Jacob: Trans+ Inclusion
interview by marie chung
Jacob Thomas is a young influential legend of the Australian trans and gender diverse community. An educator, advocate and consultant, Jacob has had a wide reach and impact on leading universities, human rights spaces, and on members of the Commonwealth to say the least. They (Jacob) identify as gender-queer or non-binary amongst multiple other identities and in our interview, Jacob shows us not only how to navigate between gender and sexuality, but to transgress these boundaries and to more holistically approach what it means to be a trans+ person.
Jacob, can you tell me more about your TED Talk that you ran in Brisbane?
It was looking at the idea of gender and covered a couple of different points:
Firstly, we are in a space called the Gender Revolution – a space that recognizes that gender has been used as an oppressive device for a long period of time.
Also, gender is prescriptive. There is a really uncomfortable checklist where you’re prescribed notions, ideas, actions and pursuits that are seen as good or moral. When we talk about gender, it’s about one or the other. There is no co-existence. I used a personal narrative identifying gender queer to allow people to understand that there is so much more to gender. It doesn’t have to be this split and rigid idea and concept.
It’s about trying to shake these ideas and really allow people to know that they will make mistakes because they are re-learning it. You will have to break away from things you’ve been already taught to be able to understand. Of course you are going to make mistakes. Trying to ride a bike, you are going to fall off. But you have to be resilient with it. Just say sorry if you get it wrong, these are human matters.
A particular organization I’ve been apart of has changed their toilets to be gender neutral, is that a positive step?
Personally I think it is. But let’s be real, a toilet is a toilet. Everyone needs to pee, it’s a toilet. It’s not just about making that space gender neutral. There are different needs in that space. With neutrality, I see its intention and it works in a lot of spaces. If you are willing to make toilets gender neutral, are you also willing to accommodate to different needs of others using that space. Is it accessible? Is it clean and hygienic? Are people respecting that space? Are there sanitary waste spaces? Is it an accessible space for people who have different practices to the majority of people? Am I allowed to wash myself in front of others? Am I allowed to cleanse my body before prayer? Is that space equipped so I can do that? They are all othered practices in an Australian context.
So whilst I’m pro gender neutrality, there are practicalities to consider as well. There are also other gendered practices in cultures that need to be considered. I think it’s either do it all or don’t do it.
So you are talking about culturally inclusive toilets as well.
Yes, it all comes down under inclusivity. If we are all going to be truly inclusive, we need to make a lot more adaptions to it. To dispose of one’s waste is a private moment for us, so we want to know that we can do that comfortably.
What are things we can do in the workplace to develop that? For example, is it useful to identify gender on recruitment forms?
In this case where you’ve got an applicant applying for a job, when we go about processing, we try and make it easier for people who exist in that space but not necessarily for the individual coming into that space. Say for example, we are asking questions about sex or gender identity characteristics.
Firstly, we need to ask, “why does it matter?” If it is used to capture data and trends, then that is useful. Secondly, if you are capturing that, you need to be more inclusive. Don’t put tick boxes, you could put in empty spaces and allow people to complete them.
There is no one particular way to identify as male or female. This will cross and intersect with a number of cultures or whether they identify as a trans female or trans male. It also needs to understand that identities may change, or their practices may change. Using titles like Ms. or Mrs., not everyone identifies with those. Having something like Mx which would be more gender neutral. Keep those spaces open, keep them blank.
In an ideal world, are you saying that we should dissolve these categories? Are they useful in some sort of capacity?
I wouldn’t call for an abolition at this time. At this point, we try to simplify things too much down to the most common denominator. I think we need to recognize that if we are going to talk inclusion and take an intersectional approach, we do need to understand certain gender data points, because we do know that when we look at certain stats, women are receiving far less superannuation stats than men are. There is a point where it is helpful to know how many people operate within your organization and how many clients operate with that identity. You have to cater and be aware and be impactful on that. We know that young men in particular are very likely to experience isolation when it comes to mental health and other disorders. We might use that to implement mentoring programs or campaigns like Movember.
