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Coming out as bisexual in high school had been relatively easy: Maia Kobabe lived in the liberal San Francisco Bay Area and had supportive classmates and parents. But coming out as non-binary years later, in 2016, was much more complicated, Kobabe said. The words available failed to describe the experience.
“There wasn’t this language for it,” said Kobabe, 33, who now uses gender-neutral pronouns and doesn’t identify as male or female. “I just thought, I want to come out as non-binary, and I’m struggling with how to bring this up in conversation with people. And even when I am able to start a conversation about it, I feel like I can never fully express my point of view.”
So Kobabe, an illustrator who still lives in the Bay Area, started drawing black-and-white comics about struggling with gender identity and posting them on Instagram. “People started responding with things like, ‘I had no idea anyone else felt this way, I didn’t even know there were words for this,'” Kobabe said.
Kobabe expanded on the material in a graphic memoir, “Gender Queer,” which was released in 2019 by a publisher of comics and graphic novels. The print run was small (5,000 copies) and Kobabe was concerned that the book would not have many readers.
Then last year, the book’s outspoken struggle with gender identity and sexuality began making headlines across the country. Dozens of schools pulled it from library shelves. Republican officials in North and South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia called for the book’s removal, sometimes calling it “pornographic.”
Suddenly, Kobabe found himself at the center of a national battle over which books should go into schools and who gets to make that decision. The debate, playing out at school board meetings and town halls, is dividing communities across the country and pushing libraries to the forefront of a simmering culture war. And in 2021, when efforts to ban books soared, “Gender Queer” became the most questioned book in the United States, according to the American Library Association and the free speech organization PEN.
Many of the titles that have recently been challenged or banned are by or about Black and LGBTQ people, both groups said.
“‘Gender Queer’ ends up in the thick of it because it’s a graphic novel and because it’s about sexuality at a time when it’s become taboo,” said Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education at PEN America. “There’s definitely an element of anti-LGBTQ+ backlash.”
The push to ban the books across America
Parents, activists, school board officials and legislators are increasingly questioning children’s access to books.
Some of those who have pushed for the schools’ memoirs to be removed say they have no problem with the story or the identity of the author. It is the sexual content of “Gender Queer” that is not appropriate for children or school libraries, they say.
“This is not a First Amendment issue, this is not against LGBTQ groups, we cited him for sexually explicit content,” said Jennifer Pippin, a nurse in Sebastian, Fla., and president of Moms for Liberty in Indian River County. . ., where “Gender Queer” was banned from school libraries last fall after Pippin filed a complaint.
The recent uptick in book challenges has been amplified by growing political polarization, as conservative groups and politicians have focused on titles about race, gender, and sexuality, and have framed book bans as a matter of parent’s choice. Liberal groups, free speech organizations, library associations, and some student and parent activists have argued that banning the titles because some parents oppose them is a violation of students’ rights.
The American Library Association counted challenges against 1,597 individual books last year, the highest number since the group began tracking book bans 20 years ago. In many cases, the titles that have been checked out are not required reading, but simply available on library shelves.
Several factors made “Gender Queer” a target.
It is a graphic memoir dealing with puberty and sexual identity, and includes some nude character drawings and sexual scenarios, images that critics of the book were able to share on social media to provoke a backlash. The book explores the author’s discomfort with traditional gender roles and features depictions of masturbation, menstruation, and confusing sexual experiences.
And it came amid a politically and emotionally charged debate over gender identity and transgender rights, as Republican elected officials in Texas, Florida and elsewhere introduced legislation that would criminalize providing medically accepted treatment to transgender children, or ban discussions about gender. identity and sexuality in some elementary grades.
Being caught in the middle of a nationwide controversy has been unnerving for Kobabe, who has expressed concern about the impact the bans could have on young people questioning their identity.
“When you take those books off the shelf or publicly challenge them in a community, what you’re saying to any young person who identified with that narrative is, ‘We don’t want your story here,'” Kobabe said.
Kobabe, who was raised as a girl, began to question that identity as a child. Once, during a field trip in third grade, Kobabe went topless to play in a river and was scolded by a teacher. On another occasion, Kobabe was secretly happy when another child at the elementary school yelled, “What are you, boy or girl?”
