Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story, by Jacob Tobia.
Published by Putnam Books at Penguin Random House, 2019.
Born in 1991, and growing up near Raleigh, North Carolina, Jacob’s first memories are of being a child with too much gender. Their femininity came as naturally as their masculinity. They wanted all the gender they could get, from getting muddy and playing with bugs in the woods, to playing dolls and dress up with high heels, costume jewelry, and lots of glitter with best girlfriends Katie and Paige. Jacob writes, “Katie’s and Paige’s houses were my sanctuaries. There, playing one-on-one, I could just be a girl for a while. I didn’t have to feign masculinity that didn’t feel natural. I didn’t have to worry about my older brother’s judgment or my parents’ concern about what my femininity meant. The fact that I could gender shapeshift was sort of awesome. I had a ‘boy’s body’ sure, but I was at home being a girl, and at that age, Katie and Paige simply thought that was neat.”
Jacob’s memories of gender shapeshifting and life pre-shame are scarce yet beautiful, as it wasn’t long before parents, older brother, teachers, and peers started steering Jacob toward traditional masculinity, and showing disapproval and even hostility about Jacob’s feminine ways, labelling Jacob as “sissy.” It took years for Jacob to discover that being called “sissy” didn’t need to make them feel ashamed. Rather it could be a source of pride and even endearment. Jacob’s pride, and our pride for Jacob shine through as we read this eye-opening, sometimes heart-wrenching, yet always raucously sassy and funny memoir about what it has been like growing up not sure if you’re (a) a boy, (b) a girl, (c) something in between, or (d) all the above, and finding happiness.
Sissy takes the reader on Jacob’s gender odyssey from a Methodist childhood, where the church could be both accepting and abandoning, to attending Duke University on full scholarship where Jacob struggled for four years with identity development, while often feels a sense of tokenization, political frustration, and gender impossibility.
A particularly fun chapter is when Jacob is invited to the White House to attend an annual LGBTQ Pride reception, because of Jacob’s LGBTQ+ advocacy work at Duke University.
When President Obama came out to give his speech, the cheers were deafening. He spoke eloquently and with poise. But honestly, I can’t say that I was altogether focused on what he was saying. If we are keeping it one hundred here, my brain kept playing one thought over and over again: If that isn’t one of the sexiest men I have ever seen.
I mean, can we talk about this? Can we? That smile? Those eyes? Those dimples? And not to mention that he is tall. Like, almost the same height as I was in five-inch heels, and I’m six feet without heels on. You do the math. By the time he came around to shake hands at the conclusion of his speech, I’d been reduced to a twelve-year-old girl at a One Direction concert. I was shaking and nervous and sweating and seriously crushing.
Ultimately, Jacob graduates from Duke summa cum laude with a degree in Human Rights Advocacy, feeling “sissy, femme, queer, and proud,” and strutting across campus during graduation week in short dresses, high heels, costume jewelry and bright red lipstick.
The last chapter of this memoir is a tribute chapter titled “Dear Mom and Dad” where Jacob acknowledges the challenges parents face when raising gender nonconforming children.
Dad – The unfortunate thing about memoir is that you have to tell the truth and you have to talk about the messy stuff and the parts where people you love were not always their best … So I have to tell the stories of when we didn’t agree, Dad, because I need other parents out there to know that this is not black-and-white. That things like acceptance and love and coping and rejection and complication are all part of this process. If I pretend you’ve always been a perfect dad, if I erase the parts where you were a little bit of a jerk (or the parts when I was a bit of a jerk), I would be doing a disservice to other dads out there who are struggling to get through their own ideas of masculinity in order to love their gender nonconforming kids.
Mom – I know that reading this book is hard for you. You’ve told me over and over again that you wish things could’ve been better. I know you beat yourself up about my childhood. You wish you could’ve done more, could’ve done things differently, could’ve done something to make it easier for me. It’s hard enough for me to look at the past and acknowledge that things weren’t perfect. I can’t fully understand how hard it must be for you.
Through it all, Jacob hopes for a world where no parent with a gender nonconforming child must feel alone; a world where no parent must ever choose between keeping their child safe and encouraging their child to express their heart. Jacob also hopes for a healing world, one free from gender-based trauma and bursting with trans-inclusive feminism.
This memoir is recommended for teens, young adults, parents of trans kids, advocates, and adults who want to learn more. If you enjoy listening to books, Jacob reads the audiobook edition, which is excellent.
Jacob Tobia is a gender nonconforming writer, producer, and performer based in Los Angeles, as well as a member of both the Forbes 30 Under 30, and the OUT 100. A Point Foundation Scholar, Truman Scholar, and a member of the Biden Foundation’s Advisory Council for Advancing LGBTQ Equality, Jacob has worn high heels in the White House twice. Sissy is their debut memoir.
Listen to Jacob Tobias talk about their bestselling memoir “Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story” with Jonathan Capehart: https://youtu.be/bO8asn3ioFA
This book review was submitted by Stand with Trans board member Barb Shumer, who is a retired public librarian.