Thursday, July 21, 2022

Maia Kobabe in Conversation: Banned Books, Queer Stories, and Gender Queer: A Memoir

 conducted by Kathleen Breitenbach

Politics and Prose Bookstore host: 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.

Maia Kobabe is a non-binary queer author and illustrator from the Bay Area. Eir first full-length book, Gender Queer: A Memoir was published back in May of 2019, and now we have the deluxe edition, but Maia’s short comics have been published by The Nib, The New Yorker, The Washington Post and in many anthologies including The Secret Loves of Geeks, and many others. Before setting out to work freelance full-time, e worked for over ten years in libraries.

Kathleen Breitenbach is the Chair of the Rainbow Round Table, the teen librarian at Hamilton Township Public Library in New Jersey, former chair of Rainbow Booklist Committee and Stonewall Book Awards Mike Morgan and Larry Romans Children’s and Young Adult Literature Award Committee, avid reader of queer YA, an aro ace enby, disabled, and neurodivergent. But please join me in welcoming to Politics and Prose, Maia Kobabe and Kathleen Breitenbach.

Maia: We did share a Lyft on the way here and did get to chit-chat about just fun things, books mostly. We are both in town for the American Library Association conference, which has been very fun. I think for many of us it’s like the first time we’re doing big book events, or any kind of events since COVID, so it’s been really, really lovely to just be around a bunch of librarians and book people --a lot of people just kind of celebrating, but also gathering our strength a little bit  as there’s been some rough news in the book world, and all worlds recently[1], I think being together, I felt a lot of sense of solidarity with everyone and of all of us being like, “Alright, here we go. What’s coming?”

Kathleen: I’m going to start us off with the elephant in the room, as it were, so how does it feel both as an author to have your debut book challenged and banned, and as a person, because Gender Queer is a memoir?

Maia: We decided to talk about the book ban topic at the beginning, so this way we can spend the rest of the time just being book nerds.

Kathleen: And get to the fun stuff…

Maia: Exactly. Gender Queer: A Memoir came out in 2019, so about three years ago at this point. It won two awards from ALA back in 2020, the Stonewall Honor and an Alex Award. Then in 2021, it was the most challenged and banned book in the United States. In some ways I think it’s just that my book was sort of in the wrong place at the wrong time, and got swept up in what feels very much like a viral social media moment that kind of has to do with my book, and kind of doesn’t. I think it is more vulnerable to challenges because it is a comic, because it has images, and it is faster and easier to spread as an image on social media, and have that go viral than a paragraph of text describing the same thing. I also think it has something to do with the title. If you are Google searching for books on these topics, perhaps because you don’t want them in a local library, this will come up near the top of a search list. Also, in a weird way, I think part of the reason my book has been challenged so much is  because it is an award winner. Many librarians buy all of the books that win these awards, and have them in their libraries, so if someone in one area saw news of a challenge, and then thought “Oh gosh, is that book in my library as well?” it would be, because librarians had supported it. In that sense, those reasons are part of why I don’t take the challenges personally, because it feels like if it hadn’t been my book, it would have been another book. One that was probably also queer, and maybe also had the word queer in the title, and it just happened to be mine. So many of the people who filed challenges, at least the early ones that I read, said, “I haven’t read the book, but I don’t think it should be in the library,” and I’m thinking, “Okay, well clearly at that point, it’s not a judgment on my work, which you didn’t even read.”

Kathleen: That’s most book challenges, done by people who didn’t read the book.

Maia: Yes, and just making assumptions about what it is, based on perhaps the cover, or a couple of out-of-context samples. This is not a long book, it takes maybe an hour and a half to read, there aren’t that many words, it’s mostly pictures. It takes like ninety minutes!

Those are the ways in which I don’t take the book challenges personally, but the part of it that I do take personally is that it feels like the challenges are part of a coordinated effort to erase queer and trans and non-binary voices from the public sphere. And it’s not just queer books, also it’s many books by BIPOC authors, or about the history of racism in America, or sex ed, or abortion, or civil rights that are also being challenged, and especially books that are intersectional, especially books that are by queer POC authors. Like my book was number one last year, but books that are two and three and four are all by other authors that  fit into those categories. Another part that I really do take personally is whenever a book is challenged in a community and actually removed from the library, it’s the readers who are already marginalized who are further marginalized by that; it’s the people who can’t afford to buy it if it’s not for free in a library, or it’s people who would only feel safe reading such a queer book at the library, and maybe not even checking it out and bringing it home. That’s the part that really does hurt and is really unfortunate -- the readers who may need it the most but are the ones who will not be able to access it if it is removed. So that sucks. The fact that it’s my memoir… I compartmentalize and almost forget that the book is about me. I don’t forget, obviously, I wrote it, but in some ways the book has become its own entity that is outside me. In some ways it’s like when the book was published, then it became one thing, and I of course kept growing, and I’ve had several years of life now since it came out, and I am a different person. I’m the same person, but I’m also a different person. The book is now one complete object in its own right, and that is about me, but is also just about the world and the time that I wrote it, and all of those things.

