Featured Voices: Why I’m Genderqueer, Professional, and Unafraid

“For years, professionalism has been my enemy, because it requires that my gender identity is constantly and unrepentantly erased.” 

Featured Voices guest writer Jacob Tobia seeks gender empowerment in the professional world. When being visibly gender nonconforming raises more than eyebrows on the street, how can someone stay true to their identity in the workplace?

Why I’m Genderqueer, Professional and Unafraid

I looked myself up and down in the full-length mirror. Blouse tucked in? Check. Pearl earrings on? Check. Lipstick flawless? Check. After a few minutes of primping, posing and deep breathing, I was off to my first day at a new job.

When I start a new job, I struggle with all of the typical trepidations and hesitations. Will my coworkers like me? Will I fit in with the office culture? Am I formatting this report the right way?

But one question loomed above all others as I started my job last week: what should I wear to work?

In many ways, it’s a concern everyone faces. On the first day, everyone wants to get their outfit just right. The morning before a new job, most of us spend an extra ten, twenty or thirty minutes making sure that our hair is properly coiffed, our deodorant is both effective and unobtrusive and our outfit is on point.

But for transgender and gender nonconforming people like myself, the question of what to wear to work becomes an exhausting question of identity and of survival. For us, the question changes from “how do I present my best self at work?” to “can I present my best self at work?”

As an undergraduate at Duke, I spent four years learning to love and appreciate myself as a gender nonconforming person. Going into college, I thought that my desire to dress androgynously and adopt a feminine gender expression was shameful; and for the first few months of college, I hid it from others and from myself. But after years of work unearthing internalized oppression and masculine shame, I finally learned to keep my head high as I stomped by the frat boys in my five-inch heels. I made a name for myself at Duke, and by the end of four years I wore pencil skirts and pant-suits to meetings with the Board of Trustees. During undergrad, I became fully empowered and comfortable in my gender.

Or so I thought.

Jacob Tobia, professional genderqueer (photo credit Camille Breslin)

Now, as a recent graduate confronted with entering the workforce, I find myself having to contend with a much bigger obstacle than frat boys. I have to contend with professionalism.

Professionalism is a funny term, because it masquerades as neutral despite being loaded with immense oppression. As a concept, professionalism is racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, classist, imperialist and so much more – and yet people act like professionalism is non-political. Bosses across the country constantly tell their employees to ‘act professionally’ without a second thought. Wear a garment that represents your non-Western culture to work? Your boss may tell you it’s unprofessional. Wear your hair in braids or dreadlocks instead of straightened? That’s probably unprofessional too. Wear shoes that are slightly scuffed because you can’t yet afford new ones? People may not think you’re being professional either.

For years, professionalism has been my enemy, because it requires that my gender identity is constantly and unrepentantly erased. In the workplace, the gender binary can be absolute, unfaltering and infallible. If you dare to step out of line, you risk being mistreated by coworkers, losing promotions or even losing your job. And if you are discriminated against for being transgender or genderqueer, you may not even have access to legal recourse, because in many states it is still perfectly legal to discriminate against gender non-conforming employees.

So, the first morning before work, as I put on my pants, blouse, heels and pearls, self-doubt came roaring back. Would I still have the respect of my boss if I showed up in heels? Would I be treated as a professional if I wore earrings? Would I be taken seriously wearing lipstick? Would my colleagues respect me for who I am?

As I walked to work, these doubts kept creeping up over and over in my mind. I thought back to all of the times that people had told me to “tone it down for work.” I thought back to conversations with my father, where he told me to put away the “flamboyant shit” if I wanted to be respected. I thought back to former internship supervisors who told me that I would not be respected around the office if I chose to express my gender identity. I thought back to the countless memories from childhood of being mocked for being a ‘sissy.’

I thought back to all of this, took a deep breath and walked through the front door of my new office, heels click-clacking on the concrete floor.