Gender, whilst it can be quite an abusive and oppressive point against us, we are also shifting and celebrating that difference. When we don’t see that difference, it is very hard to celebrate that.
So moving from workplace to schools, do we encourage young children to explore their sexuality or does it come at a certain age where it is appropriate to do that?
It’s a very interesting point by what we mean by what is appropriate. I think that is restrictive. I think if we are talking about sexuality, we need to talk about our gender and our sex. Not necessarily the act of sex but about our bodies – what do they do, why do they do the things they do? What does it mean to have a body? A lot of those things are quite related to each other. I think we need to provide young people with the language to be able to have these discussions. You have a lot of young people who are coming out that shows a point of comfort, visibility, of acceptance. I think we are forgetting that there is a whole bucket of language that we still don’t have a strong understanding about. For example, terms like gender queer. Or being able to reject words that already exist to say “I’m parts of this but parts of that. I might be parts of that tomorrow”. There needs to be fluid language about this, and I think that reflects into the organizational business and the school business as well.
The concern shouldn’t be, “I’m going to have gay kids in my class”. I think the concern should be, “I as an educator, as a teacher, as a supporter, or care provider, do I know how to handle that? I need to navigate what is going on”.
We need to ensure that care providers are equipped. We do need to take this from a strengths based approach, “if I say this, nothing might happen but that is okay”.
One young person might feel supported in saying that they are worthy of being categorized as usual, or visible, or distinct, then that’s great! I as an educator or whatever the case may be, should have the tools that when someone is confused or questioning, then we can discuss that.
Now these things are some things that we touch on in ‘sex ed’, but given that you are covering broader areas, what would you suggest calling this subject in schools?
We did a compulsory class in school as part of their physical education, which was called Personal Development. One term we did things on self-esteem, self-concept and who we are. The other half was about more practical sides of how to use contraception properly, understanding STIs, and what is consent. When we talk about Sex Ed, I think we talk about practical things about fucking. It is also about personal development – it should focus on you as an individual developing over time.
My concern is that when we think about things alternatively to heterosexuality, we reduce it down to the notion of sex. It’s a common theme amongst people hearing about transsexuality, BDSM, etc, to think “oh, what are they doing in bed?”
I think even that’s the same thought when we ask others about their gender. I can comfortably argue that one of the reasons we ask this is because we want to know if we can fuck you. Which is a very uncomfortable thought but why do we need to know about your body? It comes down to whether I can have sexual intercourse with the body you exist in. It’s a very uncomfortable point but I think it has some validity to it.
Okay, I’m trying to absorb that because I don’t feel too comfortable with that.
This is very confronting. If I don’t identify as someone who is male, the first immediate question is, “do you have a dick?” I think it comes down to whether I can fuck you.
Where does that idea come from?
I think it comes from a fetishization of difference. That is, because you are different, can I add you to a tally, knotch to the belt? It comes from a very dangerous place that comes to dominance and use. It comes from a do bro culture. That comes from my experience with men who are generally cisgender men. It is about, “can I penetrate, can I dominate, can I fuck?”
What is really the purpose of knowing someone’s gender? Because we associate gender to mean our bodies and our bodies to mean our gender. Why do we need to know what is behind someone’s clothing, what is the purpose behind that? We are in a very sexually fuelled space.
Sex should be something that if you wish to participate in, it is a pleasurable and enthusiastically met experience, from start to finish. But it’s not for a lot of us.
Is that because we don’t have an understanding of consent?
