Maia Kobabe is the California-based author of Gender Queer: A Memoir, a graphic novel which has caused controversy in Northern Virginia’s school systems. Loudoun County Public Schools decided in January to remove the book from its libraries after parents said it contained depictions of pedophilia. Fairfax County Public Schools, which faced similar complaints from parents last fall, said that it did not contain obscene material and kept the book on its shelves. Kobabe talks about the controversy from a personal perspective, the inspiration behind the graphic novel, and providing media representation for queer youth.
What inspired you to create Gender Queer: A Memoir?
When I was first coming out as nonbinary, 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 gender neutral pronouns. Many of these conversations were very frustrating, even though everyone in my life was extremely supportive. I never felt like I could get my full point across. Eventually I realized I needed to sit down to write about my experience of gender, and give myself the time to work through drafts, to really clarify and simplify what I was struggling to express in conversation.
How did you use Gender Queer to explain identity, and trans and nonbinary 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 they would understand me, and they would join me in an ongoing dialogue about the intersection of gender, sexuality, and identity. And I would say that it’s been very successful! This book has opened up a lot of conversations I don’t know if we would have had otherwise.
What has it been like to see Gender Queer come under controversy in Northern Virginia’s schools?
It’s been very strange to witness the wave of book challenges and bans that has been rippling through Northern Virginia and the rest of the United States. My understanding of the issue is that some parents flip through my book and see images that make them uncomfortable, and which they don’t think are appropriate for young readers. Or they don’t even look at my book- they simply see a few images taken out of context on social media and decide the whole book is inappropriate, and should be removed from library shelves. Parents are of course allowed to make decisions about what their own children have access to. But it is not okay for one parent to try and control what everyone in a whole community can read.
Why do you think problems with the graphic novel are arising now, as Gender Queer was published in 2019 — and why do you think certain NoVA school systems have decided to remove it, while others keep it in their libraries?
I am obviously aware that books featuring queer and trans themes often receive pushback; in fact, I braced myself for some negative response in 2019 when the book was published. But the initial response from readers, reviews, librarians, and teachers was overwhelmingly positive. The bans and challenges didn’t start until the lead up to 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 of their campaigns and it started a viral social media trend that has yet to die down.
As for why some counties in Virginia have chosen to remove the book, while others have decided to reinstate it; it often seems to come down to the opinions of a handful of people on the school board. Which goes to show the importance of voting in local elections! I hope everyone is thinking even more these days about researching local candidates, and voting out a candidate if they begin making decisions for the community which you do not agree with.
If you were to say anything, 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 you judge it. So many of the people who started challenges against my book said, “I haven’t actually read it, but…” Please read it! It’s not very long; seriously you can probably read the whole book in about an hour. Reading it will give you a deeper understanding of 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 truly are.
What makes it important for queer youth to have representation in different forms of media?
Many queer youth grow up without older queer family members or mentors nearby; to find out about their identities, sexualities, genders, and health they almost always have to look to outside information sources. Even though I had several out queer family members, and was able to join a Queer-Straight Alliance at my high school I was still so confused about where I fell under the queer umbrella; I had a lot of questions I was too embarrassed to ask anyone, or which I didn’t even know how to put into words. I was searching constantly for any scrap 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 am so glad that there’s a lot more queer media available today than when I was a teen; but I still worry about young people who don’t know where to look for it, or who don’t feel safe looking for it.
How would you encourage youth who might be questioning their identity?
I would say this: you are the expert on your identity. You know yourself best, and you get the final say. If you’ve asked someone to try new pronouns for you, or a new name, and they aren’t respecting that, it hurts and it sucks but it doesn’t change who you are. And I would say, if you are questioning your gender or sexuality, you are not alone. There are many, many other people out there wrestling with all of these same questions. I know this as a fact, because I’ve gotten so many emails from readers telling me they are going through the same doubts, confusions, realizations, and revelations as I did. If you are questioning these things, you are part of a brilliant, beautiful, creative community!
Aside from Gender Queer, is there any work you want to highlight that you think could also be of interest or help to queer youth?
Yes, I would love to recommend the book Ace: What Asexuality Reveals about Desire, Society and the Meaning of Sex by Angela Chen, a nonfiction book that knocked my socks off, so good! I’d also recommend Sexuality: A Graphic Guide by Meg-John Barker and Jules Steele; All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M Johnson; The Times I Knew I Was Gay by Eleanor Crewes; I Hope We Choose Love: A Trans Girl’s Notes from the End of the World by Kai Cheng Thom; and Sissy: A Coming of Gender Story by Jacob Tobia.
What makes you interested in comics as a form of storytelling?
I have loved both drawing and writing ever since I was very young. I have an early memory of my dad laying out the Sunday Comics section of the newspaper on the floor and reading it out loud, with me sitting on one side of him, my sibling on the other, both of us following along as he pointed to each speech bubble. I think there’s a kind of magic in working with images and words together — you can express things which are very hard to do with one alone. You can draw silence. You can use the space of the page to expand and contract 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 one pen and one sheet of paper!
What sort of work do you have in progress or planned for the future?
I am very happy to say I am working on my next book already! It’s a comic book about a young teen questioning their gender and sexuality, but this story is fictional. I am really excited about it but the book hasn’t been sold yet and doesn’t have a title so that is all I will say for now. Read all the other books I recommended while you wait for it to come out!
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