Can You Define Gender Queer?


As a writer of books, I believe in the freedom of all writers to write whatever they want, to express whatever ideas are bubbling in their brains. Consequently, I’m against all book bans, which I consider the equivalent of banning free thought.

And yet book challenges and bans have become a primary front in the pathetic culture war being waged in our country. What exactly are book challengers trying to keep out of our libraries?

For insight, I turned to the most challenged book of 2021: the graphic memoir, Gender Queer, by Maia Kobabe.

The memoir relates Kobabe’s challenging journey in which she questions, grapples with, hides from, shares, explores, and defines her gender and sexual identity, from pre-puberty through adulthood.

The book is a compelling and easy read. I liked it from beginning to end and I appreciated the references to other books that were helpful to Kobabe, especially Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain by the neuro-philosopher Patricia S. Churchland. Here’s one of the pages from that section:

Who is this book’s intended audience? From a profile of Kobabe in the New York Times:

Kobabe imagined the memoir would appeal mainly to young adults who had also wrestled with gender identity, and to friends and family of nonbinary people. The book’s publisher, Lion Forge, marketed it toward older teens and adults. But it soon found a younger audience. In 2020, it won an Alex Award, a prize given by the American Library Association to books written for adults that hold “special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18.”

New York Times

Why would such a book hold special appeal to ages 12-18? Because by that age, people are definitely aware of gender and sexuality, and some of them might have a lot of questions about it.

School librarians took notice of the award, and began stocking the book. Mostly high schools, and some middle schools. And then came the blow-up, beginning with an irate mother denouncing the book as pornography at a school board meeting in Fairfax County, Va.

There are really only two images out of many hundreds in the book that are the center of the controversy. These images have been reproduced and shared widely as being representative of the entire book—and thus the label of pornography. One of the images represents a fantasy of two males in a sexual encounter that Kobabe experienced when she was fourteen years old. The other is a drawing of Kobabe and a girlfriend experimenting with a strap-on sex toy. Here they are (again, two outlier images of hundreds in the book):

Definitely there are children too young to understand or even be interested in these images, and in this memoir itself, just as there are children too young to appreciate or be anything but bored by Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

I don’t know what is the appropriate age for Gender Queer. I believe it’s for parents to decide if they want their children to have access to this book, although it’s definitely not for parents to decide whether other people’s children have access to this book. That’s where librarians and educators have to make decisions, and I tend to want to trust them as professionals.

But there’s another audience for this book: all of us adults who need to better understand and empathize with young people who have questions about gender identity. Books like Gender Queer educate adults so that we can better support our young, communicate with them, and be their allies. If you fit into this profile, I recommend you read Gender Queer or any of the other challenged and banned books.

By David Klein

David Klein

Published novelist, creative writer, journalist, avid reader, discriminating screen watcher.


Subscribe to this Blog

Enter your email address to receive notifications of new posts by email.

Get in touch