I don’t think we are genuine about respect, about care for another. For a lot of people, it is fuck, cum and done. That’s it. I know that is met with a reductive approach but because there is no accepted voice about this, we don’t really talk about sex, and when we do talk about the act of sex, we leave it. We think it’s gross or weird and we are reductive about how we talk about sex. It’s not positive, or it’s about procreation. Or all these really antiquated ideas about “what is sex’s purpose?” We haven’t really cracked that one yet. Because we talk about single-purpose sex, and that’s kind of it. And not to make an immediate cause-and-effect, but I think because we view sex or the act of sex in this still procreative-only manner, it’s like that’s the ideal of sex – “let’s have babies!” And that’s kind of it.
We don’t talk about pleasure. We don’t talk about the fact that sex can be really uncomfortable, awkward, that there can be bodily fluids in different places at different times, or where your body does things.
If they haven’t orgasmed, how do I approach that? Do I leave them to their own devices? Do I keep going? Do I stop? What do I do? We don’t talk about sex, we don’t talk during sex.
So taking it down a notch from the conceptual stuff we’ve talked about, let’s talk about you growing up. I mean, obviously at birth, given how conventional we’ve been for a very long time, you would have been identified as a male. Down the track, how did you start noticing things in your own gender that weren’t what you identified with at birth?
I think at about age 10, I started to toy with the idea that maybe I was gay. And that more so came from what we associate with feminized homosexuality - like campy, quirky, theatrical, high-pitched voice, gesticulating, dancing to the Spice Girls in front of your entire primary school, wanting to be Geri Halliwell because she’s great. Not even sexy, I don’t think I understood that concept at age 10 but surprise! Each to their own! Also refusing to be Sporty Spice because Geri Halliwell has great hair. Look at how amazing her curls are! I want that! I watched the Spice Girls movie a lot when I was 10. My parents are still kind of surprised.
I think though, reflecting back, that it wasn’t necessarily identifying as gay because I didn’t see a lot of sexual concept in that. It wasn’t like, “hmm, I’m attracted to men because I find them sexually attractive or I like their bodies” or anything like that, I didn’t really have that. I think it kind of refers back to that point of having the language. It wasn’t necessarily that I wanted to be more like a woman, it’s just that how I identified and how I chose to perform my gender, was not what we’d call typically male. I had girlfriends and all these typically male things and pursuits I guess, which is again an issue because I was taught to pursue women, rather than respect – that has never sat well with me. I didn’t come out until I moved away from my hometown, so when I moved to Melbourne, then I came out. I was 18, I was away, I felt less scared about what might happen.
So you came out as gay?
As gay yes, at 18. And officially came out, if you will. I was comfortable enough to let anyone know that I was gay. So I really built it up, like “yes I’m here and I’m gay and I’m proud and come at me world!” But then probably about 12-18 months after that, I started going to university and started studying sociology and gender studies, and seeing so much more diversity than I ever anticipated having grown up in Shepparton.
Oh you’re a Shep-boy!
I wondered why I felt as though I had to sit only within one category, I can only be attracted to one or the other. What is with this? Because I didn’t understand necessarily what bisexuality was or pansexuality either. So it was like what is this? What am I sort of feeling? I just felt queer. And I’m okay with that. Because I don’t feel as though my orientations, my sexualities, who I’m in love with or who I have feelings towards, my body, my gender, should really have any… like why does that matter? Why do these parts of who I am as a whole person matter so much?
In 2010 I dropped a mate off in Melbourne City and I was living in Carnegie at the time. I parked across Flinders Street Station. I started to question then whether I was a dude, or maybe I was not a man. I was going through a breakdown. It was a similar thought to what I had when I was ten years old, but now I had the language to explore it. I didn’t come to a conclusive thought until a few years after that in 2013.
I was working with a queer group and we were doing a pronoun round – pronouns the group were comfortable to use for themselves. Someone said, “I identify as gender queer, I identify as Them”. That was it! That was the word! Then I thought, holy shit, I’ve got to come out the third time now.
It was met with some hostility and people said, “why does it matter? It’s just a pronoun”. It made me pissed off, because it is disrespectful. The pronoun acknowledges me and shows that I am active in this space and people like me do exist.
