This Week in Doonesbury: “What’s Gender-Fluid?”

(Note: This was actually last week in Doonesbury, but a nasty bike crash has slowed me down a bit.)

This year, I reviewed two comics that told women’s stories as they experienced gender transition: Julia Kaye’s Super Late Bloomer, and Sabrina Symington’s First Year Out. Both books provide intimate and nuanced accounts of the triumphs and challenges involved in living a life that subverts the gender dichotomy. Both books also speak to the the revolutionary nature of the fight for trans acceptance. Trans people are asking us – and, I pray, will eventually force us – to undo something that lies at the heart of much of human oppression, the arbitrary categorization of human beings into a hierarchy based on their reproductive organs. If we can undo that construct and thereby nullify the power it produces, the whole rotten system very well might fall apart.

This week’s Doonesbury addressed the question of people who don’t comfortably fit into a world that treats gender as an immutable biological category. The scene is the breakfast table: B.D., Boopsie, and Samantha are discussing Samantha’s future career. Sam is contemplating enlisting in the Marines, much to the shock of her parents, who don’t want to see their daughter suffer a fate similar to that of her father: as Boopsie puts it, this family has sacrificed enough for their country.

More to the point, Boopsie notes, Sam can’t enlist: she is gender-fluid. This is relevant because the Trump administration wants to prevent trans people from serving their country, a policy that speaks to the cruelty of the current president when it comes to the lives of marginalized people, as well as the way in which he has embraced the religious right’s social agenda as a means to secure and maintain power. Sam, disappointed, sees her mother’s logic and puts aside her thoughts of enlisting. Once she’s out of earshot, B.D. asks a question that I imagine many comics readers his age asked: “What’s gender-fluid?”

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Sam’s disappointment; B.D.’s confusion; Boopsie’s quick thinking. Doonesbury, 25 November 2018.

While Boopsie claims – or perhaps feigns – ignorance (more on this later), Trudeau actually answered B.D.’s question two years ago, when Sam met somebody who opened her mind to the possibilities for personal identity that exist outside the male/female dichotomy.

On 11 December, 2016, Sam had lunch with Jan, a gender-nonconforming fellow student at Walden College. Sam asks what Jan’s pronouns are. Jan, we learn, is “non-binary, meaning outside of cisnormativity,” and therefore has no preference regarding pronouns. Jan believes it’s “unfair to ask friends to customize their grammar” for someone who “can’t commit to an identity.”

Sam is “a bit confused” by Jan’s revelation, and wonders if Jan can help her by choosing a point on a graph: “if the x-axis is male, and the y-axis is female,” Sam asks, where would Jan be? Sam’s attempt to get Jan to commit to a defined category is fruitless: Jan is “gender-fluid,” and “on a journey,” and therefore doesn’t fit in any one place on the graph.

While Sam’s intellectual understanding of Jan’s gender identity may still be a little fuzzy, her heart is more certain: in the final panel, she makes it clear that she’s attracted to Jan no matter where Jan’s journey may end. Jan, meanwhile, opens up a space in which Sam may start to interrogate some of her assumptions about her own identity, a process that we see is still unfolding in this week’s strip.

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Jan IS cute. Doonesbury, 11 December 2016.

The theme of radical acceptance is central to both Kaye and Symington’s books. Both are, at heart, stories about people learning to accept themselves as they are as the the people around them learn, or fail to learn, to see them for who they really are, and not for what the bodies they were born into tell us they are “supposed” to be. Likewise, while Sam may be somewhat confused by Jan’s lack of a defined gendered identity, she doesn’t let her confusion stand in the way of accepting Jan as a human being and a potential romantic partner.

Last week’s Doonesbury strip is about how ignorance stands in the way of acceptance. The strip is a commentary on the Trump regime’s decision to disallow gender-nonconforming people from serving their country: B.D. and Boopsie may well be glad that the policy will keep Sam out of harm’s way, but, Sam’s disappointment at being denied an opportunity because of who she is is palpable.

There is another way in which the strip is about ignorance standing in the way of acceptance. Boopsie’s final comment in the strip – “That was close” – can be read in two ways. I first read it as her simply expressing relief at finding a way to talk Sam out of her plan to enlist. But as @mister_borogove, one of my Twitter followers, suggested, it’s just as likely that Boopsie is relieved that she was able to dodge B.D.’s question about what it means that Sam is “gender-fluid.” B.D.’s conservative worldview has softened dramatically since he was wounded, but it’s not unlikely that accepting his daughter as anything other than a cis-normative woman may be too much of a leap for him to make. Perhaps Boopsie feels she has to protect Sam from the potential rejection Sam would experience should her father understand what she’s saying about herself.

These strips are far from the first time that gender-nonconformity has appeared in the mainstream newspaper comics pages. Famously, George Herriman’s Krazy Kat’s “gender … was never stable.” And, as Robert Boyd points out, in the 1930s, Popeye strips often featured the titular character appearing in drag, and, at one point, saying “I yam amphibious. I wears both women’s an man’s clothes.” (thanks to Mark Pitcavage for directing me to that analysis of Popeye.) *

While GBT was not the first cartoonist to address the blurring of gendered categories in the funny pages, these strips about Jan and Sam represent another example of his engagement with shifts in how our culture has understood gender and relationships between the genders. Apart from his overarching commitment to feminist ideals, (notwithstanding some missteps) Trudeau has addressed, and faced censure and censorship for addressing, issues such as pre-marital sex, contraception and safe sex, homosexuality, asexuality, and the politics and human costs of HIV-AIDS, all moments that broke ground in the development of the comics page as a site for social commentary. After nearly fifty years of writing for the funny pages, Trudeau is still learning, and still unafraid to use his characters to push his readers to new understandings.

*The world of contemporary independent comics and webcomics features the work of many trans and gender-nonconforming artists addressing the issues they face, and I will in the future write more about them. I also welcome any comments about these questions appearing in the mainstream comics pages over the decades.

Doonesbury Goes to War, Part V: Traded to Laos.