Jacob Tobia, professional genderqueer (photo credit Camille Breslin)
Jacob Tobia, professional genderqueer (photo credit Camille Breslin)

As transgender, genderqueer and gender nonconforming people, we deserve better. We deserve to have our work ethic and intellect respected regardless of how we choose to express our gender identities. We deserve to be able to wear clothing and behave in ways that affirm our gender. We deserve to be treated fairly in the workplace.

While people may try to discriminate against me and tell me that I’m dressing “inappropriately” for work, I will hold on to my gender identity and sense of self. In the workplace, I will stick up for those who, like me, find that their gender does not match a prefabricated box. I will wear my heels, pearls and skirts to work until, hopefully, the world can learn to respect people like me.

So to all of the discriminatory employers out there, you better watch out, because I am genderqueer, professional and unafraid.

(Reposted with permission from the Huffington Post)

About Jacob Tobia

Jacob is a leading voice for genderqueer, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming folks, ensuring that everyone is able to live their truth and feel their cute.

In 2014, Jacob made their debut on the national stage when they were interviewed by Laverne Cox as part of MTV’s The T Word, and in 2015, Jacob was profiled by MTV in an hour-long episode of True Life: I’m Genderqueer. A Point Foundation Scholar, Harry S. Truman Scholar, and recipient of the Campus Pride National Voice and Action Award, Jacob has captivated audiences at college campuses, national conferences, and corporate events across the country with their message of gender empowerment and social change. Their writing and advocacy have been featured on MSNBC, MTV, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Guardian, and Jezebel, among others.

Originally from Raleigh, North Carolina, Jacob currently lives in Brooklyn and has worn high heels in the White House twice.

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186 thoughts on “Featured Voices: Why I’m Genderqueer, Professional, and Unafraid

    1. But as illegal as it maybe, that won’t stop the discrimination. Most people probably don’t even know about something like this, employers included.

      Ignorance as we can all probably agree to some extent, tends to run deep in our nature.

      1. We have a strange habit perhaps, to discriminate against all things slight unlike us. We claim we’re accepting but so often we turn away, and whisper behind another back.

        Be the unwilling ear whom no gone can whispered to. And perhaps more ears will be changed.

      2. Why do humans feel such a need to portray an image?
        I suppose it may be the desire to please or to belong. Our insecurities worn outwardly in the form of draperies and face paint.

  1. My lipstick, high heels and pencil skirt don’t do my job, I do I don’t think they detract from my work either I don’t run and I rarely bend down What they do do for me, is make me feel like myself The self I want others to see And in this way they enhance my job performance by increasing my assuredness and confidence I am with you one hundred percent. And really I have always thought everyone would look and feel better with a little colour and adornment

  2. It’s refreshing! So very refreshing! Continue to Live In Your Truth!! As such, those of whose who remain, can live out our truths – whatever they might be!
    Period, Case-Closed!!!

  3. What a beautifully written and powerful post. Hopefully we are moving towards the days when this won’t even be worthy of discussion anymore.

  4. “As transgender, genderqueer and gender nonconforming people, we deserve better. We deserve to have our work ethic and intellect respected regardless of how we choose to express our gender identities. We deserve to be able to wear clothing and behave in ways that affirm our gender. We deserve to be treated fairly in the workplace.”

    I think everyone deserves that. This is a great post – and I love your style!

  5. It is not easy to come out in open like this. You need courage and guts to express what you feel in public. And reading what you have written makes me feel happy and motivated. I’m sure you might have faced a lot of criticism and sarcasm around but the way you have handled so far needs a belief in yourself. Keep smiling 🙂

  6. I don’t think you are odd. I don’t think you are different. You’re just you. It’s just too bad that mature and old age isn’t accepted. Ageism runs rampant. But I’m bringing shit back to me. Anyway. Kudo’s to you. It is you as a person that counts–your being and your mind and spirit and that’s what counts! XOXOXO!

