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Interest in 'Gender Queer' has only grown after ban campaigns

{p}"Gender Queer: A Memoir" explores the author's real-life journey of gender identity and sexual orientation. (WGME){/p}

"Gender Queer: A Memoir" explores the author's real-life journey of gender identity and sexual orientation. (WGME)

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(BDN) -- Library circulation of a contentious book that discusses sexuality and gender identity has remained strong in Maine’s largest cities, despite efforts in rural school districts to ban or restrict access to the book.

The graphic novel, “Gender Queer,” tells the true story of the author’s journey with gender identity and sexuality from childhood to young adulthood. Author and illustrator Maia Kobabe uses the gender neutral pronouns e, em and eir.

“Gender Queer” was the most challenged book in 2021, according to the American Library Association. The reason for challenging the book was usually because of LGBTQ content and what some parents considered sexually explicit images.

While some school boards in Maine and across the United States have considered removing the book from school library shelves, that controversy has only sparked more interest in the memoir, according to some library circulation records.

In Bangor, the first copy of “Gender Queer” the library purchased in 2019, shortly after its publication, was read so much it fell apart and the library needed to buy more copies to keep up with demand, according to Bangor Public Library Director Ben Treat.

The library’s five copies have been checked out or renewed 40 times, which is slightly higher than the interest in a James Patterson novel, Treat said. Those checkouts don’t include how many people have accessed the e-book version of the memoir through the library.

Half of those 40 checkouts happened in the last six months when much of the controversy about whether Maine schools should offer the book in its libraries was happening.

After reading the memoir, Treat isn’t surprised it’s so popular.

“It’s an extremely well-written, well-designed, artistic memoir told with great intellectual and emotional depth,” Treat said. “Baring one’s life to the public like that is courageous, and Kobabe deserves great respect.”

Bangor High School’s library also has one copy of the book, which has been checked out 10 times since it was added to the shelves in June 2020, librarian Nancy Watson said.

The Lewiston Public Library’s two copies have been checked out 22 times collectively since they were added to the library’s shelves in late 2021, library director Marcela Peres said.

The Portland Public Library’s four branches have five physical copies of the memoir that have been checked out and renewed 58 times since January 2020, said Kelley Blue, Portland Public Library director of youth services.

Those numbers don’t include the people who may read the book while visiting the library without checking it out, Blue said.

“Gender Queer” is the ninth most circulated graphic novel across the library’s teen and adult collections, Blue said. Demand for the book peaked in October 2022, around the same time when parents and school boards in Buxton, Dixfield and Sullivan, among other Maine districts, looked into removing the book from school libraries or restricting students’ access to it.

While the book has healthy circulation in Maine’s largest cities, it’s hard to come by in libraries in some of the Bangor area’s bedroom communities. Libraries in Orrington, Glenburn and Winterport, for example, don’t have the book listed in their online catalogs.

Brewer’s and Old Town’s public libraries also don’t have a copy of the book in their catalogs, but they are part of Minerva, a system that connects more than 60 Maine libraries. Minerva has 23 copies of the book, which can be shared across the system’s libraries upon request. Most of the system’s 23 copies were checked out as of Friday.

Public libraries in Orono and Hampden each have one copy of the memoir and are also part of Minerva.

The Orono Public Library’s singular copy of “Gender Queer” has circulated six times since the library acquired it in October 2022, library director Laurie Carpenter said.

None of the libraries the BDN contacted reported cases of people vandalizing or stealing the book.

After watching school districts across the country challenge and ban the memoir, Kobabe wrote a column in the Washington Post in October 2021 explaining why e wrote the book and why it’s important for other queer and nonbinary youth to have access to it.

While Kobabe recommends the book for people in high school and older, it was written to explain the author’s sexuality and gender identity to family who, when Kobabe first came out, had a difficult time understanding.

This disconnect between Kobabe and eir family — and the years-long process of figuring out exactly how Kobabe identifies — partially stemmed from the lack of visibility of other queer and nonbinary people, both in media and real life.

“By high school, I had met multiple out gay, lesbian and bisexual people, but I didn’t meet an out trans or nonbinary person until I was in grad school,” Kobabe said. “The only place I had access to information and stories about transgender people was in media — mainly, in books.”

Kobabe recounted seeking out library books with queer and nonbinary characters as a teenager to help figure out eir own identity and feel less alone.

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“Removing or restricting queer books in libraries and schools is like cutting a lifeline for queer youth, who might not yet even know what terms to ask Google to find out more about their own identities, bodies and health,” Kobabe said.

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