When we last checked in with Phred the Viet Cong terrorist, we saw how, after B.D.’s time in Vietnam, Garry Trudeau used Phred’s experience of the war to comment on some of the conflict’s most horrific dimensions, notably the slaughter of civilians from the relative safety of thirty thousand feet. We also have seen how Phred acted on his anger and sorrow by bringing Cambodian refugees to Washington to testify to the Senate about the “secret bombings” that had destroyed their homes and livelihoods.

And yet, as Phred was a mouthpiece for the millions of people in southeast Asia who died or were wounded and displaced by a long, senseless war, he also, after so much time witnessing and perpetuating horror, lost much of his passion and became less and less committed to the ideological foundations of his peoples’ struggle and more and more likely to treat the war as a workaday gig.

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Phred takes pride in his work. Doonesbury, 29 March 1973

On 27 January 1973, representatives from North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and the United States signed the Paris Peace Accords, putting a short-lived cease-fire into place and effectively ending America’s commitment to fighting on the ground in Vietnam. During the cease-fire, Phred made a play at civilian life, running a souvenir stand in the Mekong Delta. Phred’s skill at making friends with the enemy serves him well in his new enterprise; his clientele includes former American soldiers revisiting their old stomping grounds. (Later, Phred would end up in Cambodia and Laos, and his time in both countries would involve his playing the role of war-zone tourist, foreshadowing GBT’s later commentary on war tourism and the commercialization of the Boomers’ memory of Vietnam, a topic we’ll cover later.)

But the war is never far away, and Phred’s souvenir stand is destroyed during a firefight that disrupts the cease-fire. Phred’s rage at the soldiers who are responsible for ruining his livelihood reveals how he is weary of the violence that his defined his entire life, and his disenchantment would shape much of his approach to his job as he was inevitably dragged back into the field.

A few months after opening his shop, Phred received the telegram that young American men had been dreading for years: “Greetings.” While Phred accepts his obligation to rejoin the Vietnamese people’s struggle, his heart is no longer in it: when a peasant reminds Phred that he is fighting because “the true Vietnamese people’s government is responding to the aggression of the running dogs,” he is momentarily taken aback by the revolutionary dogma, forgetting that “we talked like that.” After the failure of the cease-fire, Phred would see the struggle to liberate south-east Asia as more of a gig, and less as a deeply-held commitment to an ideological cause. To reflect this change in Phred’s outlook, GBT re-purposed a trope that had been a central element of the early Doonesbury strips: writing about real-life events through the language and lens of sports commentary.

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It’s kind of like grad school. Doonesbury, 15 May 1973

Even without the hundreds of strips set in a football huddle, sports has always been part of Doonesbury’s DNA. The historian Gary Wills, in his introduction to The Doonesbury Chronicles, the first hardcover compilation of the strip, discusses how, by having characters comment on their actions in the style of a play-by-play announcer, Trudeau “opens up a space in which [their] personality can grow.” Similarly, Trudeau’s use of themes drawn from the world of professional sport in Phred’s story gives readers a glimpse into how Phred’s motivation for fighting was shifting from ideological commitment to personal advancement. As Phred was being pulled back into the war, the world of professional sports was in the earliest stages of a critical change which saw athletes begin to demand a more equitable slice of their sports’ revenue pies. In 1971, Bobby Orr signed the first million-dollar contract in National Hockey League history; a year later, Bobby Hull inked a deal worth nearly three times that much for the rival World Hockey Association.

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It’s all part of the game. Doonesbury, 17 May 1973.

When Phred reports to his new posting, he, like a superstar athlete, negotiates a deal that reflects his abilities, telling his superior that as “the top terrorist in the whole province” that he is “deserving of better terms.” But, as is the world of elite professional sports, the world of international communist terrorism is driven by the bottom line, and Phred learns, to his dismay, that the Viet Cong have placed him on waivers before trading him to Laos. When he joins the Pathet Lao, Phred’s commander introduces him as though he was a new member of a baseball team’s bullpen, telling his comrades that Phred has “the kind of expertise we need to give this unit some real depth.” As happens with many veteran players brought in to plug a hole in a team’s line-up, Phred’s time in Laos ended after a single season when the Pathet Lao “failed to renew [his] option

And yet, while Phred brings a degree of star power to his new gig, he remains dissatisfied with the terrorism business. After blowing up a train, Phred writes to B.D. and reflects on how the operation was uninspiring and left him feeling “kind of empty.” After years spent terrorizing people, Phred has “serious ethical questions.” He makes peace with the moral conflict caused by engaging in terrorism much in the same way that many people who make a living while causing human suffering do: terrorism becomes just a gig. Like the men who run the corporations that sell bombs or poison our planet, Phred justifies his role in a corrupt and evil system by looking at a lucrative bottom line. As the war heads into its final phase, GBT re-frames it as a corporate endeavour. As he settles into his new job, Phred, like a junior executive who needs some work-appropriate threads, visits one of my favourite incidental Doonesbury characters, Mort the Tailor, who’s been “outfitting [Phred’s] family for armed combat for over thirty years.”

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I’ve always loved Mort. Doonesbury, 12 September 1974

Nineteen-seventy-four was a year marked by a sharp economic downturn, and, as it did for the rest of the corporate world, the crisis had profound effects on the Viet Cong’s ability to get the financing they needed to grow their enterprise. Phred reads the business section of the newspaper and frets about the increasing prices of arms and ammunition, which are forcing some “local insurgents” to “[cancel] their plans for the spring offensive”and question their ability to commit massacres, which are “traditionally a great cost-cutter.” Lacking the resources he needs to continue his terrorizing, Phred is forced to look for outside funding , only to be told by his banker that “money’s too tight” to invest in his dream of restoring the “human dignity” of the Vietnamese people. With no other options, Phred turns to the world of grants and fellowships, and gets money from, of course, the Phord Foundation to fund his year-long project, in which he will ostensibly research “The Visceral Response of the Agrarian South-East Asian to the Introduction of Sustained Automatic Weapons Fire.

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Awesome news for Phred. Doonesbury, 26 May 1975.

