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Gender Queer Will Change Your Life

I wish the graphic novel Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe—who perfers e/em/eir pronouns— existed when I was coming of age. At 13, I would have saved all my lunch money to buy it, had it only been available at bookstores. And then, of course, I’d have read it with a flashlight under the covers. Gender Queer is a thought-provoking, beautifully-illustrated memoir.  Besides being chock full of hilarious nerd culture, it also happens to be painfully real. I literally laughed out loud, cried, and cringed.

When I hit puberty, I struggled to accept my gender and my sexual orientation. For me, the two couldn’t coexist. At the time, I didn’t see any positive representations of queer people anywhere: not on TV, not in school, not in my family. In fact, homosexuality was often compared to murder; in some places, it was a crime to be gay. For these reasons, talking about my sexuality—or rather, about how I felt, because I didn’t have a word for what I was feeling—at home was taboo. 

LGBTQAI teens need stories too

Everyone—not just LGBTQAI+ folks—should read this book for an understanding of what it means to come of age questioning one’s own sexuality and gender identity. Lacking explanations, many of us look to LGBTQAI+ authors for clarification and a sense of belonging. Problem is: their books are not available at the school library. 

School library shelves are full of stories of teenage angst. Unfortunately, when I was in high school, the only books at my library were those written by mostly white, mostly heterosexual, and mostly male authors telling cliche tales of boy-girl love. And while I could buck up and relate to the boy character in many of these stories, I hungered for positive themes in stories that illustrated my angst.

I would have loved to have read queer tales: girl-loves-girl and they go to the prom together; or maybe a novel about a soft butch, baby dyke superheroine who saves the world from environmental demise. But those did not exist in the 90s, when I was in high school. And let me be clear: reading heteronormative young adult novels did nothing to make me think I was actually heterosexual. Quite the opposite. So, I highly doubt that a cisgender, heterosexual teenager coming across any of these stories will cause them to question themselves either, as so many politicians seem to think.

Reading Kobabe’s thoughtful storytelling of eir path to identifying as non-binary provides a roadmap for exactly how some of us can better grasp our own gender identification journey. While reading Gender Queer, I often laughed out loud, saying, “that was me!”, “OMG! I did that, too!” or “Oof, that happened to me.” Because everyone’s path to sexual discovery is different, it’s important that libraries have available a variety of stories with which teens of all genders and orientations can identify. Moreover, because Gender Queer discusses these topics in easy-to-comprehend detail, I fervently believe it does belong in high school libraries.

Unanswered questions

I know even the most progressive (straight) parents will, at times, grapple with Kobabe’s detailed illustrations. But honestly, I didn’t find them explicit. They are honest. It’s no more explicit than, for instance, S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders writing about teenage pregnancy in 1967. When I read The Outsiders in seventh grade, it didn’t make me want to get pregnant. With all the commotion surrounding Gender Queer, I thought it would depict intense graphic sex scenes, but nothing could be further from the truth. 

Kobabe’s memoir is a deep dive into the questioning thoughts and feelings of an asexual, non-binary or genderqueer person, with whom many of us—even if not queer—can relate. When Kobabe came of age in the 2000s, e didn’t have a name for eir gender. And as much as some would like to toss labels out altogether, we do need them. We need labels to help us navigate our identity so that others may also understand that gender is not binary and that one’s sexuality is not attached to their gender. Gender labels can answer many questions we have about ourselves.

Parents don’t always know the answers. Think of it this way: you, a child, see a thing you don’t understand. You point at it and ask your parent, “what’s that?” The parent may or may not have the answer, but the issue is you saw a thing and now you want to know what it is. Some of us won’t stop searching for answers until we find a suitable one. That’s how kids are. They’re curious, inquisitive little beasts.

Politicizing Gender Queer

The terms genderqueer and non-binary are nothing new. In fact, genderqueer first appeared in queer zines in the 1980s. Although it’s been more than forty years, it’s apparently insufficient time for some cisgendered people to understand the terms, come to grips with them, and validate them. Regrettably, some of these folks are politicians looking to win their base by banning books like Gender Queer from ALL bookshelves, even bookstores. 

The uptick in harmful legislation against the LGBTQAI+ community is a consequence of this ignorance. These politicians probably never questioned their own gender identity and sexual orientation. But the refusal to acknowledge that gender diversity is more common today only because the topic is more talked about—due in large part to brave authors like Kobabe—is the real problem. Gender diversity is not a fad. Folks feel safer when there is safety in discussing it. 

Thanks to these LGBTQAI+ authors, the rest of us can accept our queerness and feel safe knowing we’re not alone. And that can help some of the most at-risk young people in our community. Because when our parents, teachers, or mentors can’t answer our gender and sexuality questions, reading these books provide insight, enlightenment, and a sense of community. And for lonely, depressed, and suicidal teenagers, these stories might just save their lives.

It only took me a couple of hours to devour this 240-page graphic novel, loving every page. I also relate to so much of Kobabe’s journey. There were a couple of times where I had to look up some of eir nerd-culture references, but now I know more about that world. And I came away with an appreciation for graphic novels. When you read it, buy the physical book; the artwork is stunning, and deserving of close perusal. For more on LGBTQAI+ issues, read my blog.




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