This particular post is important to me for many reasons. As of September of 2017, I became aware of the fact that I struggle with gender dysphoria. For those of you who may not have encountered this term before, gender dysphoria “involves a conflict between a person’s physical or assigned gender and the gender with which he/she/they identify.” It can certainly go much deeper than this, as many complex ideas will, but for me it was the realization that for as long as I can remember, I wished I was born a girl instead of a boy.
Naturally, there’s a lot to unpack there. When did this begin? What sparked such a feeling? These are all questions I am currently addressing. Some of my difficulty in addressing such an epiphany is that I have no idea what any of it means. There were not many trans folk in our severely Christian area of Souderton, Pennsylvania. Our high school’s Gay, Straight Alliance was small and rarely allowed to be vocal. So once I started at community college, away from my religious leaning school, and learned a punk icon of mine came out as transexual, I wanted to know more. Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! was one of the first public trans figures I had come into contact with. She tackled her battles with dysphoria in the lyrics of their 2014 album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues. I felt connected with the songs on a cerebral level, but how? I wasn’t someone who struggled with gender dysphoria…was I?
Fast forward three years and I am a lost, confused, but ultimately hopeful man/person/etc. Naming my dysphoria helped me to understand a depression and self-hatred I harbored for most of my life. There was a freedom that came with such an understanding, but also a deep fear. What truly scared me the most was a simple thought: What do I do now?
I remain eternally thankful for a wonderful support system of friends that consistently check in with me and work to understand what it is I am going through. A few months ago, one such friend reached out to me to recommend Super Late Bloomer. He is aware of my love and scholastic desire to discuss comic books and graphic novels whenever possible, so this particular suggestion meant the world to me.
Super Late Bloomer is described as “a highly personal collection documenting the early months of artist Julia Kaye’s gender transition.” This collection is an autobiographical extension of Kaye’s Up and Out webcomic, where she has been sharing experiences and anxieties concerning her transition. She is currently a storyboard artist for Disney Channel’s Big City Greens and has provided work in Maxim, Cosmopolitan, and BuzzFeed. It is through this book and her work within the webcomic that have brought her much acclaim.
The book opens with a heartfelt “Before” piece, where Kaye chronicles life leading up to her realization of dysphoria. I was sitting on a bus home from New York, reading this opening piece and crying because her feelings were so visceral and relatable. Her fear and uncertainty reflects those of anyone struggling with their identity: “I may not have understood myself, but I do remember from a very young age I felt I had to hide myself away. I began trying to change my behavior in an attempt to fit in. The social cues coming from every direction told me that who I was was not okay.”
She further explains the uncomfortability with physical body and appearance changes which took place during puberty and then later into her 20’s. Those are moments where dysphoria feels as though it dissipates, or is vanquished, only to return with a vengeance. These ideas are familiar, even to folks in other facets of the queer community. The shame that comes from being told that what you desire is “not okay” provides a debilitating sense of your existence. It can be hard to unlearn such shame and eradicate negative reactions when you finally try and embrace who you are. This is just as pertinent for Kaye, but she knows that to be truly happy is to commit to her truest self. While the decision to transition was earth-shattering, it was integral to her well being.
The “Before” section offers a comfort to the reader. For those who have transitioned, seek to transition, or are looking to learn about dysphoria, it’s a perfect introduction to the emotions that come with such an epiphany. Alienation, disconnection, and fear often manifest when you realize that you don’t feel comfortable in the gender you were assigned. As readers make their way through the comics collected within, Kaye navigates the good and bad days of transitioning. She captures the liberation and sometimes crippling anxiety that comes with changing your entire life and gender. The best part is she does all of this with a hopeful spirit, never allowing the uncertainty to overpower her journey to peace and happiness.
Practically every facet of transitioning is explored during Kaye’s journey: from battling internalized transphobia, hormone usage, misgendering, and struggles with self image to the brighter moments of self empowerment and support from loved ones. Most of the strips only contain a few panels and offer snippets of her experiences, but each snippet brings moments of encouragement and reflection.
Some of my favorite sequences are when Kaye challenges the constraints or rules of traditional gender. She remains aware of the fact that her past shame haunts her in the ways she picks apart her masculine features. She yearns to see her true self, but will also reaffirm that the journey is not easy and will take time. There is also the battle of defining femininity for herself. In a strip marked “August 22nd, 2016,” Kaye crashes out of a small box that is pictured in the first panel: “I’m tired of self-imposed constraints. I’m transitioning to be happier with myself.” As she kicks the ruined box away, she declares, “Gonna be my own special brand of girl.” Expression is a constant question present in Kaye’s story. She struggles to find her own middleground between expressing herself and not seeming like a “crossdressing man” to the public. Her anxieties are justified and it’s fulfilling when readers can witness her bounce back and embrace all facets of her identity.
