Blend art and civil rights in a very 21st century way and you’ll get Sophie Labelle, webcomics author and trans activist. On Friday, she'll be meeting readers and fans at Muntpunt. In the meantime, we got to talk with her about internet fame, storytelling and future projects.
“Anything to declare?” asks the customs inspector. “Yes, I do. My fabulousness shines like a thousand incandescent diamonds” promptly replies seventh grader Ciel. Sassy and sarcastic as only teenagers can be, Ciel is one of the main characters of Sophie Labelle’s Assigned Male, the webcomics exploring trans-ness and gender identities through the lenses of a group of non-binary adolescents, led by BFFs Stephie and Ciel.
Born and bred in Montreal, Labelle is a long-time Québécoise LGBTI activist and educator who launched Assigned Male in 2014, quickly becoming a web-star. Children’s book, public speeches and international book tours followed shortly after. An uneasy task in times of online trolling and cyber-harassment of which the writer was victim in 2017, with death threats and her social media hacked. "Being highly visible has a lot of inconveniences, but it also gives me a certain form of protection, in the sense that nothing can happen to me without a lot of people hearing about it” reassures Labelle.
Today a symbol of resilience, the author will be at Muntpunt, hosted by Transkids Belgique, a Francophone support group for trans children and their families.
How did you first get into comics and what led you to create Assigned Male?
Sophie Labelle: I’ve always been very interested in comics. I started drawing myself when I was 7, mostly to make my brothers laugh. It kind of stuck with me: at school, I was always drawing or working on stories. After I came out, when I was 13, it seemed natural to create characters that were queer or trans like me. The lack of respectful representation in fiction had always been very heavy to me, and I wanted to create as many diverse characters as possible.
Back then, I was very active on online art and fanfiction communities - I had a very strong anime phase going on. But it's only when I started university, where I was doing a lot of activism, that I started working on Assigned Male comics, mostly to entertain my trans and queer friends at school.
How do you develop your storylines and how much of Sophie is in Stephie and Ciel's world, the protagonists of the series?
Labelle: Growing up, I had a strong appetite for trans and gender non-conforming characters going through normal stuff, but it was very rare. Stories that included them were always heavily dramatic and all the worst stuff you can imagine kept happening to them. So my storylines are never really exciting. It's mostly just my characters going through their day, and the down-to-earth and ordinary situations become the ground for discussions about stuff I've been thinking, reading or discussing about.
The comic is very different from a lot of other comics about trans characters because there's nothing autobiographical in it. They're entirely fictional, although I might have put some of my sarcasm and love for justice in the main character. Ciel, the second main character, has probably inherited my quirkiness and sense of humor.
The series was so successful that it turned into a tour across cities, states and...continents. How does meeting international audiences challenge and inspire your work?
Labelle: At a certain moment, it was essential to me. Being internet famous is really weird, in the sense that virtual love can often feel very abstract. And I've been getting a lot of harassment for my work since the beginning, which translated in very real and physical anxiety. So I needed to meet my fans to give some sort of tangible meaning to what I do.
Meeting with my readers has definitely influenced my work in many different ways. First, it inspires me. People from so many diverse backgrounds and experiences have been sharing their stories with me, anecdotes, feelings. Second, it energizes me. Being able to put faces on the people for who work like mine matters is what drives me and makes me get up in the morning. And last, it keeps me on my toe. I don't want to get too comfortable, and I wish to keep seeing my work evolving. It is currently very different than when it started, and having the opportunity to discuss my work and to express things I've been feeling about it in front of audiences has been a privilege in the sense that it keeps me in movement.
Despite some improvements in the recognition of LGBTI rights across the globe in recent years, the trans community is still often stigmatized and discriminated. Been a victim of online harassment yourself, how did you overcome the experience?
Labelle: Being highly visible has a lot of inconveniences, but it also gives me a certain form of protection, in the sense that nothing can happen to me without a lot of people hearing about it. My haters' goals have always been to scare me off the internet and to drive people away from me by spreading lies and rumors about me. My strategy has been to expose them and to turn it around, making comics about it and speaking up about cyber-harassment.
When that attack happened in 2017, my reaction was to go go the media with the story, with overwhelming success : I ended up on the front page of so many newspapers that I lost count. I doubled my readership at that moment, and I'm pretty sure my haters took note of it and have been keeping a low profile since then. My message for people who find themselves in a similar situation would be to make the best out of it. Staying silent and ignoring the threats might sometimes be safer, but the status quo doesn't do anything against bullies.
You are a comic artist, educator, author and activist, currently on a tour: wow, you definitely keep yourself busy! What's your next project?
Labelle: I do keep myself busy! I managed to enjoy the summer a bit, but I'll be mostly taking time off this fall to write a new illustrated novel and a show that I hope will be ready for my next international tour in Spring 2020. I have a comic book on queer sex education coming out next month, so that will be fun. And of course, I'll keep working on the webcomic!