I’d like to begin with a fact. A simple yet shocking fact. It is this—a floodtide of filth is engulfing our country in the form of obscenity and is threatening to pervert an entire generation of our American children!
At least that’s what George Putnam said, finger-wagging in his Middle America-terrorizing introduction to the fear-mongering, porn-hating, depravity-abhoring Perversion for Profit. While Perversion for Profit was released way back in 1965, Putnam’s evocation of obscenity poisoning the minds of our children feels as if it could have been tweeted or shrieked at a school board meeting today. If you haven’t noticed, we’re back in yet another good old-fashioned moral panic! How nostalgic!
If you’re scratching your head, wondering exactly what moral panic I’m referencing, you’d be right to do so. A morally self-righteous fanaticism runs through both sides of our American cultural landscape at the moment. Quite ironically. At a time when everything in our country is analyzed through a partisan lens, transforming life itself into a team sport that only benefits self-enriching insider trading elected officials, tech billionaires, and corporate giants that all profit from keeping us apart, we are, at once, more divided than ever, while also willfully ignoring the logical fallacies in each side’s ever-changing yet always rigidly held ideologies. And look, I get it. It’s easier to pick a team rather than suffer the whiplash when well-meaning liberals that spent a summer in antiracist reading groups boning up on the history of subjugation and the criminal justice system suddenly start lavishing praise on the FBI after its raid on Mar-A-Lago. I laughed as much as the next person about Trump’s Warholesque Time Capsules of Top-Secret memorabilia and TIME Magazine covers yet I also remember the bodies of Black Panther Party members left in the wake of the FBI’s COINTELPRO. It’s not just the libs, however. How many “Blue Lives Matter” Republicans with their Ford F-150s plastered in thin blue line American flags do you think sent death threats to law enforcement post-Winter White House raid? Not none, I’d bet.
Nowhere is this bizarre ideological instability more visible, potent, or comical than in the debate over censorship and free speech with both liberals and conservatives overzealously seeking to silence those with different views, lifestyles, or ideas while also hollering about the other side’s transgression of the First Amendment. On one side, we have teachers bragging via Twitter about taking Harry Potter novels out of classrooms because of J.K. Rowling’s personal bathroom fixation, late teens- or twenty-somethings penning lists of “problematic books,” including Flannery O’Connor (racist), William S. Burroughs (murderer), Roald Dahl (racist, sexist, fat-shaming, antisemitic, supported child suicide, misogynistic), and Virginia Woolf (antisemitism, did blackface, and spoke gibberish to pass as a foreign dignitary), those black boxes of context at the MFA Boston’s Philip Guston exhibition, and, of course, that whole Joe Rogan misinformation fiasco. From the other, there’s a clear organized attempt to ban books, particularly books by queer or POC writers or with queer or antiracist content, from schools, libraries, and even bookstores. According to PEN America, 1145 books have been banned by school districts between July 1, 2021 and March 31, 2022. Most of these bans—or attempted bans—are coming from the Right, the same team frequently seen screaming about “woke cancel culture.”
Clearly, the Right’s war on reading is more dangerous—and effective—than the Left’s mostly feckless online screeds. Yet I name both here at the risk of making people pissy because not only is this double puritanical impulse disturbing but it also contributes to a creeping acceptance of censorship of content deemed aberrant. It’s hard for those of us on the Left to combat censoring books when the Right can just dredge up an old tweet from the ACLU’s Chase Strangio about Abigail Shrier’s book Irreversible Damage: “…stopping the circulation of this book and these ideas is 100% a hill I will die on.” It’s equally challenging to criticize moderation overreach like Twitter’s deletion of CMU professor Uju Anya’s probably ill-timed, definitely blunt, yet not entirely incorrect assessment of the Queen in advance of her death (“I heard the chief monarch of a thieving raping genocidal empire is finally dying. May her pain be excruciating”) after celebrating every time a new conservative nutcase, whether Alex Jones, Milo Yiannopoulos, or Trump himself, gets the boot from a social media platform. Eventually, we’ll all find ourselves on the violating side of that terms of service line.
It’s an inconvenient truth that America—a country built on the right to free speech—has never been all that comfortable with it, especially since one of our other most popular foundational principles and national pastimes has been moral outrage. Every couple of years a book, artwork, song, poem, or another piece of culture comes around that stands at the center of a pearl-clutching maelstrom, whether Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl!”, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, any number of Toni Morrison’s novels, Robert Mapplethorpe’s X-Portfolio, Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary, or Body Count’s “Cop Killer.”