  7. BRAVO to you! How brave you are – I don’t think I could do it. It’s going to be hard for you (it shouldn’t be) and you’ll have to work harder than others to prove your worth (you shouldn’t have to). But you are going to open so many people’s minds in the process. And you rock that lipstick, might I add. I work in a corporate office in middle America, and my office does not have as varied of individuals as this. However, I do find that the best way to dispell rumors, or call out the elephant in the room, is to invite people to ask questions if they have them – and if you are open to them. That can help to break the ice and make everyone feel a bit more comfortable. And I’m sure in no time, it will be no big deal.

  8. Oddly similar experience on the same subject matter…

    I was innocently “outed” by another on my first “Girl’s Night Out”.

    I *could* have untagged meself, but thought that may appear cowardly.

    Just took a deep breath and muttered “Here we go”!

    Best decision I’ve ever made!

  9. Brilliant post. It must be very hard being at the sharp end of discrimination, but people need to be educated – that is the only way to help them understand

  10. My first reaction to you when I saw you in the full photo was to roll my eyes and think, what the hell are you doing, those heels will ruin your hips. Good for you for standing up for yourself.

  11. I’m non-binary and think of this frequently. I’m in a college now where I can express myself in a manner that doesn’t stereotypically align with the gender I was designated at birth, and I’ve yet to experience any discrimination because of it. I have wondered though, as I grow closer to my graduation am I also growing closer to the end of my gender expression? So I would like to say thank you to Jacob Tobia for having the courage to stand out in the cis oriented business world, and to Micah for putting this inspirational article together, this has helped me immensely, and made me realize that there are people out there paving the way for the transgender community.

  12. I think your outfit looks very professional and its ridiculous that you are judged for what you are wearing or for not confirming to societal norms ( or so called societal norms because we are all individuals in our thinking and actions and should be make up our own minds and not be like sheep and follow the rest of the flock ). At the end of the day people need to stand up for what they believe in and inspire others to be just as brave. Your clothes don’t do your job, you do whether you are in a skirt, a suit or in your PJ’s, clothes don’t diminish your intelligence. Hope your first day at work went well and has given you the confidence to be who you want to be!

  13. “Professionalism is racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, classist, imperialist and so much more” .. It is indeed very inspirational story. Hope rest of the world will realise that being different is ok, what more important is what you can give to society and being good to each other.

  14. Jacob,

    I think you are fabulous! Clothes on point, makeup on point and a beautiful way of writing that allows people to understand you but leaves us wanting to know more about you and your life. Congratulations on your recent graduation too!

    So, how did your day at work go? Did you enjoy it?


  15. God I would love to have you around the work place! Seriously, that’s freaking awesome and courageous and I applaud you.

    I hope your day went well and for what it’s worth: you look perfect.

  16. My best friend is in the same path as you. Yet he still has a lot more to go. You are an inspiration.

  17. When I read posts like these and read positive comments of encouragement, that’s when I realise, the world’s better than we give it credit for. As long as there are a bunch of people who’re bold enough to stand up for themselves, and others who’re smart enough to understand that beauty lies in difference, there’s hope. And yes, I love your shirt. A very well put-together outfit.

  18. I absolutely love the power and confidence that you share with the world! You inspire me and many others to be themselves and you are truly a role model. Absolutely love this blog.

  19. My daughter goes to school (5th grade) with a boy who comes to school every day dressed very masculine, but as soon as the bell rings and their day begins he is called simply and elegantly ‘Linda’. Birdie (my daughter) has come to me numerous times asking why his mom and dad keep their beautiful child ‘locked up’ and afraid of being Linda…While she is allowed to dress as a boy. It’s hard to explain to children that people fear change more than other things, like war or famine.
    I am proud of who my children are and their love of others. How do I explain to a 10 year old what I simply don’t understand myself…?
    Thank you for your bravery and your ability to move through it, and allowing others into your life in such a personal way. Your story matters. You will be added to those few I truly admire💜

  20. Love the post. Truth has to begin somewhere. I couldn’t agree more about your reference to what the term professionalism masquerades to hide. Enjoy the new job and the freedom to march to the tune of your own song!

