Montrealer’s web comic gives a voice to trans issues
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.
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.