SO­PHIE’S AS­SIGN­MENT

Mon­trealer’s web comic gives a voice to trans is­sues

Montreal Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - IAN McGIL­LIS

It’s a long way, lit­er­ally and fig­u­ra­tively, from the small South Shore com­mu­nity near Château­guay where the comics artist born Guil­laume Labelle grew up, to Switzer­land. But then, life has been a jour­ney full of twists and turns for So­phie Labelle.

Speak­ing by Face­book last week from Geneva, where she was stay­ing at a writ­ers’ re­treat, the 28-year-old Mon­treal resident re­called her home­town and child­hood with mixed emo­tions.

“It was a place with just a gen­eral store. I have two brothers. I loved to sur­round my­self with art. At 5, I was telling any­one who would lis­ten that I would grow up to make books.

“I was quite a pop­u­lar kid, be­cause of the silly comics I’d make, un­til I fell into a heavy de­pres­sion at age 8, be­cause of some is­sues re­lated to my gen­der — I started get­ting bul­lied at school be­cause of my fem­i­nin­ity, the way I spoke, my man­ners.”

That early low rep­re­sented a turn­ing point on the road to Guil­laume becoming So­phie.

Kicked out of school, she moved in her teens to Mon­treal, where for the first time she found a sup­port­ive trans-friendly net­work.

Fol­low­ing a teach­ing course and a brief stint work­ing at an al­ter­na­tive el­e­men­tary school, she made the de­ci­sion to de­vote her­self full time to art and trans ac­tivism, and has now achieved a global pro­file with her on­line comic As­signed Male.

Launched in 2014 (the story can be joined at any point, though it’s all archived if you want to start at the be­gin­ning), the twice-weekly comic gets half a mil­lion vis­its a week.

Set largely in the streets of Rose­mont — look closely at the back­drops and you’ll no­tice oc­ca­sional neigh­bour­hood land­marks — the strip fol­lows the ev­ery­day lives of trans­gen­der girl Ste­phie and her friends as they ne­go­ti­ate the mine­field of be­ing trans and trans-sym­pa­thetic in a world of­ten hos­tile or plain un­com­pre­hend­ing of the trans re­al­ity.

How would Labelle de­scribe her car­toon hero­ine to those who haven’t met her?

“I’d say Ste­phie is a sarcastic young fem­i­nist who doesn’t take s--t from any­one. She’s an en­cy­clo­pe­dia on legs, and very witty and ar­tic­u­late. Kids like to be treated as peo­ple who can dis­cuss is­sues.”

Labelle of­ten finds her­self con­fronted by a stub­born as­sump­tion about those mak­ing work that could po­ten­tially be con­strued as au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal.

“Ste­phie is not me, and not ev­ery­body un­der­stands that,” she said. “Some­times I’ll meet peo­ple who have read the strip and they’ll talk to me as if I were a 12-year-old. Peo­ple have a hard time un­der­stand­ing that trans peo­ple can cre­ate works of fic­tion.

“For the long­est time it was as­sumed that any work of art by a trans per­son was about their own life. One thing I have given Ste­phie that she shares with me is the way she speaks. At her age I was nick­named Google; I was a nerd.”

Hav­ing started As­signed Male to fill a per­ceived need, Labelle was grat­i­fied when her in­stincts were soon con­firmed.

“When peo­ple started pay­ing at­ten­tion to the comic it was be­cause it was one of the rare voices that was com­plicit and pos­i­tive about body em­pow­er­ment and body pos­i­tiv­ity, that ad­dressed trans is­sues in a way that isn’t based on med­i­cal dis­course.

“Trans kids are the only kids to whom it’s con­sid­ered OK to say that they have the wrong body. You don’t say that to a dis­abled kid or an over­weight kid.”

Mak­ing some­thing aimed at a spe­cific group has meant, for Labelle, an age-old prob­lem: “Sadly the re­sources (trans artists) make will be con­sumed by the peo­ple who need them least.

“The peo­ple that we want to ed­u­cate are the peo­ple who would never read my comic — the peo­ple who have chil­dren who are still liv­ing in fear of com­ing out.”

