cum laude. I should mention, as Jacob does in Sissy, that to graduation they wore a two-piece pink suit à la Jackie Kennedy, but with a much shorter skirt and heels. Otherwise, Jacob looked very male. When President Obama invited them to the White House? Heels, of course, with to-be-expected slacks and jacket. These stories and more are hilarious when told with appropriate embellishments in the book: Jacob running down the halls of the UN in high heels while completing a prestigious internship there, and running across the Brooklyn Bridge in red high heels to raise money (over $10,000) to rehab an LBGTQ center in New York that was badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. (Jacob received beaucoup attention for this good deed, including an appearance on MSNBC and a mention as NY1’s “New Yorker of the Week.”)
Jacob moved to Los Angeles in 2017 to work as a social media producer on Season 4 of Transparent while finishing Sissy. Two years later, the book is a hit. I thought it would be interesting to reconnect with the kid I had met a decade earlier, so I sought Jacob out and called them in LA. We chatted for quite awhile. (They are quite chatty.)
Jacob is excited to be developing conceptual screenplays for television adaptations of Sissy with encouragement from HBO, among other network sources. We both agree that the timing is ideal for such a show, given the success of Transparent, Pose and Euphoria (which features Raleigh native Hunter Schaefer, a trans girl playing—brilliantly—a trans girl). Queer characters and themes are proliferating in every medium of American entertainment. ‘Tis a good era for Jacob’s talent to be showcased.
As Jacob points out, developing a pilot without guarantees or financial backing is stressful. Waiting for the—we hope inevitable—series order, they are working heads-down while consulting on gender diversity issues and doing product endorsements on social media for extra income. They are a face and voice for Fluide, a cosmetic line popular with the transgender community.
Asked how many books they have sold, Jacob noted that the publisher did not like to disclose early numbers, but that opening sales were strong enough to put it in the bestseller columns of several lists—and to capture the attention of
Hollywood. On a recent book tour in Wichita, Kansas, they received a happy surprise: About a hundred people attended the reading in this presumably conservative, flyover city.
Jacob’s book-signing at Quail Ridge Books this spring was a huge, sold-out-to-capacity-and-beyond event. Jacob was thrilled by the celebratory homecoming. When I was recently in Provincetown, Massachusetts, a town on the Cape heavily populated by gay folks, I saw Sissy in the window of a bookshop. So I popped in to ask about the reception of the book. There was great interest, and everyone looked forward to meeting Jacob. Insufferable name dropper that I am, I told my Jacob story. They seemed impressed.
Even with their growing fame, Jacob is still a hometown kid. Jacob loves their family and their church. They’re still close with their mom, dad and brother. Jacob loves North Carolina despite its checkered history on LGBTQ issues—they tout the state’s underrated progressivism and richly textured quality of life to its critics. Jacob is wild about NCMA, of course. Calls it “my happy place.”
So Jacob, will you ever come back to live amongst us, I inquire. Absolutely, they shout back. Jacob wishes there were more production opportunities in the area, but looks forward to the day they can work and live here—ideally in a big house with a wraparound porch in Durham with a glass of Jim Beam in hand to greet us.
Can’t wait to join you. Hurry home.