Pushing Us Back Into The Closet: Banned Books Edition

by | May 27, 2022 | GayRVA

Two prominent Virginia Republicans are trying to have Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer declared obscene and prohibited to be sold or lended to minors. Is it really obscene, though, or is it the graphic memoir’s open and unapologetic depiction of nonbinary identities and experiences that’s the issue? We decided to see for ourselves.

Last week, the Washington Post ran a story about two Virginia Republicans attempting to have two books declared obscene and prohibited from being sold to minors. The books in question were Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer and Sarah J. Maas’s A Court Of Mist And Fury.

While I wasn’t familiar with Maas’s book, the inclusion of Gender Queer in this lawsuit struck a familiar note. Gender Queer, a memoir discussing author Maia Kobabe’s gradual discovery, understanding, and embracing of eir identity as nonbinary and asexual, has sparked controversy elsewhere in Virginia. After a public outcry from parents in Loudoun County who claimed that the book featured depictions of pedophilia, Loudoun County Public Schools removed the book from its library system. Meanwhile, the Fairfax County’s Public School system responded to similar complaints by reviewing the graphic novel and deciding to keep it on its shelves.

The current objection comes from a different part of the state; the two Republicans suing to have Gender Queer and A Court Of Mist And Fury not only removed from school library shelves but also prohibited for sale to minors at the local Barnes & Noble are: Tim Anderson, the Republican Delegate representing Virginia’s 83rd district (which includes part of Norfolk), and Tommy Altman, who is currently competing with three other candidates for the Republican nomination to run for US Congress in Virginia’s 2nd district (which includes not only Virginia Beach but also Williamsburg, Yorktown, Poquoson, and the entire Eastern Shore… but not Newport News, Hampton, Norfolk, or Chesapeake. Why, Virginia, why?). If Altman wins his primary, he’ll face incumbent Democrat Elaine Luria on the ballot in November.

So yes, for at least one of these Republicans, this is an election year, and one could assume that the campaign against Gender Queer and A Court Of Mist And Fury is at least partly motivated by the need to drum up some political heat in the run-up to first a primary and then a general election. In fact, it is Altman, who will be competing in a Republican primary in less than a month, who has filed the lawsuit, while Anderson is merely acting as his legal representation. But I’ll let you decide how to interpret all that.

For now, some facts: the goal of Altman’s lawsuit is to prohibit distribution of both books to readers under 18 without their parents’ consent. Last week, Virginia Beach Public Schools voted to remove both books from school libraries, and Altman’s latest move in the ongoing lawsuit has been to request a temporary restraining order that would prohibit Barnes & Noble from selling the books to minors. Whether this would apply only in Virginia Beach or throughout the state of Virginia is unclear.

Altman’s basis for requesting the restraining order is a ruling by retired (but still issuing rulings, apparently) judge Pamela Baskervill, issued last week, that found “probable cause” that both books qualify as obscene. This finding allows Altman to request the restraining order under a little-used Virginia obscenity law last used in the 1970s to restrict sales of pornography.

Anderson, at least, seems to consider Gender Queer and A Court Of Mist And Fury to be as objectionable as pornography. “These books … are hypersexual and have extreme vulgar and sexual content in them,” he said, as reported by the Washington Post. “Tommy Altman is a father, he has kids in the public school system, and that’s what this is all about.”

Is it? I had to wonder. After all, Gender Queer has the dubious distinction of being the most challenged book in the United States last year (“challenged” means that someone attempted to ban or restrict the sale or lending of the book, whether or not they succeeded in obtaining the ban or restriction they sought). Describing the reasons it was challenged, the Washington Post’s Hannah Natanson wrote that the book “includes graphic sexual scenes, including a depiction of oral sex and masturbation as well as a sex toy. Parents have criticized it for these scenes and for one panel of the story that shows a sexual fantasy of the author’s in which an apparently teenage youth is about to engage in fellatio with an older, bearded man. Parents have called this scene pedophilia.”

Whenever people start talking this way about a work of LGBTQ literature, I get skeptical. I’ve openly identified as a member of the LGBTQ community for over three decades, and I’ve heard a lot of uncharitable, bad-faith readings of LGBTQ art and culture over that time. I didn’t want to just take the Post’s word for it that this novel contained all of these supposedly objectionable things. So I hunted down a copy of Gender Queer, and I read it myself.

Before I tell you what I learned, I would like to take this moment to discuss Maia Kobabe’s pronouns. The pronouns Kobabe uses are explained in detail in Gender Queer, and you may have noticed me using them at a few prior points in this article. Those pronouns, e/em/eir, are what’s known as Spivak pronouns, and while it would be fair to refer to them as “neo-pronouns,” they actually date back to the late 19th century, when they were used in an article by a writer named James Rogers. They also appear in a 1920 science fiction novel by David Lindsay called A Voyage To Arcturus. The mathemetician for whom this set of pronouns was eventually named, Michael Spivak, used the pronouns in a 1983 book about programming higher math concepts (or something like that — I couldn’t even understand the Wikipedia summary) called The Joy Of TeX. It is the form of Spivak pronouns, first used by Michael Spivak and popularized on the early online forum LambdaMOO, that Maia Kobabe uses. It is with this set of pronouns that I have referred to em throughout this article.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about what is actually in Gender Queer. This full-length graphic memoir delves in detail into Kobabe’s experience of gender, beginning in eir early childhood and running through the present day. As the narrative reaches Kobabe’s adolescence, it does discuss eir experiences with masturbation, though this is only a very minor portion of the narrative, and doesn’t go into any more detail than the Judy Blume novels Deenie and Then Again Maybe I Won’t, both of which I checked out of my middle school library in the late 80s (I’m betting they’re still in public school libraries throughout the commonwealth to this day).

