Nonbinary author has 'most banned' book in US

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Wednesday June 22, 2022
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Author Maia Kobabe wrote "Gender Queer," a graphic novel that was the most banned book in America in 2021. Photo: Courtesy YouTube
Author Maia Kobabe wrote "Gender Queer," a graphic novel that was the most banned book in America in 2021. Photo: Courtesy YouTube

Maia Kobabe has the distinction of having written the most banned book in America, according to the American Library Association and PEN America, the writers' advocacy group Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, and Novelists. "Gender Queer" is a graphic memoir first published in 2019 but re-issued in a hardcover deluxe edition this month by Oni Press. The book charts Kobabe's journey discovering gender identity as both a nonbinary and asexual person.

"Gender Queer" won two prestigious prizes, the Alex Award for adult books with special appeal to young readers presented by the American Library Association and the Stonewall Book Award for nonfiction. Consequently many school and public libraries began purchasing the book.

Parents began objecting to the sexually explicit illustrations in the book: a fantasy in which an older man touches a youth's penis based on a piece of painted ancient Greek pottery; another depicting Kobabe's girlfriend performing oral sex while Kobabe wears a strap-on dildo; and other episodes portraying masturbation and menstrual blood.

School boards in Virginia, Florida, North and South Carolina began pulling the book from library collections. Critics claim it's not Kobabe's story or identity they find objectionable, but the nude characters and sexual scenarios that they deem inappropriate for children.

Still the reaction to the book is part of a nationwide anti-queer backlash, both silencing and invalidating LGBTQ young people. Not surprisingly the controversy has boosted sales of the book.

The memoir has been praised for its portrayal of how painful it can be to be different and not fit into your peer group. Kobabe urges readers to accept themselves, however one chooses to identify oneself. Kobabe, 33, discussed the book with the Bay Area Reporter in an email interview.

It was a frustration with language to describe Kobabe's identity that inspired the origins of the book.

"'Gender Queer' grew out of a series of small black and white journal comics I posted to my Instagram between 2016-2017," Kobabe wrote in the email. "I was trying to come out as nonbinary to my friends and family and it felt like I was never able to fully get my point across in conversation. I realized I had to sit down and write about my experiences with gender, to try and condense what I was attempting to communicate into its clearest, most concise form.

"That early series was titled 'Genderqueer' (one word) and when I started adapting it into a book in 2018, I decided to keep the same title but break it into two words since gender identity and queerness are the two major themes of the book," Kobabe explained. "The book was initially released in paperback, but my publisher Oni Press regularly re-releases books in hardcover after a few years if they have sold well. We already had a hardcover edition in the works before the book was hit with a wave of bans and challenges in late 2021, but that sped up the process."

Kobabe discovered the book was being banned through a list.

"I learned of one ban via a small article in the American Library Association's annual Field Report of Banned and Challenged Books, the edition released in September of 2021," Kobabe wrote. "Very shortly after that I was tagged in an Instagram video of a parent complaining about 'Gender Queer' at a school board meeting in Fairfax County, Virginia. After that it was like a dam broke, and there was such a flood of challenges between September-December 2021 I was hardly able to keep up with them. By April 2022, I learned my book had been the most challenged book of the previous year."

Fairfax parent Stacy Langton's testimony, where she denounced the book as pornography, had been censored by media reports due to its graphic content. In its uncensored form it was posted on social media where it went viral. It was picked up by conservative media, eventually leading to the parent being interviewed on Fox News. It has sparked a political debate on gender identity and transgender rights that played a role in Virginia's 2021 race for governor, with the Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin, who won, siding with parent's rights to decide what is taught in their children's classrooms.

Kobabe uses Spivak pronouns (e/em/eir), which Wikipedia defines as "a set of gender-neutral pronouns promulgated on the virtual community LambdaMOO based on pronouns used by American mathematician Michael Spivak."

An older queer artist/writer whom Kobabe admires introduced em to Spivak pronouns. "I remember a physical reaction of joy to hearing them for the first time — something like a shiver down my spine, something like pulling on a pair of jeans that fit perfectly. A feeling of being comfortable in something I never wanted to take off again. I knew I was signing up for a lifetime of explaining myself to people, but I found myself willing and ready to take that on. The best way to get better at using new pronouns is to practice with them!" Kobabe wrote.

Frustrated at bans

Kobabe said e was frustrated by the wave of challenges that includes "Gender Queer."

"I take it personally because it feels like a coordinated effort to erase trans and queer voices from the public sphere, to cut queer youth off from information and resources that might literally be lifesaving," Kobabe wrote. "Queer young people often grow up without adult queer people around them to look up to, and so especially need to see positive, interesting, complex representations in media to be able to visualize a future for themselves."

