A short note on a banned book

I wanted to somehow commemorate this year’s Banned Book Week (which ends tomorrow), and I thought perhaps the best way to do so would be to purchase — at its full cover price — and read Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, at the top of the list maintained by the American Library Association and others that details the Top 10 Challenged Books of 2021.

I confess that I’m certainly not the target demographic for this book, a memoir of Kobabe’s evolving gender identity through eir first 25 years. As a 60-year-old cisgender married man with two kids, I’m nearly three decades older than Kobabe, and I very much doubt that e had me in mind. In 2020, Gender Queer was one of ten books to receive an Alex Award from the American Library Association, for “books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults ages 12 through 18” — I qualify for that adult audience I suppose, but my experience is vastly different not only from Kobabe’s but from those of “young adults ages 12 through 18” as well.

Which is, I think, partly the point. Books, whether fiction or like Kobabe’s non-fiction, open us to different worlds and perceptions that may be light years away from our own. In this case, the discovery and negotiation of a young person’s gender-non-binary, asexual self-definition is new to me: In my adolescence, these issues were scarcely recognized as valid, let alone a part of the popular culture of the time, and a lot of damage was done as a result of this inability to identify them. But somehow James Joyce’s Ulysses found its way into my high school library, which was where I first read it, and Leopold Bloom’s Dublin (and similar difficulties with self-identity and self-definition) was about as far from 1970s Luzerne County Pennsylvania as Kobabe’s adolescence was from mine.

Like Ulysses, Gender Queer has had its censorship issues too, and it’s not hard to see why. Part of it has to do with its form: The graphic novel has been critically recognized as a literary and pictorial genre all its own over only the past twenty years or so, and its antecedents — the comic book, newspaper comics, the underground press — are still among some people considered somehow second- if not third-tier vehicles of artistic expression. But more, there’s nothing in Gender Queer‘s form, approach, or content that will be unfamiliar to readers of books by, say, Raina Telgemeier: An appealing visual style (we’re on the other side of the planet from artists like Julie Doucet), a pastel color palette (Gender Queer was colored by Kobabe’s sibling Phoebe), and a serious approach to gender, identity, and social issues faced by the contemporary teenager. Those who wish to ban Gender Queer from classrooms and libraries and bookstores may accept Telgemeier’s less explicit narratives, just.

But Gender Queer, to them, will cross too many lines. None of the pictures in Gender Queer depict anything that isn’t depicted just as specifically as in Ulysses (and there are far fewer of these depictions); but it’s this depiction in graphic rather than linguistic form that apparently rankles those who wish to take issue with Gender Queer. They have a powerful effect, and it’s testimony to the power of the comic form itself, as is the presence of so many graphic novels on the ALA’s list, including Telgemeier’s.

My horizons were widened by Maia Kobabe’s book, though very few of eir specific experiences were mine, of course. I was particularly taken with eir description of gender not as a spectrum, which always seemed two-dimensional to me, but as a landscape. Like a landscape, gender is a protean, living, organic thing; a landscape changes through the years, even over the course of hours, and it’s always affected by our own specific perspectives. “Some people are born in the mountains, while others are born by the sea,” e writes. “Some people are happy to live in the place they were born, while others must make a journey to reach the climate in which they can flourish and grow.”

In attempting to censor or ban this book, those who would do so would impose a torturous conformity on those who differ from them, a cruel denial of the integrity of the individual human being to grow, to develop, to suffer, and to retain not only integrity but also self-respect. That gender identity is a protean landscape is not an opinion, but a fact. Even a 60-year-old married white man can appreciate that.

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