I’ve been putting off writing a review of Ivan E. Coyote and Rae Spoon’s collaborative book Gender Failure since I read an advanced reading copy back in March. This is despite the fact that I had two type-written pages of notes that I’d made as I was reading the book. The thing is, this book started off on the wrong foot with me, and I was never able to quite shake it.
Let’s go back a step: Gender Failure is an adaptation of Ivan and Rae’s extremely successful performance tour of the same name. The book really carries over the multi-media aspect of the performance and is genre-bustingly awesome. It’s interspersed with handwritten song lyrics, photographs, illustrations. I especially love the dress-up cut-out doll of Ivan! It’s no coincidence that gender and genre are only one letter off, and this book refuses to play by the rules of either.
Gender Failure is comprised of alternating essays/stories by Ivan and Rae, both of whom are talented writers, although I prefer Ivan’s more experienced and laid-back prose. I did really enjoy the stories of Rae’s journeys through small-town Canada and unexpected kindness and prejudice, and new friends, and meeting a trans kid whose parents bring him to Rae’s show in Prince George. Maybe it’s that Rae is better on the stage than in writing and Ivan is equally good in both mediums. For example, this was one of my favourite lines by Ivan: “I had already spent years feeling like I was perched with one foot on a trans-shaped rowboat and the other foot resting on a butch dock, balancing myself and my language and words and work in the space between them.”
Some of this shit is hard to read about, like Ivan being harassed in the bathroom and people excusing it as ‘concern for women’s safety’ without any thought that Ivan also has the right to safely use a public washroom. Both Rae and Ivan describe being intruded on and asked ridiculous invasive questions about their body and ‘the status’ of certain parts. Some of this stuff is micro-aggressions and some of it is full-blown aggression. Gender Failure is a passionate plea not for acceptance or tolerance, but for justice and respect. Defending the right to use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun, Ivan writes “language changes and evolves to reflect the culture of those using it, and some people wish to be referred to by the pronoun they… That is really all the reason needed.”
This book is by no means a Trans 101, and is clearly written to speak to people like Ivan and Rae. It’s not that I don’t think Gender Failure has a lot to teach straight and/or cis people, but it’s not written with them in mind, which is pretty wonderful. This also means that the book doesn’t shy away from complexities and contradictions. It addresses, for example, the ways in which transphobia affected Rae in a way it didn’t Ivan because Ivan continued to use female pronouns, which meant continuing acceptance in queer women’s communities, while Rae adopted ‘he.’ Rae also describes the lack of acceptance by trans guys who prioritized medically transitioning. Erg, why can’t we all just support each other? It was also fascinating to hear Rae talk about being confused and having an initially negative reaction to the pronoun ‘they,’ which is the pronoun they now use. The idea of ‘earning pronouns,’ and having to convince people of your gender is something Ivan and Rae accuse both mainstream cis and trans discourses of sustaining.
Ivan also critiques the medicalized system of gender dysphoria while struggling to be ‘trans enough’ to be able to have their top surgery financially covered. Ironically, Ivan had a terrible time finding a psychologist who could neutrally assess whether they were ‘trans enough’ to be funded, because most of them had read Ivan’s work as part of their training to be able to make such assessments about trans people. Trans enough to teach people about trans issues but maybe not to get their surgery funded? That is fucked up indeed. I also loved one chapter by Ivan which was called “Do I Still Call Myself a Butch?” The answer, the shortest chapter in the book, is: “Yes. Of course I still do.”
Notwithstanding everything I’ve just said, there was something that spoiled this book for me. It was in the introduction, actually, and it really coloured the rest of my reading, despite how much I tried to leave it behind. I want to make it clear that I’m making these criticisms with a lot of respect for both these artists. In fact, I wouldn’t take the time to write this if I didn’t.
In Rae Spoon’s intro, they describe themselves as a “gender-neutral (formerly trans masculine) person.” This immediately rubbed me the wrong way and I had to sit and think about why for a long time. Obviously, Spoon has full rights to identify their gender however they want and to use the pronoun they, that goes without saying. I mean, I hate that I even have to write that, because it sounds patronizing. But to refuse to admit they fall onto the trans masculine scale—as someone who identifies as trans, was female assigned at birth (FAAB), and has a relatively masculine gender presentation—just doesn’t feel right to me.
