Maia Kobabe is the author of “Gender Queer: A Memoir.”
The next morning, I woke up to emails from journalists at the Associated Press and local D.C. news stations. My debut graphic book, “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” had been banned at a Fairfax County school board meeting.
The story unfolded slowly over the next week. I learned that Northern Virginia had become the center of a heated debate over transgender students’ rights, and the protests and counter-protests at the board meetings had already resulted in shouting, chanted prayers and an arrest. I learned from a Post article that one of the Fairfax parents “chose to target ‘Gender Queer’ and [Evison’s] ‘Lawn Boy,’ both of which happen to feature LGBTQ characters, because she saw media coverage of the texts after parent outcry in Texas. She then checked her children’s high school library and saw Fairfax was offering the books, too.” One of the charges thrown against the book was that it promoted pedophilia — based on a single panel depicting an erotic ancient Greek vase. Others simply called it pornography, a common accusation against work with themes of queer sexuality.
A week later, I found out that “Gender Queer” had also been banned in a school district in Florida, and within a month, it had been challenged at schools in Rhode Island, New Jersey, Ohio, Washington and Texas, again.
When I was on book tour in 2019, I was asked many times, “What age of reader do you recommend this book for?” I would generally answer, “High school and above,” but the truth is, the readers I primarily wrote it for were my own parents and extended family. When I was first coming out as nonbinary, I kept getting responses along the lines of, “We love you, we support you, but we have no idea what you are talking about.”
I came out as queer to my mom as a senior in high school. It took almost a decade to also come out to her as nonbinary, even though I had been questioning my gender identity since I started puberty at age 11. A major reason for this long delay between my first coming out and my second was the lack of visibility of trans and nonbinary identities when I was young. By high school, I had met multiple out gay, lesbian and bisexual people, but I didn’t meet an out trans or nonbinary person until I was in grad school. The only place I had access to information and stories about transgender people was in media — mainly, in books.
In the early 2000s, I lived in a house with no TV and limited Internet access, so I turned to my local library for entertainment. I checked out stacks of fantasy novels and manga every week. I was especially hungry for stories with queer characters. I devoured “Skim” by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki, and Julie Anne Peters’s “Luna” and “Keeping You a Secret.” I read Howard Cruse’s masterpiece “Stuck Rubber Baby.” There was “Paradise Kiss,” “Rainbow Boys,” “Weetzie Bat,” “Annie on My Mind,” “Geography Club,” “Swordspoint,” “Totally Joe,” “Very LeFreak” and everything I could get my hands on by David Levithan. These books kept me company through my years of questioning and confusion.
The American Library Association, which tracks challenges, restrictions and bans on books in schools and libraries, recorded that the No. 1 most challenged book in 2020 was “Melissa” (previously titled “George”) by Alex Gino, a narrative of a trans elementary schooler written by a nonbinary author. Queer youth are often forced to look outside their own homes, and outside the education system, to find information on who they are. Removing or restricting queer books in libraries and schools is like cutting a lifeline for queer youth, who might not yet even know what terms to ask Google to find out more about their own identities, bodies and health.
Three weeks after I first heard about the “Gender Queer” ban at Fairfax County Public Schools, I received this message:
“You probably won’t ever see this but I am a queer FCPS student! My mom and I read your book. I loved it! I related to almost everything you said. I felt so understood and not alone. I think my mom understands me better and I’m more confident in confiding in her since she read your book. Thank you so much for creating your memoir!”
All illustrations by Maia Kobabe.
Maia Kobabe discusses this column in more detail on James Hohmann’s podcast, “Please, Go On.” Listen now:
An earlier version of this column stated that an arrest occurred at a school board meeting in Fairfax County, Va. The arrest took place at a meeting in Loudoun County. This version has been corrected.