Author of “Gender Queer,” One of America’s Most Banned Books, Takes On Controversy

Late that night in September, non-binary author Maia Kobabe was tagged in a viral video from a school board meeting in Fairfax County, Va. The clip showed a parent yelling at a panel of board members while holding Kobabe’s award-winning book, “Gender Queer: A Memoir.”

Telling Kobabe’s story from adolescence to adulthood, the 2019 fully illustrated book is a de facto guide to gender identity that grapples with the difficulties of coming out, the confusion of crushes. adolescents and the trauma of being non-binary in a society that largely sees gender as limited to two categories: male and female.

“Gender Queer: A Memoir,” by Maia Kobabe.Oni Press

But for her handful of graphic illustrations of LGBTQ sexual experiences – across the book’s hundreds of drawings – parent Stacy Langton passionately argued that it should be taken off school shelves.

“Pornography is offensive to everyone. It’s offensive to decency, ”protested Langton, who has two sons who attend high school in Fairfax County Public Schools.

That night, Kobabe watched the video muted, didn’t think about it, and fell asleep.

“At that point, I really thought, ‘This is going to be a one-time incident,’ you know? “This is just a school district; he’s just a parent, ”Kobabe told NBC News.

The next morning, Kobabe – who uses gender-neutral pronouns e, em, and eir – woke up to a slew of emails from reporters at The Associated Press and local Washington, DC news stations asking for information. interviews.

Maia Kobabé.Tristan Crane

After the controversial school board meeting, public schools in Fairfax County, Virginia’s largest school district, removed “Gender Queer” and another book, “Lawn Boy” by Jonathan Evison, from school shelves.

But that was just the start.

Books about race, sexual orientation and gender identity have always been contested in schools, but in recent months public and school libraries have seen a wave of opposition.

Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association, previously told NBC News that while reported protests against books with LGBTQ and racial content have always been “constant,” this year, the association has seen a “cooling” on the rise.

Books that have been in dispute in recent months include classics, such as “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, and modern works, including “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson, a young adult memoir detailing the trials of being a black gay boy.

Most importantly, Kobabe’s “Gender Queer” turned into a rallying cry from parents, school officials and lawmakers in at least 11 states – from solid red Texas to reliable blue New Jersey.

The month after being pulled from Fairfax County Public Schools, the book was banned in public schools in Brevard, a neighborhood in Florida. A group of New Jersey parents challenged the book and several others around the same time, call them “perverse.” And last week, public libraries in Wake County, North Carolina withdrew it, saying its illustrations “do not align” with its book selection policy.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, both Republicans, piled on outrage last month, demanding inquiries into how ‘obscene’ and ‘pornographic’ books ended up on school shelves.

Many challengers in the book cite a single illustration of Kobabe, 14, fantasizing about an older man touching the penis of a seemingly younger man or boy. The design is based on an ancient Greek pottery mug which contains an erotic sketch of a “court scene” and is displayed in a museum in Oxford, England.

Langton, who has made several appearances on Fox News to discuss the book since speaking at the September school board meeting, said that while she had no problem with books claiming LGBTQ being available to students, the image – and a handful of others depicting masturbation and oral sex – should not be accessible to high school students.

“It’s inexcusable, and it’s indefensible,” she told NBC News. “What role does pedophilia play in anyone with a non-conforming gender identity?” Why did Maia Kobabe think it was necessary to include in the book? “

Kobabe acknowledged that many of the graphic images in the book may not be suitable for elementary school children. However, the author said the book’s candid accounts are “integral” to show readers a growth experience outside of cisgender and heterosexual norms, adding that “we need to reduce shame” about teen sex.

“It’s very hard to hear people say ‘This book is not suitable for young people‘ when it feels like I was a young person for whom this book would have been not only suitable, but so, so. necessary, ”Kobabe said. “There are a lot of people who question their gender, their sexuality and find it very difficult to find honest testimonials about someone else on the same path. There are people for whom it is vital and for whom it might even save lives.

Medical experts and lawyers have long warned of disproportionate rates of mental health problems and suicide among LGBTQ people. But recent research from The Trevor Project, an organization for suicide prevention and crisis intervention among LGBTQ youth, has shown that increased acceptance and assertiveness can significantly reduce risk.

Kobabe said that despite the challenges, the majority of comments from readers focused on how they see themselves and their own stories in the book.

“I get almost every week, and sometimes more than once a week, emails from readers thanking me for writing it, telling me how much it meant to them, saying that it helped them understand each other or that they gave it to a parent or child. or a friend or partner, and that it helped their loved one understand them better, and that it opened up conversations that they hadn’t been able to have before, ”Kobabe said.

Last year, the American Library Association accepted, awarding “Gender Queer” its Alex Award. The annual award recognizes 10 books which were originally written for adults but which may have “special appeal” to adolescents.

In response to the recent wave of book-related challenges, a group of more than 600 writers (including Kobabe and bestselling children’s author Judy Blume), publishers, booksellers and advocacy groups signed this month a joint statement condemning the trend, saying it “threatens the education of American children.”

“It’s been a strange time, but in many ways I don’t think this is my book,” Kobabe said. “I think it’s more about the social media moment we find ourselves in and the divisive political opinion in this country right now.”

After reviewing the contents of the book for two months, Fairfax County Public Schools reinstated “Gender Queer” on school shelves, citing a “commitment to support diversity in literature”.

To writers, especially gay writers and writers of color, who fear their work will be called into question, Kobabe said, “Don’t let this scare you.”

“I know it’s a scary time and the attacks can certainly be very intimidating, but I think it’s so important to stand up for your truth and tell your story honestly and write what you have to write, this that you feel called to write, ”Kobabe mentioned. “Please don’t let the threat of censorship silence your voice before you even speak. “

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