Maia Kobabe on ‘Gender Queer; : NPR

Gender Queer cover.

This discussion with Maia Kobabe is part of a series of interviews with — and essays by – authors who have their books challenged and banned in the United States

Author Maia Kobabe explores gender identity in 2019 graphic memoir Gender Queerwhich is centered on coming out to friends and family.

“I kind of wrote it for an audience that I knew, loved and supported me, knew me and was very sympathetic to me,” Kobabe told NPR. “And I think that allowed me to write without, really, fear.”

Kobabe grew up in Northern California. In the book’s illustrated panels, readers discover that Kobabe felt physically different from an early age but unable to openly express it. The book has been hailed in some circles for the way it talks about identity – but it has also drawn plenty of scolding from people who cite its sexually explicit nature and the illustrations. Gender Queer has been banned from shelves in more states than any other book.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Feel different as a child

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 were a lot fewer people speaking out publicly. And I felt for so many years – I was like, I just feel like there’s stuff going on with me about gender. I can’t decide if I’m a girl who feels a bit 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, or, like, I’m I’m a lesbian? It was just very confusing. And I kept feeling like I was trying on clothes that didn’t fit me. And it was just – the biggest kind of concern of my teenage years and early twenties was just this… what am I? Where do I fit into all of this?

About traumatic experiences, such as a yearly gynecological exam

One of the things I sometimes hear from female cis readers is, “Thank you so much for writing how hard it was for you because it’s really hard for me too, and I don’t hear nobody ever talks about it”. …And I’ve had readers who never struggled with their gender or questioned their gender really relate to that part of the book. And also some things about, like, periods and kind of shaming around periods and all of those things aren’t just for people who question their gender. But, yes, the Pap exam scenes – there are two in the book – they were hard to write. Those are kind of the only scenes that when I sat down at my desk to draw them, I thought to myself, I don’t want to have to live in that memory anymore for how long it’s going to take me to draw those pages. It’s an unpleasant experience to go through that again. I mean, half of it is kind of like psychological. I don’t like being reminded of this part of my body. And half is just literal physical pain.

On her lesbian aunt’s reaction to her coming out

You know, he was the first person I really got to know very closely who came out as queer. So when I was coming out as non-binary, I assumed, OK, cool, all my extended family would get it the most. She will support me immediately. She will support me immediately. And then it ended up not quite being the case. But I think that’s partly because when she came out as a specifically lesbian feminist, it was a real shift towards women, towards femininity, towards centering on women as most important relationships of his life, both romantic but also sort of, like, political. Like, I vote as a woman. I move politically in the world as a woman.

And I think the idea that I was doing something that, to her, felt like a rejection of femininity was really, really difficult because she felt like, well, women are, like, the best thing in the world. And being a woman is very joyful and festive and wonderful. And it brought me friendships, community, family, and very important things in his life. And I think when I first came out I wasn’t saying that femininity doesn’t have value or that femininity isn’t as valuable and wonderful – an important thing to be and celebrate and find of the force. I was just saying, like, this is a really nice gift that was given to me, but it doesn’t fit. And because of that, I’m going to drop it.

If the level of anger directed at the book was anticipated

I prepared myself a little for that. But when the book came out, what he initially encountered was just an absolute outpouring of love and support. And the pushback only happened at the end of 2021. And at that time, I think what surprised me the most was when it happened – and then also its level, then its longevity.

On the book review

I drew as much as I felt I needed to tell the story I was trying to tell and get across the points I was trying to get across. And I honestly think the book is a lot less self-explanatory than it could be or would have been had it been written by a different author. The subject of gender touches on identity and touches on sexuality, and it touches on all of those things. And it’s hard to fully explain, I think, how a gender identity can impact every facet of life as an adult without touching at least a little on sexuality. And so I wanted to not be afraid of that.

Claire Murashima produced the broadcast version of this story. Meghan Collins Sullivan edited this story for the web.


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