After Phred secured his Phord fellowship, the war largely disappeared from Doonesbury until the end of the conflict finally came. On 30 April 1975, Saigon fell. A month later, Phred’s post-war leave is interrupted by a new assignment: he’s assigned to be an aide-de-camp to a united Vietnam’s Deputy Chief of Staff. While Phred, in earlier days, might have embraced the opportunity to contribute to the building of the nation that he and his people had struggled for for over thirty years, he’s more interested in the paycheck that comes with his new gig, excitedly informing his mother that he’s now “in fat city.”

Phred’s war was over, but he would continue to play an important part in Doonesbury, providing GBT with a voice with which to comment on the politics of post-reunification communist Vietnam, the Third World at the United Nations, and the ultimate triumph of American capitalism over Vietnamese communism. But his most important role was that of being a simple human being immersed in a deeply horrible situation.

Dehumanizing the enemy is a central element of wartime state propaganda. But during Vietnam, the American media was, in an unprecedented and unrepeated way able to show the people back home the effects of American war-making on the people from the other side: one need only recall Eddie Adams’ photograph of the summary execution of Nguyễn Văn Lém or Nic Ut’s photograph of Phan Thi Kim Phuc fleeing a napalm attack. In a similar vein, Phred allowed Garry Trudeau to do something that was perhaps unique in the history of mainstream American newspaper comics: show a person from a nation and a people with whom America was at war as someone who was as complicated a human being as was “we” were. Phred made friends, loved his mom, her rice soup, Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley, got angry at human suffering, and was, like all of us to one extent or another, motivated by the desire to make a few bucks. To slightly re-purpose the words of Walt Kelley’s Pogo, when we met Phred,  “we met the enemy, and he was us.”

Doonesbury Goes to War, Part IV: Phred, B.D. and the Heartless Air Pirates.

Welcome back.

Last time out, I began writing about how Garry Trudeau addressed the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam war, looking at the experience of Kim and other refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia. The second part of that series is going to look at the ways in which two soldiers, Phred and B.D., adjusted to post-war world; the third is going to look at American foreign and military policy in the immediate post-Vietnam era.

But as I started to write that second post, sketching out some ideas about Phred’s post-war career as a re-education officer in a united, communist Vietnam, I realized that there were important parts of his story that I hadn’t looked at, and that I needed to finish telling the story of his war, and the story of the war more generally, before moving on.

Upon assuming office in 1969, Richard Nixon began implementing a policy known as “Vietnamization,” which involved cutting the number of American soldiers in Vietnam while building up South Vietnam’s ability to attain its military objectives. By 1972 – the year when B.D. served – the United States had withdrawn some 400,000 troops from Vietnam. As America pulled back from its commitment to fighting in Vietnam, Garry Trudeau shifted much of his attention away from the experiences of American soldiers to provide a running commentary on the war through the eyes of those who suffered the most during the conflict: the people of south-east Asia. His principal Vietnamese character, Phred the Viet Cong terrorist, was transformed from a sidekick to a spokesperson for a region that, even as the American presence was starting to shrink, was still suffering under massive aerial bombardment (in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) in order to advance American foreign policy objectives.

GBT’s strips about the bombings marked a second major shift in how he covered the war in southeast Asia. When he started writing about the war, Trudeau used dark satire to underline the brutal nature of American militarism. When B.D. arrived in Vietnam, dark satire gave way to goofy humour that took a softer approach dealing with violence. The arrival of Phred showed readers that, despite the fundamentally dehumanizing nature of much of American discourse about the Vietnamese people (…a set of ideas that made war crimes such as the My Lai massacre possible) they were actually human beings with the full range of human emotions. And mothers.

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Phred’s reality. Doonesbury, 29 October 1972

Starting in October 1972, GBT stopped pulling his punches about the suffering caused by American aggression in south-east Asia. The Sunday, 29 October strip finds Phred in the jungle, writing to B.D. Using language that rarely appeared in the funny pages, Phred describes the “horror and agony of war”: “bombs rain daily” and his parents have again become refugees because his “hamlet was levelled.” While the strip ends on an uplifting note – Phred’s love of rock and roll helps “chase them naughty blues away” – it is fundamentally disturbing when compared to GBT’s previous Vietnam material. Death is no longer an abstraction: a familiar character is confronting it in a way that is much more real than we had previously seen. No softening, and no satirical exaggeration: people who, like us, love Elvis Presley records, are dying, and their homes are being destroyed.

Trudeau sometimes couched his increasingly pointed critiques of American actions n humour that played on the personalities of his characters. After Phred writes that letter to B.D., Boopsie interrupts B.D.’s huddle with the news that casualties from a recent American rocket attack on North Vietnam included cows, sheep, chickens and, worst of all, baby ducks. The punch-line is in Boopsie and Zonker’s reactions; two usually apolitical characters are shocked into understanding how horrible the war is because of some dead birds. A few days after this interlude, however, GBT gets real again. Zonker wants to talk with B.D. about how America has been bombing “schools and hospitals and defenceless hamlets.” Again, Trudeau is determined to use his voice to expose, in frank, clear, unambiguous language that was unique among syndicated comic strips, the horrors that were being done in the name of the American people.

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Baby ducks. Doonesbury, 30 October 1972

Shortly after the “baby ducks” strip, B.D. headed back to Vietnam – this time, not as a soldier, but as a tourist. His return visit allowed Trudeau to confront his readers with the helpless rage that the Vietnamese people must have felt as the American war dragged on with no end in sight. Foreshadowing Donald Trump’s vision of another communist Asian nation becoming a hot tourist destination, Phred invited B.D. to come see Vietnam before it was “spoiled” by the “tourists, resorts and hotels” that would come with the “impending threat of peace.” In fact, this was as much a planned exercise in consciousness-raising as it was a reunion of two war buddies.

Admittedly, the story of B.D.’s Vietnamese vacation was marked by the the goofy buddy humour that dominated his stint as a GI, much of which deliberately minimized the horror of the war: Phred admits to blowing up a man’s bicycle because he supported the Thieu regime, and he rejoices at finding his old desk in the bombed-out wreckage of his former school. We also get the incongruous images of B.D. and Phred getting drunk and singing Christmas carols and enjoying a gourmet meal in the middle of a war zone.

