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Opinion: The controversy over “Gender Queer” masks a bigger problem. Is it a true memoir? (Explicit)

By Monica Chen

As parents around the country have called for the banning of “Gender Queer: A Memoir” over explicit images, the media has painted it as a fight of conservative parents against LGBT people wanting to live freely.

But the parents’ concerns about the book just scratch the surface. “Gender Queer” as a memoir does not add up.

First, my opinion is that parents are right to be concerned about the explicit images “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” by Maia Kobabe.

Yes, it should be banned for those images. Here is that scene from the book:

This steps over the line from normal levels of sensuality and sex in books to something more explicit that you can’t find in a regular bookstore.

Kobabe, 31, based in San Francisco, has said the book is meant to help queer kids come to terms with themselves.

That is false. Teenage girls do not have to look at images of their genitalia in books in libraries, especially school libraries, and somehow, they grow up fine. In fact, it would be more traumatizing than beneficial for girls to see that in a library. So why would it be different for gay kids?

Briefly on the pronouns

Kobabe actually figured out the answer to her questions fairly young. She was 14 when she discovered that she is asexual. She does not stick with that answer and keeps questioning her sexuality, only to find time and time again, she is asexual. 

Then, in 2017, she decides upon new pronouns, “e, eim, eir.” But an asexual woman is still a woman. There is nothing wrong with “she, her, hers.” 

Everything else wrong with “Gender Queer”

“I feel like my book in particular has been caught up in a viral social media moment because it’s a comic, because you can snap a pic of one panel you disagree with and share it completely removed from context of the rest of the book, it gets shared without people ever seeing the book or reading the whole thing,” Kobabe said to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat recently.

That’s true. That one explicit scene felt out of place in “Gender Queer.” The context of the rest of the book is that it browbeats the reader, has no emotional arc and feels deeply false.

Far from being “heartfelt,” as reviews have called it, this book reads like propaganda: “This is how you live, think and feel if you want to be a good gay person.” 

It manages the reader to look at only what the author wants you to see, and misdirects the reader.

Kobabe, 31, grew up in Santa Rosa, then went to school in San Francisco and is currently based there. The book runs the span of 1992 to 2017. A good chunk of time to be exploring your sexuality.

The story begins with a run-of-the-mill scene with her parents and then immediately takes a turn. The reader is made to think Kobabe has a secret that’s so big, she can’t stand using it as a writing prompt in graduate school. Then, she describes an idyllic childhood on 120 acres of land and hints overwhelmingly that something bad happened to her. Why the images of pee and snakes? What’s going on with Galen? (Spoiler: There is no secret. Nothing hurt her. Nothing happened with Galen.)

Along the way, the book then keeps dropping hints that something went awry in Kobabe’s childhood. The reader picks up these little tidbits: When she was 11 years old, she still didn’t know how to read. When she was 18, she still didn’t know how to type. 

How are her parents always so financially stable and have time to discuss her sexuality with her on long walks? Why does she keep acting like it’s forbidden in California in the Aughts to come out as whatever she wanted — in ultra-liberal Sonoma County and San Francisco? And how does a grad student have time to write that much One Direction fanfiction?

These things are never explained. Those tidbits never add up to anything else. But the details start adding up to a strange picture that Kobabe goes out of her way to paint: “Gender Queer” feels like it takes place in a shorter time frame than 25 years. The story also hovers in a space above the context of real life, untouched by world events.

And why does this self-portrait feel like a deliberate mix of people from the ’90s?

There are too many questions with the basic story of the book. But the biggest problem that clues the reader in to how false this book is, is one scene from 2017.

The March for Trans Rights

In a book of bad moments, one of the worst was when Kobabe goes to a Trans Rights March and out of sheer self-absorption, decides to make it about herself. 

For most of the book before that, she insisted on wearing the drab clothes and discussed with and browbeat her family and friends into giving her exactly what she wants. Then, suddenly after seeing trans people, she didn’t want them anymore.

So she went to the march not to support trans people and for community but — for competition?

The problem with this scene is bigger than even that. 

When Kobabe wrote that she went to a march in the spring of 2017, was she talking about this march in Santa Rosa that was attended mostly by people who were not trans? Or was she talking about the one in San Francisco that she went to, and posted images from on social media?

That was also not the first time she went to a trans rights march. Kobabe was not the shy outsider looking for community and acceptance like she portrayed herself.  

And was she ever a drab dresser? 

Kobabe has misrepresented herself too much in this book that’s a memoir. Far from being an outsider with maybe a secret and maybe some trauma from childhood like she keeps hinting at, Kobabe on social media looks successful and has a supportive, accepting community at every step of her life.

And yet in 2018, when Kobabe was interviewed about this book’s upcoming release, she said:

“I built the outline of this book by paging through 14 years of high school and college journals and pulling out everything I felt like I could never say,” said Kobabe to The Hollywood Reporter.

There were things Kobabe couldn’t say? The entire book is about how much Kobabe talks to everyone around her about her sexuality!

The organizations boosting Kobabe after “Gender Queer” was published ignore these very obvious problems. 

The Michigan nonprofit Stand For Trans gave “Gender Queer” a glowing review and made her a featured speaker for Trans Empowerment Month, even though she is not trans. “Gender Queer is Maia’s intensely cathartic autobiography that charts eir journey of self-identity. … All eir stories are heartfelt, deeply honest, raw and personal, yet also told with good humor and Maia’s wonderful graphic art.” 

In 2019, the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco conveniently cropped out the words on a panel to feature Kobabe in a book signing for the trans rights march that year.

Why do these organizations, as well as the publishing industry and the media, continue to ignore these obvious questions and glaring discrepancies about this book and its author? Why did The Washington Post give Kobabe space to write a rebuttal to parents but has never reviewed the book?

And if this one scene looks to be false, what else in the book did not happen? How much in “Gender Queer” is a memoir, and how much is embellishments? 

The parents’ concerns about the explicit sex scene is right, and those instincts point to much bigger problems with this book. I think that “Gender Queer” has so many problems, it never should have been published. 

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