And right now, that cultural object is Maia Kobabe’s 2019 graphic novel Gender Queer: A Memoir.
“It’s a cartoon” was my mother’s surprised reaction when I recently pointed out the novel to her while perusing a small indie bookshop in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, identifying it as the “most challenged book of 2021,” according to the American Library Association. Mama wasn’t wrong to be taken aback. To rational people, even ones not well-versed in graphic novels or queer coming-of-age memoirs, it seems comical (*rimshot*) that a novel geared towards questioning young adults would be the most hotly debated book at the moment.
Yet one state over from where we stood—Virginia—two obscenity lawsuits filed in Virginia Beach sought to not only remove Gender Queer, along with Sarah J. Maas’s A Court of Mist and Fury, from schools and public libraries but from private bookseller shelves. As explained on Book Riot, “The first lawsuit included a restraining order against Barnes & Noble and Virginia Beach Schools, and the second lawsuit focused on Oni Press, publisher of Gender Queer, as well as its author Maia Kobabe.” These lawsuits were filed by, you guessed it, fringe wannabe Republican players: attorney and Republican State Delegate Tim Anderson who filed the lawsuits on behalf of former congressional candidate Tommy Altman. Apparently, the conservative belief in privatization and individual rights draws the line at graphic novels about asexuality. Thankfully yet unsurprisingly given the tenuous arguments made, both lawsuits were dismissed, though Anderson, according to TIME, is seeking “to create a rating system on whether books contain sexual material” akin to film ratings.
Though the Virginia cases were dismissed, that is not anywhere near the only state with school board psychotic breaks, foam-lipped furies of outrage, witch trial-like accusations of “grooming,” and attempted and sometimes successful bans of the book. In North Carolina, Almance-Burlington superintendent Dr. Dain Butler removed the book from the Western High School library due to “inappropriate images that are sexual in nature.” In Maine, the book’s ban from Dirigo High School’s library inspired the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance to attempt to provide the book to any young person that wants it. South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster even called for a statewide investigation “to prevent pornography and other obscene content from entering our State’s public schools.”
Some of the wild-eyed vehemence has taken on a decidedly Q energy. For instance, in Jamestown, Michigan, the Patmos Library, which refused to remove the book, has been defunded by the town. Its librarians were accused of “grooming children” and pushing an “LGBTQ ideology.” As The Washington Post reported, citing librarian Kaitlin McLaughlin: “They said bookshelves meant for young readers featured same-sex pornography. They called the staff pedophiles…” Now, it’s no shock that this is where the wingnut wackjobs have turned after the world moved on from their anti-mask school board tirades. They have been largely abandoned by Q and failed at discovering pedos in Pizza Hut basements and Nancy Pelosi’s Capitol office. Speaking of, some 1/6 Proud Boy veterans have even horned into the debate. In Downers, Grove, Illinois, Proud Boy leader and 1/6 reveler Edgar “Remy Del Toro” Delatorre appeared at a school board meeting, along with Proud Boy buddy Brian Kraemer, to call students supporting Gender Queer pedos. As Senior Josiah Poynter said, “The last thing we need is some 30- or 40-year-old man who lives in the middle of nowhere to be calling … some kid a ‘pedophile.’ That’s not OK.”
If this wasn’t farcical enough, my favorite tale from the Gender Queer shitstorm has to be regarding Massachusetts Republican Secretary of State candidate Rayla Campbell. After railing against the book as child pornography, a cheeky anonymous tip accused her of carrying child porn while she was wielding the book, which led her to be questioned by police. Whoops!
But, what is so goddamn bad about Gender Queer that has bunched the panties of all these supposed free speech-loving, anti-cancel culture warriors, sending them off the handle and into a chaotic canceling craze? What is so dangerous about Gender Queer?