In particular, this disavowal of the trans masculine fails to acknowledge the privilege trans masculine folks have in contrast to trans feminine folks. This is something I’ve learnt from reading trans women writers, and it’s something that runs rampant in lesbian/queer women’s communities in particular. It’s not within someone’s right to self-identify to deny gender-based privilege where it exists, particularly in queer men’s and women’s communities where the privilege of masculinity—even of the trans variety—often goes unchecked. Rae does specify that they benefit from privilege “especially in queer communities,” which I appreciate. But they don’t address the fact that their very terms of identification—“gender-neutral (formerly trans masculine)”—erase and conflate the very real power imbalance between trans male/masculine and trans female/feminine people.
Rae later addresses the point of gender-neutrality again when discussing fashion. I’m pretty skeptical of the idea that anything, let alone fashion, can ever really be gender-neutral or androgynous, to be honest. The concept of androgyny has historically and repeatedly been masculine despite claims of gender balance—I’ve done a lot of research on it, as it’s something I wrote my Master’s thesis on. And frankly, Rae’s gender presentation still reads as masculine to me and so falls right into this pattern of masculinity disguised as androgyny. In the same way that ‘he’ was and still is used as a universal pronoun that supposedly encompasses both he and she, the concept of androgyny has been used to present the illusion of gender-neutrality while it continues to privilege masculinity and maleness.
I want to respect that Rae doesn’t identify as masculine but what else are you supposed to call the outfits of pants, dress shirts, ties, and jackets that Rae is wearing in the (beautiful) illustration on the cover and elsewhere in the book? I’m wary of any effort to claim that you fall nowhere on the gender spectrum, which Rae does in declaring their “retirement from gender”—the thing is, everyone falls somewhere in comparison to other people and to ignore that fact is suspicious. I’m having a really hard time reconciling wanting to respect Rae and feeling like they are avoiding admitting their privilege. The fact is, genderqueer and gender-neutral are often shorthand for FAAB and masculine gender presentation, and it’s unfair of Rae not to acknowledge that. The frequently seen term “women and trans” does the same thing, assuming that someone can’t be both trans and a woman, effectively making this statement mean “FAAB.”
In contrast to Rae, Ivan explicitly and repeatedly includes material about trans women and I appreciate how that helps counteract the dominance of trans masculinities. Actually, twice early on in the book Ivan addresses transmisogyny and the privilege of people on the trans masculine spectrum. The chapter about trans remembrance day and Ivan’s efforts to celebrate and not only mourn trans women’s lives is especially moving. Ivan writes: “I will work to never forget my living trans sisters. I will speak their names aloud , too, and then get to work. Work to earn the word ‘brother.’” Ivan thus acknowledges that the work of undoing and unlearning trans masculine privilege is a work in process. This chapter may or may not have made me cry while I was reading this book on the bus. You have to ask this question though: why aren’t more trans women like Ivan’s friend Rosie, who is lovingly described in an essay dedicated to her, telling their own stories?
Rae’s interrogations of gender binaries similarly irked me. They focus a lot on “rejecting the sexist requirements of the gender binary.” This just sounds so holier than thou and naïve. Just because you fit into the gender binary doesn’t mean your gender is sexist; it sounds a bit like someone’s just read a bunch of gender theory. It also sounds dismissive of femininity. I understand that Rae is coming from a place of being really hurt and let down and delegitimized by the gender binary, because they don’t identify in it, and have had troubles fitting into both the female box they were assigned in and the trans male one they chose to identify with for a while. But just because Rae has been forced by heteronormative and mainstream trans narratives to identify within the gender binary doesn’t mean there is something inherently wrong with identifying in it and that trans and cis feminine women’s identities are inherently sexist. That’s unfair and, frankly, unfeminist. It also rankles me because it’s almost always masculine folks who are celebrating the demise of the binary and accusing feminine people—especially trans women—of enforcing it. Bisexuals get this all the time too, as if the terms gay and lesbian don’t also reference firm ideas of man and woman. These accusations against trans women, femininity, and non-monosexuals are not coincidences in a transmisogynist, sexist, biphobic world! (For more on this, I suggest Julia Serano’s Excluded).
Was anyone else bothered by the way that Rae’s writing interacts with the concepts of gender binarism and trans femininity and masculinity?
I’m at a loss: in some ways I really loved this book and in some ways it made me angry.