What It Really Means To Be Gender-Fluid

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Image courtesy of Jacobtobia via Instagram

There has been a lot of backlash surrounding a recent Vogue cover story and its attempt to represent gender-fluid identities. The article, “Gigi Hadid and Zayne Malik Are Part of a New Generation Embracing Gender Fluidity,”  tries to portray model, Gigi Hadid and former One Direction singer, Zayne Malik as “gender-fluid” after the couple revealed they enjoy borrowing each other’s clothes in an interview.

Here’s the thing: gender fluidity is NOT a fashion statement or a trend, but the Vogue article seemed to diminish it to that. According to CNN, gender fluidity is, “when gender expression shifts between masculine and feminine, can be displayed in how we dress, express and describe ourselves.”

In other words, it’s an identity.

Image via Vogue

One critique of the article was that Vogue was trying to promote gender fluidity by using a straight cis-gendered couple. If they wanted to represent this community, they should have featured people that actually identify as gender-fluid or genderqueer. People, like Jacob Tobia.

Tobia, 25, is a genderqueer person that recently took a stance on the issue in an article they wrote for Cosmopolitan. I sat down with Tobia to talk about what being gender-fluid really means…


??I’m your summer girl ??

A post shared by Jacob Tobia (@jacobtobia) on

Brontë: How would you define being genderqueer?

Jacob: Being genderqueer, it’s about how you understand gender. Genderqueer people don’t identify as men or as women and identify outside of the traditional way that we’re taught to think about gender. Being genderqueer is about thinking and understanding gender as, not two distinct possibilities, but thousands of opportunities for self expression. I think that is something so important to emphasize, that it’s not like there’s one way to be genderqueer or gender- nonconforming, it’s about a philosophy and it’s a self-identity. It’s about who you say you are and how you say you understand yourself to other people.

Bronte: Vogue tried to portray gender fluidity through fashion. I wanted to know if you think it can be expressed like that, or is it much more complex?

Jacob: The thing is that gender queerness and gender-nonconformity can absolutely be expressed through fashion. I think fashion is a key part of how genderqueer and gender-nonconforming people express ourselves, and the right to wear whatever feels good for us is super important. I think it gets a little dangerous when you talk about it like, “oh it’s this trendy thing.” The reason I don’t like talking about genderqueer or gender-nonconforming identities as a trend is because trends come and go, and saying that something is a trend is kind of like saying it’s only temporary, like it’s shallow… Being genderqueer, being non-binary, or being gender-nonconforming, it’s not temporary. It’s not some new fad that a bunch of young people are making up, it’s a real part of the fabric of human gender, and it’s been around for centuries and centuries. I think that’s one of the main reasons I have trouble when people in the fashion community want to talk about, “oh this new gender-nonconforming trend”. Yes, there’s more visibility for gender-nonconforming people and perhaps more acceptance for more genderqueer and non-binary folks, but it’s not a passing phase. It’s here to stay.

Brontë: What does it mean for a huge magazine like Vogue to put gender fluidity on the map so poorly?

Jacob: To me it’s not a question of intention, I think their intention was good. I think they were trying to do something progressive and forward thinking. I just think…sometimes your execution of an idea can miss the mark, even if your intentions were good. And one of the ways that you can tell Vogue’s intentions were good here, is that they made a public statement of apology afterwards. They said we sort of missed the mark here, and we’re sorry about that, and we’re gonna try and do better in the future. I think it’s really great they kind of admitted, “we didn’t quite hit this right” but then also in that same August issue there’s actually a really beautiful article about how trans young people and their parents are navigating the myriad of challenges [related to]transition, puberty and gender at a young age. I don’t think that anything about it was malicious, it came from not quite having a deep enough understanding, [and]  I think that’s something that they are now going to work to fix. They sort of learned the lesson in a very public way.

Brontë: Has Vogue commented on your article or reached out to you at all?

Jacob: Vogue has not commented on my article directly but I actually do have a meeting with some folks over at Vogue in a few weeks. I’m going to get a chance to talk to them about it and I’m really looking forward to a productive conversation and maybe some cool collaborations in the future where we can get some things right, but that’s obviously a ways away. So I actually have heard from them which is really cool. You don’t always get [a] response from people when you talk about what they can improve, so it was really cool to hear from the Vogue team and know that my writing and my perspective was having an impact. And to know that they’re open for further conversation, I think that’s really cool.

Brontë: How does being Gender Queer affect the clothing that you wear, or does it at all?

Jacob: I mean, it totally affects the clothing that I wear. Being gender queer isn’t just about your clothing, but, clothing is one of the main ways that we express our gender in the world around us. It’s certainly the most immediately visual way we represent our gender to the world around us, so clothing is something I think about pretty often. Mainly because the thing about clothing is that it can be a real challenge. There are some days where putting on a skirt or putting on makeup feels like I’m just signing up to be harassed, stared at in public or have a slur thrown at me. Because the lived reality of walking around… as a gender-nonconforming person in the clothes that you want to wear is often not that pleasant. I’m really interested in challenging the fashion world to see that experience more holistically.  

It’s really cool if male-bodied people can wear dresses on the runway, but what does it mean if they can’t walk off of that runway and go outside without being harassed or attacked? What does it mean if you can have [that fashion] in this super sanitized environment like a fashion show but you can’t have it in the real world without putting your safety or your emotional health at risk? For me, clothing is a daily consideration. I used to feel like I had to dress fem every single day to prove who I am.  The older I get the more I’m like, “it’s okay to choose your battles.” It’s okay to have a day where you don’t want to deal with someone looking at [you]  the wrong way.  [Sometimes]  I just want to get some writing done at a coffee shop so I’m gonna wear pants and a T-shirt and call it a day. I used to struggle with that but I don’t feel like that’s me disowning my identity or being untrue to myself, that’s me getting by, that’s me surviving and saving my energy for bigger fights.

Brontë: What would you like to tell people that identify as gender-fluid that don’t know how to express themselves because they’re afraid of backlash or people not understanding?

Jacob: The thing that I think is most important to emphasize particularly for young people who are exploring their gender and trying to figure out if they are non-binary or genderqueer…is just to be gentle with yourself. It takes time to figure out your identity, and I don’t mean to say you don’t already know who you are, but it takes time to figure out how to put who you are into the world, and communicate who you are to other people. You don’t have to do it all at once, you don’t have to do it overnight. You’ve got time, and it’s okay to take time and be gentle and kind with yourself while you engage in that process.

Sometimes it might be hard and it’s okay to take a step back every now and then. You don’t have to always be taking a step forward. I think the narrative we have around coming out can be overly simplified–where you have to tell everybody in your whole world who you are right now or else you’re some kind of moral failure. Take time, be good to yourself and do what feels good. If coming out to the entire world right now is what feels good for you or expressing your gender as fabulously and incredibly as you can tomorrow is what feels good for you, go for it. But if you want to take baby steps that’s okay too boo.

This interview has been condensed and edited. 

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