Well, I read the book, seeking to find out for myself rather than filter my opinions through people on Internet or critics’ reviews with their own biases and objectives. Before you think I’m only curious about books that the conservatives seek to silence, I also previously read Abigail Shrier’s Irreversible Damage too after Strangio’s Twitter tantrum. Not great. Her argument about the threat of young people who were assigned female at birth suddenly becoming non-binary was completely undermined by a caustic and mean-hearted impulse to dead-name and use incorrect pronouns for trans and non-binary people. Could have used a good edit too. Even still, I don’t think that book needs to be wiped off the face of the planet either. Anyone can read it and probably come to the same conclusion I did. All this goes to say that when I’m told I shouldn’t read something, my urge is to immediately pick it up.
And this is exactly what I did when I set out to investigate Gender Queer. My conclusion? Maia Kobabe is really bad at obscenity. This is coming from someone who built an entire career—if that’s what you’d call what I do—on adoring obscenity. So I should know. I mean, Gender Queer is not exactly Naked Lunch. It’s not even close to some of the young adult novels I devoured as a pre-teen, including Christopher Pike’s lurid sex-obsessed campy teen horror books and later Anne Rice’s homoerotic vampires.
Gender Queer is, at its heart, a pretty traditional coming-out, coming-of-age story. The book begins with Maia’s move to a 120-acre property in Northern California with eir (Kobabe uses the Spivak pronouns e/em/eir, which I hope I got right. Someone can yell at me if I didn’t) family when e was three-years-old. With no electricity or flush toilets, Maia had a feral, limitless, and notably label-less childhood, only playing with the neighbors and eir sister. Predictably, eir transition to school was riddled with ongoing embarrassment and culture shock as Maia learned girl students didn’t take their tops off when swimming, shaved their legs, and used deodorant. All of which Maia’s parents didn’t impose on em (for better or for worse). Noting “my constant ignorance,” Kobabe writes, “Everyone around me—but especially girls—seemed to have access to information I lacked.”
Most of the book consists of scenes depicting eir experiences and feelings of being alienated from normative gender and sexual attraction. This includes a few scenes that dip into a kind of gender dysphoria body horror with Maia’s extreme terror of menstruation (“To this day a huge number of my nightmares involved menstrual blood), including a nightmare in which “the only available toilet is overflowing with a soup of blood and shit,” which is accompanied by a predictably stomach-churning illustration. Maia also has two particularly traumatic trips to the gynecologist in which e describes a pelvic exam “as if I had been stabbed through my entire body and with this came a wave of psychological horror at the realization that things can go inside my body.”
Though I’d place these scenes at the top of the disturbing pile, these are not what tied conservatives’ knickers in a knot. That, of course, relates to the very few sex scenes in the book. Primarily Maia gets off, from childhood on, masturbating to the fantasy of having a penis—otherwise known as autoandrophilia. When Maia begins experimenting with online dating, mostly as an academic exercise for eir One Direction fan fiction, e meets a date—Candidate Z—with whom e not only connects but feels comfortable sharing what e is and isn’t into sexually. After exchanging sexts about a strap-on harness, Maia finally has sex sporting the harness but doesn’t like it (“This is the visual I’ve been picturing…but I can’t feel anything. This was much hotter when it was only in my imagination”). Ironically, this scene is the main offender in the push to censor Gender Queer—a distinctly unfulfilling sexual encounter.
Why is this moment so indecent to the book-burning crowd? Part of it may have to do with the pictorial nature of graphic novels, which has allowed conservatives to pick out the dildo scene like the American Family Association’s selective reproduction of David Wojnarowicz’s erotic imagery (which explains why I’m not reproducing the image here). As Kobabe articulated in TIME, “I do think that it is easier to spread an image and have it go viral on social media, than say a screen grab of a paragraph of prose text.” However, I don’t think it’s entirely correct to attribute all the outrage to imagery alone. Kobabe’s dildo scene is an unabashed depiction of undeniably queer sex—distinctly non-reproductive sex—published and popularized at a time when the Supreme Court and would-be theocrats are intent on keeping women and non-binary people barefoot, pregnant, and popping out as many babies as possible. Though Kobabe’s book is quite tame as opposed to most of the books I read, you have to give eir all the props for courage, transgression, and probably going where even health classes still fear to tread (stupidly). Bravo.
This is not to say there’s nothing that I personally found upsetting about the book. In particular, Maia’s cheery rendering of eir—in my opinion—clearly neglectful parents gave me pause. For instance, Maia couldn’t read until e was 11 years old, sent to school by those hippie dippie (emphasis on the dippie) parents without knowing how to read. Come on. What finally got Maia reading? Well, Harry Potter mania, which inadvertently reveals what may be lost if we hide those books away, even if J.K. Rowling is a tiresome phobe. It’s worth noting that after Harry Potter, Maia began reading voraciously, precisely cataloging everything e read with pride.
