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.

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.

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.