Other therapeutic moments for me are when she confronts ideas and artifacts from her past, like in “October 9th, 2016,” where she is looking through old sketchbooks. “It’s strange seeing my depression so plainly in sketchbooks from college,” she starts, “I found drawings of myself as a woman. I’d felt so euphoric drawing ‘em without understanding why.” There’s a look of peace on her face as she shuts the sketchbook in the final panel. This particularly struck me because I had recently found threads of dysphoric thought in my own lyrical writing.
This is common in trans narratives. Laura Jane Grace wrote many lyrics that not-so-subtly addressed her dysphoria before coming out to the music world. In “The Ocean,” which comes from the 2007 album New Wave, Grace sings, “And if I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman / My mother once told me she would have named me Laura.” These moments of reflection are so important to anyone struggling with dysphoria.
Kaye references Against Me! in a sequence that grapples with voice pitch and the desire to sound more feminine. She says that she feels “less broken” when singing along with Grace, depicting herself in the car, screaming along to the lyrics of “True Trans Soul Rebel” from Transgender Dysphoria Blues.
It’s so hard to pin down all of my favorite moments from this collection because there were so many that hit me on intimate levels. She tackles the frustrations that come with constantly shaving and not being able to remove all of the beard shadow—something I never imagined would upset me. There’s the previously mentioned fear of looking in mirrors and never seeing your “true self,” but embracing the days when you do recognize the beauty in your appearance. Part of my emotional response to this collection was in part due to the time frame in which I read it. The friend that recommended it to me was reaching out in response to some of my recent writing, specifically a piece I wrote for HerCampus entitled, “A Progress Report.” In the piece, I was addressing some of my anxieties and feelings of gender-related imposter syndrome, so Super Late Bloomer was a refreshing reminder that such emotions are natural. I had also suffered an emotional breakdown just hours before I would board the bus and tear through the collection. My dysphoria was particularly strong that day and I couldn’t stop crying as my girlfriend quietly comforted me. Because of all of that, Kaye’s story and expressiveness felt like a warm hand on my shoulder, or a hug, just to say that everything was going to be ok. I felt valid and I could never be able to express how much that meant to me.
The publication and success of this collection is a triumph, as well as an inspiration. Julia Kaye is one of many writers and illustrators sharing their stories through online and print platforms. Queer artists are becoming more and more vocal, sharing their experiences and struggles with anyone who will listen. Since many major comic book publications feel that stories depicting diverse experiences don’t sell enough to survive, creators have found it more lucrative to circulate their work on social media. Kaye posts Up And Out on Tumblr and communicates avidly with fans and supporters on Twitter. She even brought light to a particularly gloomy day of mine, pointing me in the direction of the asktransgender subreddit page and offering words of encouragement.
Taneka Stotts is another queer creator doing incredible work for POC and LGBTQ+ communities. Her recent anthology, ELEMENTS: Fire, won an Eisner award for best anthology and features an entire roster of creators of color. Stotts is continuously vocal concerning diversity in comics. In a 2016 interview with Women Write About Comics, she stressed that she was often the only woman or person of color contacted to be a part of comic anthologies. She states that while many comics like to “say they’re diverse,” it isn’t usually the case. ELEMENTS was crowdfunded by Kickstarter, which was fully funded within a week, and then broke the 40K mark shortly thereafter. What does this say about about the audiences reading comic books and graphic novels?
Representation is incredibly important. People seek to read stories that reflect their own experiences and not the same tired white, cis, hetero-patriarchal BS that has endured for decades. What many of the big name publishers don’t realize is that things are shifting. While enduring narratives of western pop culture have focused on the triumphs and successes of white characters, modern audiences are more and more desiring of new and diverse perspectives. We want stories about Shuri, America Chavez, Petrichor from Saga, or any character that is not strictly white, a binary gender, cis sex, or employs impossible body ideals upon children across the world. Comics are changing and so are their creators. To be able to read stories like Julia Kaye’s is a gift and I hope our society will see more trans and non-binary stories told within the coming years. For young people who may face dysphoria in the future, it is paramount that we as a literary society provide stories that will connect and encourage their narratives. Trans lives are human lives and their expression is just as vital to our overall culture as anyone else’s.
Julia can be found on Twitter and Instagram at, @upandoutcomic