Kathleen: Okay, so I’m gonna talk about something really personal.

Maia: Oh, yeah. Let’s get vulnerable.

Kathleen: In the book, you talk about going through puberty and fantasizing about getting breast cancer, so you’d have an excuse to get your breasts removed, and then later, and I’m quoting here, because I’m a librarian, I did my research, I’m citing, “If I could just remove my entire reproductive system, that would be ideal.”

Maia: Mmhmm.

Kathleen: That felt so incredibly relatable to me; I literally made a Facebook post years ago, about that. It hit my core, when I read that. I’ve had those conversations.

Maia: Yeah, and they’re hard to talk about. When I was in my early twenties, and I was just starting to come out as non-binary and trying to decide if I fit under the trans umbrella, I went to this youth trans meetup group that was really more for teenagers, but because I was maybe twenty-one or two, they were like, “yeah, you can come.” It was mostly people who were younger than me, and we all went around and talked about some feelings that we had, and I expressed that. Of course, as an adult, I am very grateful that I’ve never had cancer. Cancer has touched my family, and that is a scary thing to think about, but that’s a thought that I had as a teenager, when I didn’t know better. And I expressed that in the group, and there was a thirteen-year-old who turned to me and said, “Oh my God, I’ve also thought that and felt like a horrible person, and I didn’t know anyone else who thought that.” And the amazement on this young person’s face to see even one other person who had had those thoughts before was really extraordinary. I left that meeting thinking, “Oh wow, yeah, these thoughts that I’ve had that feel so private and weird and often quite shameful, are not actually unique to me.” I had carried them for so long inside myself, without saying anything about it, probably because I didn’t know how to express it. I didn’t have language for it, I didn’t have role models talking about it, I didn’t have other books to read these things in. As soon as I started like sharing them openly, a ton of the shame and discomfort that I felt was lifted, and a lot of people who have read it have then said “oh that was lifted for me as well,” and I think that shows the value of talking about those things, those hard feelings.

Kathleen: Until I read this book, I didn’t think anybody else had ever had that thought.

Maia: Well, there’s at least two others, probably more.

Kathleen: I do have a family history of uterine cancer, on my matrilineal line, so I’m like, fingers crossed, maybe the genetic test will say… but that’s horrible [to contemplate].

Maia: Well, it also speaks of course, to the terrible healthcare system of our country…

Kathleen: …And transness being pathologized and medical gatekeeping…

Maia: Yeah, there’s a lot there, and nobody has good healthcare in this country, but especially if you are trans or non-binary, and trying to convince people of your need of care, and your need for access to care, that is really tough. So many people have to do a lot of things including masking of disabilities or anxiety, or suicidality, to get access to gender affirming care.

Kathleen: You talk about discovering queer books in the library. I know libraries are important to you. How important was it for you to have those specific types of books available?

Maia: So important, oh my gosh. I’m very grateful I grew up in Sonoma County in the Bay Area, a very loving, supportive, liberal bubble. As a teenager in the early 2000s, the librarians at my library would make little bookmarks with suggested titles and put them in different sections of the library, including a whole bookmark with queer titles for the teen section. I remember finding one of those as a teenager, and thinking, “I’m going to read every single book on this list,” and I believe that I probably did, because there was a lot less queer YA available in 2003. There was Annie on My Mind, and there was Boy Meets Boy, and there was Luna by Julie Ann Peters.

I actually had the privilege of meeting David Levithan, the author of Boy Meets Boy and many other books at ALA this weekend, and had breakfast with him. We were just talking about how 2003 was this real watershed moment of queer YA, and that after that moment, there were so many more available. I was in eighth grade that year, so I feel like I was perfectly placed to receive the watershed of queer books that were then being published. Before then there were queer teen books, but they were all sad, they all had these tragic endings, often the queer character died, or was disowned by their family, or just had something really bad happen to them. After that moment, there were people writing happy, lighthearted, more whimsical queer YA, and I feasted on those books, any queer book I could find. I was just devouring them, I was so hungry for it, and I’m so grateful that there were some that I could find. Many of them I still own and are still on my shelf, even if some of them have maybe not aged super well. There are some queer books from the early 2000s that I wouldn’t necessarily recommend today, because we have so many more available, but at the time they meant the world to me.

Kathleen: I’m a couple years older than you, I graduated high school in 2000. So I think we had very different experiences of what we were able to find.

Maia: That means the stuff I was reading in high school, you wouldn’t have had until college, or even a little later than that. I mean even a five-year gap of age in the early 2000s was huge.

Kathleen: When I started on book committees in 2016, in queer YA or queer kid-lit publishing, there were maybe a hundred titles in a year, and then when I finished my four years on book committees, there were like six or seven hundred potential titles.  And the intersectionality [in genres], and everything [else], just completely exploded. It was the best problem to have.