Eir parents also struggle with Maia’s gender identity and pronouns, which is a bit rich considering how they raised em. As Maia describes, “Neither of my parents were interested in enforcing gender roles.” Strange then that as Maia grows up, they become increasingly rigid. An especially tense conversation between Maia and eir mother sticks out in my mind, in which eir mother continually and dismissively responds to Maia’s discussion of eir experiences with “No one likes having their period” and “You don’t have to be super-feminine to be a woman—I’m not.” Later, eir parents ask in regards to eir pronouns: “Why are you doing this to us?” Forest-dwelling hippie parents without indoor plumbing can’t get a handle on just shutting up and respecting how others want to be treated or addressed. Fucking boomers man.
The most worthwhile parts of Gender Queer for most young adult readers concern Maia’s internal battles with not knowing exactly what e is or where e fits in. As Maia writes, “I don’t want to be a girl. I don’t want to be a boy either. I just want to be myself.” This continual questioning of gender and sexuality is profoundly awkward and fraught with palpable anxiety that should be recognizable for most teens and young adults, trans and non-binary, queer, or not. Of course, it’s deeply relatable for queer, trans, and non-binary readers. As student Stephen Magnusson explained in that contentious Proud Boy-filled Downers Grove, Illinois school board meeting, “I go by gender fluid, that’s the gender I work with. Personally, I have struggled a lot with that and my mental health over a long period of time. Having a book like Gender Queer would’ve been really nice for me when I was actually going here still. It might have helped me sooner come to terms with who I am as a person.”
That should probably be enough to cement the book’s merit, recalling the aforementioned David Wojnarowicz’s assertion about a work of art or piece of writing acting “as a magnet and draws others with a similar frame of reference out of silence or invisibility.” However, what I found the most refreshing about Gender Queer is that once e comes out as non-binary and asexual, along with using the Spivak pronouns, e’s life isn’t suddenly a comfy bed of rainbow flags and unicorn temporary tattoos. Even after that grand coming out moment that is always represented as so formative in queer culture, e continues to similarly awkwardly navigate when and if to correct people who get eir pronouns wrong or presume e is a cis woman, which happens even in queer spaces. The book’s final scene sees Maia teaching a single-day comics workshop to junior high school students at a local library and wondering if e should come out or not. It ends without a real resolution. And thank god.
Perhaps this is why my favorite parts of Gender Queer were the moments in which Maia found some sort of belonging on eir own terms through eir role models. This ranges from eir discovery of David Bowie, passion for One Direction fan fiction, and eir Johnny Weir Halloween costume, playing with femme gay male aesthetics. Kobabe quite realistically portrayed the playful power of idol worship that allows for the construction of a possibly temporary but always impactful self-fashioned, cobbled-together identity based on one’s own inspirations. More than an obsession with ever-evolving, typically inadequate, easily coopted labels, I’ve always found this more meaningful.
Which is to say, I am not the target audience for Gender Queer. I am not a non-binary young adult. I’m not a reader of graphic novels unless they’re illustrated experimental chapbooks about the bromance between Charles Manson and Dennis Wilson. And I’m not even really particularly driven towards books about our current hotly debated cultural fixation on gender or sexuality, though I have read a lot of those books despite my increasing exhaustion with the subject. I mostly don’t want to be a part of it and stay out of the fray. Yet at some point, enough is enough. After reading Gender Queer, it’s hard to comprehend the war against it as anything but yet another tired attempt by the Right to erase the experiences of queer, trans, and non-binary people, particularly young people in this country while also linking these experiences to pedophilia (that old chestnut). This falls directly in line with the rash of anti-trans and Don’t Say Gay bills in a number of states. Just with the added irony that the Right is now often spending time, when not actively trying to ban books, railing against the Left’s hatred of free speech. We live in hell.
As our preeminent filth elder John Waters has previously quipped, which bears repeating like a mantra or a prayer, “You can’t commit a crime while reading a book. If a kid comes in and wants Dennis Cooper, then give it to him. If he’s heard of Dennis Cooper then he deserves the book.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.