Is being trans synonymous with drag?
Let’s take a historical root. If you look at the Stone Wall Riots, a lot of trans women in particular happen to perform as drag queens and it wasn’t necessarily a point of hiding it. It was a safe space, slightly less judgmental and you could be fun being who you were. It was a space where you could just be. A lot of drag queens don’t identify as trans, and a lot of trans don’t identify with drag.
I do drag myself, I see it as problematic to a point. Drag has commonly involved cisgender gay men, there have been a few trans-women. Drag was a political tool in the Stone Wall Riots. Drag kicked off all the way back in Shakespeare even, men dressed up as women on stage. One of the issues with drag is that it makes a mockery of women. You have every right to dress in drag but not to make a mockery of women. I’ve seen people pretend to have an abortion on stage, or have menstrual blood running down their legs, or to pretend to fuck themselves with a prosthetic penis. It’s ridiculous and ludicrous. Some people can be very deeply hurt by that. If you are a man and you can chuck on make up, you can wear a short skirt, you can get drunk and use illicit substances (and not all drag queens do this), but,
if you can do this and not get blamed for the same things that women are when they are attacked, and get paid for it – that’s a problem. When you get to profiteer off the oppression of another, and wipe off all that make up off, that I have an issue with.
That’s something I don’t think we understand enough. I don’t think they intend to harm, but it’s about causing harm. I think we need to become aware about things like this. We need to realize that we don’t exist in vacuous bubbles and that our actions impact others.
There is also the assumption that trans people are ‘genuine’ when they undergo a complete physical transition. What are your thoughts?
The process is incredibly expensive, thousands of dollars. And considering the trans community is much more likely to experience poorer levels of mental health, higher levels of social isolation and violence or harassment, and then also more increased chances of poverty and homelessness, to be able to affirm your body when you are not able to affirm it, as a character on stage, and for that to be acceptable only in that context, I have an issue with that.
Something I brought up in my Ted Talk is the idea of being passable. Do you look man enough, woman enough? What is your gender and why do I need to know? In Australia, there is no one who is qualified to perform “bottom surgery” in Australia. If you want to do that, you have to go overseas. It adds to the cost.
It comes into the question of whether gender means body? When we say things like “real women have curves”, that’s the point of being passable. Are you woman enough? Are you a good enough woman to pass? Blokes, have to have ridiculously hyper ripped super sexualized bodies.
We are so regulated. When we identify in a particular way, we have to perform with precision. If you cock it up ever, you are bad, we demoralize you. We moralize gender and it’s hazardous. We are saying you are not good enough.
There is a lot to be said for our trans community. There is a lot of pressure for trans people to undergo surgery to be considered as man enough or woman enough. It’s a horrid approach. If it’s our personal choice, then we should be supported. It’s very restrictive. It’s removing our choice about this; why can’t I identify as one thing and be happy in my body? Why is my happiness and worth dependent on so much else rather than who I want to be? Why can’t I be celebrated as good enough as I am?
So I guess for your average Joe, what would be your suggestion to them to better understand the trans+ community?
I think everyone talks about the first step, but there are multiple simultaneous steps. Do your best to research and get more of a grasp of the complexity that exists there. Try not to rely on Wikipedia. Look at blog posts. Try not to focus on what is transgender, but look for something more like what does transgender mean for people who are trans. Try and find narratives and not research. Understand who we are in our whole parts. If you need more practical advice, there are heaps of amazing websites (i.e. Minus18, TGV, Seahorse). Start exploring it. If you are going to ask a question, and if you want to be an ally, be there to back us up more.
Be prepared to be wrong about this as well. Be prepared that you may fuck it up. If you get called out for it, don’t fight it because that shows us that it’s about you getting it right than about us being recognized. If you get it wrong, just say sorry and move on. There is no single narrative that reflects all people, we are all incredibly individualised.