by Kylie Chen (’24) | October 7, 2022
“Books unite us. Censorship divides us.” These six words were the theme for the American Library Association’s (ALA) 2021 Banned Books week, and they have become especially important in the past couple years, as an increasing number of books are being banned in the United States. According to the ALA, over 1500 books were challenged or removed last year, the majority of which were written by or about Black or LGBTQIA+ people.
Banned by 138 school districts in 32 states, Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer was ranked as the most banned book of 2021 by ALA and PEN America. The graphic memoir follows Kobabe through eir exploration of eir gender identity (e identifies as nonbinary and uses the Spivak pronouns e, em, and eir), as well as eir struggle to define eir sexuality. Since its release in May of 2019, the novel has won multiple awards and distinctions, including the Alex Award and the Stonewall Book Award from ALA. So why was it the most banned book of 2021?
In interviews with The Texas Tribune, Kathy May, a mother of four, challenged the memoir by highlighting its “sexually explicit illustrations” as “sick and disgust[ing].” Republican politicians have said the same, categorizing the book as “pornographic.” In a recent, now dismissed Virginia case which aimed to limit the book’s sales, these politicians argued that it violated the state’s obscenity law. In an interview with Time magazine, Kobabe responded to these comments, saying, “If you read my book, you will discover that it is unbelievably tame.” E then adds, “I don’t necessarily think my book is for all age groups, but in my opinion, it is appropriate for readers of high school age and above.”
Having read the book myself, I am inclined to agree—there are a few parts of the book that contain sexual content and would not be appropriate for young children. However, none of the content was anywhere close to warranting the extreme language its challengers used to describe it.
Instead, this book banning—as well as the banning of other books—seems to be more about furthering a political agenda. Kobabe echoed this sentiment in eir interview, saying, “I think it is a very organized effort to erase trans and queer and nonbinary voices from the public sphere. And I see it as linked to also the rise in bills trying to limit access to trans healthcare, and limit the rights of trans athletes and trans students to access various activities and sports in school.”
Kobabe’s statements about erasing LGBTQIA+ voices are supported by numbers. According to a data snapshot from PEN America, 41% of their list of 1648 challenged books were banned because of LGBTQIA+ aspects, such as themes, protagonists, or prominent secondary characters. Additionally, by scrolling through ALA’s list of the top 10 most banned books for each year, one can see that many are banned for “LGBTQIA+ content.”
When asked about who Gender Queer was written for, Kobabe said, “I think I was really envisioning people like myself.” Later on in the interview, e added, “or for the family and friends of nonbinary and trans people who are coming out.”
Book banning doesn’t just affect LGBTQIA+ authors—it also hurts LGBTQIA+ youth. Representation in media is so important, especially for young people in the LGBTQIA+ community who may be struggling to find their identities. Kobabe touches on this multiple times in eir memoir, discussing how when e first saw queer people represented in books, sports, and even fan fiction, e was inspired to express emself and eir identity. For em, and many others, seeing emself in media gave em the validation e needed to be comfortable with eir identity. Taking that representation away will only cause more suffering and insecurity for people in the LGBTQIA+ community. As Kobabe said in eir interview, “[the rise in book bans is] a very dangerous and upsetting effort to make it harder for trans people and nonbinary and queer people to live.”
Books are important because they offer a wide variety of perspectives that we can all learn from. However, by banning books like Gender Queer, we invalidate stories like Kobabe’s and erase stories that allow people to both find themselves and learn to accept others.