The graphic novel “Gender Queer,” a memoir of sexual and gender identity written and illustrated by Maia Kobabe, has been described as the “most banned book in the country.” A flashpoint in the current culture war over the content of school libraries and curricula, it is at once celebrated and despised. Liberal commentators describe it as groundbreaking and essential, a work of art that helps struggling young people to feel seen; conservatives denounce it as pornographic and demand its removal from children’s spaces.
Almost all the objections to “Gender Queer” center on a single page that appears about two-thirds of the way through the book. If you’ve followed this controversy online, you’ve probably seen the illustration in question. If you’ve only heard about it via cable or traditional news, then you probably haven’t — at least not without a censor’s blur in front. This is because the scene depicts a moment in which the protagonist and a partner experiment with a strap-on dildo.
As illustrated acts of kink go, the one in “Gender Queer” is unmistakable, but not especially sexy. You can see far more titillating and explicit works in the collection of 15th-century Japanese erotic woodcuts at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Still, though: It’s racy. Enough so that the page can’t be shown on TV, not even in the late-night hours when the Federal Communications Commission’s obscenity regulations are relaxed; enough so that I can’t name the sex act in question without playing an elaborate game of charades to avoid running afoul of the Globe’s editorial standards. (Hint: It rhymes with “whoa, bob.”) And while reasonable people can disagree on whether the scene qualifies as pornography per se, the fact that this is a debatable point at all is revealing in its own right. Once you’re haggling over whether an illustrated sex act is dictionary-definition pornographic, surely you’ve already ceded the point of whether it’s appropriate for children.
In a less fractious, less polarized moment, this is where the debate would end. It is possible to imagine a world in which “Let’s not stock the [rhymes-with-whoa-bob] comic book in the middle school library” is not a controversial statement. Alas, we don’t live in that world. Instead, we live in a world where not only are we locked in a stalemate over whether the [rhymes-with-whoa-bob] book belongs in the middle school library, but the way you answer this question determines your side in the culture war at large. That is: If you believe that illustrated depictions of a person getting a you-know-what while wearing a you-know-what are best reserved for adult readers, you must be a conservative . . . or worse.
Objections by parents to “Gender Queer” and other sexually explicit books are frequently characterized in media coverage as stemming from hatred or bigotry. One New York Times article quoted a PEN America director who ascribed the controversy to “anti LGBTQ+ backlash.” Similar criticisms are leveled at the parents’ rights movement that is challenging the teaching of race, gender, and sexuality in US schools. Earlier this month, a council member in Montgomery County, Md., publicly described Muslim families who were protesting mandatory LGBTQ-related curriculum in their local elementary school as ideologically aligned with “white supremacists and outright bigots.”
In this sense, the controversy is bigger than just one book, or even just the book-banning issue. It speaks to a broader sense that the left, having emerged triumphant from the culture wars that defined the 1990s and early aughts, is now staking out a new and far more radical set of positions on matters of race, gender, and sexuality. The disorientation resulting from this rapid leftward shift seems to be reflected by a new Gallup poll, in which 38 percent of respondents identified themselves as conservative on social issues. This is the strongest showing for conservatives in more than 10 years, and a 5-point increase since 2022.
Although Gallup polls are phone surveys and hence may suffer from a certain amount of selection bias (for instance, they may be unlikely to reflect the views of younger people who rarely answer their phones), there’s reason to think that this one captured something real. Identifying your location on the liberal-conservative spectrum is difficult when the spectrum itself is rapidly shifting beneath your feet. Within the past few years — dating roughly to the election of Donald Trump and its ensuing impact on American progressive politics — there has been a marked rise in declarations of political homelessness from people who feel untethered from their liberal identity even as their values remain unchanged. “The left left me,” as the saying goes.
This is all happening at a moment when politics is increasingly defined by negative polarization and a with-us-or-against-us mindset in which anyone who doesn’t fully support every last tenet of a given ideology is deemed a member of the loathed outgroup. We saw how this played out in 2016 with Republicans who wouldn’t get on board the Trump train, but it is also how lifelong liberals — the kind who have been voting Democratic for more than 20 years and believe passionately in free speech, legalized drug use, abortion rights, criminal justice reform, universal health care, and LGBTQ equality — can suddenly find themselves nonconsensually categorized as far-right fascists (or the dangerous enablers thereof) for being critical of this or that new left orthodoxy. Even the words “liberal,” “conservative,” “left,” and “right” have been disassociated from anything so concrete as party affiliation or policy preference; instead, they denote what we’re against. A liberal is a person who is anti-conservative; a right-winger is anti-left.
And as for the issues, the current vogue is to stake out whichever position renders us diametrically opposed to our perceived ideological enemies — even when that position is, not to put too fine a point on it, phenomenally stupid. This oppositional-defiant mindset became ascendant during the pandemic, in which liberal support for the COVID shots led conservatives to refuse to be vaccinated, while Donald Trump’s support for reopening schools caused a reactionary left to double down on keeping them closed indefinitely. But now, it’s everywhere. If the other guy loves it, we hate it; if the other guy hates it, we’ll take all you’ve got. This is how a bespoke Bud Light can featuring the face of trans TikTok influencer Dylan Mulvaney sparked a mass backlash from conservatives who all but boycotted the brand into submission. This is why Dave Chappelle’s recent comedy specials were panned by liberal critics and yet earned raves from normie audiences.
And this is why, if conservatives don’t want a sexually explicit comic book in the school library, suddenly it becomes a matter of national urgency to liberals that every child be able to read it.
For some people, the ones who root for their chosen political party with the same loyal fervor they do their hometown baseball team, I would imagine none of this seems especially problematic. Even if you don’t necessarily agree with something coming from your political tribe, it’s not so hard to pretend otherwise. After all, how important is the presence (or absence) of any one book in a school library, really? Why not just go along to get along?
And yet the outsize role that controversies like this play in the cultural discourse suggests that it does matter, at least in principle. It is difficult, when you believe something isn’t true, to pretend you think it is. It is also alienating to be told that you must pretend — actively, vocally, publicly — if you’re to remain in good standing with your political tribe. Even people who would never in a million years vote for a Republican candidate tend to get rankled by the notion that they are required to espouse beliefs they don’t hold or risk getting kicked out of the liberal clubhouse.
There’s no shortage of reasons why this is a troubling trend. Among other things, it isn’t making any of us any smarter. But if you are (as I am) alarmed by the prospect of Donald Trump winning a second term in the White House, this trend’s impact on electoral politics seems particularly worth considering. The reactionary bent of our current political discourse has led progressives to adopt various positions that most people simply don’t find persuasive and that many would be reluctant to vote for. Organizing third-graders into racially segregated affinity groups, deriding things like literacy and punctuality as “white supremacy culture,” enabling the social transitioning by teachers of gender-questioning children without their parents’ knowledge: These things make normal people nervous, and you can only shut them down with shrieks of “racist,” “fascist,” or “transphobe” so many times before those words lose their power.
It is also probably not a coincidence that this penchant for rhetorical overreach on the left comes alongside a loss of trust in virtually every institution in which liberals currently wield power, from academia to media, public health to public schools. And while that loss of faith may be mainly manifesting right now as mere skepticism of certain progressive orthodoxies, it’s unlikely to end there. Indeed, the latest Gallup poll suggests that given a binary option — as we are in the voting booth — the stridency of our current moment will eventually be met with backlash, in the form of a population-level shift toward conservatism.
This is how it unfolds: First you lose trust. Then you lose elections.
Kat Rosenfield is a culture writer and novelist whose latest book is “You Must Remember This.” Follow her on Twitter @katrosenfield.