Originally published in The WILD Magazine. ◊◊
Jacob Tobia has an unapologetic (and frankly, unforgettable) stride, and a physical build to suggest an aptitude for running competitively. Last December, he employed both in an inspired fundraiser for the Sandy-devastated Ali Forney Center, a shelter for homeless LGBT youth, by running the length of the Brooklyn Bridge in spike heels.
Jacob, who is completing his junior year at Duke University, exceeded his goal of raising $10,000 for the Ali Forney Center with time to spare before the Run for Shelter event took place. He had also made appearances on New York 1 news, MSNBC, and a variety of blogs before and after the victorious 1.1 miles.
When we met to discuss the Run, Jacob mentioned that many of his interviews, unsurprisingly, revolve around the novelty and the spectacle of his undertaking. In the years that I have known Jacob, I have frequently witnessed him sporting pumps around campus and through hostile terrains, and am less surprised by his project though no less impressed. Below is our conversation about what this run really means to him, and its implications for the LBGT politics and his own future.
So tell me how you feel completing the run—physically and emotionally.
It was magical. The bridge was a-bustle with tourists, the weather was beautiful, and the skies were clear. The run didn’t take nearly as long as I was expecting—I finished the mile in 8 minutes, which I am inordinately proud of. It’s not as good as my personal best from college track, but it wasn’t too shabby, seeing as I was running it in heels. I’ve never felt more myself, and I’ve never had such sore toes.
You’ve gotten quite a lot of press for this project! Amid all the interviews, is there something you didn’t get to say or haven’t had the chance to say?
It’s crazy, it happened all in a month, but it feels like the most important thing I’ve done in my entire life. The real narrative is so much more than what it seems on the surface, which is “Ha-ha, look, a man running in high heels.” But I’m not saying, ” I’m running in high heels and I don’t wear high heels”. I’m saying, “I’m running in high heels and I wear high heels.” I’m claiming authority for that community, and I’m helping mainstream it by doing it for a cause that everyone can get behind. My hope is that the world has learned a little something about what gender non-conforming people can contribute. The beautiful part about this is that someone who doesn’t understand who I am or what I’m doing might think it’s a joke, and still donates and is happy.
Then, has the attention all been for the best?
When I went on MSNBC in high heels, the host, Thomas Roberts, asked me if that was something I usually do. Yeah, if you go to school with me, you’ll see me walking around campus in high heels. He then asked if I was worried about reifying stereotypes, and I said no. The way we liberate ourselves from stereotypes is to claim who we are authentically, regardless of whether or not it’s stereotypical.
All the exposure that I’m getting from this is twofold because it’s raising the profile of gender non-conforming people, and of the homelessness of LGBT youth. That is so exciting for me. Growing up, the people I saw in movies who were gender non-conforming were killers or psychos. I didn’t have heroes like men who wore lipstick or heels. I hope other people will realize that they don’t have to put any part of themselves aside.
I was wondering what made you decide to put together this particular combination of details—the Brooklyn Bridge, the act of running, high heels.
There are a few answers to this question. First—in all honesty—Google did a commercial back in the spring of last year featuring Lady Gaga running across the Brooklyn Bridge and I just thought she looked so cool and glamorous. It was just on my mind when I was wondering about what I could do for a fundraiser after Sandy, because I could see the Brooklyn Bridge from my window. It was both convenient for me and iconic. It was the tallest structure in New York when it was built—it was a historic precedent. I wanted to tap into the history and legacy of New York, and place people like me in it. We weave our history through iconic spaces like that, through doing things in them, a sort of “We Were Here”!
Then, I was thinking that I wear high heels a lot, and that I know men have done high heel races for before, but for shorter distances, and it’s supposed to be a ridiculous joke—they’re not supposed to enjoy wearing heels or learn anything about gender identity. So, I thought about turning that on its head, and making it a serious statement about the strength of queer people. People ask, and yes, my feet will hurt, but it’s so little compared to what homeless LGBT youth have to face.
Did you do a practice run?
I didn’t do the whole thing, because that would kind of defeat the purpose.
My friends who have seen your video and wear high heels were wondering how dangerous this actually is.
I mean I guess it is. It’s not that safe, or good for your feet if you do it often. That’s part of the point—that it’s risky. People wouldn’t give me this much money if it weren’t.
You have to have your supporters meet you at a certain level of risk.
You have to have a spectacle and a show. I’m pretty good in heels, and I was almost more worried about getting a cramp running. I’m not going to be sprinting the mile. If I started to get wobbly, I’d of course slow down a little bit and it’ll be ok. If I started to fade, I’d think about what it’s like not to have a house to go home to or a bed to sleep in. People have died trying to be who they are in the LGBT community and who am I to think that this sacrifice is anything compared to that.
Were there any surprising sources of support or encouragement? Is there one that you felt most happy about?
One thing that has been surprising for me is how supportive my dad has been. In some ways I’ve had to always drag my dad along. I think through seeing all the support that I’ve gotten, how much others opened up to this idea, and to see that the world hasn’t been hostile—I think my dad believes a lot more that I can really succeed. He’s always worried I would never be able to make it, that at some point I have to give it up.
Other than that, the main thing that’s been surprising is the magnitude of support. When I first started this, I was trying to aim for $2,000 but thought that was a stretch. And I topped $10,000 a few nights before the run, even before I went New York One to do the New Yorker of the Week segment, which is ridiculous.
My favorite supporter so far: One of my friends Facebook messaged me and said that her six-year-old daughter emptied out her piggy bank for me.
Other than the physical peril, have you anticipated adversity that you’d have to face, in the aftermath of this in the media, from your community?
There’s a part of me that is worried about what this means for my future. No matter what I do in the rest of my life, there is footage of me on national news wearing high heels in seriousness. And I had thought about that before I agreed to be on the program. I don’t always have the courage to wear heels or lipstick in certain contexts, or to be gender non-conforming the way I want to be. In some ways, I’m glad for trapping myself, because I can’t get away from—this will be part of my life. It’s something that people have to be ok with from now on, if they want to be supportive of me, to employ me, whatever.
Will it limit future opportunities? I don’t know. Has it done something incredible for me right now that will open up so many other doors? Absolutely. Plus, if you’re not authentic, you’ll never know if maybe people would have been cool with it.
Pictures courtesy of Christy Kim.