Author of the banned book ‘Gender Queer’, about the controversy in NoVA and gender identity
Maia Kobabe is the author of Gender Queer: A Memoir, a graphic novel that caused controversy in Northern Virginia school systems. Loudoun County Public Schools decided in January to remove the book from their libraries after parents said it contained depictions of child molestation. Fairfax County Public Schools, which faced similar complaints from parents last fall, said it contained no obscene material and was keeping the book on its shelves. Kobabe talks about the controversy of their perspective, their inspiration behind the graphic novel, and the media’s portrayal of queer youth.
What inspired you to create Gender Queer: A Memoir?
When I first came out as non-binary, I had many conversations with friends and family where I tried to express what gender meant to me, or why I wanted to switch to neutral pronouns. A lot of those conversations were very frustrating, even though everyone in my life was extremely supportive. I never felt like I could make my full point. Eventually I realized that I needed to sit down to write about my experience of the genre and give myself time to work on drafts, to really clarify and simplify what I was struggling to express in conversation.
How did you use Gender Queer to explain your identity, and trans and non-binary identities in general, to your family?
In many ways, Gender Queer is like a long letter to my parents and extended family. I wrote it all down so I could give it to my family in hopes that they would understand me and join me in an ongoing dialogue about the intersection of gender, sexuality and identity. And I would say that it is very successful! This book opened up a lot of conversations, I don’t know if we would have had otherwise.
What was it like for you personally to see Gender Queer controversial in Northern Virginia schools?
It has been very strange to witness the wave of protests and book bans that have swept through Northern Virginia and the rest of the United States. My understanding of the problem is that some parents flip through my book and see images that make them feel uncomfortable and that they don’t think are appropriate for young readers. Or they don’t even look at my book – they just see some images taken out of context on social media and decide the whole book is inappropriate and needs to be taken off the library shelves. Parents are of course allowed to decide what their own children have access to. But it’s not okay for a parent to try to control what everyone in an entire community can read.
Why do you think there are problems with the graphic novel now, like Gender Queer was released in 2019 – and why do you think some NoVA school systems have decided to remove it, while others keep it in their libraries?
I am obviously aware that books with queer and trans themes are often rejected; in fact, I prepared for a negative response in 2019 when the book was published. But the initial reaction from readers, reviewers, librarians and teachers has been overwhelmingly positive. The bans and challenges only started on the eve of the 2021 election cycle, and I think the election cycle had a lot to do with it. Several politicians chose to make book bans a talking point in their campaigns and it started a viral social media trend that has yet to go away.
As to why some Virginia counties chose to suppress the book, while others decided to reinstate it; it often seems to come down to the opinions of a handful of people in the school board. This shows the importance of voting in local elections! I hope everyone thinks even more these days about researching local candidates and voting against a candidate if they start making decisions for the community that you don’t agree with.
If you had to say one thing, what would you say to people who might have reservations about your graphic novel?
The first thing I always say is, please read the whole book before judging it. A lot of people who challenged my book said, “I haven’t really read it, but…” Please read it! It’s not very long; seriously, you can probably read the whole book in about an hour. By reading it, you will better understand why I decided to include images of queer sexuality and reproductive health. They are part of the story but they are not the whole story – the whole story is about how hard it is to live without the language to express your identity, and how powerful it is to find that language and to be seen as you really are.
What makes it important for young gay people to be represented in different forms of media?
Many young gay men grow up without family members or older gay mentors nearby; to learn about their identity, sexuality, gender and health, they almost always have to turn to outside sources of information. Even though I had several gay family members and was able to join a gay alliance in my high school, I was still so confused as to where I fell under the gay umbrella; I had a lot of questions that I was too embarrassed to ask anyone, or didn’t even know how to put into words. I was constantly looking for the slightest bit of queer representation in any book or movie I saw, and these little glimpses helped me see what my own future might look like. They were vital. I’m so glad there’s a lot more queer media available today than when I was a teenager; but I still worry about young people who don’t know where to look or who don’t feel safe looking for it.
How would you encourage young people who might question their identity?
I would say this: you are the expert of your identity. You know yourself best and you have the last word. If you’ve asked someone to try new pronouns for you, or a new name, and they don’t respect that, it hurts and sucks, but it doesn’t change who you are. And I would say that if you’re questioning your gender or your sexuality, you’re not alone. There are many, many other people struggling with all of these same questions. I know this for a fact, because I have received so many emails from readers telling me that they are going through the same doubts, confusions, realizations and revelations as me. If you question these things, you are part of a brilliant, beautiful, and creative community!
Apart Gender Queeris there any work that you would like to highlight that you think could also interest or help young gay people?
Yes, I would like to recommend the book Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex by Angela Chen, a non-fiction book that knocked my socks off, so good! I would also recommend Sexuality: A Graphical Guide by Meg-John Barker and Jules Steele; Not all boys are blue by George M Johnson; The times I knew I was gay by Eleanor Crewes; Hope We Choose Love: The Notes of a Trans Girl Around the World by Kai Cheng Thom; and Sissy: A Coming Gender Story by Jacob Tobie.
What interests you about comics as a form of storytelling?
I have loved both drawing and writing since I was very young. I have an early memory of my father spreading the Sunday Comics section of the newspaper on the floor and reading it aloud, with me sitting on one side of him, my brother on the other, we both follow along as he was pointing at each bubble. I think there’s a kind of magic to working with images and words together – you can express things that are very difficult to do with just one. You can draw silence. You can use the page space to expand and reduce the time. You can contradict what is shown in the words with the art, or vice versa. I think comics are very powerful, but also very accessible. All you need to start drawing a comic is a pen and a sheet of paper!
What type of work do you have in progress or planned for the future?
I am very happy to say that I am already working on my next book! It’s a comic about a young teenager who questions his gender and sexuality, but this story is fictional. I’m really excited about it but the book hasn’t been sold yet and doesn’t have a title so that’s all I’ll say for now. Read all the other books I’ve recommended to you while you wait for it to come out!
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