A Very Challenged Book: Review and Discussion of Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe

“What I’m learning is that a book challenge is like a community attacking itself. The people who are hurt in a challenge are the marginalized readers in the community where the challenge takes place. That is readers who are younger, readers who do not have the financial means to buy books if they’re not available for free in the library. That is queer teens who might not feel comfortable bringing a book with such an obvious title into their home, if they have more conservative parents who would only feel safe reading the book secretly in the library without even checking it out. So yes, it upsets me because what I’m seeing is resources being taken away from queer marginalized youth, which does hurt. That does hurt me.”

-Maia Kobabe (Slate, What to Do When Your Kid Is Reading a Book That Makes You Uncomfortable, Dan Kois, March 22, 2022).

There is a journey that brings me to each book that I read. Some journeys are straightforward. I saw the book at the library, I checked it out and read it. Even so, I picked it for a reason, some synchronicity of the moment.  Or, perhaps it’s a cover and genre I liked once so it’s a logical choice again. I think those simple journeys happened more often when I was younger. Get ten books out of the library and read them all in a week type of thing.

These days, more of my reading life happens because I’ve journeyed down a particular path with literature, ideas, or themes. It is more deliberate. Sometimes there’s a bug in my ear placed by a discussion with a friend, a Bookstagrammer’s hooking post, or a bookish podcast I like. It’s interesting to contemplate this, because it is a story that leads me to a story.

I am trying to trace the journey that lead me to Maia Kobabe’s graphic memoir Gender Queer, published by Oni Press in 2019, and coloured by Phoebe Kobabe.

I’ve been reading more diversely, and participating in Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge from 2018-2020 made me more intentional about my book choices. They’d often include prompts for LGBTQ+ literature. Either there has been a greater availability of queer books, or I have a positive attention bias to them now, reinforcing my likelihood to pick a story that simply interests me. Finally, theme months like Pride help nudge me to read. All of this has made me more alert to queer literature and to pick it up more often: fiction, memoir, essays.

The other thread is learning more about challenged books. In particular, this year I’ve read a graphic novel about banning books (The Banned Book Club), and a classic that has been challenged, and even burned (Bless Me, Ultima).

These two paths merged when I read an article about a lawsuit in Virginia that is attempting to have Gender Queer declared obscene under Virginia state law. In mid-May 2022, lawyer Tim Anderson, representing client and recently defeated Republican Congress candidate Tommy Altman, filed suit against a Barnes & Noble store in Virginia Beach for selling Gender Queer (and also A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas), claiming that they “are obscene to unrestricted viewing to minors.” A judge then ruled that there was “probable cause” that these books could be deemed obscene. Thus, the lawsuits must proceed. 
Subsequently, the same litigants are suing Maia Kobabe and Gender Queer’s publisher for the same reason. 

The American Library Association ranked Gender Queer as the most challenged book in the US in 2021. It has won prestigious awards, including the 2020 American Library Association Alex Award and the Stonewall-Israel Fishman Non-fiction Award. It’s included on many important recommended reading lists.

My response to learning about the lawsuits was to check out Gender Queer for myself. This is a graphic memoir by Kobabe, who uses the Spivak pronouns e/er/eir. The book begins in childhood and the memoir ends when e is in er late twenties. Simply put, this was a thoughtful book. I read it in two sittings, and was rapt by er journey. The art is clear, basic and to the point. The overall message about gender identity and the struggle some face to figure themselves out, let alone present that identity to the world, is moving and honest.

And there were some specifics in this book that I loved! I adored the frank and graphic depictions of menstruation and period blood. It’s something half of us deal with every month and it can still feel shameful and taboo, particularly for me, having grown up at a time when few people talked frankly about periods. It was seen both as a momentous time defining one’s womanhood (a reason Kobabe struggled so much with it), but also as completely hidden, with horror attributed to a single visible drop of blood. And bonus points in Gender Queer for showing and celebrating body hair! The other image that gut-punched me was her traumatic experience of a pap smear; both physical and psychical agony were so apparent: her body stuck through with a blade.