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Phred’s having a bad day. Doonesbury, 21 December 1972

But these moments of lightness stand in sharp contrast to what we learn about the horrors of the war as it was experienced by Phred and his people. Phred takes B.D. to visit his mother at a refugee camp; there is “destitution as far as the eye can see.” A few days later, B.D. and Phred get caught in an artillery attack. When B.D. suggests they help a wounded man, Phred lashes out, screaming that the man is “just ONE of the millions of civilians who have been wounded or killed” since the war began, a statistic that’s repeated in a strip that ran a week later. Trudeau wanted his readers to understand just how tragic the war was for the Vietnamese people. He also wanted them to understand something about the logic that drove their suffering.

As B.D.’s trip was winding down, Trudeau introduced two characters who, although they never directly interacted with Phred, represented the power that was systematically destroying his people’s lives and livelihoods. After an American airstrike forces B.D. and Phred to take shelter, Phred impotently screams his rage at the “heartless air pirates” who dropped the bombs: “I hope you can live with all the destruction and carnage you’ve brought to my little country!!” Meanwhile, the Heartless Air Pirates, several thousand feet above, are insulated from, and seemingly oblivious to, what is happening below them.

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Introducing the Heartless Air Pirates, Doonesbury, 29 December 1972

The appearance of the Heartless Air Pirates made GBT’s writing about Vietnam even more surrealist. War is a fundamentally insane endeavour, and the only way for the people tasked with executing it is to embrace the cognitive dissonance that defines existence in a war zone. Trudeau had already hinted at the insanity of the logic of American bombing in two throwaway panels earlier in 1972. Zonker reads that the Pentagon planned to drop 50,000,000 tons of bombs on Vietnam. The only rationale provided for this radical act of violence came from an official who justified it by reminding Americans that the lives of Vietnamese people were of exactly zero consequence: “Well, why not? You know? I mean, what the heck.” The Heartless Air Pirates allowed Trudeau articulate the gap between that bizarre logic and the ability of the people who had to operate within it to maintain their sanity. For America, the Vietnamese people were human beings of a lesser order, and their lives were secondary to strategic and geopolitical priorities: “In order to save the village, we had to destroy it.” The only way for the perpetrators to live within that logic is to do whatever they can to insulate themselves from it; but that’s only a stopgap measure. The inherent contradictions ultimately reinforce the systemic insanity. This was a key theme in 1960s and 1970s anti-war culture, as seen in popular novels and films like Catch-22 and M*A*S*H. Like Milo Minderbinder and Hawkeye Pierce, the Heartless Air Pirates know they are living with insanity, but as they attempt to make peace with that insanity, its depths are made all the more apparent because the contradiction is just too big.

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He was just askin’…Doonesbury, 30 December 1972

High above the carnage they cause, the Heartless Air Pirates have a perspective on the war that in no way reflects the reality below. One of them is touched by a recent gift he received: a copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Two ideas about flight that were central to the culture of the era – the well-meaning, if somewhat empty-headed hippie idealism of Richard Bach’s poetic novel and a B-52 dropping tons of ordinance on peaceful villagers – are forced into the same frame, revealing the insanity of the times in sharp contrast. In their last appearance, the Heartless Air Pirates take “one last spin over the Delta,” because “it’s a beautiful day” to look at “some kinda country.” How that country looks, of course, depends on where you look at it from. The Heartless Air Pirates watch in awe as the bombs they drop “[catch] the sunlight as they [disappear] into the clouds,” leading something akin to a Fourth of July celebration; however, as one of them notes, things probably “looked different from the other end.” Phred’s impotent rage at the Heartless Air Pirates gives us a hint at how things looked from the other end. I have yet to find another widely-syndicated newspaper comic strip that did so much to force American readers to reckon with the human costs of what their government was doing in their name.

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Probably it did. Doonesbury, 4 February 1973

B.D., however, was not ready to reckon with what his country had done to the Vietnamese people; in the months following his Vietnamese vacation, he continued to wholeheartedly support the American war. The beginning of his reckoning with Vietnam would start when the last helicopters brought the last Americans off of the roof of the American embassy in Saigon, and the process would take decades; it’s still unfolding. Stay tuned.

Comics Review: First Year Out, a Transition Story

A while back, I reviewed Julia Kaye’s Super Late Bloomer, a comics journal chronicling the author’s early days in transition. On the heels of Kaye’s book, Vancouver’s Sabrina Symington has published First Year Out: A Transition Story, a comic about a woman’s experience with the process of gender transition. Like Kaye’s story, the story that Symington tells is one in which elation and heartbreak come at the heroine – and at the reader – in rapid alternation in response to the myriad victories, challenges and setbacks that are inherent to such a life-changing experience.

Sabrina Symington is a Vancouver, BC comics creator; her webcomic is Life of Bria. First Year Out, Symington’s first book, follows our heroine, Lily, as she as she adapts to living her life as a woman; the book is based on the experiences of Symington and her friends. From unwanted facial hair and other body issues that alienate Lily from her physical self to episodes of misgendering, rejection, and aggression from friends, family and strangers, Symington’s narrative reveals how, even in our comparatively enlightened times, trans people struggle daily with challenges that those who live in bodies that “match” our gendered identities will find difficult to truly appreciate. At the same time that she details the challenges and struggles that are inherent to the transition process, Symington also chronicles the rewards of Lily’s experience, notably the acceptance she gets from others and, most importantly, from herself. For all of the pain we see Lily experience, this is a story about human strength and perseverance and about the meaning of unconditional acceptance and love.

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Aside from being a profoundly moving story, First Year Out is a valuable text because it answers questions about the process of transition that both trans people first coming to terms with their own identity and the friends and families of trans women may have. Transition is a profoundly personal experience, and answering questions about it, even from well-intentioned loved ones, may not be comfortable for someone living it. From how tucking works to voice training to the effects of hormones to the recovery process following gender-reassignment surgery, Symington effectively educates her readers about the both the daily routines and the landmark moments that define Lily’s journey to living as the woman she is. Beyond that, much of First Year Out details Lily’s experiences with people whose hatred of trans women poses a genuine threat to the physical and emotional well being of people like her, including garden-variety bigots, TERfs, and chasers.

