How a picture diary book became the country’s most banned book for the first time

Coming out as a bisexual in high school was relatively easy: Maya Cobabe lived in the liberal San Francisco Bay Area and had supportive classmates and parents. But Cobabe said coming up with non-binary years, in 2016, was a lot more complicated. The available words fail to describe the experience.

“There wasn’t that language for that,” said Kobabe, 33, who now uses gender-neutral pronouns and doesn’t identify as male or female. “I just thought, ‘I want to be non-binary,’ and I struggle with how to bring this up in conversation with people. And even when I can start a conversation about it, I feel like I’m not quite able to get my point across.”

So Kobabe, a painter still living in the Bay Area, started drawing black and white cartoons about wrestling with gender identity, and posted them on Instagram. “People started responding with things like, ‘I had no idea anyone else would feel this way, I didn’t even know there were words for this,'” Cobabe said.

Cobabe expanded the material into a graphic memoir, “Gender,” which was released in 2019 by the publisher of comic books and graphic novels. The number of copies in print was small – 5,000 copies – and Kobabe was worried that the book would not find many readers.

Then, last year, a candid book grappling with gender identity and sexuality began making headlines across the country. Dozens of schools pulled it from the library shelves. Republican officials in north South Carolina, Texas and Virginia have called for the book to be removed, sometimes calling it “pornographic.”

credit…Maya Kobabe

Suddenly, Kobabe was at the center of a national battle over which books belong in which schools—and who makes that decision. The controversy rages in school board meetings and town halls, dividing communities across the country and pushing libraries to the front lines in a raging culture war. And in 2021, when efforts to ban books escalated, “gender homosexuality” became the norm. The most challenging book In the United States, according to the American Library Association and PEN Free Expression.

Both groups said that many of the titles that have recently been challenged or banned are by or about LGBTQ people.

“Gender Queer ends up being at the heart of this because it is a graphic novel, and because it deals with sex at a time when it has become a taboo,” said Jonathan Friedman, director of freedom of expression and education at PEN America. “There is definitely an element of backlash against LGBTQ+.”

Some who lobbied for the memoirs to be removed from schools say they have no problem with the author’s story or identity. They say the sexual content in “Gender Queer” is not appropriate for children or school libraries.

It’s not a First Amendment issue, this doesn’t conflict with LGBTQ groups, we cite it for sexually explicit content,” said Jennifer Pippen, a nurse in Sebastian, Florida, and president of Moms for Liberty in Indian River County. Last fall, “Gender Queer” was banned from school libraries after Pippin filed a complaint.

The The latest rise in book challenges It was amplified by increasing political polarization, as conservative groups and politicians focused on titles about race, gender, and sexuality, and banned books framed as a matter of parental choice. Liberal groups, free speech organizations, library associations, and some student and parent activists have argued that banning addresses because some parents object to them is a violation of students’ rights.

The American Library Association counted the challenges against 1,597 individual books last year, the highest number since the group began tracking book bans 20 years ago. In many cases, the titles pulled are not mandatory to read, but are simply available on library shelves.

Several factors made “the sex of the woman sodomy” a target.

It’s a graphic memoir dealing with puberty and gender identity, and includes some sketches of nude characters and sexual scenarios – images that book critics have been able to share on social media to provoke a backlash. The book explores the author’s discomfort with traditional gender roles, and features depictions of masturbation, menstrual blood, and disorienting sexual experiences.

And it came to the center of a politically and emotionally charged debate about gender identity and transgender rights, as Republicans elected officials in TexasAnd Florida Elsewhere, it has introduced legislation that would criminalize the provision of acceptable medical treatment to transgender children, or ban discussions about gender identity and sexuality in some elementary school classes.

Being caught in the middle of a nationwide controversy has been worrying Kobabe, who has expressed concern about the impact of the ban on young people questioning their identity.

“When you remove these books from the shelf or publicly challenge them in a community, what you say to any young man who recognizes this novel is, ‘We don’t want your story here,'” Cobabe said.

Kobabe, who was raised as a girl, began questioning this identity as a child. Once, during a field trip in the third grade, Kobabe went topless to play in the river, and the teacher scolded him. Once again, Kobabe was secretly delighted when another elementary school kid shouted, “What are you up to, boy or girl?”

