The cashier at the Dollar General gave me a somewhat confused glance as I checked out, looking at me with a combination of perplexity and shyness. He did not quite understand what my purchase would be used for, but he also seemed too shy to ask. And so, without explanation, I paid for my item and left.
Even by North Carolina standards, it was unseasonably warm for a day in mid-January. The stonework walls surrounding East Campus were speckled with sunshine as I walked back to my dorm room in Bassett. The cashier could probably have guessed at my secret. After years of neglect, I decided to explore something I had long repressed. It would be a day of self-exploration, self-love, and personal development.
On that warm January day four years ago, at the age of nineteen, I purchased my first tube of lipstick.
Admittedly, it was tacky lipstick. A mixture of intense orange and fiery red, it was the kind of overly dramatic lipstick usually reserved for costume parties and rebellious teenagers, which I would later learn when I showed the shade to my mother. But in that moment, I was blissfully ignorant. So while the shade was a bit gauche and while the dollar-store quality was less than optimal, I loved that lipstick. It was loud, bold, audacious, and brazen—all traits I aspired to be. During my freshman year, at the nexus of self-definition and youthful exuberance, that tube of lipstick played a pivotal, almost iconic, role in my life.
I’ve never really been like the other boys. Growing up, I didn’t quite feel at home in my body or with my identity. Because I was a boy, people expected certain things of me—things that I often could not live up to. While I loved roughhousing in the woods, I had very little interest in sports. I enjoyed playing with Barbies as much as I enjoyed playing with action figures. On walks with my mother, I never failed to pick her a bouquet of wildflowers that she would proudly display on the kitchen table. While I didn’t understand why, in so many ways I was a failure: constantly failing to meet the masculine expectations placed on me.
As I grew older, that didn’t change. I was never one of the guys, and I never fit in as one of the girls either. Caught in binary limbo, I had trouble identifying who I wanted to be and creating a space for myself.
While those difficulties continued throughout my time at Duke, they began to change on that warm January morning. I arrived back at my room, opened the tube of lipstick, and began the task at hand. Learning to apply lipstick without the maternal guidance afforded to many women was difficult, but after a few attempts, I had gotten the hang of it.
As I looked at the rouged reflection staring back at me, something clicked. What had started as an experiment took on a more foundational role. Looking at the red-lipped boy in the mirror, I felt at home in my body for the first time in years. It was as if, with the simple addition of color, I had found a way to break the masculine expectations others had placed on me. I was able to define my body on my own terms, in a way that made sense. Suddenly, I was free to be me.
With trepidation, I left my room to get dinner at the Marketplace on East Campus. Wearing my identity not on my sleeve, but on my lips, I sat down for dinner with friends and said hello to others as they passed by my table. What overwhelmed me about that evening was its normality. Other students did not heckle me, nor did my peers laugh at me; instead, things were as they always had been.
I was worried I could never feel comfortable at Duke, but nothing could be further from the truth. By the time I faced graduation, I had expanded from one tube of lipstick to several and had incorporated heels, nail polish, and other accoutrements into my repertoire. Over four years at Duke, I have had the support and the affirmation necessary to claim my gender expression publicly. I have not simply been accepted by the Duke community; I have learned to feel at home.
Jacob Tobia ’14 was a Benjamin N. Duke Scholar who graduated with a Program II major focused on human-rights advocacy. During his undergraduate career, he served as the vice president of equity and outreach for Duke Student Government, co-president of Blue Devils United, and president of Duke Students for Gender Neutrality. Currently working at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation in Washington, he plans to pursue a career in public service and queer activism. He uses the terms “genderqueer” and “gender nonconforming” to describe his identity.