Maia: I know! For quite a while I felt like I could read almost every queer fantasy novel or queer comic. I felt like I could read pretty much everything that was coming out, and now I can’t. There are too many, there’s no way I could read them all, and I love having that problem, because it also means I get to choose the ones that seem the most interesting to me. I don’t have to read every single queer fantasy, I can read just the ones that have a plot point that catches me, such as this one is a fantasy, but it’s also a murder mystery, or this one’s a fantasy and it has dragons, or this one has dragons but they’re in space, you know what I mean. I can really narrow in on what particularly sounds really good.  That, I love. I love the abundance, the problem of abundance.

Kathleen: And, we’re very grateful for the generations that are coming after us, they’re going to have those resources- maybe they won’t be stuck waiting until they’re thirty to figure out they’re queer.

Maia: Yeah, the kids have language and words that we did not have, and sometimes it’s amazing to me to think about - I didn’t meet someone who was out as trans or non-binary until I was in grad school, and in my early twenties, and I remember thinking so much at that time, “What does a non-binary adult look like? What do we wear, do we wear makeup? Do we wear earrings? Do we wear just one earring?”

Kathleen: I still do those Google searches.

Maia: Yeah! Now when people who are in their teens can say, “Yeah, I’m non-binary, I’m this or that, or other identity labels,” and I’m like, “You are so much ahead of where I was at your age, and that is amazing, and I love it.”

Kathleen: After going through several labels, I finally hit on aro ace as part of my identities, but because of the lack of language and words around it, when I was sixteen I came out as a lesbian, because “I don’t like guys, you know, but maybe it’s because I’m going to the Catholic schools, and in the same class with the same kids for years and years and years, and I know these people way too well, so not into guys, it must be girls.”

Maia: Yup.

Kathleen: And then “Well, I don’t really like girls any more than I like guys? So, I guess I’m bi?” And, then when I finally got the words for asexual, I was like thirty? (laughs) I’m turning forty this year.

Maia: A great age. As a high schooler, I remember asking myself, before I realized that you could be non-binary, “Am I a lesbian? Am I a gay guy trapped in a girl’s body? Am I bisexual?” And I partly picked bi because it didn’t say anything about the gender that I was, and I really liked that there was this term that talked about attraction, but it doesn’t talk about who you are as the person experiencing attraction, you know what I mean?

Like ‘lesbian’ seemed to at the time suggest to me that it meant that I was also female, although I now know a lot of non-binary lesbians. That word is being updated, so that’s exciting to me, but I remember thinking “I know I’m queer, but I don’t know more specific than that.” And I also feel like I went on this journey of “I know I’m queer but am I this? Am I this? Am I this?” trying to find a more specific label. Now, as an adult, I have sort of swung back the other way, and I don’t feel like I need a more specific label, and I can also just say that I’m queer, and that that’s enough. Part of what I like about that is it does encompass a wide spectrum of things, and also it basically just tells you I’m not straight, and I’m not cis, and beyond that, “Let’s have a conversation.” I’m not going to pick one word again, because identity is so fluid, and so many people -- everyone actually -- hopefully changes over the course of their lives. If you stop changing, then you are stagnant. I like the words that include space for growth, and space for change.

Kathleen: And that even if you have a label, it’s okay to change the label, and the label doesn’t determine your behavior…

Maia: And the label should serve you, not box you in.

Kathleen: “They’re tools, not tests,” as Ace Dad Advice says.

Maia: Love that! Yeah.

Kathleen: Okay, you talk in the book about fandom and the intersections of fiction and fandom with discovering queer identities. I noticed in the book you have some titles on spine labels– I read the Last Herald Mage trilogy when I was like fifth or sixth grade and then Ranma ½ when I was in college. Do you want to talk about fandom and ‘ships?

Maia: I would love to talk about fandom and ‘ships, absolutely. I’m a fan of so many things, and one of them is books and reading. I think the Last Herald Mage series, which is written by Mercedes Lackey, was also one that I read quite early. I was in maybe eighth grade, and it has a main character who is gay. I loved those books as a teenager, but I tried to re-read them in my twenties, and I found them almost impossible to get through. They did not age well. They are so angsty! And the writing seemed quite overwrought, but that being said, I loved them, so… if you’re a teenager and/or you’re just in the mood and you want something that’s wallowing in those feelings, maybe it’s perfect for you, even if I’ve maybe somewhat kind of moved on from them. That wouldn’t be the first queer story that I would recommend today, but that’s what we had at the time.