Kobabe found solace in drawing, David Bowie songs and fantasy series like “Harry Potter” and “Lord of the Rings”, and developed an liking for both boys and girls.

Puberty was bewildering and shocking. “I don’t want to be a girl. I don’t want to be a boy either. I just want to be myself,” Kobabe wrote in his diary at the age of fifteen.

In 2016, Kobabe began speaking to friends and family as non-binary, and using the gender-neutral pronouns e, eir, and em. Kobabe’s parents, both teachers, were supportive, but also confused at times. To explain what it felt like to be a non-binary person, Kobabe began painting the images that eventually became the basis for “homosexuality.”

Cobabe imagined that the memoir would appeal primarily to young men who also struggled with gender identity, and non-binary friends and family members. The book’s publisher, Lion Forge, marketed it to older teens and adults. But she soon found a younger audience. In 2020, she won the Alex Award, an award given by the American Library Association for books written for adults that have “particular appeal to young adults between the ages of 12 and 18.”

The award has brought to the attention of librarians across the country, who often look to “gender” Like Prizes when you select the books you order. High schools and some middle school libraries across the country have begun stocking them. Currently, on Amazon, it is listed as appropriate for ages 18 and up; On the Barnes & Noble website, it is recommended for readers 15 years of age and older.

One night in September, Kobabe was tagged in an Instagram post with a link to a viral video of an angry mother denouncing the book as pornography at a school board meeting in Fairfax County, Virginia.

“I was like, ‘Okay, this is disappointing and problematic, but I don’t need to pay this my attention,'” Cobabe said. “And then just as snow.”

Several critics of the book have exploited a few scandalous images illustrating Kubabe’s evolving understanding of sexuality and sexuality as a teenager and young adult, including one of Kubabe and his girlfriend experimenting with a strap-on sex toy, and another of Kubabe’s fantasies. About two men having sex.

The book has been banned in dozens of school districts and removed from bookstores across the country, including Alaska, Iowa, Texas and Pennsylvania. In some schools, it was withdrawn proactively, without formal complaint. It became a talking point for prominent Republican officials, including Glenn Youngkin, now the governor of Virginia, Governor Ron DeSantis Florida and South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster, who named it “obscene and pornoand “probably illegal.”

It appeared on a list of books deemed sexually explicit that circulated among members of Moms for Liberty, a non-profit organization founded in 2021 to push for “parental rights in schools” that was helping advance book ban efforts. Pippin first heard about “Gender Queer” when she saw it listed on the group’s Facebook page in October. She said she looked it up in her school library system and found copies in many middle and high schools, including those attended by her 13- and 17-year-olds.

“Any 10- or 17-year-old can look at this book,” Pippin said. “This can harm the kids if they don’t know what’s inside.”

I filed a complaint with the school board, and soon after, the book was removed. After review, it was permanently banned.

In some societies, divisions around “gender” have been deep and painful.

This spring, after a member of Moms For Liberty filed a “Gender Queer” complaint with the Wappingers Central School District in upstate New York, the book was removed from a high school library. Not checked. A panel of teachers, parents, and educators reviewed it, and decided it was inappropriate and should be returned. The supervisor, citing sexually explicit images, vetoed the committee and brought the issue to the school board, which voted unanimously to support the ban.

At a recent school board meeting, a group of students and parents denounced the ban, with one saying the book could be a lifeline for young people exploring gender identity who are not supported by their families. Others described the book as pornographic and inappropriate.

Mandy Zhang, an 11th grade student in the district, said the ban on “homosexuality” sends a harmful message to gay, transgender, and non-binary students.

“People in the LGBTQ+ community and in minority groups are using these books as an outlet, and as a way to connect with the world to feel supported,” Chang said at the school board meeting. “Prohibition of this book silenced these groups, these people, making them feel invalid.”

Zhang began petitioning for the ban to be rescinded, and within a week he had garnered more than 1,000 signatures. She has started a banned book club at her local library and plans to raise funds to purchase and distribute free copies of “Gender Queer.” But in the libraries of her school district, the book is no longer available.