I run Pride and Joy Publishing and for months I’ve been hearing about this breakthrough novel in the LGBTQ+ community, Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe (e/em/eir). I was told it was “first of its kind” as one of the first graphic novels that was also a memoir. (another great one is Fun Home by Alison Bechdel). I was told it was a physical experience to read and that once I had, I’d never forget it.
The leader of an LGBTQ+ networking group I belong to asked me to lead a book club discussion and I chose Gender Queer. I decided to pick Gender Queer for the discussion as I figured the accountability would make sure it got read. Having made a very public commitment, I ordered the book. Within the first weekend I could, I sat down to read.
By page 31, (when Maia got eir period for the first time) I was shaking. Crying by page 48 when 13-year-old Maia walks into eir school’s diversity club for the first time. The story on page 103 had me straight up jealous (which revealed a lot about some personal hang-ups).
An hour into it, I got to page 120, which hit me like a ton of bricks. No one had described the non-binary gender identity like that to me before and I had to take some time to really process it because it felt like my mind was expanding.
That’s the exact point that I realized how powerful it was to have Maia’s story told as a graphic novel (Maia is a professional illustrator and did all the artwork). It was the combination of beautiful words with crystal clear imagery. Every page held layers of meaning, I had never been so enveloped by someone’s story before.
I’ll spare you any more spoilers but know that Maia identifies as non-binary and asexual. Both of which I have no personal experience with and struggle to understand. However, both involve people in my life who are very important to me, and therefore understanding those experiences in order to have authentic respect and empathy, is very important to me.
So it makes sense that the person I really identified with in Gender Queer was Maia’s mom. There she was on the outside— watching someone she loved struggle to reconcile who they felt they were vs how the entire world treated them, Mom included.
And this wasn’t a conservative, closed-off mom! This Mom, while straight, was open-hearted and open-minded (a hippie even). She sensed her child was LGBTQ+ early on and was completely supportive. Even she struggled to understand and to not center herself in her child’s journey. She struggled to communicate in the necessary ways how unconditional her love for her child was. (There is also a scene with an aunt, an old-school feminist, that was so amazingly eye-opening for me as well.)
As I finished the book, I realized how incredibly excited I was to chat with my fellow queers about it. But was I the only one who felt it was that powerful? Maybe because I didn’t grow up with any of those feelings, maybe it was novel for me but “business as usual” for my friends who have “been there, done that”.
Five minutes into our meeting, I realized I had vastly underestimated the power of Maia’s book. Humans with various identities, ages, and life experiences had all been affected. Most of them called the book life-changing. While Maia’s story is wonderfully unique and individual, the themes of self-expression and self-awareness are universal.
I am so appreciative that I had the opportunity to read the book and then deepen my understanding through conversation with my peers. To that end, the Pride and Joy Foundation is now hosting a Pride and Joy Parent meeting to discuss Gender Queer as well.
Almost half of our kids that are coming out right now are identifying as non-binary or trans. Gender identity is often the hardest part for cis-gender parents to understand and our hope is that this discussion will bring struggling parents together for support.
As for my peers who insisted that I’d never forget reading this book, I’d say that was accurate. You?
About the author: Elena Joy Thurston is an inspirational LGBTQ+ speaker, trainer, author, and founder of the nonprofit Pride and Joy Foundation, which is dedicated to reducing the rate of suicide and homelessness in the LGBTQ+ community. Elena inspires her audiences to learn how emotional intelligence can improve company morale and productivity, changing members' lives in a practical way. A Mormon mom of four who lost her marriage, her church, and her community when she came out as a lesbian, her viral TEDx talk on surviving conversion therapy has been viewed more than 45,000 times and landed her media and speaking opportunities with ABC, CBS, FOX, Penn State, University of North Texas, Michael’s, Logitech, and more.