Kobabe found solace in drawing, David Bowie songs and fantasy series like “Harry Potter” and “The Lord of the Rings,” falling in love with both boys and girls.
Puberty was bewildering and traumatic. “I don’t want to be a girl. I don’t want to be a boy either. I just want to be myself,” Kobabe wrote in a diary at age 15.
In 2016, Kobabe began coming out to friends and family as non-binary and using the gender-neutral pronouns e, eir, and em. Kobabe’s parents, both teachers, supported him, but also confused him at times. To explain how it felt to be non-binary for him, Kobabe began drawing the images that eventually became the basis for “Gender Queer.”
Kobabe envisioned that the memoir would primarily appeal to young adults who had also struggled with gender identity, and friends and family of non-binary people. The book’s publisher, Lion Forge, marketed it to teens and older adults. But he soon found a younger audience. In 2020, it won an Alex Award, an award given by the American Library Association to books written for adults that have “special appeal for young adults, ages 12-18.”
The award brought “Gender Queer” to the attention of librarians across the country, who often seek such awards when deciding which books to order. High school libraries and some middle schools across the country began stocking it. Currently, on Amazon, it is listed as appropriate for ages 18+; on the Barnes & Noble website, it is recommended for readers ages 15 and older.
One night in September, Kobabe was tagged in an Instagram post with a link to a viral video of an irate mother denouncing the book as pornography at a school board meeting in Fairfax County, Virginia.
“I thought, ‘Well, this is disappointing and a bummer, but I don’t need to pay attention to it,'” Kobabe said. “And then it just snowballed.”
Many of the book’s reviewers seized on a handful of explicit images illustrating Kobabe’s evolving understanding of gender and sexuality as a teenager and young adult, including a drawing of Kobabe and a girlfriend experimenting with a strap-on sex toy, and another of Kobabe fantasizing. about two men having sex.
The book was banned in dozens of school districts and removed from libraries across the country, including Alaska, Iowa, Texas and Pennsylvania. In some schools, it was withdrawn preemptively, without a formal complaint. It became a talking point for prominent Republican officials, including Glenn Youngkin, now the governor of Virginia, the governor. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Gov. Henry McMaster of South Carolina, who called him “obscene and pornographicAnd “probably illegal.”
It was featured on a list of books deemed sexually explicit that was circulated among members of Moms for Liberty, a nonprofit formed in 2021 to push “parental rights in schools” that has been helping to fuel ban efforts. books. Pippin first heard about “Gender Queer” when she saw it on the group’s Facebook page in October. She looked it up in her school’s library system and found copies at several middle and high schools, including the schools her 13- and 17-year-olds attend, she said.
“Any 10- or 17-year-old kid could read that book,” Pippin said. “This could harm children if they don’t know what’s in it.”
She filed a complaint with the school board, and soon after, the book was withdrawn. After a review, it was permanently banned.
In some communities, the divisions over “gender queerness” have been deep and painful.
This spring, after a member of Moms For Liberty filed a complaint about “Gender Queer” with the Wappingers Central School District in upstate New York, the book was removed from a high school library. It had never been reviewed. A committee of teachers, parents, and educators reviewed it and determined that it was not inappropriate and should be returned. The superintendent, citing sexually explicit images, overruled the committee’s decision and took the matter to the school board, which voted unanimously to uphold the ban.
At a recent school board meeting, a group of students and parents denounced the ban, with one person arguing that the book could be a lifeline for young people who are exploring gender identity and whose families don’t support them. Others called the book pornographic and inappropriate.
Mandy Zhang, an 11th grader in the district, said banning “Gender Queer” sent a harmful message to gay, transgender and non-binary students.
“People from the LGBTQ+ community and minority groups use these books as a medium and a way to connect with the world to feel support,” Zhang said at the school board meeting. “This book ban silenced these groups, these people, causing them to feel invalidated.”
Zhang started a petition to reverse the ban, and within a week it had more than 1,000 signatures. She is starting a forbidden book club at her local library and is planning a fundraiser to purchase and distribute free copies of “Gender Queer.” But in her school district libraries, her book is no longer available.
Audio produced by tally abecassis.