Transphobia is pervasive, as can be seen, for example, in our obsession with where people go to the bathroom. Yet while everyone who reads the news is familiar with that debate, the worst dimensions of transphobia too often go unmentioned. Trans people face a one-in-ten chance of being the target of violence every year, and nearly half of all trans people have experienced sexual assault in their lifetime. In one sequence, Symington reveals the psychological toll that living with the persistent threat of violence has on Lily. She can rarely afford to let her guard down, which has a significant impact on her ability to simply go about her day; she is conditioned to expect any encounter with a stranger to end in a confrontational or aggressive manner. Lily’s defensiveness is necessary for survival’s sake, but living like this prevents her from fully participating in her own community. In one scene, Lily steels herself for a torrent of abuse from a passing man, and is thereby prevented from accepting or reciprocating his friendly “Good afternoon,” instead assuring herself that the man must have been at least “probably thought something nasty.” This sort of social alienation is just part of the price paid by many members of marginalized communities, arguably none more so than trans people.

Everyday transphobia has been given a political and theoretical sheen by a subsection of self-described radical feminists whose concept of womanhood is inextricably linked to a narrow biological definition of who counts as a woman: these are the trans-exclusionary radical feminists, or TERfs (This a term that TERf’s consider to be a slur, though it accurately describes their ideology. Out of respect for Symington’s stated preference, I use a lower-case “f” here to represent how TERfs are, feminists in name only…). Lily’s mother struggles to accept her daughter for who she is in part because, by growing up as a boy, Lily has not had the experiences that are part of being a “real” woman. Lily’s mom is an old-school feminist who argues that Lily, having grown up “being conditioned by male privilege to have male thoughts … cannot actually ever understand what it’s like to be a woman.” Accused by her daughter of harbouring TERf ideas, Lily’s mom explores some of the discourse produced by the movement and is shocked to learn that people are accusing women like her daughter of being deviants, pedophiles and rapists. The come-to-Jesus moment that is sparked by this encounter with vile hate speech directed at trans women is a major landmark on Lily’s mom coming to a fuller understanding of who her daughter is.

Alongside TERfs, there is a community of men who also approach women like Lily with a fundamentally dehumanizing agenda. These are the chasers, men who fetishize women who have a penis (…or, perhaps more to the point, fetishize penises that are attached to women). Lily’s encounters with chasers reveal a tendency among men in that community to completely objectify trans women by reducing them to nothing more than what’s between their legs. Eager to find romantic companionship, Lily takes out an account at a website that caters to men who are attracted to trans women, but her inbox is soon overflowing with messages from men who are not interested in her, but only in one part of her body. This is particularly demoralizing for Lily, we learn, because that part of her body serves largely to underline her sense of alienation from her own body. When Lily finally does find intimacy with a man who is interested in her whole being, she asks him not to touch her between her legs because it “kills the mood instantly.” Perhaps one of the sharpest insights of the book is this exploration of what its like for Lily to live in a body that reminds her, at her most intimate and vulnerable moments, that it does not represent her real self.

Lily tries online dating after seeing a man who, although initially seemingly completely at ease with Lily’s identity, dumps her because he ultimately cannot accept the idea of dating a trans woman. As one friend of Lily’s puts it, like many men, the man’s own internalized homophobia prevents him from being able to allow himself to be involved with a trans woman, even as he likes her very much. Perhaps the most profound concept that Symington addresses is the complex relationship between the bodies we inhabit and the types of bodies we typically desire. Lily’s newly-found acceptance of her attraction to men in the light of having exclusively dated women when she lived as man is fascinating for how it captures the intensely complex nature of desire outside of a hyper-simplified model of two genders operating within a limited framework of orientations. For Lily, the question is less about who she wants to go to bed with as it is who she wants to go to bed as. Before reading those words, I had never really thought about sexual orientation as having as much to do with a person’s relationship with their own body as it does with the types of bodies they desire.

This insight is but one example of how Symington excels at teaching her audience about complicated ideas in a clear and accessible manner. The struggle for trans acceptance, both in terms of society’s ability to accept trans people and trans people’s ability to accept themselves, touches on profound social, political, sexual and personal questions. Symington addresses these questions in a clear, lively and direct manner. You should read this book.

Vietnam, the Aftermath: Part I, the Refugees.

Grandpa pissed his pants again
He don’t give a damn
Brother Billy has both guns drawn
He ain’t been right since Vietnam
— Warren Zevon, “Play it All Night Long.”

On 30 April 1975, the last Americans and some of their South Vietnamese allies were evacuated from the United States embassy compound as Saigon – soon to be renamed Ho Chi Minh City – fell to forces of the People’s Army of Vietnam and the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (the Viet Cong), ending America’s twenty-five-year involvement in Vietnam’s struggle to liberate itself from first French, and then American, imperialism.

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Introducing Kim. Doonesbury, 5 May 1975

The Vietnam War remains one of the Boomer generation’s defining moments. John McCain’s recent death reminded America of the divides caused by that horrific war: while some mourned a war hero who endured years of torture at the hands of the North Vietnamese, we were reminded that, like many from his class, President Trump used privilege and a weak medical excuse to avoid the war. In a recent column marking the fiftieth anniversary of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, E. J. Dionne wrote that the Democratic Party “never fully recovered from the wrenching schism opened by the Vietnam War.” No matter how one experienced it, much like the Civil War, Vietnam will continue to shape America’s culture, politics, and self-image for decades after the last veteran, the last privileged draft-dodger, and the last peacenik have left us. Moreover, what the Vietnamese people call “the American War” will continue to haunt them in a much more intense way.

Five days after the last chopper left the roof of the American embassy, Garry Trudeau began writing about America’s defeat. In the weeks and months following the end of the war, at least four separate Doonesbury storylines addressed the war’s aftermath from the points of view of the Vietnamese people who managed to escape victorious communist forces, American and Vietnamese soldiers who fought the war, and the political class that conceived and executed what was, until the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, America’s worst foreign policy and military disaster. Well before Hollywood films like The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now began to dissect the Vietnam experience for moviegoers, Trudeau was using the funny pages to help America understand what Vietnam meant, and what it would mean going forward.