  21. Pretty professional to me. I would prefer this diversity to a colleague who does not respect safety rules in the lab, using a scooter or skateboard to move around the lab building! When something does not conform to what they are used to, people become ‘afraid’.

  22. After recently having a child that didn’t conform to a specific gender, I am very interested in reading other people’s views and articles from a different stand point in life. This blog is inspiring.

  23. Instead of having to dress as “professional” to work isn’t it more important to dress as “presentable”? I think that being picky about what other people wear in a work place is not “professional”

  24. I think you are so brave for doing this! You look georgeous, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You are very inspiring, and I hope all goes well for you. Remember, and tell yourself this because it’s true, that you are a kind, confident, and beautiful person no matter what!!

    Stargirl xo
    Follow: stargirl150.wordpress.com

  25. I guess the same could be said for a number of individuals who are in normal circumstances, where certain actions and the way the dress, some dress to impress while some don’t have any care in the world what they look like, can create brash assumptions about you.

    I am a straight man, albeit with a somewhat eccentric personality that would render me as “weird”, and often times I find this distinction to be a bit cruel. But what you and I know is the fact that by staying true to ourselves, we can exhibit a kind of confidence that would allow others to see past on what we look like and to make others know who we really are.

    Kudos for you for sticking with your true self, because that brings a kind of confidence that breaks all kinds of barriers, profeesional or not.

  26. Aye! This by far made my day and it is super early in the morning.

    While I am not in the professional world, dressing “aggressively” gives me pause from time to time even in my bs retail job.

    You are a rock for the cause amd brave is an understatement. Thank you so much for sharing your experience.

  27. I’m quite open to different points of view having the benefit of enjoying relationships from both sides of the gender divide yet still find it difficult to understand what you wish to achieve by forcing a person to question need of definitive gender.

    Your blog raises more questions than answers the reasons why a thoughtful and intelligent person would subjugate his own well being knowing fully the response likely met by the average person living within western society.

    Do you wish to engage a greater tolerance through denying either gender or are you asking to be viewed as an individual nonconformist? And if so why choose gender identity? You may perhaps identify as anything from a werewolf to a mermaid if your motivations are solely based in challenging peoples beliefs yet chose instead to attempt to blur the line of core identity.

    I desire to live in a society that accepts all forms of life albeit through choice or existence although find western society past or present not capable of a higher level of tolerance or acceptance needed to bring forth a world without fear of bigotry. The world will never change for one man. Until the world changes the man.

  28. I know it´s not the same, but a short while ago my boyfriend can´t tattoo because in the job didn´t let him. Now I cut my hair like a boy and I reeeeeally like it but people ask me to why, and tell me that I looks better before because I look like a boy or more ugly. I don´t care for anything! People are stupid! If the people can´t understand this littles details…I feel I had wroten about that. We should wear those chothes with we are comfortable with OURSELVES, they don´t shouldn´t influence us, much less forbide us or tell us WHO WE ARE or what our “gender” is.

    Excuse my English hahah

  29. Reminds me of how people with wild hair colours are seen as unprofessional. I mean it’s just colour get over it. But he shouldn’t be frowned upon for being who he is, never underestimate people, he could be more professional than any closed minded ‘professional’ looking workers.

  30. Such an inspiration. You are the definition of a real confident human being. Someone that stands up for what they believe in because you have every right to. No one should be told not to express themselves a certain way because it isn’t ‘normal’ (whatever that means). As long as we are kind to one another, place to harm to anyone or anything and don’t try to ruin someone’s life that is all that matters. Everything else is secondary. Express who you are when and where, the world will go on as always. Thank you for your pureness.

