How to flunk out of gender into something better

Gender Failure

Ivan E. Coyote and Rae Spoon

Arsenal Pulp Press

265 pages, $17.95

Reviewed by Julian Gunn

And what a gorgeous failure it is.

Gender Failure is the new book by performers, authors and musicians Ivan E. Coyote and Rae Spoon. Under its wry title, it succeeds on any terms you care to apply: as a work of art, a collection of autobiographical essays, the record of a stage show, and a gentle but firm declaration that if we do not honour each other’s authentic, struggling, and contradictory relationships to gender, then we fail each other.

Is this a brave book? Sure it is, but I don’t like using that word brave. We mean something good by it, but we also sometimes mean, “Brave, not like me.” We use it to create a little bit of distance between the brave person and our ordinary selves. When people called me “brave” after my own transition, I thought, “That’s not what it felt like at all.” Instead, I want to say that this is a powerfully vulnerable book, and that the more vulnerable the book gets, the more powerful it becomes, because it invites readers to take the same risk.

Fittingly, Gender Failure is a book that can’t be reduced to simple categories. It is based on the collaborators’ live show, and incorporates photos, illustrations, and song lyrics. There are no simple, fixed narratives of gender identity here. There are stories about gender transitions, yes, in the sense of transitions in how each author felt and thought about living gender. Yet Gender Failure is about transition in all kinds of other senses, too. A big part of Rae Spoon’s story is their transition from folk/country to electronic/indie musician, and beyond. Ivan Coyote transitions out of writing a long-term newspaper column. The authors describe physical and social transformations, transformations of wardrobes and pronouns, but ultimately the transition that matters is the one towards self-determination and self-celebration. It’s not a complete journey. How could it be, especially while gendered norms are violently enforced, even in spaces where we expect better? Spoon writes wrenchingly of finding that “the freedom that is part of the rhetoric about indie music . . .  is reserved only for certain people.”

In a section entitled “Do I Still Call Myself a Butch?” Coyote writes, simply: “Yes. Of course I still do.” It’s a reminder that these words—Butch, trans*, Spoon’s playful-yet-serious coining “gender-retired” – are supposed to make space in the world for people to live as their whole selves, not create new ways to exclude and shame each other’s difference. Part of what’s inspiring about this book is the way these two, as collaborators and friends, make loving mirrors of themselves for each other.

Here’s what I hope most of all: that Gender Failure marks the beginning of a new wave of declarations from gender dropouts and gender retirees, gender inventors and gender artists. May we all fail at everything that is wounding and constricting us. May we fail together into something better.

Reviewer’s Note: As good as Gender Failure is, it’s not the same as a live show with Spoon and Coyote. If you get a chance to see one or both of them, go. Meanwhile, clips are available on YouTube.

Julian Gunn is a Victoria poet and essayist.