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Her, and the rest of the Vietnamese people. Doonesbury, 27 August 1975

On May 5, 1975, the last Vietnamese war orphan to be sent to the United States was flying across the Pacific Ocean to meet her adoptive parents, who would name her Kim. The first thing about baby Kim that must be noted is that she is, hands-down, the cutest character that GBT ever drew; Trudeau rarely does “cute,” but he nailed it here. Beyond her cuteness, Kim’s precocious self-awareness and political insight forced readers to confront the question of how to start understanding, and moving past, the tragedy of Vietnam.

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Kim understands her symbolic value… Doonesbury, 6 May 1975

First, Kim reminds us of the atrocities endured by the Vietnamese people during the American war. As a result of American aggression in Vietnam, children like Kim had “paid some pretty heavy dues.” After a life marked by “everything from malnutrition to mortar attacks,” it’s no wonder she was afraid that the raisins in her oatmeal were shrapnel. And as she reminds Americans of what the war cost the Vietnamese people, Kim also allows Americans to tell themselves that, by welcoming the people who suffered so much during the war, a degree of redemption was possible; as the nurse who accompanies Kim on her flight stateside tells Kim, she is “an important symbol of hope for the free world.” This gesture towards redemption competed, however, with a desire to consign the war and its victims to the past and move forward. While Kim embraces her symbolic value, her parents deny that there is any political significance in their decision to adopt her: it’s the “immediacy of her plight,” and not the fact that she is Vietnamese, that led the Rosenthals to adopt her. As much as it must pain the new parents, the question remains: have they adopted a Vietnamese baby as a means by which to “atone for our collective national guilt through individual action?” And while that question might be a “cynical” one, the reporter who asks it is not the only one to question the Rosenthal’s decision: Kim’s grandmother tells Kim’s mom that her presence will will “do nothing but remind you of the most grotesque war in our nation’s history.

15MAY75

…but her grandmother has a different take on what that symbol means. Doonesbury, 15 May 1975.

It wasn’t just the motivations behind, or potential effects of, the presence of one orphaned baby that were brought into question following America’s defeat in Vietnam. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as Kim settles into her new digs, B.D. is upset that 100,000 people who “let themselves get beat” are being given refuge in America. Revealing how initially unpopular the idea of opening America’s doors to the people that the country had invaded, occupied, and ultimately failed, the normally reactionary B.D. had an unusual ally. Jerry Brown, the liberal governor of California, attempted to halt the arrival of Vietnamese refugees, citing both California’s unemployment rate and the fact that the state already had a large Hispanic population as reasons why the presence of Vietnamese people would have a negative effect on his state.

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Mike sees things differently. Doonesbury, 3 June 1975

And yet, while many Americans now celebrate the Vietnamese presence in the US as evidence of America’s ability to incorporate immigrants into the national fabric, in 1975 Garry Trudeau was not hopeful about the Vietnamese who had come to America. To be clear, he said nothing that reflected the nativism of Governor Brown and his supporters; rather, GBT could only see an insurmountable wall, caused by years of American lies and aggression, separating the Vietnamese refugees and their new compatriots. The gap is evident in the exchange between Mr. Duy, a Vietnamese refugee, and the American family who invites him over for drinks; awkward comments and equally awkward silences seem to show us that Trudeau had strong reservations regarding America’s ability to understand, and accept, these newcomers.

Trudeau’s treatment of the arrival of Vietnamese refugees in 1975 mirrors an previous arc he drew two years earlier, this one about Cambodian refugees. In 1973, Phred the Viet Cong terrorist took some well-deserved R&R in Cambodia. After visiting a camp for refugees fleeing America’s “secret bombing” of Cambodia, Phred brought some of them to Washington to testify in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee.  Unlike the Vietnamese refugees who would arrive two years later, the Cambodians were warmly received in America, and housing a refugee became something of a status symbol among the DC upper crust. [29NOV73] On the other hand, like the Vietnamese refugees, the Cambodians found themselves sharing awkward silences with their American hosts, as the cultural differences between the two often seemed insurmountable. Like Mr. Duy with his American host, Lol Nol Tol finds himself in an uncomfortable social encounter with an American with whom he seems to share little common ground.

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Not a lot of common ground here. Doonesbury, 6 June 1975; 30 November 1973.

But while the Cambodians and the Vietnamese seem to have little in common with their American hosts, there was a possible bridge: a shared love of that great equalizer, American consumer culture. American culture – specifically culinary culture – was woven throughout the Cambodian refugee arc. The Cambodians were smuggled into the United States in empty Coca-Cola crates; Lol Nol Tol’s host is uncertain whether or not Minute Rice would be to his taste; a senator’s secretary treats 300 of the Cambodians to lunch at McDonalds’s. For people for whom food is a pressing concern, American plenty has its appeals.

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Hold the pickle. Doonesbury, 28 August 1975

It was consumer culture that paved the way for Kim’s eventual acceptance into American society. Her introduction to American patterns of consumption appalled her – her parents gave her a plate that held “enough … to feed all of Danang” – but she quickly embraced those patterns as the key to adapting to life in her new home. Her first words, much to her parents’ excitement, were “Big Mac,” and her love of corporate advertising became something of a running gag for Trudeau. When I first read these strips, I read them as a basic critique of the all-encompassing power of consumer culture and advertising, and I think that still holds true. On the other hand, it’s also possible see these strips as a nod at how that culture can make it easier for people from diverse backgrounds to find their way into a new setting. GBT might have issues with consumerism, but he also recognizes its basic appeal and the ways in which people can make their own meanings of it, as Kim did with her own brand of “free verse.”

