Banned books: Maia Kobabe on 'Gender Queer; Maia Kobabe set out to express an experience with gender identity. The graphic memoir Gender Queer is now the most banned book in the United States, according to the American Library Association.

Banned Books: Maia Kobabe explores gender identity in 'Gender Queer'

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ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

Maia Kobabe explores gender identity in the 2019 graphic memoir "Gender Queer." Kobabe told our co-host Rachel Martin it was centered on coming out to friends and family.

MAIA KOBABE: So I wrote it sort of towards an audience who I knew, like, loved me and supported me and knew me and was very, like, sympathetic to me. And I think that let me write with a - with, like - like, without any, like, really fear.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Kobabe grew up in Northern California. In illustrated panels in the book, readers learn about Kobabe feeling physically different from a young age but unable to openly express it. The book has been praised in some circles for how it talks about identity, but it's also drawn a lot of rebuke from people who cite its sexually explicit nature and the illustrations. "Gender Queer" has been banned in more states than any other book.

KOBABE: I was in elementary school in the '90s. Then I was in high school in the early 2000s, and there was a lot less representation, and there was a lot less people who were publicly out. And I just felt for so many years - I was like, I just feel like there's some stuff going on with me about gender. I can't decide if I'm a girl who feels kind of like a boy or like a gay man trapped in a girl's body or if I'm, like, a boy but in a very feminine way, or, like, am I a lesbian? It was just very confusing. And I just kept feeling like I was trying on, like, clothes that didn't fit. And it was just, like - it was - the biggest sort of concern of my specifically teenage years and early 20s was just this, like, what am I? Where do I fit in all of this?

MARTIN: There're so many different experiences that I, as a cisgendered woman, would never have thought about as being as traumatic as you describe them, like the annual gynecological exam.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: And this is a very graphic part of the book as you describe what this was like for you.

KOBABE: Yeah, it's pretty bad. It's interesting that you mentioned that you wouldn't have thought of that maybe as traumatic, because one of the things that I sometimes hear from cis female readers is, thank you so much for writing about how kind of hard that was for you 'cause it's also really hard for me, and I never hear anyone talk about that.

MARTIN: That's true.

KOBABE: And I've had - yeah, readers who have never struggled with their gender or questioned their gender really relate to that part of the book. And also some of the stuff about, like, periods and, you know, sort of the shame around periods and all of that stuff is not limited to people who are questioning their gender. But, yeah, the pap smear exam scenes - there are two of them in the book - they were hard to write. Those were the - kind of the only scenes that when I sat down at my desk to draw them, I was like, I don't want to, like, have to live in this memory again for the amount of time it's going to take me to draw these pages. This is an unpleasant experience, to be reliving this. I mean, half of it's kind of, like, psychological. Like, I don't enjoy being reminded about this part of my body. And half of it is just literal physical pain.

MARTIN: You tell the story of a family that's very supportive of you and your journey. There's the scene, though, where your aunt, who happens to be a lesbian, is having a hard time with the idea that you are nonbinary and the fact that she needs to use different pronouns with you.

KOBABE: You know, she was the first person I really knew very closely who was out as queer. So when I was coming out as nonbinary, I assumed like, OK, cool; of all of my extended family, she will get it the most. She'll immediately support me. She'll immediately have my back. And then it ended up not quite being the case. But I think part of it was that at the time that she came out as a lesbian feminist specifically, it was a real turn towards women, towards womanhood, towards centering women as sort of the most important relationships in her life, both romantic, but also sort of, like, political. Like, I'm voting as a woman. I am moving through the world politically as a woman.

And I think the idea that I was doing a thing that to her felt like a rejection of womanhood was really, really difficult because she felt like, well, women are, like, the best thing in the entire world. And being a woman is very joyful and celebratory and wonderful. And it's brought me friendships and community and family and, you know, very important things into her life. And I think when I was first coming out, I wasn't saying womanhood does not have value or womanhood is not like worthwhile and wonderful, an important thing to be and to celebrate and to find strength in. I was just saying, like, this is a very beautiful gift that has been offered to me, but it doesn't fit. And because of that, I'm going to set it down.

MARTIN: Did you anticipate the level of ire directed at your book?

KOBABE: I braced myself for a little bit of that. But when the book came out, like, what it was met with initially was just this absolute wave of, like, love and support. And the pushback didn't come until late 2021. And at that point, I think what mostly surprised me was, like, the timing of it and then also the level of it, and then following that, the longevity of it.

MARTIN: Let me ask you this. I mean, some of the criticism is about how explicit the book is. There are some graphic panels where you're describing some of your sexual encounters. Did you consider doing less-graphic versions of those scenes just to not give grist to the critics who you anticipated were going to come at you anyway?

KOBABE: You know, I really didn't. Like, I drew it - I drew as much as I felt like I needed to tell the story that I was trying to tell and get the points across that I was trying to make. And I honestly think the book is a lot less explicit than it could be or would have been if written by a different author. The topic of gender touches on identity and touches on sexuality, and it touches on all of these things. And it's hard to fully explain, I think, what - like, how a gender identity can impact every facet of life as an adult without touching at least a little bit on sexuality. And so I wanted to not, like, shy away from that.

(SOUNDBITE OF CIVIN'S "LUCKY TO BE")

MARTIN: Maia Kobabe is the author of the graphic memoir "Gender Queer." Maia, thanks so much for talking with me.

KOBABE: Yeah. Thank you for chatting with me this morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF CIVIN'S "LUCKY TO BE")

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