In the last few years the transgender community all over the world has started to make itself heard like never before. Among all of these new contributions, one voice in particular stands out: Sophie Labelle’s. A teacher, author of the web-comic “Assigned Male“, Canadian trans activist, incredibly charismatic and kind, Sophie has been travelling Europe since the beginning of 2018 and she tirelessly attended meetings after meetings – in Italy she was in Bologna, Padua, Ferrara, Florence and Rome – meeting her fans, signing her books and sharing her experience as an artist.
I had the opportunity to meet her in Ferrara on the 16th of May at the event facilitated by Raffaele Baldo, translated by Irene Pareschi, and organized in cooperation with Gruppo Trans Bologna, TransFer, and Arcigay Ferrara, and it was one of the most incredible experiences of my life..
It started in school
Sophie Labelle – who is French Canadian – told us how she became an artist almost by chance: drawing comics for her brother, who had founded a club in her school, about his adventures with his teachers. These comics soon became famous in her town and helped her to gain confidence, especially when she was diagnosed with: “A serious case of The Gender”, she says jokingly.
She comes out at 13 and after that she becomes an activist with LGBTQIA youth and school associations. The experiences she had with her queer activist friends inspired her to complete the first draft of “Assigned Male”. This was in 2014 while she was studying to become a teacher.
She worked as a teacher in schools with transgender and gender non-conforming children, precisely because she was transgender too, before “transitioning” from teacher to artist, she says – making a pun on the medical term “transition”. Hence the beginning of Sophie’s adventure – and of her characters Stephie and Ciel’s adventure, too.
An internal audience
“Assigned Male” gains attention as an unusual representation of the trans and queer community. First of all, its audience is the trans and queer community itself, even though many people mistake the comic as an attempt to educate those who stand outside of it.
By addressing a “internal” audience, Sophie is able to joke about well-known feelings and experiences to trans people, who can appreciate her humor. In this way, the power of trans people strengthen, making them feel like they can take control over their lives and consolidate their influence over society, claiming the possibility of not having to always fall back on the darker aspects of medicalization, and freeing themselves from the feeling of having to educate cis people or to satisfy their curiosity.
Sophie shows us a different way to portray the trans community: rather than revealing her characters’ most private secrets or medical transitions, we are presented with a group of queer teenagers who grow up, have fun, socialize, laugh and joke around. Also because – she confesses – she never had a great imagination, her creativity has always been linked to the portrayal of daily life.
A different storytelling
“Since I was a kid I’ve felt a lack of representation”: this is why she decided to become a significant model for the trans community, from the time she was considered an “effeminate boy” to her fundamental role as a teacher. “It is difficult to find trans role models for children in our society, or to give children a space to express themselves and experiment.”
It was precisely this desire for representation that fueled her resolution to create her own stories; she intends to keep writing and drawing until there will be enough representation, even though she doesn’t believe this will happen over the course of her own life (but, if it will ever come to that, she’s ready to hung up her pencil, sit on a rocking chair on the porch with her pipe and tell us all about the meme war of 2016).
Her work received a positive feedback from the queer community, although she has been accused more than once of being cis-phobic (“I’m not cis-phobic! – Sophia defends herself – It’s just that all transphobic people I’ve met were cis, but this is just a coincidence!”), while external feedback has been more ambiguous.
Target of hatred
Between those who showed their gratitude for the time Sophie, according to them, spent educating them about trans issues, the hate she received from neo-Nazis groups because of her “gender propaganda”, and TERFs (1) who believe Sophie, as a trans woman, to be an “instrument of patriarchy to take over female spaces”, nobody appears to have understood what the artist wanted to communicate.
We spoke about her haters for a long time: Sophie Labelle told us how she was forced to move out after a neo-Nazis group doxed her. They hacked her website, found out her address and even the school where she was worked, contacted the headmaster revealing she was “a dangerous trans activist”, only to receive this response: “Yes, she is, this is why we hired her”.
Another time, after her fans’ counterattack succeeded to get a group banned, she received hundreds of messages and death threats via e-mail, forcing her to cancel a scheduled presentation of her comic book “Dating Tips”. This piece of news, spread by some journalists, helped her comic book to sell out in record time. “Thank you, haters!”
However, despite these bad experiences, her haters have always provided a big source of inspiration for her comics – which often deal with these issues- representing a fundamental part of the process through which Sophie came to be the artist she is now.
Talking about her future, Sophie was very clear: first of all she wants to finish the last dates of her tour and then go back home! After that, she intends to keep creating, working on the sequel of her web-comic and on a short story in English.
translation by Micol Mian
©2018 Il Grande Colibrì
foto: Sophie Labelle
(1) The acronym stands for “Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist”, but it’s been replaced by the more politically incorrect “Trans Exclusionary Radical Fucker”.