Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe

The image shows two characters as mirror images of one another , one in yellow shorts with no shirt and arms outstretched, the other in a blue shirt and blue rolled-up pants, clutching the gem of the pants. Both are up to mid-calf in blue-green water; the "reflected" person has a green-gold forest in the background.

By Ash B. 

When I started working here at the library, my favorite section to get acquainted with was the graphic novel section. One reason for this was the rate at which I could find LGBTQ representation; I’ve joked with friends and colleagues that sometimes I feel I have a ‘sixth sense’ for intuitively knowing whether an artist is queer based on their art style or the design of the book’s cover.  

Sometimes there are subtle clues about the book’s content, and sometimes there is something overtly LGBTQ-related about the cover, title, or summary. Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe (pronouns: e/em/eir) falls into the latter category on all counts. As soon as I heard the title alone, I knew I needed to read it. 

Gender Queer is a memoir, formatted as a graphic novel, that recounts Kobabe’s experiences regarding gender and sexuality throughout eir childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. At its core, it is a book that addresses what it means, in Kobabe’s personal experience, to be nonbinary, queer, and asexual. As e explains in a Washington Post op-ed, Kobabe primarily wrote this as a way of explaining eir nonbinary identity to eir parents and extended family. However, Kobabe’s story has reached much farther than that, garnering praise from readers, reviewers, and the American Library Association (ALA). 

In my opinion, as a nonbinary reader, Gender Queer is so remarkable because there is nothing else quite like it. Through a talented combination of text and illustration, Kobabe addresses complex intersections of gender and sexuality with such specificity that I was honestly blown away. Never before I had felt so seen and understood by a piece of media. One of my favorite passages addresses the struggle to achieve a balance of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ gender expression when society is set on placing you on one side of the gender binary. I truly don’t have the words to fully express how meaningful this is to me… so let me share a brief anecdote instead: 

Around the time I was re-reading the book to prepare for this review, one of my (fellow nonbinary) friends texted me regarding a conflict they felt over an article of clothing they wanted to buy because they were concerned it would be read as ‘too feminine.’ Within our text conversation, I sent my friend two panels from the book.  

My friend’s response? They related so much that they started crying in the bathroom on their lunch break at work.

Representation matters. 

Even for those of us within the LGBTQ community who have come to terms with our identities, have community support, and hold privilege (whether it be whiteness, financial stability, ability, etc.) that improves our overall life outcomes – it is still hard to exist in a heteronormative society structured around the gender binary. At best, it is exhausting and invalidating, which still takes a hit to one’s mental health.  

Now imagine being a young person who lacks community support, lacks independence, and is questioning or struggling with accepting their identity. 

Books such as Gender Queer not only educate – they provide invaluable support to queer, trans, and questioning readers who need to see affirming, accurate, and nuanced representation. When we say these books can be a lifeline for readers, that’s not an empty statement; suicidality is significantly higher amongst LGBTQ youth, especially those who are trans, in comparison to their non-LGBTQ counterparts. 

Unfortunately, in the past year there has been a national surge – including in Howard County – in attempted censorship of LGBTQ books in school classrooms and media centers. Gender Queer has been one of the most controversial titles due to its frank discussion of (queer) sexuality and, to a lesser extent, gender dysphoria.  

This trend – the challenging and banning of books that contain content regarding sex, LGBTQ identity, or both – is not new. What is new is the influential role of social media and the internet, which allows far-reaching communication between book challengers and can create even more oppositional fervor towards the books that they have deemed “obscene,” “pornographic,” and so on. 

One of the problems with this overall pattern, however, is it increases divisiveness in public discourse. Parents, students, educators, librarians, and policymakers need to discuss these topics with the nuance, open-mindedness, and compassion necessary to truly educate and uplift youth. Instead, we are faced with a proliferation of outrage that doesn’t “protect” anyone – least of all LGBTQ youth. 

Some opponents are unapologetic in their homophobic and transphobic motivations, quite literally demonizing anything they hear is LGBTQ-related. (Do I need to explain further why these messages are extremely harmful to LGBTQ folks?) Other opponents claim they have no problem with queer-affirming books, but take issue with the books that contain passages regarding sex. I can understand where these folks are coming from – however, I would push back against the idea that teens need to be shielded from the type of “sexual content” that is in Gender Queer. This book isn’t meant to titillate – it is meant to inform, based on Kobabe’s own experiences of adolescence and young adulthood. 

So, before jumping to the conclusion that this book is inappropriate for high schoolers, consider Kobabe’s perspective: 

“It’s very hard to hear people say ‘This book is not appropriate to young people’ when it’s like, I was a young person for whom this book would have been not only appropriate, but so, so necessary. There are a lot of people who are questioning their gender, questioning their sexuality and having a real hard time finding honest accounts of somebody else on the same journey. There are people for whom this is vital and for whom this could maybe even be lifesaving.” 

Kobabe’s work gives language to some of the complexities that lie at the intersections of gender and sexuality. And with representation of asexuality and nonbinary genders still in short supply, Gender Queer is a much-needed addition. Mainstream narratives about LGBT people in the past few decades have often represented people who have “always known” they were transgender or “knew since they were three years old” that they were gay. But many of us do not have that experience. Many of us are in the dark about our true selves, until someone shines a light on all the possibilities of what queer existence can look like. Gender Queer has and will continue to have that positive impact on teens and adults alike.  

I hope this review will encourage you to see the value in this book for a variety of readers, LGBTQ or not. I urge you to read the book for yourself – and truly reflect on it. Print copies of Gender Queer: A Memoir can be requested to borrow here.  

Want to skip the waitlist? Your HCLS account also grants you access to the eBook version of Gender Queer on hoopla, a platform that allows titles to be streamed immediately or downloaded to devices for offline enjoyment later. For assistance with hoopla, view the tutorial on our website, visit your local branch, or reach out to us with your questions. 

Ash is an Instructor & Research Specialist at Central Branch and is a co-facilitator for Reads of Acceptance, HCLS’ first LGBTQ-focused book club. This time of year, they are especially fond of reading while cuddling with their golden retriever and sipping hot cocoa or tea.

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