Midwestern, Genderqueer, and Proud: Exploring Gender in a Middle-America Comics Project

a drawing of rhea erwig asking about what makes someone male or female

What gender do you consider yourself to be? How do you feel about terms and labels? How do you feel about your body in relation to your gender identity? 

These are some of the questions Rhea Ewing has been asking people all over the Midwest as part of FINE, a series of interviews about gender Rhea puts together in graphic novel format. The initial project was a zine that can be read online. Now FINE is becoming a structurally ambitious, full-length book. The curious can follow its progress on TumblrTwitter, and Facebook

As the interviewing stage nears completion, I got to turn the tables and ask Rhea some questions of my own.

ROOT: What inspired you to start FINE?
RHEA EWING: Gender’s always been kind of a weird thing for me. For as long as I can remember I’ve wondered, “Does anyone else think that this whole gender thing is super weird?” 

So I thought, “Why don’t I see? Do other people think that’s really weird?” Late 2011 I started talking to people, just asking some really basic questions about gender, and then I made a short zine.

The response was really powerful. One person came up to me in tears. He had not realized that anybody else thought about things the way he did. 

So I decided that this was work that I wanted to get more into and explore in more depth. With that original zine, everyone has two panels answering questions like, “What about society, if anything, would you change so everyone could express their gender freely?” What I’m doing now is pushing things so everyone has more space to explore things in more depth, going into specific issues about bodies and motherhood and issues with schools and workplaces.  

Why the Midwest focus?

For one thing, when I was first reading about gender and queer stuff for myself, I saw a lot of stuff that seemed to be focused on the coasts. I even read a few comics or articles of people being like, “Well, you know, the Midwest, that’s where all the people who vote for Republicans live.” That wasn’t really my experience. 

There’s a very broad range of experiences. We don’t all run dairy farms or shuck corn, but some of us do. Whether that’s someone from Chicago unpacking race and gender and class, or whether that’s someone from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in the backwoods who’s like, “I’m all alone! What’s happening?” There are really supportive places, too. 

You mentioned how this grew out of your personal experience. I’m curious what it was in your life that brought you to this.

That’s related a lot to my own gender identity and unpacking that. I identify as genderqueer and queer as far as my sexual orientation. And it took me a long time to get to that point. I was always involved with Gay Straight Alliances in high school and in college I wanted to be involved with the queer student groups here in Madison, but at some point along the way I developed this deep-rooted fear of being an impostor. Because I like women, but I didn’t like exclusively women. I felt weird about gender stuff, but my experiences didn’t fit what I had read about transmen. So I was really afraid that if I went to the queer student meetings I would be kicked out for either being not gay enough or not trans enough. It was terrifying. 

I forget where exactly it started, but I heard the word “genderqueer.” And I started looking into it. And the more I learned about all these gender identities and possibilities for gender, the more comfortable I felt in my own skin. And I know for me, if I had been able to read experiences that didn’t fit either the cisgender “This is how you were born, this is how you were assigned, this is how you are” trope or the transgender stereotypical experience of being “born in the wrong body”—if I had been able to read something earlier about how things are really complex and you can talk about them, I feel like that really would have helped me understand myself and open up more a lot faster.

What’s the most challenging part of the project?

There was a time when I was really afraid of making this because I thought, “I’m going to get something wrong, I’m going to misrepresent someone, I’ll get hate mail on the internet.” And then I realized that gender is something that is contentious. You ask four different people their opinions on gender and you get ten answers back. So of course people will disagree. That’s just the nature of it. So who am I most interested in serving and doing good by? That focus then being on people whose voices are being ignored or not heard.

Also, figuring out how to present all of these different complexities and perspectives in a way that’s cohesive and understandable, but is still true to the fact that these are all very different individuals’ experiences and viewpoints.

Has that shown up in the comic in a particular way?

If you look at the short comic on the website, it’s organized by question and everyone gives a brief response. I’d like to keep that format for parts of the book, but other areas, instead of person by person, are going to be more by idea. 

So for example, [going from] the experience of a transwoman who really wishes that she could have children, to a mother who didn’t really think about her gender until she did have a daughter, to a person who was assigned female at birth and is really uncomfortable with the idea that their body can do that. I would like it if the book read, rather than as a series of case studies, more as a series of explorations. 

What do you hope readers come away with?

If nothing else, better tools to talk about gender. The thing about gender is we’re all saddled with it in one way or another. But we’re not really given by mainstream society a lot of tools to talk about gender, especially in terms of our own experiences when they’re different from the binary that mainstream culture presents it to be. 

What I’ve found is interviewing cisgender people–who do feel that their gender identity matches what they were assigned at birth–even when they identify as being masculine and they feel like they really fit that for the most part, they still have like, “Oh, but I really enjoy spending time with my daughter and playing with the kitten.” And if they don’t have tools to talk about that or understand those things then there’s a weird Am I fake? sort of deal.

Ideally, on top of that, if teachers or healthcare managers come away with ideas of how they might serve people better, particularly transgender and gender nonconforming people, that would be great. And also if someone is thinking about gender but hasn’t realized anyone else thinks about it that way too, or challenges it the same way they do, if they walked away with that sense of, “Oh, I’m not the only one who thinks this gender thing is really weird,” or “I’m not the only one who thinks that masculinity is really problematic.”

Here’s a preview comic fron FINE: 

People describe the gender labels they apply to themselves

Related Reading: The Five Best Genderqueer Characters in Comics

by Root Barrett
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4 Comments Have Been Posted


I look forward to following this project as it evolves as I am hoping it manages to correct the linguistic problem it has already indulged in: the inaccurate use of the word gender.

For all but a very small percentage of people sex is in fact binary. Gender can be expressed in binary terms but in reality it isn't. Our conflation of the two is part of our problem.


Binaries and the relationship between sex and gender are tricky topics indeed. I appreciate your contributing your thoughts on the topic. I'd like to make sure it's clear that the discussions of gender you see in those panels come from the experiences of the diverse group Rhea interviewed--the voices of people who perceive gender as a binary are included with the voices of people who don't (and likely with the voices of people who don't fit that binary I just created!).

One of the great things about this comic is the way it's bringing these voices into a conversation that continues to unfold--a conversation which already seems to be unfolding in this comments section. Thank you for making that conversation happen.

Thanks for your reply. I'm

Thanks for your reply. I'm interested to see how this comic develops and I hope it can start opening up the nuances of not only how sex and gender relate but also how gender itself isn't as binary, or even as fixed, as we've been lead to believe by mainstream culture in particular.

I hope to see more coverage of this project in Bitch, and soon!

Go Rhea! And Bitch for

Go Rhea! And Bitch for covering this. The project and art are awesome. Fly over country is actually, as they say here in Minnesota, hmm, interesting. And quite challenging to all the traditional binaries, if one actually looks at all the folks who dwell here.

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