I loved many book series and then got into them in different ways, imagining myself into the worlds of stories. Of course, one big one in my youth was Harry Potter. I am of the generation that was always the same age as Harry Potter growing up. Another series that I struggle with now, as an adult! Then I got into the fandoms of tv shows and stuff in college, so I got a LiveJournal blog in the late 2000s, and I had a college friend introduce me to fanfiction. To me this was another exciting venue to experience queer stories. If you are hungry for queer stories, and not finding the exact ones that you want in published works, here are hundreds of thousands of every kind of every length, and trope, and topic that you could possibly imagine, with varying levels of writing quality, but you know we all start somewhere. It was very exciting for me to find.

I think that reading fanfiction informed me both as a reader and as a writer, and there are definitely things to be learned from reading work that is from people who are starting out. Even the process of reading a story and realizing, “this part of the story really worked, and this part kind of didn’t,” is training your critical brain as a reader and a writer, and there is pleasure in that as well. I definitely have gotten really into fandom, and it’s also a place to read about different types of queer relationships that you see less regularly in published fiction, including polyamory and queer platonic relationships and found families, like very different family structures, including, parents and adopted siblings, or like lovers… a family can be a dragon and a robot and a princess and a wizard, you know what I mean?

Kathleen: I need that book.

Maia: I’m sure it exists.

Kathleen: I think there’s probably like twenty-five on AO3.

Maia: Twenty-five? Twenty-five thousand! That has definitely been a big part of my writing and reading life, and whenever I get stuck creatively, specifically if I’m in an art block, or I’m not excited about drawing, the thing that always gets me back into drawing is fan art. If I haven’t felt the motivation to pick up a pen or a pencil in a while, I think about what story I am excited about, and drawing characters from someone else’s story often leads me back into an excitement about creating my own work. I feel the same in writing, like maybe writing a story about someone else’s characters can lead me back into excitement about writing my own original work, and it really weaves back and forth. It feels very intertwined to me, original work and fan creations, they feed each other.

Kathleen: Do you have any advice for people who have changed pronouns, but despite wearing pronoun pins, pronoun masks, other people keep using the wrong words, but it feels awkward to say something? Has it gotten easier for you?

Maia: That’s a really good question. It has, and then also I have gotten smarter about picking my battles.  I use the pronouns e/em/eir, as a nonbinary neopronoun set, they’re called Spivak pronouns, they’ve been independently invented like five different times since like the 1880s and there’s a whole Wikipedia page, which mentions me. I admit they’re a bit of a challenging set, I didn’t pick one of the easy ones. But they’re grammatically used the same as they/them/their but with the ‘th’ removed, so an example sentence would be, “ask em what e wants in eir tea.” I really love these pronouns. When I learned them I was like, “Oh, those are good ones,” and it was almost with this feeling of putting on a coat that just felt so comfortable that I thought “I just never want to take this off, this fits me so well.” That being said, I knew when I chose a neo-pronoun set that I would be explaining these to people for the rest of my life. I would never assume that people would assume by looking at me that those are my pronouns. I was like, “I am signing up to a lifetime of conversations about this, but I’m here for it. I’m down for it.”

I don’t think anyone with any marginalized identity has to be someone who educates the majority about their identity, but you can choose to, you can volunteer for an educational role, if you feel like you have the energy for it, and I did. I’m so safe in so many vectors of my life. I am a middle-class white person who lives rent-free with my parents in California, and I have so many layers of safety, and privilege, and I thought, “If I can use some of that safety and privilege to field some of those tough questions, so that other people have a little bit easier time, or clear the road a little bit for others, I want to do that.”

All that being said, there are places where it is much more or less important for me that people get my pronouns right. I will never correct a wait-staffer at a restaurant. If that’s the interaction I’m having, I don’t know this person, and we’re probably never going to talk again past the duration of this meal, so it doesn’t really matter. I would rather they remember my order than my pronouns. That’s an interaction where I will never correct someone, but the place where it is really important to me is in professional settings. I’m often introduced in the third person when I’m speaking at an event such as this. It’s very important to me that my family and close friends, get it right, and if they mess up, that at least I can tell that they are trying, and that they are putting in the effort, and that if they make a slip-up, and there’s just a quick correction, “they, I meant e,” and moving on and just continue the sentence. And anyone I think that I’m going to have an on-going relationship with, whether personal or professional, that’s important.  have corrected people live on radio. I have corrected people in front of an audience of hundreds at ComicCon.

But there’ve also been moments where I chose to not speak up. If it’s been a really long day, and I don’t have the spoons, and/or a moment where it just doesn’t feel like a teachable moment, even if I give my spiel and explain it, but I just don’t think it’s going to be received or I don’t think the person is in a place to hear me. If I am going to correct people, I try to pick people who know it and just slipped up and could use a gentle reminder, and/or people who seem receptive to the information and actually would really hear what I have to say, and that it might spark some new thoughts, not the people who are frazzled and overworked, and are just going to stare at me like “I literally don’t even know what you’re talking about.” I think deciding when and where to correct, and also giving yourself permission to not correct if it’s not the right time. Those are some things that have made it a little easier. I hope that helps.

