Coming out bisexual in high school had been relatively easy: Maia Kobabe lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, a liberal stronghold, and her parents and classmates supported her decision. But deciding to come out as non-binary years later, in 2016, was much more complicated, says Kobabe. The words available were not enough to describe her experience.
“There was no language for that,” says Kobabe, 33, who uses neutral pronouns and does not identify as male or female. “I thought about my willingness to assume that I’m non-binary, and how difficult it was to have that conversation with people. And even when I did manage to start a conversation about it, my feeling was that I could never quite explain my point. .”
So Kobabe, who works in illustration and still lives near San Francisco, started drawing black-and-white comics about his struggle to define a gender identity, and posted the drawings on Instagram. “People started responding, saying things like, ‘I had no idea anyone felt this way; I didn’t know there were words to describe it,'” says Kobabe.
The material was expanded into an autobiographical graphic novel, “Gender Queer”, released in 2019 by a publisher specializing in the genre. The print run was small —5,000 thousand copies—and Kobabe worried that the book might not find readers.
Then, last year, the book’s frank approach to sexuality and gender identity began to make headlines across the country. Dozens of schools removed the book from their libraries. Republican officials in the states of North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia have called for the book to be banned in these locations, in certain cases labeling it as “pornographic”.
Suddenly, Kobabe found himself at the center of a national battle over which books should be in the school library — and who should decide. The debate, which has been simmering at school board meetings and public assemblies, divides communities across the United States and puts libraries at the forefront of a culture war that appears to be brewing.
Last year, as these efforts to ban books accelerated, “Gender Queer” became the most contested book in the United States, according to the American Library Association and with PEN, an organization that defends free speech.
Many of the titles that have been contested or banned recently were written by people of color or LGBTQIA+ people, the two organizations say.
“‘Gender Queer’ has come to the center of this debate because it’s a graphic novel and because it deals with sexuality at a time when the subject has become taboo,” said Jonathan Friedman, director of free speech and education at PEN America. “There is clearly an element of hostile backlash against LGBTQIA+.”
Some of the people who pushed for the book to be removed from schools say they have no problem with the story or the author’s identity. It’s the sexual content of “Gender Queer” that is not appropriate for children or school libraries, they claim.
“It’s not a free speech issue. It’s not opposition to LGBTQIA+ organizations; the reason we’re highlighting this book is the sexually explicit content,” said nurse Jennifer Pippin, of Sebastian, Fla., who chairs a mother’s organization in the county. of Indian River, where “Gender Queer” was excluded from school libraries late last year after Pippin filed a complaint.
The recent surge in book disputes has been amplified by growing political polarization as conservative organizations and politicians focus on titles dealing with race and sexuality, and frame book bans as a matter of protecting the right to parents’ choice.
Liberal organizations, free speech advocates and some activist students and parents of students argue that banning titles because some parents object to them is a violation of the rights of other students.
The American Library Association filed challenges to 1,597 books last year, the highest number since it began compiling data on banned books 20 years ago. In many cases, the titles removed were not required reading works for students; they were simply available as part of the library’s holdings.
Several factors made “Gender Queer” a target. It is a graphic novel-style memoir dealing with puberty and includes some nude character designs and sexual situations — images that the book’s critics were able to share via social media, thereby fueling the reaction to it. The book addresses the author’s discomfort with traditional gender roles, and incorporates images of masturbation, menstrual blood, and confusing sexual experiences.
It still hit the market amid a complex political and emotional debate over gender identity and transgender rights, after Republican elective officials in Florida, Texas and elsewhere introduced bills that would criminalize the application of medically acceptable treatments. to transgender children, or ban discussions about gender identity and sexuality in some grades of elementary school.
Being caught in the middle of a national controversy has been unnerving for Kobabe, who has expressed concern about the effect the bans could have on young people who question their identities.
“By removing those books from the shelves, or publicly challenging them in a community, what you’re saying to any young person who has identified with that narrative is, ‘We don’t want your story here,'” Kobabe said.
Kobabe, who was raised as a girl, began to question his identity in childhood. Once, on a school trip in third grade, he took off his shirt to go into the river and was reprimanded by a teacher. At another point, he was secretly happy when another elementary school child asked, yelling, “But are you a boy or a girl?”
