‘Gender Queer’ Author on Efforts to Ban Book, Virginia Suit

Maia Kobabe experienced a sense of relief Tuesday morning. Waking up on the West Coast, an early morning peek at emails revealed a Virginia court had dismissed a lawsuit seeking to label Kobabe’s book Gender Queer It is considered obscene and prohibited from being sold to minors in Virginia. The suit was among the latest in an onslaught of challenges to Kobabe’s memoir, which was the most challenged book of 2021, according to the American Library Association (ALA).

Kobabe uses the e/em/eir verb pronouns in his 2019 illustrated graphic memoir. He discusses how he came out as a nonbinary, asexual person. It won the 2020 ALA Alex Award. These awards are given to books for teens aged 12-18 that appeal to young readers. The Stonewall Book Award-Israel Fishman Non-Fiction Honor Award is awarded to exceptional books that deal with the LGBTQ experience.

GOP legislators have also criticized the book for including explicit images such as depictions of masturbation, and other sexual experiences. Gender QueerIt has been ban in schools districts across the United States and banned from libraries throughout the Country. This was a common talking point for GOP lawmakers like South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster who called the work pornographic said it likely meets “the statutory definition of obscenity.”

In Virginia, Gender Queer and The Court of Mist and Furythe sequel in a fantasy romance series by Sarah J. Maas—were challenged by lawyer and Virginia GOP State Delegate Tim Anderson on behalf of former congressional candidate Tommy Altman. Two Republicans requested that the court declare the books unsuitable for children and prohibit private bookellers selling them to minors. (Maas’ publisher Bloomsbury did not respond to TIME’s request for comment.)

On Tuesday, Virginia Beach Judge Pamela Baskervill ruled that neither book met the current standard of obscenity, and also struck down a portion of Virginia’s decades-old obscenity law.

Anderson told TIME his client was unhappy with Anderson Gender Queer’s “graphic” depictions of some sexual situations and felt it was not appropriate for young people. Anderson said the intention behind the lawsuit was to impose restrictions on Kobabe’s book similar to those on R-rated movies. He says they don’t know if they plan to appeal, but as a lawmaker he is considering pursuing legislation next system to create a rating system on whether books contain sexual material.

Kobabe, 33, isn’t the only author to face serious new challenges to eir material. According to research done by PEN America (a non-profit organization advocating for freedom of expression), 1,145 books from 874 authors were removed from schools libraries and classrooms in the period between July 1, 2021, and March 31, 2022. A majority of those books contained characters or protagonists from other races, while 33% specifically addressed LGBTQ issues. Some LGBTQ advocates claim that Virginia’s lawsuit could be the first of many obscenity lawsuits. This lawsuit could lead to book bans and even restrict the sale of books.

In the wake of Kobabe’s win in Virginia, TIME spoke with the author and illustrator about eir work, the efforts to restrict access to eir writing, and what ey make of the current cultural moment. This interview was edited to be more concise and clear.

TIME: What is your reaction to the Virginia court’s ruling yesterday?

Kobabe: Obviously, I’m relieved. I was pretty confident all along, because it didn’t seem like this case was constitutional. And it didn’t seem as the law was written that my book would fall under the obscene category. I don’t believe that it does. I don’t believe that it should. And I’m very grateful that the judge agreed.

Why did you choose to write Gender Queer?

Gender QueerThis story is about gender identity and sexuality. It also includes how to come out to family members, friends and colleagues. There are many questions about how to use nonbinary pronouns with people unfamiliar. Also, how can you be an example of a nonbinary adult in a school setting such as a classroom?

The reason I wrote the book is that I struggled to find my voice and began asking questions. It was also because of these difficult conversations and those challenging questions. Sometimes it seems that I wasn’t able to convey my points clearly. And I got to the point where I thought, ‘I have to sit down and write about this because I don’t feel like I am getting across verbally what I’m really trying to say.’

Who was the target audience when you created this book? Which age group do you plan to make it available?

My vision of people similar to myself was what I was seeing. The people thinking about gender were most likely either late teens to early 20s. Did they have the same media and language exposures as I had? Who were open to revealing their sexuality to family members, friends and coworkers. For the friends and family of trans and non-binary people coming out.

GOP lawmakers have criticised the inclusion of explicit images, such as depictions and situations of masturbation or sexual relationships, in the book. How do you respond to the criticisms that this book would not be appropriate for schools libraries or young readers to read?

My book is extremely easy to read. While it touches upon the subjects you have mentioned, there are also topics that deal with masturbation, sexual toys and sexual health. Although it’s not mentioned often in scenes where people are worried, the pap smear examination is one of my favorite parts. These things, in my view, are part of everyday life. They are common things we all will face at one time or another in our lives. To me, reading literature is the best way to learn about difficult topics. This book is about me. These are some of the events that took place in my lifetime.

I think it’s really dangerous and unfair to shield young people from things like sex and health and information about their bodies—partly because there is so much misinformation online. It would be better for a teenager to learn about sexuality and sex from a book that has gone through multiple levels of editing and fact-checking, and was written by someone who cares.

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.

What is it that makes your book stand out among all the other queer literature?

It is especially vulnerable because it is graphic novel, and contains illustrations. It is much easier to share an image on social media and make it viral than a screenshot of some prose text. It also means it’s very easy to flip through it and quickly identify pages that perhaps a conservative reader might disagree with.

It may also be due to the title. If you are in a library catalog and you’re searching topics such as gender or sexuality, my book is going to come up very near the top of the results list. Also, honestly speaking out of the truth, it’s possible that my two American Library Association awards may have something to do. All ALA Award winners are supported by librarians. This meant that the book was only available in some public libraries, and a few school libraries. My book was there because I had been generously supported and donated by librarians, even if conservative groups were looking for books to criticize.

Why do you think we’re seeing a rise in laws seeking to restrict challenging books, particularly books with LGBTQ themes, from the classroom?

It is an organized attempt to eliminate trans, queer, and nonbinary voices and views from public sphere. This is linked to the rising number of bills to restrict access to trans-healthcare and to deny transathletes and students the right to play in many sports and other activities at school. It is a dangerous and disturbing effort to make life harder for non-binary people as well as trans persons.

Are you currently working on other projects?

The process is underway to sell my second book. It’s a very satisfying experience, as I was able to write 90% before the new challenges began.

It’s a story that I wrote more in response to early Gender QueerFeedback from parents asking me whether I’d ever make a book for children who are gender nonconforming. While I wasn’t going to shorten my memoir, the idea for a fictional book that covered some of the same subjects came to me. It’s more a middle grade/early YA book, and it’s also a graphic novel.

What can challenged book authors do?

I think it’s important to not lose heart. I think it’s important to keep your energy, keep your strength, and keep your confidence that books really matter and can make a huge difference in people’s lives. You can entertain, comfort, educate, as well as open your eyes to help you feel less isolated in this world.

I think it’s really important that authors not self-censor out of fear of a potential future challenge. I think it’s important that authors both continue to write and let their imagination and creativity be unfettered—but also be engaged and paying attention to current events locally and nationally.

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