Having someone who’s your dedicated pronoun backup person is so helpful if you have an ally or friend on staff. I am so lucky that I have a lot of trans and nonbinary colleagues and co-workers, if you can call them that, and fellow authors. And my publisher and people also within the book world. I am fortunate to be in a queer and very supportive and extremely trans and nonbinary friend circle and professional sphere, and you’ve probably found this as well, it’s often easier to correct for someone else than for yourself. I don’t know why that is, but it’s easier to be brave for someone else or to have that sort of strength and or generosity for someone else than for yourself.

Kathleen: For me it’s like the mom override.

Maia: The mom override?

Kathleen: There are things I have a hard time doing for myself, I get too anxious to call and make a doctor’s appointment, but if a friend needs it? That’s super easy. But for myself, “Please, no.”

Maia: What’s your zodiac sign?

Kathleen: Libra.

Maia: Mmm, yeah, okay. I see you. Got any astrology queers in the audience? I’m a Taurus. I'm very grounded, steady, stable, loyal, sometimes stubborn, occasionally stuck in the mud, I spend a lot of time in my own home, in my pajamas, like “I don’t want to go out today!” A very dear friend of mine and the person that I am working on my next book project with is a Libra, so, I have a very darling Libra in my life.

Obviously, we could keep chit-chatting forever. In the car and in the green room earlier and we started talking about all this stuff and we’ve just started the book talk. No one’s watching, but the book talk has begun. It’s just the two of us chatting.

Kathleen: Yeah, we’re sorry you in the audience missed the first few minutes.

Maia: Yeah, it was really good material too, sorry about that. But anyway, we have some time if people have questions.

Mike Rhode: I was going to ask about body issues. ND Stevenson, who used to go by Noelle Stevenson (and is now using Nate), is doing a comic strip about having his breasts removed at the moment. I was just wondering if either of you follow Stevenson’s work or have any thoughts about what that type of modification might mean for your identity?

Maia: Absolutely. I’m actually really glad you asked that because ND Stevenson wrote the forward to the new edition of Gender Queer. If you aren’t familiar, ND Stevenson is the author of the comic Nimona, and also the showrunner of the Netflix series She-Ra: Princess of Power. The introduction he wrote for this book almost made me cry the first time I read it, it was so moving. How that came about is that ND reached out to me on Instagram, and just said, “Hey I read your book and it meant a lot to me, I am coming out as trans and I have now had top surgery, and have also had one other trans person in my family who’s younger and coming out and I’ve shared your book with them, and it’s led to a lot of conversations.” I was like, “Oh my gosh, I’ve been a fan of you since 2010, I started following you on Tumblr, so this is amazing to me!” I have read ND’s book The Fire Never Goes Out, a collection of short comics, and then he also released a second short comic essay called “The Weight of Them,” which is about the fact that he actually had a breast reduction as a teen, and felt like “that will be enough and that will help me,” and then later went back for full top surgery, or double mastectomy, as an adult. It’s a very good comic. I found it very moving, very well drawn, and that it just expressed a lot of feelings really well. Part of what I think ND has struggled with more than I have, is this desire to conform, this feeling, this pressure of a traditional femininity, and also the ways that you are sometimes rewarded by society for performing traditional femininity, and the career opportunities that are presented to someone who is white, and beautiful in a traditional sense, and the questions that go into giving in to that type of presentation.

There’s really a lot going on there. I thought it was very rich, very well presented, and I related to it because I had a ton of dysphoria about my chest. I wrote about it in the book, anyone who’s read the book knows this, but since the book has been published, I’ve been able to have top surgery. I feel very grateful that I live in California where a lot of trans healthcare is covered. And so my surgery was completely 100% covered by insurance, which was amazing, and I had a very quick and easy recovery, and my sibling, who you know from the book, was my recovery buddy, and my parents looked after me, and it was just a very easy, safe, quick, with no complications experience for me. So for me, I have no complaints. It was great! It has made me personally feel way more comfortable and confident in my body. I stand with my shoulders back a lot more. I used to hunch all the time, and my posture is better now, and I look a little taller, I think, because I hold my shoulders and my head higher. My cute patterned button-up shirts fit better now, because they don’t gap in the front the way they used to!  I feel very grateful that I was able to have such a good experience with no complications and if there’s ever a Gender Queer volume 2, you’ll get to read all about it, because I took a lot of notes!

Kathleen: Yeah, mine saved my life. I had mine in November of 2020--

Maia: Mine was October of 2020! Cheers! At one point ND made a post about his six-month top surgery anniversary, and I was like, “Ah man, that’s like one day away from my six month top surgery anniversary,” and then it turned out we’d had top surgery on the same day, October 15th of 2020. As you can see from our giddy gleefulness, it was a very positive experience for both of us.