Kobabe found solace in drawing, in songs by David Bowie and in fantasy series such as “Harry Potter” and “The Lord of the Rings,” and took an affectionate interest in boys and girls alike.
Puberty was uncomfortable and traumatic. “I don’t want to be a girl. But I don’t want to be a boy either. I just want to be me,” Kobabe wrote in a diary at the age of 15.
In 2016, Kobabe started coming out as non-binary, in front of friends and teachers, and using neutral pronouns to describe himself. Kobabe’s parents—both teachers—supported him, but were sometimes confused. To explain what it felt like to be non-binary, Kobabe began designing the images that would eventually serve as the basis for “Gender Queer”.
He imagined the book would primarily interest young adults who had struggled with gender identity issues, and the friends and relatives of non-binary people. The book’s publisher, Lion Forge, has targeted older teens and adults in its promotion efforts. In 2020, the book won the Alex Award, an award from the American Library Association for books written for adults that cater to “young adults, ages 12 to 18.”
The award drew the attention of librarians across the country to “Gender Queer”, as they often consider this type of award before deciding which books to buy. High school libraries across the country began to incorporate the book into their collections. On Amazon, the book is rated as appropriate for people 18 and over; on the Barnes & Noble website, it is recommended for readers 15+.
In September, someone forwarded Kobabe via Instagram a viral video of an angry mother denouncing the book as pornographic at a school board meeting in Fairfax County, Virginia.
“For me, that was disappointing and uncomfortable, but I didn’t think it was something I needed to pay attention to,” Kobabe said. “But the situation only got worse afterwards.”
Many of the book’s reviewers pointed to a few graphic images that illustrate the evolution in the way Kobabe came to understand gender and sexuality in adolescence and early adulthood, including an image showing Kobabe and a girlfriend trying on a toy. sex, and another that shows him fantasizing about two men having sex.
The book has been banned in dozens of school districts and taken from libraries in many parts of the United States, for example in Alaska, Iowa, Texas and Pennsylvania. Some schools withdrew the book from their libraries preemptively, without formal complaints. The subject became a frequent topic for prominent Republican politicians, among them Glenn Youngkin, now governor of Virginia, Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida, and Henry McMaster, governor of South Carolina, who called the book “obscene and pornographic” and ” probably illegal”.
The title appeared on a list of books labeled as sexually explicit that circulated among members of Moms for Liberty, Mothers for Liberty, a nonprofit founded in 2021 to defend “the rights of parents in schools”; the entity has been helping to promote book ban efforts. Pippin first heard of “Gender Queer” when she saw the book’s name on the organization’s Facebook page in October. She looked for the book in the local library system, which includes the schools her 13- and 17-year-olds attend, she said.
“Any 10- or 17-year-old could just pull the book out,” Pippin said. “It can do harm to a child if he doesn’t know what the book contains.” Pippin made a complaint to the school board, and shortly afterwards the book was withdrawn. After a review, the title was permanently deleted.
In some communities, divisions over “Gender Queer” have become deep and painful.
A few weeks ago, after a Moms for Liberty member filed a complaint about “Gender Queer” with the Wappingers Central School District, upstate New York, the book was removed from the library (no student had taken it out to read until there).
A committee of teachers, parents and educators reviewed the book and determined that it was not inappropriate and should be returned to the collection. The district superintendent, citing that the book contained sexually explicit images, disregarded the committee’s decision and referred the case to the school board, which unanimously voted in favor of the ban.
At a recent school board meeting, a group of students and parents of students denounced the ban, and one person argued that the book could help young people who are exploring gender identity and whose families don’t support them. Others called the book obscene and inappropriate.
Mandy Zhang, a third-year high school student at a school in the district, said banning “Gender Queer” sends a harmful message to gay, non-binary and transgender students.
“People from the LGBTQIA+ community and minority groups use these books as a way to express themselves, to connect with the world and find support,” Zhang said at the school board meeting. “The book ban has silenced these groups, these people, and that makes them feel unvalidated.”
Zhang created a petition to reverse the ban, and it got over 1,000 signatures within a week. She has created a banned books club at her local library and plans a fundraiser to fund the free distribution of copies of “Gender Queer.” But in your school district’s libraries, the book is no longer available.
Translation by Paulo Migliacci