In my reading about censorship recently, I discovered that one of the books getting parents in a panic and calling for book burnings is the graphic memoir Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe (Oni Press, 2019). I had a friend, may his memory be a blessing, that identified as genderqueer, and so this title, beyond its status as a challenged book, immediately called out to me for that. And lo and behold, my beloved local library, who never shies away from filling its shelves with controversial books, had a copy. To my happiness, it was checked out (high five to whoever was reading it; I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did!), so I put it on hold and it came in about a week and a half later.
Growing up the child of laid-back hippy-ish parents, Maia Kobabe, assigned female at birth and who uses the pronouns e/em/eir, never had gender restrictions placed on em, but e still felt like e didn’t fit into any of the gender boxes e knew of. Not only that, eir sexuality defied classification at the time; bisexual kind of fit, but e knew e didn’t have the interest in sexual activity eir classmates and friends had. Curiosity, maybe; desire to participate in sexual activity, ugh, not really.
What Maia did have, though, was a loving, accepting family, and the ability and freedom to discover who e was on eir own, the freedom to search for materials that contained the language e needed to be able to describe emself. Gender Queer is a beautifully illustrated graphic memoir of a young adult’s discomfort with eir body and gender presentation and the struggle to define emself in a society that insists everyone fits into tidy boxes with no spare bits or overlapping edges.
This is an incredibly brave memoir that needs to be on library shelves everywhere. Maia does an amazing job of conveying, in both words and illustration, the discomfort e felt with eir body especially as it matured into that of an adult female, something that never matched up with what e felt e truly was. There are kids out there who need books like this, who are feeling the way Maia felt and who don’t understand what this means and who don’t have anyone to talk to about it. Those are the kids who need to pluck this book off the shelf so they can hear that their experiences are valid, that they’re just as worthy of life and love as people whose identities match what they were assigned at birth, and that it’s okay to question who you are, what box you’re suppose to fit in (maybe not any box! Make your own box! That’s a perfectly valid option too!), why things are the way they are. They need to read Maia’s story and understand that they have a story worth sharing when they feel comfortable, and that there’s a place in this world for them, too.
It’s easy to see why people get uncomfortable with this book; there are frank discussions of gender, sex, sexual orientation, sexuality, pronoun use, gender dysphoria, menstrual periods, and more. But again, as I said in my review of Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts), these are things kids have questions about. If you’re sending them the message that they can’t talk to you or that their questions aren’t valid or are shameful, they’re going to go searching elsewhere for that information. Their friends might not have the correct, medically accurate information; the information they get from their friends might lead them to a dangerous place, whether in terms of physical health or emotional health. Where would you prefer them getting their information? Would you prefer a child who contemplates or commits suicide because the information they received damages their sense of self? Because unfortunately, we’ve created a society in which that is far too often the alternative for kids whose families don’t work to understand them and make them feel loved and accepted.
Gender Queer is a truly important book, one that teenagers and young adults should have access to. Even if they’re not actively questioning their gender, reading Maia’s story might help them understand what their friends and classmates are going through who are questioning or who have realized they don’t quite fit their assigned gender roles. And a little more understanding goes a long way.
What a brave, brave, important book.