By Sneha Jaiswal (Twitter | Instagram)

Okay, first things first, I learnt about the Spivak pronouns – ‘e, em, eir’ like ‘she/he, her/him, hers/his’ – only after reading the graphic novel memoir ‘Gender Queer’ by Maia Kobabe. This declaration is important because Maia uses the Spivak pronouns and I will inevitably end up referring to em and don’t want you to be confused.

Maia’s book is deeply personal, as e sets out to explain how confusing growing up was, because Maia was never comfortable with identifying either as a girl or a boy. So obviously, it’s not going to be relatable to those who haven’t had similar experiences, but the beautiful artwork does make it easier to empathize and understand Maia’s struggle with gender identity. In a weird co-incidence, I was reading this book on a bad cramp day, and menstruation is something Maia strongly complains about. “Nobody likes to get their period” I thought to myself and turned out there was a page in the latter half of the book, where an aunt admonishes the author by saying the same thing when Maia tries to explain why a woman’s body feels alien to em.

“I have a hard time seeing this trend of FTM trans and genderqueer young people as something other than a kind of misogyny. A deeply internalized hatred of women”, says the same aunt in one of the most hard-hitting lines of the novel, and she happens to be a lesbian. But truth be told, which woman has NEVER had penis envy? Haven’t we all envied men at least more than once in our lives for not having to suffer the monthly pangs of our uterus making a bloody mess of things? Haven’t we all at some point felt alien in our bodies? All the body positivity messaging aside, to feel absolutely comfortable in your skin all the time isn’t as easy as bright ad campaigns make it out to be. Maia has no strong counter-argument to the aunt, because even if nobody wants to admit it, there is perhaps some truth to the fact that not being happy with the gender assigned to you at birth does have something to do with the fact that each gender comes with an absurd ‘behavioral manual’ dictated by the society. If nobody batted an eyelid when men wore shiny sequined tops, loud make-up and played with pretty dolls, or if women walked around beaches topless in hot summers with un-shaved legs…. basically, if there were no rules as to who one should sleep with or how one should behave because they are of a certain gender… would anybody want to be a different sex? Yes, maybe still, but not as many as otherwise.

But well, let’s get back to Maia Kobabe’s graphic novel, because it’s eir story, and not about our personal take on things… The best bit about the novel is definitely the artwork. The art’s bright, colorful and keeps you hooked till the last page. Maia doesn’t shy away from sharing intimate moments, so there are a lot of graphic panels and nudity, but they are important to carry the story forward. For example, when Maia was in the third grade, e went on a field trip to the beach from school, without a thought, Maia removes em shirt likes the boys and happily wades into the water, but someone points this out and a teacher makes em cover-up. Maia doesn’t understand what the big deal was, and that was very relatable. If girls hadn’t been shamed over centuries over ‘public decency’, wouldn’t we all want to take off our shirts on a bloody hot summer day too? Without caring if there was a swarm of people around. In thought, I know I would like to, but decades of both direct and sub-conscious social/moral training have made it impossible for me to be comfortable with baring too much skin in public. If perhaps everybody started doing it, I would too. There’s comfort in herd behavior after all.

‘Gender Queer’ is an interesting study in just how deeply (and maybe unnecessarily) human interactions are entwined with gender roles. At different points of er life, Maia feels like e is a lesbian, a bisexual, an asexual… constantly trying to read more to understand how to define eir identity. Luckily for Maia, e had a supportive family, that never imposed gender roles on em (which some might argue could have been the cause of eir confusion in the first place), and were completely accepting of whatever made em happy.

Maia mentions Graphic novelist Allison Bechdel (one of my favorites) as an inspiration and the influence definitely shows in the artwork and story-telling. Just like Bechdel, Maia opens up about the angst, confusion and insecurities that come with not ‘fitting in’ with the majority. Gender Queer might not be as ground-breaking as ‘Fun Home’, but is an important work to help understand what people mean when they say they are ‘non-binary’.

I enjoyed reading this work. It’s a 4/5 from me.

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