Banned books have become a topic of discussion lately, and one that has stirred much controversy is a graphic novel called “Gender Queer.” The memoir by Maia Kobabe has been a focus of school board meetings, angry emails from parents, and a lot of eye-rolling from liberals who believe it’s just a harmless way for LGBTQ teens to feel more included.
But what is “Gender Queer,” and why are so many parents of school-aged children so upset about it?
The memoir won two awards including the 2020 American Library Association (ALA) Alex Award and 2020 Stonewall Award in the Israel Fishman Non-fiction category. The Alex Award is a prize given by the ALA to books written for adults that hold “special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18,” per The New York Times.
It was published by industry heavyweight Simon & Schuster, who shared the following description on their website:
“In 2014, Maia Kobabe, who uses e/em/eir pronouns, thought that a comic of reading statistics would be the last autobiographical comic e would ever write. At the time, it was the only thing e felt comfortable with strangers knowing about em. Now, Gender Queer is here.
Maia’s intensely cathartic autobiography charts eir journey of self-identity, which includes the mortification and confusion of adolescent crushes, grappling with how to come out to family and society, bonding with friends over erotic gay fanfiction, and facing the trauma and fundamental violation of pap smears.
Started as a way to explain to eir family what it means to be nonbinary and asexual, Gender Queer is more than a personal story: it is a useful and touching guide on gender identity—what it means and how to think about it—for advocates, friends, and humans everywhere.”
It’s clear that “Gender Queer” is steeped in left-wing gender theory, which parents of children in public school likely oppose. However, the real problem that led some districts to ban this book is what’s being described as pornographic content that’s accessible to young children while they’re at school.
The book provides verbal descriptions of masturbation and oral sex alongside explicit illustrations. One scene includes a 14-year-old boy fantasizing about touching an older man’s penis. A Colorado mother was silenced at her local school board meeting when she tried to read from the book and another like it, The Daily Wire reported in May.
The unidentified woman was speaking at the school board meeting, which took place in the Denver metro area, on her objection to “Gender Queer” and another controversial title, “Lawn Boy,” being available for students in the school library. Though the book was originally marketed to older teens and young adults, it is available in both middle school and high school libraries.
“I come as a parent, a very concerned parent, about the materials that are in our school, allowed for our children to have access to,” she told board members, while clarifying that she’s not in favor of book banning in general.
“But I do want to tell you that pornography does not belong in our schools, or accessible to our children,” she continued.
Next, the mother started to read from the book, but got warned and eventually silenced by board members who told her the content was too obscene to allow at the school board meeting. This infuriated parents watching as the clip went viral on Libs of TikTok. The contradiction was obvious: if the text was too sexually explicit for adults attending a meeting, why was it acceptable for kids to read at school?
The book was banned from Fairfax County Public Schools and Brevard Public Schools, a district in Florida, per NBC News. Wake County Public Libraries in North Carolina also removed the book from shelves, explaining that the illustrations “do not align” with the district’s book selection policy.
In November 2021, South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster (R) urged his state Department of Education to remove the “obscene and pornographic” memoir and to “investigate” similar content, per NBC News.
A New York Times article about the book described “Gender Queer” as “the most challenged book in the United States.” The author of that piece seemed puzzled by the negative attention, attributing most of it to transphobia and a refusal of conservatives to instruct their children in the ways of modern gender theory.
Curiously, NYT writer Alexandra Alter called out the pages that became the source of controversy multiple times throughout the piece, yet chose to include several illustrations from the book that are from different sections. Though she referenced the problematic, “pornographic” graphics at least twice, the pages in question don’t appear in the article at all.
“‘Gender Queer’ ends up at the center of this because it is a graphic novel, and because it is dealing with sexuality at the time when that’s become taboo,” Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education at PEN America, told the publication. “There’s definitely an element of anti L.G.B.T.Q.+ backlash.”
When parents in Fairfax County, Virginia, spoke out against the book being in their schools, NBC interviewed the author about the incident. Kobabe is unapologetic about the content and insists that it’s not just appropriate for children – it’s “integral,” especially for young LGBTQ kids.
“We need to reduce the shame” about teenagers having sex, the author told the publication. “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,” Kobabe continued.
“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 said while the book has become the focus of so much negative attention, for the most part, readers have been thankful that the book exists.
“I’ve been receiving almost weekly, and sometimes more than weekly, emails from readers thanking me for writing it, telling me how much it meant to them, saying it helped them understand themselves or that they gave it to a parent or a child or a friend or a partner, and that it helped their loved one understand them more, and that it opened up conversations they had not previously been able to have,” Kobabe said.
Controversy about the book is heating up all over again as a school district in Oregon formed a special committee to determine if “Gender Queer” belongs on library shelves. Ultimately, the committee voted to keep the book for a few reasons.
“The book will be necessary to keep in schools, to help be more inclusive and allow all students from the LGBTQ+ community to have a resource to refer to. In addition, the pages taken out of context do not represent the intention of the book and only served as an illustration to help provide understanding of what the author was trying to portray in their book,” committee Chairperson Suzanne West shared in an email to parents, per Libs of TikTok.
“The book expands on sexual orientation and gender identity which are both topics touched on in wellness,” the email says. “It being a graphic novel makes the book more accessible to a variety of readers.”
“This graphic novel is very well done from a literary standpoint. It is an excellent example of a memoir, it includes many visual metaphors, it promotes literacy and accessibility through the graphic format, and it has modern language suitable to our students today,” it concludes.
This justification is reminiscent of an analogy shared by critics of the book online. The comparison involves a parent baking brownies for their kids and putting a tiny bit of fecal matter in the batch. If it’s just a little bit, why would the kids reject the whole tray of dessert?
Maybe because the whole thing is now befouled.