By Jacob Tobia
I was stomping around campus in denim booty shorts and five-inch pumps when one of my straight(ish) friends gave me a once over from across the quad. I understood why he did. In fact, it would’ve been strange if he hadn’t, because my legs were looking fine as hell that day and everyone on campus was giving me love.
But then he came up to me with a quizzical expression on his face. “Why don’t you shave your legs, Jacob?” he asked. “I mean they’d look so good if you didn’t have all that hair on them.”
“I dunno,” I responded. “I guess it just seems like a lot of work. I kind of like my hairy legs.”
Years later, after I moved to New York City, I had a strikingly similar conversation. Except this time it wasn’t a fraternity brother who told me that I needed to shave my legs; it was a transgender woman at a community film screening. I was sitting in the row of chairs behind her when she turned around, took one look at me and informed me in a matter-of-fact fashion that I was going to look beautiful after I started taking estrogen because I had gorgeous legs.
But “you should probably start shaving,” she reminded me. “That is, if you really want to show them off.”
It’s interesting. I’m a genderqueer person who was assigned male at birth and likes to rock high heels and lipstick, but in the current moment of visibility for transgender women and men, very few people can seem to get my identity right. Over the past three years, people have gone from assuming I am “really gay” to assuming I identify as a woman. Which, I guess, is part of why everyone has become so obsessed with my leg hair.
As I’ve grown into my identity as a genderqueer person and learned to claim the femininity that has been shamed for so much of my life, people’s misperceptions have only grown. People see me in a skirt and assume that I aspire to look like a conventionally beautiful woman (whatever that looks like), so they frequently give me tips about what to wear, how to shave my legs and what lip colors look best on me.
First off, even if I did identify as a woman, it is never appropriate to tell someone you hardly know what to do with their body or what clothing they should wear. That’s ridiculous and patriarchal and condescending. Don’t do that to anyone ever, okay?
But more significant to me is the increasing realization that people are suspicious of my gender identity. It’s as if they don’t believe that being genderqueer is a real thing – that my identity is a phase, and one day I’ll realize that I’m really just a woman. Underneath these small suggestions about what I should wear or do with my body hair is a much more insidious question: “So Jacob, when are you going to really transition from male to female?”
I don’t really know how to answer that question, because I already have transitioned. It’s just that people don’t understand my life experience as enough of a transition to “count.”
Like so many genderqueer people, my transition has not been from one gender identity to "the other." Rather, it has been from the well-understood categories of man and woman to an identity outside traditional notions of gender. Over the years, I’ve learned to embrace both my love of lipstick and my facial hair, my affinity for sequins and my broad shoulders. I’ve learned to love all parts of myself equally, to hold my femininity and my masculinity in tandem — understanding them not in opposition, but as compliments to one another.
My transition did not entail many physical alterations to my body. Instead, it involved learning to think about my body differently, to appreciate the suppleness in my masculine frame or the strength in my expressive wrists. Learning to break free from the bounds of manhood, to love my femininity and share it with the world, to embrace my gender in its full complexity, has been the work of a lifetime.
Questions like “When are you really going to transition?” or comments about how my legs “could be beautiful if I shaved them” are both hurtful and dismissive of my lived experience. They treat my genderqueer identity as a problem to be fixed rather than a beautiful solution, as an awkward intermediary step rather than a glorious destination.
Before you ask a genderqueer or gender non-conforming person when they’re going to “fully” transition, consider for a moment what you’re really saying. You’re telling them that their body, as it currently exists, is unacceptable, that their gender identity is somehow incomplete.
Odds are you don’t mean that. So many people in my life simply wanted me to know that they supported me if I decided to pursue a medical transition from male to female. But the best way to help genderqueer people like me feel supported and whole is just by being honest.
Instead of asking me when I’m going to medically transition, just tell me that you support my gender identity, no matter what it is. Just tell me that you love me for who I am, no matter how that might change. Just tell me that you’re here for me, no matter what choices I make concerning my body.
Medically transitioning is life-saving for many transgender people, but it wasn't the right path for me. And I don’t have to medically transition in order for my identity to matter. My gender, in and of itself, is enough. My body, with all of its flaws, imperfections and perceived contradictions, is enough. As a genderqueer person, I have already transitioned -- and as it turns out, I am perfect just the way I am.
Jacob Tobia is an advocate, writer and speaker committed to justice for genderqueer, gender non-conforming and transgender people. Jacob uses the gender-neutral pronouns they/them and likes to put Sriracha on pretty much everything. Connect with Jacob on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr.
Watch Jacob on “True Life: I’m Genderqueer” airing Tuesday, November 17 at 11:00 p.m. ET on MTV.