When the French-Canadian artist Sophie Labelle launched Assigned Male, her webcomic about an adolescent transgender girl named Stephanie, it was to create “relatable content for my trans friends at school,” she explains. “It was never intended to be educative. I wanted to depict microaggressions in trans people’s daily lives and basically make jokes off of them!”
Three years later, as her webcomic has begun attracting wider attention, Labelle has drawn flak from some critics who feel that her approach is too strident in a world that is just starting to learn about trans identity. But Labelle has held to her original vision for the series.
“Every time trans people are portrayed in culture or in the media, it is done with the intent to ‘educate’ and ‘demystify,’ ” she says. “While I recognize that this is an important aspect of changing mentalities, I think it also has the effect of dehumanizing and other-izing trans people, as if we were only good for documentaries.”
As for those microaggressions, Labelle masterfully constructs vivid narratives that relate the kinds of things trans people are liable to encounter every day. In one strip, Stephanie’s cisgender dad suggests that she should be more patient with other people’s questions about being a trans woman. Her reply: “I might not want to spend every second I’m alive justifying my existence.”
It’s these uncompromisingly positive portrayals of trans life that Labelle believes led to her being targeted by “alt right” trolls in late May of this year. The online attackers sent her death threats, vandalized her Assigned Male Facebook page with graphic anti-trans messages, and doxxed her by publishing her home address on neo-Nazi websites, forcing her to move abruptly. She also canceled a Halifax release party in May for her new book, Dating Tips for Trans and Queer Weirdos, after the owners and customers of the store hosting it received threats.
“From what I can understand, there’s two things they really resent me for,” she says of her tormentors. “The fact that I have an inclusive and positive approach to transness by trying to reframe it into something that could be empowering, and the fact I include non-binary and intersex characters in my comic. Both of those things really piss them off!”
Labelle is encouraged by transgender people’s new visibility thanks to achievements like the success of Laverne Cox in Orange Is the New Black and former Olympic hero Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out on network TV. But she says it’s brought new dangers as well.
“More trans people are made aware that being trans is an actual thing and that there’s no need to be ashamed of it, and that’s absolutely wonderful and makes us stronger as a community,” she says. “The negative aspect is that it made us, more than in previous decades, an easy target for hate groups, who are suddenly vastly invested in trans issues. As a group that’s so marginalized, it seems easy to take us as scapegoats: Hitler did the same thing when the Nazis decided to burn down the [Institute for Sexual Science], which contained the biggest archive of trans history in the world. It’s not a new thing.”
Still, Labelle is heartened that trans people no longer feel the need to hide from society in order to survive. “We see with younger generations that a future is possible without having to live a life of secrecy,” she says. “Our basic rights are still at stake, and trans people, mostly trans women of color, are still being murdered on a daily basis. The difference is that now, we’re talking about it.”