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Kim’s free verse, Doonesbury, 5 October 1975

In a previous post, I argued that Phred humanized the Vietnamese people to comics page readers. His role as a someone who reminded Americans that those who were most affected by American war-making in south-east Asia was made explicit in the Cambodian arc: he brought the Cambodians to the United States to show Americans that they were “not just so many small yellow people, but rather we are human beings like themselves who only ask for a small chance at happiness.” Kim, also hoping for “a small chance at happiness,” joined the cast as a symbol of American failure and a desire to atone for a profound wrong. However, reactions to her presence, and that of other refugees, demonstrate that many Americans were eager to forget the whole sorry episode of Vietnam, and that the racism at the heart of the American war on Vietnam would continue to shape relations between the United States and the Vietnamese people. That said, Kim’s longer arc reveals Trudeau’s ultimate faith in America’s ability to live up to its stated values. Later strips showed that Kim’s road to acceptance in America did not always run smoothly; as a teenager, she was singled out for classroom and schoolyard abuse growing out of stereotypes about over-achieving Asian-American kids. However, her ultimate role as an anchor for Doonesbury’s titular character is a sign that, in the decades after what remains America’s most grotesque war, for some, a degree of healing was possible. 

8DEC73

It’s pretty simple. Doonesbury, 8 December 1973

Comics Review: “The Young C.L.R. James: A Graphic Novelette.”

C.L.R. James (1901-1989) was a Trinidadian-British Marxist and pan-Africanist historian, writer, political theorist and activist. If you’re a halfway serious student of twentieth-century radical thought, you know that already. If you’re not, here’s a quick, and incomplete, summary of his achievements: His 1936 novel Minty Alley was the first novel published by a West Indian living in Great Britain. Two years after publishing Minty Alley, James wrote The Black Jacobins, a history of the Haitian Revolution that remains a critical touchstone in Africana studies; he also wrote the first history of the Communist International. His 1965 semi-autobiographical meditation on cricket, Beyond a Boundary (check out my review here) was an early exemplar of a new field of intellectual inquiry that emerged in the 1960s, cultural studies.

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Beyond his literary and scholarly achievements, James was at the forefront of some of the twentieth century’s key liberation movements. A tireless champion of the oppressed, he mobilized resistance to European colonialism in Africa and the West Indies starting in the 1930s, and spent fifteen years in the United States organizing working people. In the 1960s, he became an critical touchstone to a new generation of Black activists looking to understand, and ultimately topple, racial and class oppression, and he remained an active thinker, writer and speaker up until his last years. Reading James’s work and life story, what emerges is a vision of of freedom in which the popular masses liberate themselves; James was, in the truest sense of the word, a democrat who never lost faith in the ability of the common man and woman to understand the dynamics that kept them down and to work in concert for total liberation.

This vision of the capacity of regular people to work towards a future in which they are truly free is a central theme of Milton Knight’s new comics biography of James, “The Young C.L.R. James: A Graphic Novelette,” published by PM Press. Knight is a comics creator, animator, illustrator, writer and fine artist from Mineola, New York. “The Young C.L.R. James” reflects his maxim that “Art springs first from an observation of life, then a philosophy from the heart and mind of the artist.” Knight has obviously read James’s life and work closely, and the observations he has taken from his study are clearly informed by a set of political values that he shares with his subject. Knight’s book highlights the idea that the way to freedom lies not with following a vanguard leadership, but with the collective self-actualization of the popular masses.

The Young C.L.R. James” reads as a single chapter from what I hope will be a longer project that will cover the entirety of James’s life and legacy. The book follows James’s life from his early childhood to the 1936 production of his play (written in 1934) about Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture. It also features a short vignette on swing music and dancing, an aspect of American culture that fascinated James. A brief introduction by James scholars Paul Buhle and Lawrence Ware provides background information about James’s life, work, and his broader historical context.

The Young C.L.R. James” begins with a encapsulation of the first chapters of Beyond a Boundary, in which James recounts his youth in colonial Port-of-Spain. James was a leading figure in the anticolonial movement, and yet he was, in many ways, the proud product of British imperial culture. To him, such touchstones of English identity as Shakespeare and Thackeray were parts of an intellectual heritage that spoke to the revolutionary potential of the people. In a talk given in Montreal in 1966, he argues that dialogue delivered by servants in King Lear reveals “the role of the peasants in the crisis of society.” [1]

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Wright’s dynamic style captures the sense of movement that defined James’s vision of the West Indian people.

James’s understanding of the possibilities for liberation that were embedded in colonial culture emerged most strongly in his passion for cricket. As Knight argues, cricket was introduced in colonial societies like Trinidad to “indoctrinate” colonialised people “with the values assuring that they will be ‘good’ subjects under British rule.” However, James understood that cricket gave the West Indian people a stage on which to show the world their innovative spirit and ability to excel on their own terms. Cricket is central to James’s, and Knight’s, recounting of the development of James’s racial consciousness: as young man looking for a cricket team, James had to navigate a complicated caste system in which skin colour and social class, as much as athletic skill, determined where one could play. Ultimately, a comment from the West Indian cricket great Learie Constantine – “You have it all wrong you know … They are no better than we.” – shocked James into awareness, and marked the start of his commitment to the anti-racist/anti-colonialist cause.

Cricket allowed James to understand how everyday West Indian people expressed their revolutionary nature within a context determined by imperial power. His novel Minty Alley further explores the daily culture of the Caribbean people, depicting the quotidian lives of those on the margins of colonial Trinidadian society. As Wright emphasizes, Minty Alley reflects James’s growing fascination with the question of the possibilities for liberation that dwelt within the popular masses. After finishing the novel, James left Trinidad, joining Constantine in Lancashire; as James writes in Beyond a Boundary, “the British intellectual was going to Britain.” [2] (Christian Høgsbjerg’s C.L.R. James in Imperial Britain, which I review here, is an excellent overview of James’s political development in those years.)

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Paul Robeson as Toussaint Louverture

While he was in the UK, James wrote a biographical play about Toussaint Louverture that starred the African-American actor and activist Paul Robeson. The last few pages of the comic are a brief recounting of the Haitian Revolution drawn from James’s script, ending with Toussaint’s death in a French prison. Again, in this episode, Knight brings us back to the central idea that emerges from his reading of James’s work: as Toussaint reflects on a white man spouting the alleged biological reasons underpinning white supremacy, he realizes that “If the negro is to be set free, he must free himself.” The only people with the power and insight to bring down oppression are the oppressed.

