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Banned Books: Maia Kobabe explores gender identity in 'Gender Queer'

Oni Press

This discussion with Maia Kobabe is part of a series of interviews with — and essays by — authors who are finding their books being challenged and banned in the U.S.

Author Maia Kobabe explores gender identity in the 2019 graphic memoir Gender Queer, which is centered on coming out to friends and family.

"I wrote it sort of towards an audience who I knew, like, loved me and supported me and knew me and was very sympathetic to me," Kobabe told NPR. "And I think that let me write without any, really, fear."

Kobabe grew up in Northern California. In illustrated panels in the book, readers learn about Kobabe feeling physically different from a young age but unable to openly express it. The book has been praised in some circles for how it talks about identity — but it's also drawn a lot of rebuke from people who cite its sexually explicit nature and the illustrations. Gender Queer has been banned from shelves in more states than any other book.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

On feeling different as a kid

I was in elementary school in the '90s. Then I was in high school in the early 2000s, and there was a lot less representation, and there was a lot less people who were publicly out. And I just felt for so many years — I was like, I just feel like there's some stuff going on with me about gender. I can't decide if I'm a girl who feels kind of like a boy or like a gay man trapped in a girl's body or if I'm, like, a boy but in a very feminine way, or, like, am I a lesbian? It was just very confusing. And I just kept feeling like I was trying on, like, clothes that didn't fit. And it was just — the biggest sort of concern of my specifically teenage years and early 20s was just this ... what am I? Where do I fit in all of this?

On traumatic experiences, like an annual gynecological exam

One of the things that I sometimes hear from cis female readers is, 'thank you so much for writing about how kind of hard that was for you 'cause it's also really hard for me, and I never hear anyone talk about that.' ... And I've had readers who have never struggled with their gender or questioned their gender really relate to that part of the book. And also some of the stuff about, like, periods and sort of the shame around periods and all of that stuff is not limited to people who are questioning their gender. But, yeah, the pap smear exam scenes — there are two of them in the book — they were hard to write. Those were kind of the only scenes that when I sat down at my desk to draw them, I was like, I don't want to have to live in this memory again for the amount of time it's going to take me to draw these pages. This is an unpleasant experience, to be reliving this. I mean, half of it's kind of like psychological. I don't enjoy being reminded about this part of my body. And half of it is just literal physical pain.

On the reaction from her aunt, who is a lesbian, to her coming out

You know, she was the first person I really knew very closely who was out as queer. So when I was coming out as nonbinary, I assumed like, OK, cool, of all of my extended family, she will get it the most. She'll immediately support me. She'll immediately have my back. And then it ended up not quite being the case. But I think part of it was that at the time that she came out as a lesbian feminist specifically, it was a real turn towards women, towards womanhood, towards centering women as sort of the most important relationships in her life, both romantic but also sort of, like, political. Like, I'm voting as a woman. I am moving through the world politically as a woman.

And I think the idea that I was doing a thing that to her felt like a rejection of womanhood was really, really difficult because she felt like, well, women are, like, the best thing in the entire world. And being a woman is very joyful and celebratory and wonderful. And it's brought me friendships and community and family and — very important things into her life. And I think when I was first coming out, I wasn't saying womanhood does not have value or womanhood is not like worthwhile and wonderful — an important thing to be and to celebrate and to find strength in. I was just saying, like, this is a very beautiful gift that has been offered to me, but it doesn't fit. And because of that, I'm going to set it down.

On whether the level of ire directed at the book was anticipated

I braced myself for a little bit of that. But when the book came out, what it was met with initially was just this absolute wave of love and support. And the pushback didn't come until late 2021. And at that point, I think what mostly surprised me was the timing of it — and then also the level of it, and then following that, the longevity of it.

On criticism of the book

I drew as much as I felt like I needed to tell the story that I was trying to tell and get the points across that I was trying to make. And I honestly think the book is a lot less explicit than it could be or would have been if written by a different author. The topic of gender touches on identity and touches on sexuality, and it touches on all of these things. And it's hard to fully explain, I think, how a gender identity can impact every facet of life as an adult without touching at least a little bit on sexuality. And so I wanted to not shy away from that.

Claire Murashima produced the broadcast version of this story. Meghan Collins Sullivan edited this story for the web.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Martin
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, and a founding host of NPR's award-winning morning news podcast Up First. Martin's interviews take listeners behind the headlines to understand the people at the center of those stories.
Reena Advani
Reena Advani is an editor for NPR's Morning Edition and NPR's news podcast Up First.