Managing a Misdirected Memoir: Why Gender Queer Is Far Too Mature for Its Audience

In a world where America’s youth can access any information they want online, targeting and corrupting impressionable minds is easier than ever. So why should we promote it here at Bishop’s?

Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer: A Memoir was the most banned book in the nation in 2022. The memoir, written in comic form, details the trials that Kobabe (e/em/eir) faced growing up as a queer youth. With pages full of color, creativity, and explicit content, Kobabe explores concepts like gender, sexuality, dating, and even sex through the lens of eir own life experiences. Over the 2021-2022 school year, Gender Queer had been banned in over 41 school districts across the nation on account of sexually explicit text and imagery, with many parents arguing that providing access to such material to middle schoolers should not be allowed.

The censorship of the book has touched us here at Bishop’s as well; earlier this school year, Head of School Mr. Ron Kim notified the Bishop’s community that Gender Queer would only be available in the library upon request. The book was removed from the shelves in response to concerned seventh-grade parents who discovered that their kids were texting pictures of the explicit frames in the memoir to each other. This decision by the administration has led to some controversy in the school about the censorship of the book.

 Kobabe wrote Gender Queer to help kids facing similar struggles understand how to deal with their gender identity. In a world where there is limited information on the subject, the book is clearly an excellent resource for confused children and an important text to teach in the right educational setting. However, it must continue to be restricted, specifically by age, in order to protect the innocence of childhood and the integrity of our school libraries as places providing age-appropriate information.

My main concern with the memoir is not the information itself, but instead the way it is presented. Kobabe certainly offers explicit or graphic experiences, but that alone does not make the book completely bannable in my eyes. Many parts of eir story are not appropriate for the entire “12 through 18” year old age group that the memoir is recommended for by the American Library Association, and surely not appropriate for the age group that eir writing style caters to. Yes, most high schoolers at Bishop’s probably have the emotional and pubescent maturity to safely handle the details that Kobabe describes, but to be freely providing kids who are just entering middle school with this information is out of the question. A book whose target audience is that far removed from the maturity level of the information has no place being promoted in a school library, especially for young kids who could be confused or harmed by Kobabe’s particular negative experiences with the natural processes of growing up.

The Bishop’s Library Collection Management and Reconsideration Policies claim that the library only accepts books that, “are appropriate for the social, emotional, and intellectual development of The Bishop’s School community.” There are a few scenes in Kobabe’s memoir that make it clear that the material is not appropriate for the younger members of our Bishop’s community. The worst examples of this overly explicit content include a full-page description of one of eir sex toys, a close-up scene of oral sex, and a sexting exchange with highly explicit verbiage. If it’s not clear how these sexually explicit scenes are not appropriate for middle schoolers and the younger portion of our community, let me lay it out for you. While this information may not seem too explicit for high school students, particularly Juniors and Seniors, it has the potential to be damaging for those coming into middle school. Early exposure to this level of explicit content and language could easily lead to porn abuse or even addiction in younger kids. We can’t restrict what kids look up on their own time at home, but we can restrict their introduction to material that might inspire them to explore topics they may not be prepared to handle.

There are also the dangers of how Kobabe’s negative experiences could affect kids who are figuring these natural things out on their own. E describes nightmares about eir period and labels eir visit to the gynecologist as “a wave of psychological horror,” including pictures of em stabbed through the abdomen by a giant needle. These events that are so awful to em are a natural part of growing up and developing for women. If young girls who have not yet experienced these things for themselves read and believe in Kobabe’s descriptions as the truth, their outlook on their own bodies and processes is going to be harmed before they even decide for themselves, which could lead to confusion or even depression. The developmental process and discovering one’s own identity is a critical stage in life, and it should be undergone without negative experiences like Kobabe’s affecting kids’ views of themselves. While the entire book isn’t necessarily overly explicit, we can’t only ban the parts that are, so the information that could be useful to developing teens is restricted by the graphic descriptions that Kobabe chooses to include.

However, the sexual content alone is not enough to justify the ban or even the restriction of the book in our library. In a recent Daily Urinal (DU) article, author Ava Bradley (‘24) establishes that there are other sexually explicit books available to us in the library to check out without restriction. She uses as evidence a Japanese author, Haruki Murakami, who she claims is “infinitely more explicit than Kobabe,” citing Murakami’s book Kafka on the Shore. Another DU article, by Momo Yang (‘24), argues that even Hunger Games is more sexually explicit than Gender Queer, and while I don’t think that’s exactly true, it supports the argument that there are other books available that have more than or similar sexual content to Kobabe’s memoir. So why should Gender Queer be banned over these other books?

Well, take Murakami for example, the biggest difference between his novels and Kobabe’s work is the target audience, or who the work is meant to be read by. This can be seen through the style of the book. Murakami is meant to be read by adults or young adults, which is reflected in the language and style that it’s written in. This means that the sexual content is written for the proper age group, an age group that has the development and maturity to handle the information. Kobabe’s writing style, however, caters to a much younger audience. The colorful pages and easy-to-read language do not match the maturity of the experiences that e describes. Now, I’m not necessarily accusing em of targeting younger audiences with vulgar content on purpose. Still, young readers are much more susceptible to absorbing harmful information if the writing style is directed toward them.

Some might argue that just because it’s a comic memoir doesn’t mean it’s directed for a younger audience, but there are other comics that cater to more proper audiences. In my Junior year Creative Nonfiction course taught by Ms. Allen, we read another comic memoir called Stitches, by David Small, which tells about his struggles with depression, cancer, and abusive parents growing up. These are clearly mature topics that a younger audience would not be prepared to handle, but the memoir is written in a style and language that is much more matched to the content it holds. Not to mention the American Library Association’s Alex Award, which was presented to Gender Queer, labeling the book as having a “special appeal” to kids as young as 12 years old. Kobabe’s writing style clearly caters to a young audience, but the explicit content is clearly not suitable for a crowd that young.

Banning books is a slippery slope, and we should strive to protect the freedoms and rights of all groups of people, but supporting such a book for all ages is not appropriate for a school library. The information and the memoir itself can be accessed from countless sources outside of school, so restricting it in our library is not removing the book from the reach of kids who need it. The restriction of the book does, however, protect curious young minds from premature exposure to adulthood. The library needs to be a place where people can feel safe about the information that’s presented to them.