Sophie Labelle has been drawing comics ever since she was a kid. As a young trans activist and student at the Université du Québec à Montréal, she wanted to create something that would be relatable to her trans friends at school that dealt with situations she and they encountered every day. In 2014, she drafted the first rendition of “Assigned Male,” a comic that has led to worldwide attention — for good and bad.
Labelle, who currently lives in Finland and grew up in a region near Montreal, quit school to pursue drawing comics full time. She has been traveling the world ever since, promoting her work, speaking to schools and meeting fans.
“Assigned Male,” which Labelle describes as “the adventures of a bunch of sarcastic trans and queer teenagers,” began as a web comic. Labelle has since published over a dozen books which have been translated into multiple languages. As part of her Midwest trek, called The Trans Agenda Tour, Labelle will stop by Booksweet in Ann Arbor at 7 p.m. Feb. 7 and at Bettie’s Pages in Lowell at 6 p.m. Feb. 6.
When Labelle speaks to Pride Source by phone, she is on a brief break during her tour.
“Broadway musicals have been my guiding light all of my life,” she says. “I’m very happy because I’ve got a few days off and I’m in New York City right now, so I’m just seeing all the musicals.” She names “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Hadestown,” “Six,” and “Moulin Rouge!”
“Musicals [are] to theater what comics are to literature,” she says. “Literature on a sugar rush with something for all the senses.”
“Sugar rush” is an apt description of the look of Labelle’s comics. Colorful and engaging with adorable characters, at first glance you might not expect to find declarations of trans empowerment and selfhood.
A recent comic depicts an adult and two kids in a park, an older kid babysitting a younger kid. The adult asks if the younger child is a boy or a girl. The sitter responds, “We don’t know yet, they haven’t told us.” The adult, distressed, responds that this will surely confuse the child.
The sitter responds, “The most confusing part of it is actually the amount of strangers who feel entitled to ask what’s in that kid’s pants.” This shuts the adult right up.
Other comics are more stark. In one single panel strip we see a kid tied to a tree, pitchforks rising up all around. The kid is saying to the mob, “If your binary view of gender is so natural, biological and immutable, then why is the simple existence of trans kids such a threat to it?”
It is, unfortunately, an accurate depiction of the harassment and threats Labelle receives online simply for creating art that speaks to transgender readers and allies without apology or preamble.
“I’ve been targeted by different hate groups several times in the past decades,” she says. “They even forced me to move at one point because they published my address online.”
Labelle says she gets death threats on a daily basis, which she points out is something most trans people who are very visible online have to deal with.
“It’s not getting better. We can tell that we’re currently living through some type of backlash. It wasn’t like that back in 2016 when my work first went viral.” The anti-trans backlash, Labelle says, is “a very slippery slope.”
“I am very conscious of how quickly this could devolve into full scale violence against trans people,” she says. “And it’s not new in our society. Every century there is a moral panic against trans people, against gender non-conforming people. It leads me to believe that progress isn’t linear, it comes in cycles, and we shouldn’t take anything for granted, and that really helps me get some perspective [and] helps me keep hope for the betterment of trans people everywhere.”
Labelle has had people show up to her events to disrupt and protest. Though it hasn’t always gone like one might expect.
“It did happen a few times that some of my harassers came to my events with the intent of crashing and disrupting and ended up staying and buying my books at the end because they were surprised to see that I wasn’t as the [online] hate forms painted me,” she says. “It’s always interesting to hear their perspective about how they get dragged into a mob mentality against trans people.”
She adds, “I’m happy to create change in that regard.”
Booksweet co-owners and married couple Truly Render and Shaun Manning are excited to be hosting Labelle at the store.
“I’ve been a fan of Sophie’s work for a while,” Manning says. “[Labelle’s comics are] really sweet and charming, and they’re talking about issues important to trans people in ways that anyone can understand.”
Her work “welcomes people who might be hearing some of this for the first time,” he continues. “I feel like I’ve learned a lot from her work.
The parents of a transgender child themselves, Render and Manning want to make sure that Labelle’s visit is a positive experience for everyone involved.
Render says they are aware of the possibility for protesters but are prepared. “When we were thinking about this [event] we were like, ‘Oh my gosh, how do we offer not only safety measures but also a continuation of what we want to offer every day in the shop — a welcoming and affirming presence?’” she says.
One area of concern? The bookshop’s huge windows facing outside.
“We’ve been in touch with Free Mom Hugs, the Michigan chapter, and we will have volunteers who will be inside our shop windows with messages of love blocking out any protest signs that might be outside the shop. Best case scenario, there are no protesters and it’s just an extra affirmation of friendship and love.”
They also chose to make the event a ticketed event for added accountability. All proceeds from the sliding scale tickets will go to Stand With Trans.
Labelle says that people attending the event can expect “something that aims to be empowering and a positive experience for trans and queer people.”
“Especially lately, it’s been kind of stressful for a lot of queer people, especially in the United States with the different political challenges to our existence in our society and also the violence that’s on the rise,” she says. “So they should expect something that is a more positive experience.”
Find more about Labelle at serioustransvibes.com.