  31. Totally love this!
    I’m very lucky because my workplace is supportive with individual differences. As part of my job I have to wear a really unflattering hi-vis jacket, some clumpy steel-toed boots and some cargo trousers and I LOVE it. I love the fact that I’m just like all of the guys that work there and I feel totally comfortable 🙂


  32. Such an inspiring post. It’s very hard to feel comfortable in your own skin depending on school and the workplace, but I say forget the frat boys and the jerks! Be what makes you happy. There is no universal dress code that genders should have to follow. People dress how they please, male or female. Professionalism can be achieved regardless of the way an individual dresses.

  33. Thank you so much for writing this. I’m a non binary trans person who relates to this really hard. My hair, tattoos and inability to “pass” cause a lot of confusion and upset apparently.

    Keep doing what you are doing, you beautiful human

  34. I hope your work environment is supportive! As a gender non-conforming person currently seeking employment, I know first impressions can be very stressful. I am thinking a month ahead of an interview wondering if there is anything appropriate in my closet to wear. Will my clothes be too boyish? Is my haircut too masculine? Will I make other people feel uncomfortable? And I wonder – what are my chances of walking out of there with a job?

  35. Fantastic post – brave, bold and most of all beautiful. After applying to a job last month, I noticed it asked me on equal opps page: is your gender the same as the one assigned to you at birth? I was outraged. How dear they need that information when your job history should account for enough. This article has re-inspired me and made me realize it is all about being Brave in todays society, no matter the gender choice!! Rock on Jacob x

  36. Well-worded and nicely articulated in regards to such an overlooked topic. Best wishes in all that you do!

  37. Good article that really inspired me to do a write up I studied woman and gender and I feel that absolutely no one in both professional and everyday environments should not be discrimated against no matter who you are. We live in a world of individualism so why can’t same sex marriages or queers be seen as individual? They are rather seen as outcasts and social indoctrinations are to blame for this. Through various forms of media society expects certain things and if you do not conform to those things you discrimated against. For me that’s a bunch of B.S. because it is okay to be uncoventional Y Be Regular when being unconvential and going against social norms makes you different, special and unique.

  38. Interesting view and experiences. But finding oneself and proving yourself to the world can be 2 different aspects and challenges. In the end all that matters is how we see ourselves, for the world is ever changing and so are its views.

  39. The outfit seems perfectly acceptable to a workplace in my views; I believe in the interpretation that “professional” means looking responsible and neat. I’d take some flamboyance over a stinky or trashy coworker any day.

  40. Fantastic words in a conformist society we all strive to represent ourselves in a manner which is deemed acceptable to society. The issue lies with society to cease being stereotypical look beyond the outward representation to the person within. Your blog strives to reinforce the right to be a person making choices which make you happy.

  41. A truly inspirational post. I’m tired of the gender rules that women have to stick by. It was nice to read something different for once in my life. Thanks for the great post!

  42. Well said. Where I come from if a person does not fit the anticipated ideals of the community at large they are shunned and often bullied. I liked wearing mens clothes and was heavily ridiculed for it as “lesbian, dyke, whore” and other names. Two girls had been seen giving each other a quick kiss before they went to class and later were forced to leave school for their own safety. It’s rough. Thank you for sharing your story of confidence in the face of adversity.

  43. Don’t let anyone tell you what to wear it’s up to you not them I think this is such an aspiring post and don’t let anyone put you down it’s up to you what you do not them and if you want to put make up on and a dress with a pair of high heels and jewellery then do so don’t let people put you down about the way you dress or the way you are and good luck I support you

  44. Hi, Fab blog! Great story! I have just set up mine, but still in the very early stages! No where near at your level. Just making efforts to link in with fellow bloggers to improve our followers and get the word out there for us both. I would appreciate you having a peek at my blog, as I have just published my first post. Feel free to like, comment, follow or just take a peek. Thank you 🙂

  45. Unfortunately this is the sad reality of discrimination of transgender and gender fluid community, this is definitely not how it should be. However posts like this and people opening up a dialogue will hopefully lead to empathy and knowledge on the subject, One battle at time. Fantastic article and never stop being amazing!

