Quill and Quire

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Rae Spoon and Ivan E. Coyote share personal stories in Gender Failure

Rae Spoon Ivan E Coyote

Rae Spoon and Ivan E. Coyote (photo: Andrew PW Smith)

When Rae Spoon and Ivan E. Coyote first conceived of Gender Failure in 2012, it was as a 45-minute live multimedia performance of stories and songs about being trans and living outside the gender binary. “A real room-clearer of a show,” writes Coyote, quoting Spoon in their new collaborative book, also called Gender Failure, published in May by Arsenal Pulp Press.

For the past two years Spoon and Coyote have toured the show to receptive crowds throughout North America and the U.K. “It’s turned out to be a room-changer,” Spoon says over the phone from Montreal, just ahead of bringing the project to Canada’s East Coast. “We’ve changed the audiences who have come out to it, and the warm reception made us realize it was resonating.”

The positive feedback inspired the duo to extend the performance by another 45 minutes and tackle a book adaptation. Gender Failure gave Coyote and Spoon more space to delve into their individual journeys from confused female-assigned youth to productive, creative adults who refer to themselves using the gender-neutral “they” pronoun.

Spoon’s half of the book was written mostly while on tour as an indie folk-electronic musician. Vancouver-based Coyote, the author of nine other titles, was busy as an in-demand spoken-word performer and writer-in-residence at Western University in London, Ontario. The two brainstormed together when possible, but wrote their chapters separately using a shared digital document accessible from wherever they happened to be in the world.

Most of the text from the show made it into the book, along with live performance shots, lyrics and chord sheets, and stills from Seattle artist Clyde Petersen, who contributed animations and video.

Spoon and Coyote alternate chapters to tell their stories, which are presented in chronological order. Spoon’s tidy, humorous prose focuses on the difficulties of dating when one’s identity is in flux: having a boyfriend as a woman; coming out as gay; dating women; coming out as a man; dating women as a man; dating men as a man; and coming out as trans. (Spoon is now gender-retired.) One anecdote recounts Spoon’s somewhat hostile first encounter with the idea of someone wanting to be called “they.”

“I didn’t always behave perfectly,” says Spoon, who last year published the autobiographical short-story collection First Spring Grass Fire (Arsenal Pulp), a Lambda Literary Award finalist. “By exposing that in the narrative, I was trying to make an example of myself and my confusion. Maybe that can be productive, by making space for people to have those feelings and make mistakes when they are trying to learn. And then from there comes the journey toward respectfulness.”

Coyote’s writing style is loose, conversational, and emotional, and addresses the difficult decision to undergo a bilateral mastectomy. “This book includes some of the most intimate and personal things I’ve ever written down and put out into the world,” says Coyote. “I often get thanked at shows for being vulnerable, but telling stories that at first really scared me to talk about has really changed the way I see vulnerability.”

While Coyote and Spoon’s personal experiences may differ, the two writers felt it was important to tell their stories together in a single book.

“It might, hopefully, help to chip away at the ridiculous idea that there is any one typical or monolithic trans narrative,” says Coyote. “Each of us possesses our own gender story, even when it might look similar on the outside, and we all take extremely varied paths to our own gender endings. Telling two very different people’s stories right from the get go, and always trying to make room for those of others, helps reiterate that there is no right or perfect route to get there.”

This story appeared in the June 2014 print edition.