By Alexa Dumas
“Sometimes I feel like my brain is a machine built by someone who lost the instruction manual.”
How does society shape a person’s identity? How can society be harmful to one’s view of themselves? What does one do if they don’t feel like they belong within mainstream society? How does one combat those feelings of exclusion?
These thoughts are at the core of Maia Kobabe’s 2019 graphic memoir, “Gender Queer.” Kobabe explores what gender identity and gender expression means, along with how a person defines their sexuality while questioning their gender. All of these complexities are expressed through the use of illustration, which helps readers gain a better understanding of Kobabe’s journey.
Kobabe’s pronouns are e/em/eirs, which are known as Spivak pronouns. Spivak pronouns are a type of gender-neutral pronouns developed by Michael Spivak, an American mathematician, and were used to describe a person using gender-neutral language. Although readers don’t learn about Kobabe’s discovery of Spivak pronouns until the conclusion of the novel, it is important to note.
“Gender Queer” has two beginnings: one beginning before the title of the memoir, almost like a preface in a novel, and the actual beginning of the memoir, which starts when Kobabe was 3 years old.
The first beginning shows how Kobabe started the memoir in the first place: Kobabe heading off to San Francisco to start eir Master’s program in illustration. Kobabe goes on to show how the writing for “Gender Queer” started in an autobiography class. This sets the memoir up for readers to gain knowledge of who Kobabe is today, which allows readers to become invested in learning about what events led up to the publication of “Gender Queer.”
It is clear from the start that Kobabe always struggled with eir identity. From clothing to hair styles to various hobbies, Kobabe expressed discomfort in not only the gender binary, but the gender assigned to em at birth.
Puberty is a large theme throughout the graphic memoir, as Kobabe despised eir changing body. Since Kobabe was assigned female at birth, female puberty comes with harsh realities: developing breasts, body hair and menstruation. Kobabe’s use of illustrations helps readers understand the trauma that was associated to this time in eir life, as the comic truly becomes graphic.
As the memoir progresses, Kobabe learns about what being nonbinary is, while also discovering eir sexuality as an asexual. For an adolescent or young adult audience, this can be helpful with the development of the reader’s gender and sexual identities.
For as great as “Gender Queer” is, the graphic memoir has faced extreme censorship. In 2021, “Gender Queer” was number 1 on the American Library Association’s banned books list. Although disheartening, it is not shocking, as more conservative states are pushing to ban books that contain LGBT themes.
“Gender Queer” has seen censorship in Alaska, California, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Washington, just within 2021 and 2022. Kobabe’s memoir has been banned due to LGBT themes, being sexually explicit in some scenes, using obscene language, and discussing aspects of puberty.
It seems that if a cisgender, heterosexual character was the protagonist, censors may not have wanted this book banned. Since Kobabe does not fit into the binary, eir story is constantly silenced.
Censoring “Gender Queer” can be dangerous to readers who may be struggling with their identity, as it can convey that the experience of discovering one’s true self is not valid. This ideology can be dangerous and can harm the self esteem or self worth of a person who feels like they identify with Kobabe.
A graphic novel like “Gender Queer” is a great tool for anyone who may be questioning their identity, or want to learn more about other forms of gender expression. “Gender Queer” helps readers understand that they are not alone in their struggles, and readers who may not struggle with their gender can use it to learn more about others and the world around them. The use of illustrations amplifies the narrative and helps readers fully understand the complexities in Kobabe’s life.
“Gender Queer” was an educational memoir, as the life experiences Kobabe has faced are unlike my own. In order to be a more informed and empathetic reader, one must expand outside what they know and read about the life experiences of someone else. Maia Kobabe’s graphic memoir, “Gender Queer” is a great place to start.