Maia Kobabe, author of ‘Gender Queer’, speaks out on censorship

“Gender Queer” doesn’t take long to read, an hour or two tops. The brightly colored illustrations of Maia Kobabe’s autobiographical graphic novel tell the story of the author’s gender journey and eventual exit as non-binary, and are meant to help readers – both queer readers and their allies – to better understand non-binary identities.

The book is clear, concise, helpful and honest. It’s also the most banned book in the country, according to the American Library Association, which last year recorded the most attempted book bans since it began recording data in 2000.

“Gender Queer” is in the eye of a political storm, a largely conservative push to remove certain titles from schools and libraries, especially those that center racism, sexuality and gender identity.

Forbidden books explained:What are the most banned books and why?

And the censors don’t stop at school boards: Just weeks ago, a Virginia judge launched a lawsuit that sought to deem “Gender Queer” obscene and restrict its distribution.

“I’m obviously very grateful that the case was dismissed and the judge made a very strong ruling,” Kobabe said. “She actually ruled it unconstitutional.”

Kobabe, who uses gender-neutral pronouns e/em/eir, spoke about the book ban and what makes “Gender Queer” such a magnet for censorship:

Question: What do you think makes “Gender Queer” such a target for book banning?

Answer: I think the fact that it’s a graphic novel is a big part of that. The fact that it is an illustrated book makes it more vulnerable to book challenges. It’s very easy for someone to quickly flip through the book and find two or three pages they might disagree with without having to sit down and read the whole thing…

I think another factor is that it won a few awards from the American Library Association in 2020. It won an Alex Award and also a Stonewall Book Award, and many librarians buy ALA award winners. It was just kind of well placed in many public libraries and school libraries because librarians supported it.

Why is it important that students have free access to “Gender Queer”?

Young people don’t have a ton of discretionary income. It’s so important that they have free access to media, especially books. And then specifically for books that deal with queer, trans, and non-binary issues, a lot of queer, trans, and non-binary kids don’t necessarily have an adult role model in their family or even in their school to turn to. One of the best ways for them to research information about their identity or find answers to questions they might have or find role models and adults they can look up to is through the media and books. .

What would it have meant to you as a teenager to have had a book like “Gender Queer”?

It would have been huge. I searched everywhere for every bit of queer narrative I could find. At most, I usually found stories where a trans or non-binary character was a very small supporting character. I can’t remember any books where the trans or non-binary character was the protagonist and it was really about their story and their journey. I think if I had a book like this, it could have taken away 10 years of my questioning, confusion and uncertainty about who I was and how I was going to fit into the world.

How does it feel to have your book focused? Does this feel personal to you?

I absolutely see it as part of a full-scale political attack. In fact, I take almost none of it personally, certainly because of how often people who complain about my book openly state that they haven’t read it… I see it as part of the effort organized to erase trans, queer and non-binary voices from the public sphere. I see it as part of the movement of different states limiting access to trans health care and the rights of trans students to participate in activities, from sports to clubs to journalism. I see it in the sense of the Don’t Say Gay bill in Florida. This all sounds like many parts of this truly damaging, upsetting, and disturbing effort to make it increasingly difficult for trans and non-binary people to exist in public.

Has the backlash changed your approach to writing, or on the contrary has it made you more confident?

I think that probably made me more confident because I think the fact that what I wrote got such a strong response means that I was saying something that people react to, that people have feelings. I try not to let that influence too much what I want to write in the future…I think it strengthens my resolve to continue telling very weird, non-binary stories in the future, because we clearly need them to more.

Do you have any news from young trans and non-binary readers who have been helped by your book?

All the time…I got probably 10 to 1 more positive than negative responses. I had so many readers who contacted me to say that the book really touched them, that it meant a lot, that it was the first time that they felt like they were seen in a story, that their own experiences and memories reflected in a narrative. People said to me: “It’s as if you looked into my brain and wrote my life”. How did you do that?’ I’ve had people tell me the book felt like a hug or made them feel less alone. I’ve had people tell me that they gave the book to their parents, and their parents use their pronouns better now.

Has the book helped your family understand you better?

I think the book helped build my own personal relationships. To a large extent I wrote the book as a long letter to my own parents and family members, to my aunts and uncles, because I was trying to get out there and trying to explain non-binary pronouns . When I started using the pronouns e/em/eir, some members of my family really struggled with it.

My parents both read drafts of the book while I was working on it, and it really opened up a lot of conversations, and a few other people in my family have walked out since reading the book. It’s been a really positive thing in my life.

Lola R. McClure