Everyone, take note. They only try to ban the good books.
In the nonfiction graphic novel Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, we follow Maia through childhood to adulthood, seeing how crushes, fanfiction, confusion about gender, and fear of coming out affect Maia’s life. This memoir looks back at formative moments in the author’s life and explains how having words for gender identity and sexual orientation (Maia is asexual and nonbinary) can be incredibly helpful and freeing. It’s also a look at the difficult moments in life, and the best ones.
Like I alluded to a moment ago, this is one of those books that has seen challenges and bans ever since it was published. Which, to me, means there’s something good within those pages, and I was right. The multiple awards it has won proves it, too.
To start with, the art style is great. It helps, literally, to illustrate the emotions of each scene. You can really feel everything by looking at the images, from the happiness of being with understanding family members to the confusion and pain of not knowing if you can accurately call yourself a girl or a boy, and everything in between. The panels flow naturally, are easy to read, and perfectly convey the pacing of this narrative.
There are definitely difficult topics tackled here, some of which might be considered taboo by some people. Things like periods, especially period blood, is discussed, as are sexual fantasies, self-pleasure, and genitalia. There is also a scene about Maia going to a gynecologist for the first time for an exam, which turns out to be very painful and traumatic. The story doesn’t really shy away from any of it. I can see that some people might find these things inappropriate, but I counter that by pointing out that all of these things — bodily functions, expression of sexual desire, and trauma — are realities of life, and are better dealt with when they are actually, you know, dealt with. Hate to break it to you, but ignoring these things doesn’t make them not exist, you book-ban-happy fools. (Actually, I love to break that to you.)
As for the discussions of Maia’s gender and sexuality, I found these very informative and fascinating. The author’s pronouns are e/em/eir (which I have gleaned to be gender neutral derivatives of he/she, her/him, and her/his or their), and I enjoyed seeing from eir perspective why those terms came to feel right. Certain people (probably the same people who are unnecessarily squeamish about discussing normal reproductive system functions) find the use of various pronouns to be silly or worse, but this memoir really illustrates why it is simply common decency to refer to someone as that person wishes to be referred to. (But then, these “certain people” clearly aren’t concerned with common decency.) I also loved the scenes that tackle asexuality, as these were brilliant as well, showing how one can still want and obtain connection with people, without that necessarily being sexual.
One scene that honestly made me say “oh, wow” out loud was when Maia described a metaphor for how e experiences eir gender. E refers to it as a scale, with one side being the gender e was born with, and the other side being everything e does to balance that. E says “the end goal wasn’t masculinity—the goal was balance.” I thought this was a beautiful and succinct way of describing it that really helped me understand what it is like for (at least some) nonbinary people.
Anyway, I probably could go on for much longer about this, but I’ll wrap up by saying that this is a gorgeous, incredibly powerful memoir. The art is stunning, the emotions are raw and earnest, the information presented is accessible and interesting. If you read this with an open mind, you will certainly walk away from this feeling touched and, hopefully, a kinder, more empathetic person than you were before. This book goes to show that we all need to care for each other and be understanding, and it’s such an important book to read.