In late May, The Virginian-Pilot, a daily newspaper in Norfork, Virginia, published a legal notice in its classifieds section. warn readers that it may become illegal to sell or lend a particular book.
Maia Kobabe’s comic book memoir, “Gender Queer,” had been the subject of an obscenity trial in Virginia Beach, and the judge in the case found probable cause to believe the book was “obscene to unrestricted viewing by minors”.
The moving story of a young man, assigned female at birth and struggling to define his “eir” identity (Kobabe uses the neopronouns e/er/eir), “Gender Queer” has won or been nominated for multiple awards. But his fate in Virginia will be decided by a retired judge, Pamela Baskervill, at the end of August.
It is the latest salvo in a years-long war on gay cartoonists and authors waged by Republicans eager to build support by persecuting and slandering minorities. The plaintiff in Virginia is Tommy Altman, a Republican candidate for the state’s 2nd congressional district, who placed third in a four-way primary in June. But it is, frankly, a little shocking that the case is heard: “Obscene for unrestricted viewing by minors” is not a legal category under any law, state or federal.
Just before Altman filed his lawsuit in May, the Virginia Beach school board voted to have “Gender Queer” removed from libraries for being “pervasively vulgar.” It’s the most contested book of 2021, according to the American Library Association (ALA), knocking Alex Gino’s “George,” a novel about being a transgender child, off 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 ultimately prevail, and the threat of legal action is often more than enough to stop retailers from selling a book anyway.
The ALA’s lists of the most contested books over the decades are illuminating: they display a growing bigotry toward not only real queer people, but also queer characters who could help children discover their own identities. And queer comics – with their inescapable 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 his depravity.) This backlash is perhaps harder on young cartoonists like Kobabe, whose reputations can be damaged in ways that seasoned professionals like Art Spiegelman cannot. This is a significant change: in the previous decade, parents were much more preoccupied with the Harry Potter fantasy novels and “His Dark Materials”, or the anti-war message of “Slaughterhouse-Five”.
That graphic novel storytelling is popular with LGBTQ authors should come as no surprise. Ever since conservative politicians used comics as a scapegoat for juvenile delinquency in the 1950s, the medium has arguably been more hospitable to social outcasts than its more popular cousins, and LGBT creators have been a constant presence in its pages since the 1980s. The popularity of manga has also helped, influencing generations of American artists and introducing them to LGBTQ characters. Comics, frankly, are often just more cheerful than literary fiction or science fiction.
At the same time, no other sector in the world of books is experiencing such constant growth: in the United States, sales of graphic novels have increased 65% in 2021, according to market research firm NPD Group, and it was actually down compared to the previous year, when sales had fully doubled.
The growing cultural cachet of comics is also correlated with greater cultural visibility for gay people – an all-time high of 7.1% of Americans are comfortable identifying as a sexual minority, according to a Gallup poll in February — and this broad tolerance, especially among young people, appears to be fueling a backlash. And who better for conservatives to blame than the degeneration of 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, including “Krause’s List,” a spreadsheet of books according to Texas State Rep. Matt Krause that should be banned in the United States. schools and libraries. (Krause at one point considered running against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.)
The furor over Krause’s list came to a head last November amid the right-wing’s obsession with “critical race theory.” Krause has targeted many authors of color, especially black authors. But overwhelmingly, the books he wanted to ban were about LGBTQ people — almost exactly two-thirds of the books on his list either dealt with LGBTQ characters or were by openly LGBTQ authors, according to an analysis of BookRiot’s 850 books.
For anyone who remembers the gay rights movement of the 1990s, this kind of slander should sound familiar.
In Massachusetts, meanwhile, “Gender Queer” has been pilloried by far-right politician Rayla Campbell, the presumptive Republican nominee for the state’s third-highest office. But Campbell’s campaign has done nothing but denigrate gay and trans people, regularly insinuating that sexual minorities try to use the school system to take advantage of children. For anyone who remembers the gay rights movement of the 1990s, this kind of slander should sound familiar.
Barring a little black magic, Campbell will lose in the general election to William F. Galvin, who has served as Commonwealth Secretary since 1995.
This is of course retrograde, cruel and dystopian. Queer comics should be celebrated, especially when they help young people learn to accept themselves. Kobabe’s memoirs will go to court in late August, but we should be happy about that now. More than just a memoir of self-discovery, it contrasts gratifyingly with Kobabe’s predecessors, which often featured characters preoccupied with ostracism and loneliness.
In “Gender Queer”, Kobabe implies that others can – and should – be free to experience their own version of freedom. Altman, Campbell, Krause and their ilk would love to bring back a world where that is not possible. But we read that story, and it’s over now.