  46. Your comments about what it means to be professional or not are so accurate. Your post was really interresting to read.

  47. Be who you are for you to be genuinely happy… don’t think of others might think of you.. you can’t please everybody and you deserve to be happy as well… so cheer up😊

  48. This is a fantastic post, truly inspiring thank you, it made for interesting reading, very thought provoking.

  49. Ok so red lipstick makes me look like The Joker. And I cannot apply it worth a poop. I’m down with your technique and a little jealous of it.

  50. I appreciate your courage. However, I feel that it is misplaced. Normally, I would not voice my opinion. Today, I do so as a class assignment to post on a site if I disagree. Our world has done a complete flip and many people are misguided souls in search of truth that will never be found within the realms of self satisfaction.

  51. I’m not sure when the world is going to realize that a persons character or their work ethic should not be judged on their looks but rather their skills and their ability to get the job done…period!

  52. I give you enormous respect, Jacob! I’m agender, AFAB, and I dress exclusively in clothes designed for and marketed solely toward men. I am lucky now in that my job requires a very masculine-looking uniform, which I feel very good wearing (private security), but I used to work in a rather conservative office environment which was run by an openly homophobic and transphobic boss.
    There, while I could get away with wearing trousers (and only because my job as a computer tech required me to be crawling around under desks and pulling cable in dirty areas), I had to be excruciatingly careful about ensuring that I didn’t dress ‘too’ masculine.
    I had to wear trousers cut to emphasise my female body, blouses instead of the men’s button-down shirts I preferred, and uncomfortable dressy women’s shoes. I felt so very conspicuous and uncomfortable. I literally felt like I was in drag and was the object of unwanted attention even if no one was even looking at me.
    The ‘professional dress’ crap really contributed to my dysphoria and my growing resentment towards the female body I’d been born into.
    These issues contributed to me burning out completely and abandoning that career path entirely. It wasn’t just that.. I was sexually assaulted by someone from another department and my boss and HR mishandled it badly, I was verbally abused and physically threatened by a coworker and that too was terribly mishandled, I was sick of my boss’s homo/transphobia. These and many more reasons led me to quit and turn my back on that entire career path.

    Jacob, you look lovely. And even more important, you’re comfortable and feeling at ease in your own skin.

  53. I’m very inspired by your story and think that you’re absolutely right. What’s more, your example can easily inspire not only members of LGBT-community, but all the people, who’re afraid of being who they are.
    Thank you!

  54. It’s people like you who change the workspace for the better, and I’m so glad that you continue to present yourself the way that you’re comfortable with. Some people practically shunt themselves back into the closet for the sake of ‘professionalism’, and I hope that changes (however slowly as it may). A safe workplace is guaranteed to produce good results, and simply having LGBTQ+ groups in a corporation does not automatically provide that for their employees.

  55. Thank you for sticking up for us…. I’m a genderqueer female person (that is how I identify, I’m okay with my body but I know I’m both a man and a woman and I bit of neither in my head.) I’m about to start college. I’m terrified of adult life. I’m scared I won’t get a job if I wear a tie to an interview, or will get fired or not be giving promotions if I wear one later on to work. I’m scared of getting married and finding a way to deal with last names that makes me happy, and of parenting and how all of a sudden gender roles could be thrust back upon me in such a blatant way: everything for Mommy is pretty and delicate and pink. I just want to be myself.

  56. As the owner of a small business that survives on outstanding customer service, appropriate dress is of foremost importance. Whether an employee choses to wear a dress or trousers is irrelevant as long as the overall look is professional and aligns with my company brand. As an employer, why should I have to put up with a slovenly appearance, dirty clothes, or clothes that are too revealing for the nature of my business. Gender is none of my business unless it used as excuse for incompetence and laziness.

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