Maia Kobabe felt a wave of relief on 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 as obscene and restrict its sale 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).
In the 2019 illustrated graphic memoir, Kobabe, who uses e/em/eir pronouns, explores eir process of coming out as nonbinary and asexual. It was a 2020 winner of the ALA Alex Award, given to books written for adults that have special appeal for young adults 12-18, as well as the Stonewall Book Award-Israel Fishman Non-Fiction Honor Award for books with exceptional merit relating to the LGBTQ experience.
At the same time, the book has been heavily criticized by GOP lawmakers for its inclusion of some explicit images, including depictions of masturbation and some sexual experiences. Gender Queer has been banned in school districts and libraries across the country and served as a popular talking point for GOP lawmakers, such as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, who called the work pornographic and said it likely meets “the statutory definition of obscenity.”
In Virginia, Gender Queer and A Court of Mist and Fury—the 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. The two Republicans asked the court to declare the books obscene and unfit for children, and prevent some private booksellers from selling the book to minors without first getting parental consent. (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 tells TIME that his client took issue with 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 by PEN America, a nonprofit organization that advocates for free expression, 1,145 books by 874 different authors were banned from school libraries and classrooms between July 1, 2021 and March 31, 2022. Of those books, 41% contained protagonists or prominent secondary characters of color, and 33% explicitly addressed LGBTQ themes. As book bans rise, some LGBTQ advocates argue the Virginia lawsuit may be the first in a new wave of obscenity lawsuits, which could not only remove books from bookshelves but also restrict their sale altogether.
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 e make of the current cultural moment. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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 write Gender Queer?
Gender Queer is a story specifically focused on gender identity, sexuality, and then coming out to your family, to your friends, and in the workplace. Questions around how to introduce nonbinary pronouns to people who might not be familiar them. And also how to be a role model as a nonbinary adult, especially in a setting like a classroom.
I wrote this book in huge part because I was struggling to come out, and I was asking myself all these questions and I was having these somewhat challenging conversations. And it often seems like I was never able to fully get my point across. 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.’
When you wrote this book, who was your target audience? What age range do you intend to read it?
I think I was really envisioning people like myself. People who were thinking about gender, who were probably either in their late-teens to mid-20s. Who kind of had the same level of language and media exposure as young people that I did. Who wanted to come out to their friends, family, or co-workers. Or for the family and friends of nonbinary and trans people who were coming out.
The book has been criticized by GOP lawmakers for its inclusion of images they argue are inappropriately sexually explicit, including depictions of masturbation and sexual situations. What is your response to criticism that the book is inappropriate for school libraries to carry or for young people to read?
If you read my book, you will discover that it is unbelievably tame. It does include the topics you mentioned, it does touch on masturbation, sex toys, and sexual health. There is a pap smear exam in the book, which is rarely mentioned in the scenes people are concerned about, but in my opinion is probably the most intense scene of the book. And my opinion is that these things are part of life. These are things that pretty much everyone will encounter in some form or other in their life. And I think encountering a difficult subject, in the form of literature, is just about the safest way that you can encounter something that you might find challenging. This is a book about my life. And these are things that happened in my life.
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. I would rather a young person learn about topics of sex and sexuality from a book that has passed through many levels of editorial and fact-checking and is written by an author who is interested in sharing accurate information.
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.
Why do you think your book in particular has been so challenged, out of all of the queer literature that has faced scrutiny?
I think it is specifically vulnerable to challenges because it is a graphic novel and includes illustrations. I do think that it is easier to spread an image and have it go viral on social media, than say a screen grab of a paragraph of 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.
I also think the title probably has something to do with it. 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. And then I also think honestly, the fact that I won two American Library Association awards also has something to do with it in a funny way. Many librarians buy and support all of the ALA award winners. So the book was just in many public libraries and some school libraries. So if a conservative group was looking for books to complain about on the shelves, mine would be there because it had been very generously supported by librarians.
Why do you think we’re seeing a rise in laws seeking to restrict challenging books, particularly books with LGBTQ themes, from the classroom?
I think it is a very organized effort to erase trans and queer and nonbinary voices from the public sphere. And I see it as linked to also the rise in bills trying to limit access to trans healthcare, and limit the rights of trans athletes and trans students to access various activities and sports in school. I see it as a very dangerous and upsetting effort to make it harder for trans people and nonbinary and queer people to live.
Are you working on any other projects right now?
I am in the process of selling my second book, and I am very grateful that I had written 90% of it before all of the challenges started to pick up in fall of last year.
It’s a story that I wrote more in response to early Gender Queer feedback from parents of gender-nonconforming kids asking if I would ever produce a version for younger readers. I did not want to abridge my memoir, but I had the idea of writing a fictional book that touched on some of the same topics. It’s more a middle grade/early YA book, and it’s also a graphic novel.
How can authors of challenged books respond to this moment?
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. They can comfort people, entertain them, and also educate them and open their eyes and make them feel less alone in the 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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