by Maia Kobabe
“Gender Queer” is much in the news, with parents, right-wing and religious organizations — even the white supremacist Proud Boys — storming school board meetings to demand its removal from libraries.
Book banners group “Gender Queer” with other LGBTQ-themed works for young adult readers, a category of books they view as tools for grooming children, subversive propaganda designed to tempt girls and boys to explore and adopt alternate gender identities and sexual lifestyles. But they have a more specific issue with “Gender Queer”: the single page of Maia Kobabe’s 239-page graphic memoir they’ve actually read contains two panels they claim are pornographic.
So let’s cut to the chase. The illustrations in question depict a simulated blow job. Viewed out of context, it’s impossible to interpret them as anything but what they are. These two drawings are behind the “stop teaching porn” signs protesters wave at school board meetings.
Viewed in context, however, say by someone actually reading Kobabe’s graphic memoir and not just focusing on drawings forwarded to them by email, the illustrations depict a definitional moment in the memoirist’s life: as a lover pretends to fellate her, she realizes the sex play they’re engaged in isn’t at all what she imagined it would be; there’s no feeling, it isn’t real, it isn’t what she wanted after all. In context, the panels are anything but pornographic.
Some young adult readers will be on paths similar to the one Maia Kobabe is taking toward self-recognition and acceptance. Like Maia, those readers probably feel isolated and alone. “Gender Queer” will help them find validation, surely a good thing. Hey, it’s not just me, after all! Other young adult readers, working out gender identity and sexuality in different ways from Maia’s, will find validation as well. If Maia’s way isn’t for them, at least they’ll know others their age also struggle to discover who they are.
The key word in “young adult readers” is “adult.” Because that’s what these readers are, and part of adulthood is defining and accepting ourselves. I know it’s anathema to conservative and religious parents, never mind outside agitators looking to impose an authoritarian theocracy on the rest of us, but adulthood begins in high school and high school libraries ought to offer books to help students become adults. Including LGBTQ-themed ones. Even ones that mention blow jobs.
Colbert I. King, in a Washington Post column dated Nov 17, 2021 (link), offers these thoughts, which I very much take to heart:
“Kobabe’s book is not just for the benefit of gay, lesbian and bisexual youth. Or high-schoolers working through trans and nonbinary identities. It’s also for so-called enlightened folks such as myself who once had no clear idea what people discussing transgender and nonbinary issues were even talking about.”
p.s. I tried to avoid using conventional pronouns in reference to the author, who prefers gender-neutral ones. But I am old and can’t get past the cringiness of the singular they, let alone e, em, and eir.
© 2021 – 2022, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.