Gender Failure Review: Coyote & Spoon Retire the Gender Binary
Posted by Wayves Volunteer 19/03/2014
By Bobbi Zahra
Rae Spoon and Ivan E. Coyote
255pp. Arsenal Pulp Press.
Neither Ivan E. Coyote nor Rae Spoon is a stranger to Atlantic Canada, and in anticipation of their next visit, there’s no better time to take a look at their latest collaboration, Gender Failure, the book based on their live show of the same name which has already toured in much of Canada, the US, and abroad.
For those who’ve somehow missed both Coyote and Spoon in Halifax, it is worth knowing that both are award-winning writers (Spoon has been nominated for the Lambda Literary Award for their First Spring Grass Fire, and Coyote the recipient of the ReLit Award for their novel Bow Grip.), as well as celebrated spoken word and musical performers. Moreover, each is an astute social critic, drawing attention gently but deliberately to a world in which each acknowledges their own experience of “gender failure” – which here, we should understand does not refer to their own personal failure, but rather, to the failure of the gender binary (itself the subject of much more mainstream commentary in recent years).
Gender Failure, the book, is almost a conversation in much the same way that the show itself is about two people speaking their experience, which has sometimes been shared. Taking it in turns, Coyote and Spoon offer the reader a collection of essays, lyrics, occasional brief musings, and photographs, and invite us – even if just momentarily – to enter their world for a brief moment.
Most of us have had experience of feeling like an outsider, no matter how insignificant it may seem to us in retrospect. Spoon and Coyote’s work, though, draws a picture of ‘otherness’ as something utterly different. Each of them has felt ‘other’ as far back as they can remember, even on occasions when they’ve tried to blend seamlessly into their environment. Their singular and joint expression of how that has felt, and the point at which each was able to say, “This is who I am – if you have a problem with that, it’s your problem, not mine,” is an expression of courage, and of honouring that ‘otherness.’
Both Coyote and Spoon offer us glimpses into the members of the trans* community who were their first role models and pay tender homage to people who probably were even more orphaned by society than these authors may sometimes have found themselves. Coyote’s “The Rest of My Chest” is a stunning (but very polite) indictment of the overweening bureaucracy involved in having any government agency, even one which operates with psychologists and psychiatrists, determine whether any given person is “trans enough” to have the great Canadian socialised medicine apparatus formally recognise their own gender definition.
Spoon takes it a step further: having decisively retired from the entire gender binary equation, they observe that the act of refusing any gender assignment is looked upon with confusion and suspicion. As difficult as it may be to be a transgender person in a heteronormative world, it seems that it’s much more of a challenge for people to accept a simple absence of gender. If one refuses the tag of gender, then it surely cannot be reasonable to attempt to impose the expectations of a perceived gender, after all.
The essays offered in this book are by turn funny, sweet, frustrating, heartbreaking, and from time to time, rather rage-inducing. They are also exquisitely written, leaving this reader, at least, wanting to turn back to the first page immediately after closing the book on the last, so that I could taste the words more intentionally a second time around.
There are a number of ways to read Gender Failure – you could, as I did, read it cover-to-cover. You could read all of one author’s contributions, and then all of the other’s. Or you could take a look at the table of contents and dive in based on titles. “Thirteen Inches, Uncut,” might not turn out to be exactly what you think it is. “How to Be Gay When the Gays Won’t Have You” is a cautionary tale in five very sweet but sad pages.
However you choose to read the book, though, you should do yourself the favour of making sure it finds its way into your hands. You will undoubtedly laugh a bit when you read it, but you might also want to have a tissue handy, in the event of an errant tear. And when Coyote and Spoon return to Halifax this spring, you should most certainly plan to be there to hear them have the Gender Failure conversation in real time.
Editor's Note: Bobbi Zahra is mostly a theologian, always an ally, and a great appreciator of excellent writing. She lives and works in Halifax, where she is often very outspoken but only rarely wreaks havoc.
Gender Failure's official publication date is April 1, 2014. A Book Launch in Halifax takes place at the Bus Stop Theatre on April 20, (Wayves.ca has learned there will also be a launch in St. John's NL, we'll publish details as they become available). Venus Envy in Halifax expects to have stock retail copies available prior to the launch and you can also order Gender Failure from the publisher, and from Toronto's Glad Day Bookshop, Canada's leading LGBTQ Bookseller, and the world's oldest! Wherever possible, Wayves hopes our readers will support LGBTQ Booksellers like Venus Envy and Glad Day.