Do you know what nonbinary means?
If you don’t care to know, do you think others should have the opportunity to read about it if they so choose, like at a library?
What if those others are adolescents? High schoolers? Children?
How you answer these questions will likely put you on one side or the other of our dreary, tiresome political divide. Sadly, it might predetermine whether you will be open to reading Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer: A Memoir” (2019), or whether you’re even still reading this piece.
It’s no exaggeration to say this book has saved lives, given that LGBTQ+ youth have disproportionately higher rates of suicide — largely because they feel themselves unseen, unheard and unvalued (even, or especially, by their families). Reading about this author’s journey in accessible words and brightly colored pictures could make all the difference for a lonely young person trying to find themselves.
“Gender Queer” started as drawings and short comics that Kobabe used to explain to eir parents and others what eir nonbinary identity felt like (Kobabe uses a version of the gender neutral Spivak pronouns: e, em, eir). E posted some of the material to Instagram and got overwhelmingly positive feedback, leading to this full-fledged graphic memoir.
Assigned female at birth, from a young age e felt in-between if not outside the gender dichotomy. By puberty, e was writing in eir diary: “I don’t want to be a girl. I don’t want to be a boy either. I just want to be myself.”
Some readers, I imagine, will be shocked by Kobabe’s pronouncements reflecting eir body dysmorphia, like wishing for breast cancer in order to remove eir breasts. But as e explains to eir mother, “No, I don’t hate my body. I don’t have chronic pain or any of the other health issues so many of my friends deal with. The majority of my body is great. There are just … a few bits I don’t like. For example, if I could just remove my entire reproductive system, that would be ideal.”
And Kobabe’s description of getting a pap smear exam is agonizing and harrowing; it made me understand what a traumatizing experience it must be for someone in eir position.
Kobabe had the good fortune of being born into a supportive, open-minded family in northern California (lots of nonbinary kids don’t), so at least e doesn’t have to deal with things like being told by your parents that you will burn in eternal hellfire for the sin of being nonbinary. Instead, “Gender Queer” is mostly about navigating cisgendered society’s expectations and presumptions (like women’s limited underwear choices); dating; and the advantages of friendship over romance. It’s also a fascinating window into the fandom communities of fantasy, manga and anime, which tend to be very queer-friendly.
Still, it’s not all smooth sailing with eir family. Kobabe’s mother struggles with keeping the pronouns straight, at one point venting, “Why are you doing this to us?” More pointedly, Shari, a lesbian feminist aunt, declares, “I have a hard time seeing this trend of FTM (female to male) trans and gender queer young people as something other than a kind of misogyny. A deeply internalized hatred of women.”
In a sense, “Gender Queer” is a long rebuttal to Shari’s assertion, laying out a nuanced argument for a “third option” (as e puts it) beyond the socially-constructed categories of male and female.
As a cartoonist, Kobabe has a gift for clarity, making eir journey legible and sympathetic. Among other things, e uses visual metaphors of scales (when flouting eir assigned gender: “The end goal wasn’t masculinity — the goal was balance”) and a seaside landscape (“Some people are born in the mountains, while others are born by the sea. Some people are happy to live in the place they were born, while others must make a journey to reach the climate in which they can flourish and grow.”)
It likely won’t surprise you to learn that “Gender Queer” was vilified by right wing politicians and parents’ groups, which led the American Library Association to declare it the most challenged book of 2021, restricted by libraries and schools all over the map.
In late 2021, a parent of a student at Olympic High School in East Bremerton complained about “Gender Queer” in the school library, and it was quickly removed. That wasn’t good enough for the parent, though; they filed suit against the Central Kitsap School District, saying the librarian and other officials should be charged with the crime of distributing obscene material, including “pedophilia.” Kitsap County Prosecutor Chad Enright refused the request, noting that “Gender Queer” did not meet the state’s standard for obscenity (it’s not even close).
Kobabe stated publicly in 2022 that e doesn’t take the book challenges personally, because most people attacking the book have probably not actually read it. “But the part of it that I do take personally,” e said, “is that it feels like the challenges are part of a coordinated effort to erase queer and trans and nonbinary voices from the public sphere.” E told The New York Times: “When you remove those books from the shelf or you challenge them publicly in a community, what you’re saying to any young person who identified with that narrative is, ‘We don’t want your story here.’ ”
A humble suggestion: the enthusiasm of our morality police might be better applied to protecting children from real threats: poverty, food insecurity, lack of consistent healthcare — or even guns ripping them apart in their classrooms — than by persecuting young people coming to terms with their own bodies.
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