My favourite James quote comes from Beyond a Boundary. The West Indian people, James wrote, were, on the verge of their political independence, “moving too fast for any label to stick.” Knight’s work effectively captures the dynamism that James points at in this analysis. Whether in his triptych rendering of a batsman in full swing or a two-page dialogue-free sequence depicting James talking to – and ultimately being seduced by – the people he would write about in Minty Alley, Knight’s drawings capture a sense of movement that was central to James’s conception of freedom and progress. I’ve read a few comics biographies of political, intellectual and literary figures likes James, and these often end up being text-heavy efforts in which the artwork may complement the words, but does little to open up an expressive space in which the artist can move the reader to a deeper understanding. Knight’s decision to forgo huge blocks of text in favour of using his amazingly expressive imagery to show the reader – and not just tell the reader – where James came from and what he wanted to say makes this book a must-read for both people who have never heard of C.L.R. James and serious James scholars.

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[1] C.L.R. James, “Shakespeare’s King Lear,” in You Don’t Play with Revolution: The Montreal Lectures of C.L.R. James, ed. David Austin. A.K. Press, 2009. p. 84.

[2] C.L.R. James, Beyond a Boundary (50th Anniversary Edition). Duke University Press, 2013. p. 111

[3] James, Beyond a Boundary, p. 148.

Comics Review: Julia Kaye’s Super Late Bloomer

VANCAF – the Vancouver Comic Arts Festival – is where I often learn about comics and creators that might otherwise fly underneath my radar. My personal highlight of the 2018 edition of VANCAF was discovering the work of the Los Angeles-based cartoonist Julia Kaye. The strips she had on display immediately caught my eye, as they perfectly embodied the ability of comics to put words and images together and express something that neither can on their own. Her work takes maximum advantage of the unique synergy of the medium: the whole is so much more than the sum of the parts. Her drawings are simple, and she uses as few words as possible. But while Kaye gives the reader only as much visual and textual information as they need to grasp her message, her work has an emotional impact that belies the seeming simplicity of her visual aesthetic.

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The comics Kaye had on display were from her recent book Super Late Bloomer: My Early Days in Transition, a collection of diary-style comic strips that chronicle her experience with gender transition. Kaye’s style may be simple, but her work addresses an issue that is laden with complexities. Her genius – and I don’t use the word lightly – enables her to tell a deeply personal story with heart-wrenching immediacy. But beyond her ability to tell a profoundly moving personal story, her work has critical social and political implications.

Kaye is the creator of a comic titled Up and Out, which is available on two platforms: a GoComics page and a Tumblr page. This review, however, only addresses her book, which stands on its own and doesn’t require any other reading for context.

Super Late Bloomer is a series of daily strips covering five months in 2016, each strip focusing on a particular moment, event, or insight as Kaye embraces life as a woman. Kaye typically follows a three-panel format, which doesn’t give her a lot of room in which to explore the issues that arise, and yet each strip has a clear emotional impact. The format makes me reluctant to classify Super Late Bloomer as a memoir in the strictest sense of the word: while the book proceeds in a chronological fashion, the strips are more a series of distinct reflections than they are a unified narrative. Kaye lets us in on the quotidian challenges, setbacks, and victories she experienced during a crucial period in her life. The strips address topics like the emotional blow that comes with episodes of misgendering, the frustration of dealing with the bureaucracy of changing one’s name, the discovery of sometimes unexpected allies at family gatherings or in a cosmetics shop, and moments in which Kaye realizes that the acts that help her embrace her womanhood, such as wearing makeup, have become routine. Each strip has a sense of resolution, but those resolutions are as likely to be uplifting as they are heart-breaking. Sometimes Kaye celebrates a moment in which she overcomes an internal or external obstacle that she has encountered. On the other hand, she sometimes suffers difficult setbacks as she works to accept herself for what she is and struggles against people and a society that fail to see her for what she is.

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Some strips express deep pain and frustration…

Ultimately, this book is about acceptance; Kaye’s journey to self-acceptance, and her struggle to be accepted by world that too often rejects people who challenge our preconceptions about how people are supposed to live their lives. Sometimes, for Kaye, the former brand of acceptance is armour against the absence of the latter. And this is where I see this book as profoundly political.

Radical liberation movements like abolitionism, the civil rights and Black Power movements, multiple waves of feminism, anti-colonial and Indigenous rights movements and the struggles for gay and lesbian equality do more than strive to end the oppression faced by a particular group for at least two reasons. First, they force societies to interrogate and ultimately discard the intellectual and conceptual frameworks that justified the oppression of a targeted group. Second, they force societies to confront, and ultimately acknowledge, the full humanity of people who have been historically excluded from enjoying that status. The struggle for trans acceptance requires us to shed concepts and constructs that have been with us for so long that they are considered “natural.” The gender binary is fundamental to our concept of what it means to be a human being, and to how our society arranges itself. As I finished the first draft of this review, a friend on social media posted a video taken at a “gender reveal” party for a family member who is pregnant (It’s a girl, apparently). Before we even come into the world, people are put into boxes that are determined by physical markers, whether or not those markers accurately reflect the human being who inhabits that particular body.

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…while others are amazingly uplifting.

The movement for trans acceptance forces us to examine the fundamental “truths” that inform cultural, legal, political, economic, and social structures that shape who we are and how we live. This is not easy to do. Trans identity not only unsettles the status quo, it challenges elements of even the most radical political ideologies. The existence of TERFs – trans-exclusionary radical feminists, an ostensibly feminist movement that seeks to delegitimize trans women– reveals how deeply the gender binary is baked into how we see ourselves and the world we inhabit.

The act of existing as a trans person is a profoundly revolutionary one, and requires an incredible amount of courage. Kaye’s elegantly-delivered insights help us understand the challenges of being trans and the stakes of the trans struggle, both for the people living that struggle and for a society that will have to radically overhaul itself so that trans people may be fully accepted. The stakes of Kaye’s struggle are huge for her, but they’re also huge for those of us who are committed to building a truly just society.

Comics convey meaning in a direct and intimate way while requiring that readers actively engage with the material in front of them. This makes them an ideal medium to help readers grasp challenging ideas, arguably better than text alone, or passively-received moving images. Kaye combines words and pictures to create a whole that is so much more than the sum of its parts and tells a story that is intensely human and ultimately deeply political. Read this book.