Kobabe’s struggle to define er gender identity feels genuine and real, and I think it’s because we journey with the author. E allows us into er head–into er struggle–to see all of the pathways e tries out, before forging er own, unique identity. And it is unique to er; e doesn’t fit “neatly” into a category. And nor should any of us have to, I think is the message. It’s messy. The graphics help here. There is one full page spiral image with questions all along the path, and in the middle: “What am I?”. In another, contemplating a pronoun change, Kobabe uses the metaphor of a landscape for gender. Just when e seems to have figured this stuff out a bit, e stumbles into more confusion, and illustrates this as a complicated tangle, a “HUGE SNARLED MESS.”

Kobabe absolutely didn’t shy away from things that are uncomfortable. There is discussion of sexual fantasy, there’s nudity and body secretions, there is brief sex on the page. Because this is a graphic memoir, there are words and pictures both, which perhaps makes it more provocative. It’s certainly more immediate. But for me, this content absolutely served the story and its context. There was nothing gratuitous here, and all of it reflected the author’s actual lived experience. It was all a part of the struggle, the “becoming” that e was growing into.  (I catch myself thinking as I write this: Even if the explicit content was "gratuitous," more provocative, or took up more space on the page, mature readers should still be able to read such work.  Such written material and graphic novels are common and freely available). 

There’s a sequence where e describes erself as a voracious reader as a teen: “At the library I began to discover more and more queer books…It felt as if lightening was coming from the pages. Electricity flowing directly into my palms.” I wonder if this is the most subversive part of the book. Queer content in books opened up er world to new possibilities, and I’m taken with the idea that e knew e was writing a book that could “electrify” young adults who were having similar struggles. I suppose if you’re opposed to this type of inquiry, that’s pretty threatening.

By reading the whole book I’ve been able to share er journey and come to understand eir struggles with gender identity. One could very easily stand in a Barnes & Noble and pick this up, flip through to a sexually explicit image, then post it on social media, decrying the book. I think this has happened. A teen could come to a parent asking if this was appropriate reading for them, and a parent might feel uncomfortable, depending on their own life experiences. But it is obvious to me that Kobabe spent years sorting this out for erself, foraging er identity from a tangle, turning the question over and over in er mind. This is reflected in the thoughtfulness of the memoir taken as a whole.

My point is that everything Kobabe does is so well thought out, so wrestled over and borne of real struggle, that nothing here seems provocative in order to create controversy. It is all genuine and real, a reflection of er inner journey. It is an honest accounting, and as lived experience, I as a reader can ask no more of the author. In any case, the book was written for adults or mature teens of 16 plus.

To that point, in an interview with Slate, Kobabe notes:

“I mean, I put in everything that I thought was relevant to the story of gender, and there are mentions of masturbation, and period blood, and a very brief encounter with a sex toy. But they’re only lightly touched on because what’s important is how they helped me think about my gender identity and that’s what I was really trying to focus on. So I was like, “I’m going to include these as much as needed to explain how they shifted my journey of self-discovery in regards to gender.” 

For me, the book’s content served the narrative, and it is not a narrative for a ten-year-old. But the lawsuit is trying to ban this book for sale in a major bookstore chain, not because it is obscene for all, but because it could technically be sold to a minor. Is it the sex? It doesn’t approach the level of explicit content in much of the writing sold ubiquitously in the romance section. Is this book sued because it shows even brief queer sex on the page, or, more ominously, is about gender questioning? In any case, it’s important because if this lawsuit is successful, it may not be long until similar texts are purged from bookstore shelves and libraries for good.

The American Library Association, along with a coalition of organizations including Virginia Library Association, Barnes & Noble Booksellers, the Authors Guild, the Freedom to Read Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union have issued a statement that includes this:

“Those who care about individual liberties and the freedom to read should understand precisely what the law requires, should the petitioners succeed: the law in question will make it illegal for any bookstore to sell these books in Virginia. This petition aims to prevent readers from making a personal choice to read these books at all. The petitioners’ subsequent statements to the press make it clear that they intend to use this action as a means to criminally prosecute librarians, booksellers, and publishers.” 
(ALA News. Library, author, bookseller groups condemn legal action attempting to censor books in Virginia. June 1, 2022)

Most observers think the suit will not be successful, because when you read the actual obscenity law the obscenity must be in the context of “the book considered as a whole.” The agenda here may indeed be an attempt to garner publicly and capture right-leaning votes. But it is alarming nonetheless. I put nothing past the judicial system in some jurisdictions, and it seems to me that this is a case that all of us who care about freedom to read may want to pay attention to. And in Canada? It could never happen…but I don’t know. Things change, and a bit of vigilance is not a bad thing.


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