Kathleen: Just like you, I was extremely privileged in getting insurance to pay for everything. They tried to say that the anesthesia wasn’t covered, but I called member services, I made sure I jumped through every hoop, I made sure I had them say multiple times, “yes, everything is covered, everything’s covered, everything’s covered.”

Maia: We are the lucky ones, because I know a lot of people who’ve paid multiple thousands of dollars for the exact same procedure, in other states.

Audience Member #2: Where are we going from here, what’s the mood, what’s the trend, what is the horror that we face, politically?

Maia: Yeah, it’s scary. Scary times. That was rough news to wake up to on Friday, the first morning of the conference. I mean, I’m from California, so it’s very interesting to fly to DC and then receive this news about the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade and to feel very close to where this is happening. One thing I’ll say is on Friday, especially in the afternoon, I did a book signing, and I saw so many people walking around the library convention with protest stickers on their shirts, because so many of the librarians had actually left this conference, that they’d traveled from many states to arrive at and paid hundreds of dollars to be at, to go protest instead, and that definitely gave me some heart. Seeing how many people care about this, and are going to speak up about it, and are not going to just be quiet or roll over.  I think protesting can sometimes feel like it’s hard to know how effective it is. Part of what the purpose and effectiveness of it is for all the people to just see each other, and be in community, and be like “My feelings of this are not mine alone, I’m not alone in these feelings, and we’re all in this together,” and know you’re not working on these issues alone.

I gathered a lot of strength just from seeing all of the people wearing the stickers later at the event and I told a lot of them “Thank you, and how was it, your experience? How many people were there?” It was really rough news to receive, but also I’m kind of glad that I’m around all of these people who are very passionate about information, and access, and diversity, and inclusion, and freedom of speech, and all of these sort of related issues. It’s going to negatively impact the lives of millions of people, everyone, really, and especially as it does feel like step one of a roll back of further rights? It's hard when the trend that I think of in America is of increasing rights, and increasing access, and to go into now this trend that feels like decreasing rights, and decreasing access, is very scary, my friend.

Audience Member 3: I actually just wanted to thank you for including the discussion about fandom in the book, because I discovered the book via that one panel that was talking about Supernatural. I saw it on my friend’s blog and I’m like, “Oh my god, I need to go read this book.” Then I saw that it was being banned all over the country, and I was like, “Oh, I really need to read this book!” And then I read it and I was like, “Wow, I think this is the book that I related to most in my entire life,” so thank you. Then I saw this event was happening, and I asked my manager to switch my shifts so I can catch this talk, and I’m really happy that I’m here. I don’t do art as much, I write more, so do you have any advice for wanting to share kind of memoir-ish stories or things like that, and having the confidence, to post them or share them with people who aren’t your immediate friends? Do you have any advice for that?

Maia: A couple of things. One is if you are wanting to pair visual images or photography, perhaps, with writing - obviously I love comics, and I do think that many things can be better expressed with an image paired with words than with words alone–I don’t think you have to be good at drawing to draw comics. I think some of the comics that move me the most are ones that are drawn very quickly, and sketchy, with a liveliness where you can see the artist’s hand almost still moving across the page. So even if you feel like you’re not good at drawing, I encourage you to draw.

But as for this part of sharing vulnerable information, it’s hard. The very earliest form of this book was a series of these little tiny black and white diary comics that I shared on Instagram, starting in 2016. And if you actually scroll all the way back on my Instagram account, to 2016, they’re all there, and you can read the earliest, roughest draft of this book. There's a couple of them in the back of the new edition and those comics were ones that I wrote because I was thinking, “I want to come out.” I came out to a couple of close friends and my sibling, but I hadn’t come out to my wider community, and I was really struggling with how to start that conversation, how to open that conversation. I decided, “I think I really have to sit down and write about this to try to find the clearest, most concise form of what I’m trying to say, because it always feels like when I try to speak it, I fumble my words” And so I drew all those little comics. They were all just thoughts, memories, interactions that had to do with gender or gender identity, and the way that it touched my life in a myriad of places. When I drew the first of them I felt, “Oh no, no one can see these, these are way too private, these are wretchedly, wretchedly private.” And for a while I continued thinking “Yeah, no one can see these,” but then I went “Hmm.”

What I did was, eventually, share them to a couple people that I really trust, and they gave me really positive feedback. So then I shared it to a slightly wider circle. It was first my close friends, and then with my grad school classmates, and then with some other authors whose opinions I really trust, and every time I asked, “Do they work well as a piece of writing? Are they clear? Do you understand?” and then, “Do they change your idea of who I am as a person?”

And at every single stage of a slightly-wider sharing, I would get these waves of positive feedback, and reinforcement, which would give me courage to then share it a little bit wider. Then I emailed them to some of my extended family, writing, “Hey family. Here’s some stuff I’ve been thinking about, a lot. I hope this helps explain it.” It was only after those levels, almost onion rings, of sharing it one step wider and one step wider, that I then posted them online. So I kind of built up my courage through levels of sharing, and that might be one way that you could do it if you have a couple of circles of close friends, and then maybe like classmates, and then I don’t know, like a literature professor or something, and maybe like building up that way. That’s what worked for me, anyway. So, hopefully that helps.