Kobabe sees these bans as a rejection of queer youth's stories, which harkens back to eir own questioning of eir identity as a child, when during a third grade field trip, Kobabe went topless to play in a river and a teacher scolded eir. Kobabe isn't surprised that schools have become the battleground for anti-queer activists.

"Because those who do not want queer people to exist can disguise their homophobia and transphobia behind the mask of protecting children, disregarding (or intentionally attacking) the large number of children who are also queer," Kobabe wrote.

Puberty was traumatic for Kobabe, especially gynecological exams and the confusion of developing crushes on both boys and girls, the challenges of dating, as well as finding it exceedingly difficult to ask people to use em preferred pronouns. Fortunately, Kobabe's parents, both teachers, were supportive.

Eir sister told Kobabe, "I think you're a genderless person," knowing it before Kobabe did, Kobabe wrote.

In "Gender Queer," in an excerpt from a 2004 diary entry, Kobabe writes, "I don't want to be a girl, I don't want to be a boy either. I just want to be myself." The book is Kobabe's journey to realize what eirself is.

Kobabe resents gender identification imposed coercively by society. "Binary thinking is engrained and enforced in our speech and education from our earliest days, and it takes effort, willingness, and creativity to break out of that mindset. ... It's not our fault but society's uncomfortableness with going against binary thinking," Kobabe wrote.

Kobabe asserts in the book that there is no one way to be nonbinary, that there may be as different ways to express non-binariness as there are nonbinary people. Kobabe also notes that e has received "a few sweet messages from readers thanking me for the asexual representations in my book, because there still aren't many books which talk about asexuality. But the asexuality aspect has not come up as much in the media conversations around my book, especially not among my detractors."

Kobabe recognizes that the format of the book has contributed to its being attacked.

"I think my book is especially vulnerable to attacks because it is a graphic novel," Kobabe wrote. "A couple key panels and pages are often taken out of context and spread around on social media. Visual images often have a stronger impact than words alone. But I think this is a strength, not a weakness! Comics are an especially wonderful medium for queer and trans people, because we can choose to draw ourselves however we want to be seen."

Kobabe does understand why some parents might be shocked at some of the more explicit material in "Gender Queer," though e urges detractors to read the entire book rather than just judging it based on a few specific images.

"My book has all along been marketed to older teens and adults. I personally recommend it for high school and above, but I also recognize that every reader matures at their own pace, and some readers will be ready for books like mine earlier and some later. If a parent has a gender-questioning child, I suggest they read my book first and decide whether they think their kid is ready for it, if their kid is still in junior high or younger."

Kobabe wishes there had been a book like eirs when e was investigating and questioning eir gender/sexual identity.

"It would have been huge! I spent my entire teenage years searching for every scrap and crumb of queer representation I could find," Kobabe wrote. "This was in the mid-2000s when there was so much less available than there is now. Finding a book like mine could have shortened my many years of questing and confusion and given me the language to describe myself sooner."

The book has its light-hearted moments such as Kobabe discussing em devotion to queer-inspired "Lord of the Rings" fan fiction plus love of Olympic ice-skater Johnny Weir and Alexander McQueen's high couture, as well as how sex toys can aid sexual discovery. The cartoons in the book are purposely drawn in cheery hopeful colors and use straightforward, nondidactic language easily understood by kids and perhaps sparking valuable discussions with their friends and classmates.

"Gender Queer" has been re-released in a deluxe edition.  

Praise for book
Kobabe is grateful for the praise the book has also received. The book has been a lifeline for teens exploring their gender/queer identity, especially if their families are unsupportive.

"The positive responses to my book have outweighed the negative ones by 10 to one, or more. Hearing from someone who says, 'Your book made me feel less alone,' makes me feel less alone as well," Kobabe wrote. "Writing this book was a huge piece of the journey to understanding myself, and I am so happy whenever I hear it has helped someone else in the same way."

Kobabe is almost done writing er next graphic novel, which is being co-authored with another nonbinary cartoonist, Lucky Srikumar.

"The book is fictional and is meant for younger readers than my first. It also focuses on a teen questioning gender and sexuality in the context of junior high peer pressure, puberty, sex ed classes, all that. It doesn't have a title or a release date yet, but please look forward to it sometime in the next few years," Kobabe wrote.

When asked what three messages e would like readers to take away after finishing "Gender Queer," Kobabe replied, "Be brave, be gentle, be true."

Kobabe has some advice for youth questioning their sexual and gender identities.

"You are the authority of your own identity," Kobabe wrote. "Even if the people around you don't recognize who you are, that doesn't change who you are inside. It's okay to have questions, and take a long time to settle into one identity, including deciding that your identity is fluid. You are not alone. There is a wide and vibrant community of people all wrestling with these same questions."

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