Maia Kobabe, photo by Tristan Crane.

The scene described as a preparation for fellatio, and as pedophilia, comes at a point about two-thirds of the way through the novel, when Kobabe was beginning to awaken to the fact that e might be asexual. The page begins with a caption that reads, in part, “…my ability to become aroused was governed by a strict law of diminishing returns.” The next panel then depicts Kobabe having what e describes as “an elaborate fantasy based on Plato’s Symposium,” featuring a gold and black image clearly modeled on classical images of Plato’s Symposium. And while one of the characters is bearded while the other is not, there’s no obvious indication of an age difference between them, so where the “pedophilia” accusation comes from is beyond me.

Where images of Plato’s Symposium are concerned, one 5th Century BCE image from a Greek cup (see below) shows scantily clad characters serenading one another with flutes. The characters may not have their genitals exposed, as they do in Kobabe’s illustration, but there is some implication of foreplay. Coupled with the fact that many of us remember seeing ancient art featuring nude men with exposed and sometimes engorged genitalia (such as this circa 500 BCE Greek terracotta amphora) in academic contexts, it seems obvious that the depiction Kobabe creates of this fantasy is a bit of an in-joke aimed at history nerds — and anyone who took remembers the way these representations, which seem incongruously sexual to modern eyes, would sometimes show up in high school history textbooks.

A symposium scene on a 5th century BCE Greek cup currently housed in the State Antiquities Collection in Munich, Germany. Source: Wikimedia

Of course, there’s also the fact that the remainder of this page in Gender Queer is devoted to a caption that reads, “The more I had to interact with my genitals, the less likely I was to reach a point of any satisfaction. The best fantasy was one that didn’t require any physical touch at all.” Are these legislators really this tuned up over a scene that endorses NOT masturbating?

In the same vein, the scene featuring a sex toy involves the character having an unfulfilling and if anything slightly repulsive experience with a vibrator, and ultimately washing it off and giving it to eir sister.

As for the oral sex scene, I admit it: there is oral sex — assuming a woman going down on a strap-on being worn by a non-binary person counts as oral sex. It counts as something, that’s for sure. And it probably shouldn’t be something shown to middle grade readers. However, this sort of thing is not something I’d consider problematic for high school students who are certainly old enough to discuss similar acts in the context of high school health classes.

On the whole, I would encourage any reader attempting to parse the dialogue and objections happening around this book in particular to read the whole thing. Seeing screen shots bouncing around Twitter or Facebook robs you of the necessary context to understand the full point of the book, and might make something look really bad that seems relatively healthy and normal in context.

Indeed, speaking to Northern Virginia Magazine, Kobabe expressed a similar sentiment. “The first thing I always say is, please read the whole book before you judge it,” e said. “So many of the people who started challenges against my book said, ‘I haven’t actually read it, but…’ Please read it! It’s not very long; seriously you can probably read the whole book in about an hour. Reading it will give you a deeper understanding of why I decided to include images of queer sexuality and reproductive health. They are part of the story but they are not the whole story — the whole story is about how hard it is to live without the language to express your identity, and how powerful it is to find that language and to be seen as you truly are.”

If anything, I think that’s actually the problem a lot of people have. I personally found Gender Queer to be a great read, relatable and fun without shying away from serious and complicated issues. By the time I’d finished it, I concluded that the real problem parents have with this book is not the fact that it contains light sexual content, of a sort only slightly more graphic than what they themselves may have encountered reading Their Eyes Were Watching God or The Catcher In The Rye when they were in high school. I think the problem is that the content is persistently, unapologetically queer. This is a book in which a person questions the gender e was assigned at birth, the sexuality e is expected by society to display, and the very idea that gender and sexuality even fit into the binary paradigm we too often expect them to fit into. This is the kind of thought process a lot of parents still don’t want to allow their children to have.

Towards the end of Gender Queer, there’s a scene that feels ironic in the current context. About to teach a single-day workshop on comics, Kobabe is overcome with anxiety over whether to discuss eir pronouns with the schoolchildren e will be teaching. “Should I introduce myself … using my pronouns?” e thinks. “I wish I didn’t fear that my identity was too political for a classroom.” Later in the same scene, after having decided not to discuss eir pronouns, e looks around the classroom and thinks, “I wonder if any of these kids are trans or nonbinary, but don’t have words for it yet? How many of them have never seen a nonbinary adult? Is my silence actually a disservice to all of them?”

The scene ends on a positive note, with Kobabe deciding that next time, for sure, e will come out to eir students. Which makes it all the more bitterly ironic that the fears e express in that scene, of angry parents banishing em from the classroom over eir gender identity, have come true — if not for em directly, certainly for eir graphic novel.

[Author’s note: I didn’t actually read A Court Of Mist And Fury, the other book being challenged in this legal action. It has no LGBTQ-related content (indeed, I found a fan blog complaining about this very fact), so it was somewhat beyond the scope of GayRVA’s mission anyway. However, considering how out of proportion I found the objections to Gender Queer once I read it, I wouldn’t be surprised if the complaints about this book were similarly overblown.]

Top Image: art by Maia Kobabe, from Gender Queer

Marilyn Drew Necci

Marilyn Drew Necci

GayRVA editor-in-chief, RVA Magazine editor for print and web. Anxiety expert, proud trans woman, happily married.

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