Audience Member 4: I also just wanted to say thank you so much for writing and putting a book out there that I feel has changed my life, and has definitely changed the lives of my friends who introduced it to me. I wanted to ask you, because I love just thinking so much about queerness, but then also sometimes it can be so mentally and emotionally exhausting, when you’re trying to hold yourself up to all these stories and trying to figure out where you fall. I was wondering if you have any thoughts or advice on how to have a healthy balance?

Maia: The obsession of my teenage years was the question, “Who am I? What am I? Where do I fit into all of this?” There were times where I’d be like, “I’m sick of thinking about it, I wanna think about something else for a while,” and I would set the question down, for a while. I would take a break from obsessively trying to identify or categorize my identity. I need a little break now and then. ‘Cause it can, like you said, take a lot of mental energy and effort and feel like it’s taking up all the brain space that you have available and maybe you actually also need that brain space for other life tasks, like going to school or your job or something? I think it’s fine to take step backs and for a while focus on some other stuff that needs to get done, but knowing that you will return to this question. You’re not abandoning it. You’re just letting it rest for a little while. And in those periods, reading has always really helped me, both reading totally unrelated things for distraction, but then also reading things about identity to try to gain answers. I just love reading very much, that has always helped me a lot. I still sometimes need to turn my brain off and rewatch Our Flag Means Death for the second or third time! It’s okay to take breaks from it. It’s good to take breaks from everything. I hope that helps.

Audience Member 5: I am a book selector for a very large public library system, so I wanted to ask you questions that I always like to ask authorsThe first one is, what do you consider to be some of your major influences, authors-wise, comics-wise? And then, can you tell us what you’re working on right now, and what’s coming next for you?

Maia: Some of my major influences… this one’s probably really obvious, it is Alison Bechdel. Fun Home is one of my favorite comic memoirs, I’ve read it many times. Some other authors that I was thinking about when I was writing my book– Lucy Knisley is also a comics memoir writer. I really love her books; Relish is my particular favorite, but I think I’ve read all of them at this point, and I’ve also got to meet her at events, and she’s lovely. I was also reading Erika Moen and Matthew Nolan’s series Oh Joy Sex Toy, which is online as a web comic, but has also been released in print. I think that those two authors strike a really lovely balance on how to talk about themes of sex, sex ed, sexual health, etc., in a way that is light and somewhat humorous, but without making fun of it. Their strip contains a lot of information, but without being bogged down into boring non-fiction. They strike a really lovely balance between lightness and informational, so I think that one really helped me think about how to write about things like bodies, and sex, and health in that tone. I also loved so many other comics like Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do. Thi was one of my thesis advisors at California College of the Arts, I really love her book. I really love They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, which I actually read after Gender Queer came out, but that one makes me think a lot about writing memoir, and specifically trying to write about your childhood when you are quite a bit older, and the memories might be a little fuzzy. The hardest part of my book to write was actually the parts when I was like ten and younger, because it’s just such a long time ago at this point. I tried to represent it as close as I could, but memories get fuzzy.

I am working on another book. It does not have a title. It does not have a release date. There’s not that much I can say about it, but it is also about a teen who is questioning gender and identity and sexuality. It’s for a slightly younger readership group. The main character is eleven and then turns twelve, so it’s in that phase of junior high, puberty, sex ed, when your friends are starting to date, crushes, peer pressure, like all of that fun stuff! I’m jazzed to be working on these themes again, but in a fictional book.

Audience Member 6: A few months ago I started a new job at the ACLU, and one of the first big new cases I worked on, and that I get to help promote is the lawsuit we filed on Thursday in Virginia, trying to stop a lawmaker from essentially criminalizing your book. It has to be intense to have the book known pretty broadly for its controversy, instead of its content, and as somebody who really loved the book, I’m just really happy to be able to try and help defend it. And just thank you personally because I know it has to be really intense. There’s this really beautiful metaphor you use in the book for your gender as a landscape, and you talk about the mountains and the shore, and wanting to settle somewhere sort of in the wilderness between it. What does that settlement look like for you?

Maia: First of all, thank you, thank you for working for the ACLU! I have been a monthly donor to the ACLU since about 2015, and I think I’m going to be upping my donation, probably soon. Thank you for doing that work! And the page you’re talking about is one of my very favorite pages in the whole book, and a lot of people tell me it’s their favorite as well, and I actually turned that page into a print. It was available from my publisher, and we are donating some of the proceeds to Trans Lifeline.

