In late May, The Virginian-Pilot, a Norfork, Virginia newspaper, posted a legal notice in the classified section warn readers that it may become illegal to sell or lend a particular book.
Maia Kobabe’s comic memoir, ‘Gender Queer’, was… the subject of an obscenity case in Virginia Beachand the judge in the case found probable reason to believe the book was “obscene for unrestricted viewing by minors.”
The poignant story of a youngster, assigned a woman at birth, who struggles to define ‘eir’ identity (Kobabe uses e/er/eir neopronouns), “Gender Queer” has won or nominated several awards. But his fate in Virginia will be determined by… a retired judge, Pamela Baskervill, in late August.
This is the latest salvo in an arguably years-long war against queer cartoonists and authors, waged by Republicans eager to bolster their support by persecuting and defaming minorities. The complainant in Virginia is… Tommy Altman, a Republican nominee for the state’s 2nd congressional district, who placed third in a quadruple primary in June. But it’s honestly a little shocking that the case is being addressed at all: “Oobscene for unrestricted viewing by minors” is not a legal category in any law, state or federal.
Just before Altman filed his charges in May, Virginia Beach School Board Voted ‘Gender Queer’ removed from libraries because it’s “vulgar through and through”. It is the most challenged book of 2021, according to the American Library Association (ALA), which removed Alex Gino’s “George,” a novel about being a transgender child, from the list for the first time in five years since its publication. Altman’s case is absurd, but that doesn’t mean he won’t win in the end, and the threat of legal action is often more than enough to keep retailers from carrying a book after all.
The ALA’s lists of the most challenged books of recent decades are illuminating: they show a growing bigotry toward not only true queer people, but queer characters who could help children discover their own identities. And queer comics – with their inevitable images of marginalized people – are regularly targeted, often by conservative influencers and even lawmakers. (Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters recently tweeted a deceptively redacted illustration of “Gender Queer” as supposed evidence of its depravity.) This reaction is perhaps harshest on young cartoonists like Kobabe, whose reputation can be damaged in ways that seasoned professionals like Art Spiegelman’s can not. This is an important shift: During the previous decadeparents were much more concerned with the fantasy novels of Harry Potter and “His Dark Materials”, or the anti-war message of “Slaughterhouse-Five”.
It’s no surprise that telling graphic novels is popular with LGBTQ authors. Since conservative politicians used comics as a scapegoat for juvenile delinquency in the 1950s, the medium was arguably more welcoming to social outcasts than its more popular cousins, and LGBT creators have been a constant presence on its pages since the 1980s. The popularity of manga has also helped, and has influenced generations of American artists and introducing them to LGBTQ characters. Comics, frankly, are often just gayer than literary fiction or sci-fi.
At the same time, no other sector of the book world is growing so consistently: in the US, sales of graphic novels upwards 65% in 2021according to the market research firm the NPD Group, and that was actually down from last year, when sales fully doubled.
Comics’ growing cultural cachet also correlates with greater cultural visibility for gays — a record high of 7.1% of Americans feel comfortable identifying as a sexual minority, according to a Gallup poll in February — and that wide tolerance, especially among the young, seems to be setting off a backlash. And who better to blame conservatives than degeneration in popular culture.
Kobabe’s book, for example, has turned into a very useful target for GOP propaganda. “Gender Queer” regularly appears on lists of books that right-wing lawmakers find offensive, most notably “Krause’s List,” a spreadsheet of books that Texas state representative Matt Krause says should be banned from schools and libraries. (Krause ever considered run against controversial Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.)
Anger over Krause’s list peaked last November amid the then-right wing’s obsession with “critical race theory.” Krause targeted numerous authors of color, especially black authors. But the vast majority of the books he wanted to ban were about LGBTQ people — almost exactly two-thirds of the books on his list were about LGBTQ characters or by overtly LGBTQ authors, according to one analysis of the 850 books by BookRiot.
To anyone who remembers the gay rights movement in the 1990s, this kind of slander sounds familiar.
In Massachusetts, meanwhile, “Gender Queer” has been pilloried by the far-right politician Rayla Campbell, the presumptive Republican nominee for the state’s third-highest office. But Campbell’s campaign has done little more than denigrate gay and transgender people, regularly insinuating that sexual minorities are trying to use the school system to abuse children. To anyone who remembers the gay rights movement in the 1990s, this kind of slander sounds familiar.
Barring some dark magic, Campbell will lose in the general election to William F. Galvin, who has been the Secretary of the Commonwealth since 1995. But huge damage has already been done by the broader censorship-focused focus on “Gender Queer” and other books about strange characters.
This is, of course, retarded, cruel and dystopian. Queer comics should be celebrated, especially if they help young people accept themselves. Kobabe’s memoirs will appear in court at the end of August, but we can be happy about that now. More than just a memoir of self-discovery, it stands in satisfying contrast to Kobabe’s predecessors, which often featured characters preoccupied with exile and loneliness.
In “Gender Queer”, Kobabe implies that others can – and should – be free to discover their own version of freedom. Altman, Campbell, Krause and their ilk are eager to bring back a world where that is not possible. But we’ve read that story and it’s over now.