Gender Queer – An Intensely Personal Memoir Of Self-Discovery

by Richard Bruton

There’s a tremendous bravery in this sort of memoir, where Maia Kobabe struggles with gender felt from an early age, a struggle that’s related honestly, compassionately, empathetically, and manages to be all things to all who read it. Gender Queer is a book that’s eminently readable, informative without ever being preachy, and perhaps best and most valuable of all, could be the book that speaks to another young person struggling with their gender identity. This really is the most wonderful book.

From the youngest age, Maia is confused and unsure of gender identity, despite growing up in what seems like the most loving and supportive family unit, with both mother and father non-conformists. But even in the most open of families, Maia can’t feel comfortable, and the idea of gender identity is always there, whether it’s the little boy next door dressing up in one of Maia’s dresses or another load of boys not letting Maia play because she’s a girl.
Maia deliberately chooses to be as non-gendered as possible, which leads to trouble at school and is something young Maia will struggle with for the entire length of Gender Queer, with nothing summing up the issues faced than this simple quote…

I don’t want to be a girl. I don’t want to be a boy either. I just want to be myself.

We follow Maia through a painful puberty, where periods and breasts are something hideous and hateful, a growing body betraying the idea of not wanting to be a girl.

There are some brutally honest and painful moments here, captured perfectly, the sort of things that make your heart go out to this poor confused young person. Whether it’s something seemingly minor, such as the leg hair issue, or something far more serious, such as the courage to come out to friends and family, despite not truly knowing what to come out as.
We see it through Maia’s life here, where there are crushes on both boys and girls and Maia just can’t work out why, looking up “gay” and “lesbian” in a dictionary, Maia’s only question is “What am I?” Later on, as ideas of bisexuality or transgender identity are brought up, it serves only to cause Maia more pain, never truly being able to feel comfortable with any box to fit into.
There are so many moments of heartbreak in here, as Maia struggles so much, not knowing the questions to ask, never comfortable with a body that seemingly does nothing but cause pain and betrays the ideas of who Maia wants to be. There are brutally honest moments, such as the intense fear, not to mention pain of a pap smear, or the slowly growing knowledge that sex is something Maia just feels uncomfortable with, or at least with gender-conforming sex.

But for every moment of heartache, there’s also plenty of moments to feel hope, in fact, such is the empathy that Gender Queer elicits, that I found myself getting emotional with every positive step. Every moment of happiness on the page lifted my spirits, such as the discovery of reading, particularly delighting in comics and Manga, with mentions of Terry Moore’s Strangers in Paradise, Ranma 1/2, Gaiman’s Sandman and much more. Maia becomes a voracious reader, a writer of fan fiction, all of which act as a mental lifejacket, something to escape into, sometimes the only thing to save her.
As Maia gets older, you celebrate every moment of moving forward. Such as this particularly wonderful time in freshman year where Maia gets up the courage to join the Queer-Straight Alliance…
It’s a glorious, inclusive moment, both from the couldn’t care less attitude of Maia’s friends to the welcoming embrace of the QSA…

And then best of all, Maia’s feeling of acceptance, so perfectly done here as to bring a tear to my eye as I read it…

But even with these positive moves forward, the questions go on and on, Maia just can’t feel happy, not in body or in mind. But Maia’s sister, out queer, stylish, fashionable, always knows Maia more than Maia, and puts it so perfectly, so simply, and it’s yet another moment of acceptance, allowing Maia to move forward just that little bit more.

As you will have no doubt gathered, I loved Gender Queer. It’s got a lightness of tone in the art, with Maia drawing simply yet expressively, something essential when dealing with these complex issues, but also essential for engagement with a young, questioning audience who could find this to be the book that could change their lives.
It filled me with hope for both Maia’s future and with a future for us all. It educates us to treat people as they wish to be treated, shows us that seemingly minor things, such as personal pronouns (Maia prefers Spivak based pronouns, e/em/eir), can be the difference between making a person feel respected and valued and causing great personal pain.

The story is far from over, as the ending shows us that Maia knows there’s a long way to go, but the journey Maia takes us on is something I felt honoured that was shared with us.
And when you read Gender Queer, as you undoubtedly should, you will feel exactly the same.
Gender Queer – A Memoir – by Maia Kobabe, colors by Phoebe Kobabe, published by Lion Forge

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