So, what does that beautiful middle place look like? I mean it looks like this (gestures to the room). And it looks like a lot of floral prints, a lot of bright colors, a lot of sparkly jewelry. It is a very joyful place. It is a place where I’m happy to have more and more friends moving in, the neighborhood is filling up, and everyone is great. It’s a place that is trying to be as in touch with nature as possible, and spending time outside, and camping, and thinking about sustainability, and trying to walk lightly in terms of climate impact upon the Earth. And it is a place full of more and more voices and stories and it’s great and everyone is welcome.

I feel like that’s a really nice question to end on. Thank you so much, everyone, for coming. This has been very nice!

 A version of this interview will appear in the International Journal of Comic Art in print later this year.


Further reading on Kobabe, Gender Queer, and bans courtesy of the Comics Research Bibliography.

Alter, Alexandra. 2022.

How a Debut Graphic Memoir Became the Most Banned Book in the Country [Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer"].

New York Times (May 1):


Alverson, Brigid. 2022.

'Gender Queer' Was The Most Frequently Challenged Book In 2021 According to the American Library Association.

ICv2 (April 5):


Alverson, Brigid. 2022.

Virginia Beach Politician Files Suit To Restrict Barnes & Noble Sales Of 'Gender Queer'; Judge Finds Probable Cause That It Is Obscene for Minors.

 ICv2 (May 19):


Asbury, Nicole. 2021.

Fairfax schools will return 2 books to shelves after reviewing complaints over content [in print as Targeted books get all-clear in Fairfax; “Gender Queer, A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe].

Washington Post (November 24): B1-2.

Online at


Bundy, Eli. 2020.

Q&A with Maia Kobabe, Cartoonist and Author of ‘Gender Queer,’ on Non-Binary Identity, Art, and More.

Campaign for Southern Equality (November 18):


Cho, Aimee. 2021.

Fairfax County Mother Complains of Sexual Books in Public School Library; She says the books feature pornographic images, pedophilia and sexual references that are inappropriate for children [Gender Queer].

NBC Washington (September 24):


Domen, John. 2021.

2 controversial books returning to Fairfax Co. high school library shelves [ “Gender Queer, A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe].

WTOP (November 23):


Dueben, Alex. 2019.

Smash Pages Q&A: Maia Kobabe; The comics creator discusses ‘Gender Queer: A Memoir,’ working with siblings, the craft and process of creating comics, and more.

Smash Pages (August 22):


Griepp, Milton. 2022.

Booksellers Condemn 'Gender Queer' Court Decision; Which Found Probable Cause That It's Obscene for Minors.

ICv2 (May 27):


Hibbs, Brian. 2019.

June 2019's GN-of-the-month Club meeting for Gender Queer with Maia Kobabe!

Comix Experience (September 11):


Hohmann, James. 2021.

A queer author caught in culture war crossfire [Maia Kobabe].

Washington Post's "Please, Go On podcast (October 29):


Ishizuka, Kathy. 2022.

Banned Books—‘Gender Queer,’ ‘Maus,’ ‘Antiracist Baby’—See Jump in Sales.

School Library Journal (May 23):


Jensen, Kelly. 2022.

Barnes & Noble Being Sued in Virginia Beach Over Gender Queer, Court Of Mist And Fury.

Book Riot (May 19):


Johnston, Rich. 2022.

Oni Press & Maia Kobabe Sued For Obscenity By Virginian Politicians [Gender Queer].

Bleeding Cool (June 29):


Kobabe , Maia. 2019.

Gender Queer: A Memoir.

Oni Press


Kobabe, Maia. 2021.

Opinion: Schools are banning my book. But queer kids need queer stories.

Washington Post (October 31): A26.

online at


Meckler, Laura and Perry Stein. 2022.

These are books school systems don’t want you to read, and why [censorship, banned books, Maus, New Kid, Gender Queer].

Washington Post (April 28):


Natanson, Hannah. 2022.

Va. Republicans seek to limit sale of 2 books in Barnes & Noble for ‘obscenity’ [Gender Queer; censorship; in print as Books targeted, beyond schools].

Washington Post (May 21): B1-2.

Online at


Scudder, Laura. 2022.

Q&A: Maia Kobabe, Author of Banned Book ‘Gender Queer,’ on the Controversy in NoVA and Gender Identity; The author talks about the controversial graphic novel, “Gender Queer,” what’s going on in NoVA schools, and representation for trans and nonbinary identities.

Northern Virginia Magazine (February 7):


Yanes, Nicholas. 2019.

Maia Kobabe Discusses Eir Career and Eir Book Gender Queer: A Memoir.

Sequart (June 21):


[1] This interview was done on Sunday, June 26, 2022, just after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade as well as issuing other reactionary decisions, and the January 6th insurrection hearings were being televised.

1 comment:

mike flugennock said...

An MFA in comics? Get outta here. That's awesome as hell.

The closest I could come, back in the late 1970s, was a major in Illustration/Design. So I learned to draw well, but there was no structured study in the history and techniques of newspaper and graphic-novel style comic art.

Man, that sounds fantastic.