Labelle’s fol­low­ing, cy­ber-bul­lies not­with­stand­ing, is a loyal and pas­sion­ate bunch.

“My liv­ing room is cov­ered in fan art that I’ve got­ten from kids,” she said. “They of­ten feel like they’re not a part of the cul­ture, of the col­lec­tive imag­i­na­tion, so see­ing how they iden­tify and re­spond al­ways gives me a lot of en­ergy.”

That fol­low­ing is also nu­mer­ous enough to have raised Labelle’s pro­file to the point where the comic’s an­cil­lary ben­e­fits en­able her to make a liv­ing. She is in steady de­mand as a pub­lic speaker and con­fer­ence leader.

Af­ter all the work and ad­vo­cacy it’s hard not to ask: Would the eight-year-old So­phie, trans­ported to 2017, be no­tice­ably bet­ter off ? In short, has there been real progress?

“It de­pends where you were born,” she said. “If the eight-yearold me were in the United States I’d prob­a­bly be pretty scared right now, be­cause the most pow­er­ful peo­ple in the coun­try are mak­ing laws that aim at your very dig­nity. They’re try­ing to rip peo­ple from their hu­man­ity. Chil­dren prob­a­bly won’t say it that way, but that’s how it feels.

“It’s like grow­ing up and al­ways hear­ing the same trans­pho­bic jokes in movies and on TV. I still hear those jokes. Very rarely do I see a movie that doesn’t have at least some small pinch of it — even if there are no trans char­ac­ters, they’ll find a way to make a joke at the ex­pense of trans peo­ple. It’s a very in­sid­i­ous mech­a­nism.”

Not sur­pris­ingly, Labelle doesn’t hes­i­tate to weigh in on trans­gen­der-re­lated ques­tions.

“I know chil­dren who need to travel to Mon­treal from the Gaspésie to see doc­tors for gen­eral ap­point­ments be­cause still, to­day, doc­tors have a hard time tak­ing pa­tients who are trans.

“Even peo­ple who only have the flu will some­times pre­fer to travel the greater dis­tance to see a trans-friendly doc­tor, be­cause they know that a doc­tor in Que­bec City might just tell them that they can’t do any­thing be­cause they are un­der hor­mone treat­ment, when that has noth­ing to do with it.”

Asked what she would say to those on the fence in the on­go­ing bath­room-ac­cess con­tro­versy, she said, “Guess what? Trans peo­ple have al­ways been here, and they’ve al­ways been shar­ing bath­rooms with you. This is not new. It was true if you were in a cas­tle in the Mid­dle Ages, and it’s true here and now.”

In­ter­net fame may well spread to the print realm for Labelle. She is con­tracted to write a series of graphic nov­els star­ring char­ac­ters from As­signed Male; the first is to be pub­lished in 2018.

As for the comic it­self, she said, “It can be a lot of pres­sure to keep com­ing up with new ma­te­rial, but I’ll keep do­ing it for as long as I can. The char­ac­ters are aging in real time — it started when they were in fifth grade, now they’re in high school, and there’s an ex­cite­ment about see­ing them grow.

“I wouldn’t mind see­ing them reach adult­hood.”

Does she ever feel con­strained by her sub­ject mat­ter? Are there days when she wakes up and feels like mak­ing a story about some­thing com­pletely un­re­lated?

“No. Right now I feel very con­tent with it. I love trans peo­ple, I have so much love to give them, that I re­ally don’t feel the need to cater to any other au­di­ence. We need peo­ple mak­ing stuff for us.”

I know chil­dren who need to travel to Mon­treal from the Gaspésie to see doc­tors for gen­eral ap­point­ments be­cause still, to­day, doc­tors have a hard time tak­ing pa­tients who are trans.

SO­PHIE LABELLE

In her teens, So­phie Labelle moved from her home­town near Château­guay to Mon­treal, where for the first time she found a sup­port­ive trans-friendly net­work.

A page from Mon­treal trans artist So­phie Labelle’s pop­u­lar on­line comic As­signed Male, which draws half a mil­lion vis­its each week.

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