What would it mean not to be a man or a woman?
That’s the central question of Rae Spoon and Ivan E. Coyote’s new book Gender Failure, a text archive of their storytelling and musical performance of the same name. Spoon, Canada’s critical darling of indie-folk-to-electronic and Coyote, author of eight books, take turns telling stories about their experiences trying— and failing—to navigate the gender binary, that social construct that demands everyone must be either a “boy” or a “girl” in the way they dress and behave.
If you balk at my declaration that what defines a man and woman is anything but natural, read the book and get back to me. Spoon and Coyote’s heartfelt, funny, and artful retellings of what are often painful moments in their lives are for everyone.
The truth is that every time I am misgendered, a tiny little sliver of me disappears.
“We used the stories to discuss the gender binary and sexism and people who don’t really fit into those roles, even though maybe not anybody totally fits into those roles,” explains Spoon, talking to me by phone from their adopted hometown Montreal. “At first we were like ‘maybe we should write a show for trans people or maybe queer people,’ but then we were both kinda like, ‘well, maybe we should open it up, because it is for everyone, really.’”
Though quick to emphasize that the gender binary, i.e. identifying yourself as a man or a woman, works for many cisgender and transgender people, in reading the book you start to see the invisible scaffolding, created by society, propping up these roles, and that many people don’t go in whole hog.
Anyone can enjoy this book of essays, illustrations and lyrics. That I feel compelled to point that out is a hint at how Spoon’s struggle with and ultimate “retirement” from gender has cost them in a music industry and society that is, for all its advances, deeply sexist. And yes, “them”; both authors ask to be referred to with a gender-neutral pronoun, a request journalists have often resisted, insisting on petrifying the English language into a reflection of what makes them comfortable and ignoring the neutral pronoun’s historical singular usage.
Juxtaposing the two authors’ voices keeps Gender Failure fresh to the end. Coyote is the looser, funnier voice, while Spoon is the more analytical writer. Spoon’s emotional gut-punches lurk in the handwritten lyrics reproduced on the page, forcing us to squint and decipher their scrawl:
“Danger, danger danger. I’ll be your failure.
You can make mistakes and I won’t turn away.
Danger, danger, danger. I’ll be your gay bar.
Yell it in your ear. Like we’ve never met.
We can hold each other up. We’re surviving.”
The lyrics are the distilled feeling we get from the essays (you can watch the part of Gender Failure the performance with this song above, too, and it’s beautiful). “I’ll be your gay bar” reminds us of a story earlier in the book; as a teenager, Spoon looked to gay bars as a refuge from a hostile world—without success, in the anecdote of the book, but the symbol of a safe haven remains.
Danger is also a recurring theme in these memories. Violence is possible in the most mundane events: a trip to the public washroom, sitting at a bar, getting onstage to perform music. There’s also the danger of rejection, by family, friends and society, the danger of not being seen and the toll it takes. As Coyote writes, “the truth is that every time I am misgendered, a tiny little sliver of me disappears. [..] Just a sliver, razored from the surface of my very thick skin most days, but other times right from my soul, sometimes felt so deep and other days simply shrugged off, but still.”
I think in the last ten years, there’s been a lot of change. But as far as the mainstream music industry goes, I think it’s business as usual.
Tempered optimism seems to be Spoon’s outlook. Asked if they think that they’ll always feel like a gender failure as long as misgendering keeps happening in their lives, Spoon says, “As an Anglo-Canadian, I can’t speak for what’s going on everywhere but I do think in places where I’m from, like Alberta, I know it’ll probably never be seamless. But I think in the last ten years, there’s been a lot of change. But as far as the mainstream music industry goes, I think it’s business as usual.”
As journalists, we have our own failure to contend with; examples of the media failing transgender people abound, both in this book and elsewhere. Partly this is because we are largely an overworked, underpaid workforce. But mostly we’ve failed transgender people (and many other people) because journalism is overwhelmingly homogenous; without reaching a breaking point of diversity, the privilege of the mostly white, college-educated cisgender workforce goes unchecked.
“Dr. V’s Magical Putter,” by 31-year-old journalist Caleb Hannan and published by Grantland, is a now-infamous and tragic example of this. Hannan’s piece investigates the past of Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt, a very private woman who invented an innovative golf putter. Hannan asked for an interview, which Vanderbilt agreed to, while asking he respect her privacy. “[M]y anonymity is my security as well as my livelihood,” she says in her first email to Hannan. He discovers that Vanderbilt is transgender, and the article misgenders her mercilessly after that.
Hannan outs Vanderbilt to one of her investors, apparently without considering her plea for security. This, despite the disturbing reality that, in the US, 53% of anti-LGBTQ murder victims in 2012 were transgender women (the latest statistics available). Hannan seems shocked that the investor isn’t more shocked at Hannan’s juicy gossip. He writes, “[...]the most surprising thing about my conversation with Kinney was how calmly he took the news that the woman he thought was an aerospace engineer had once been a man, and a mechanic.” A mechanic!
A few weeks after Hannan tells Vanderbilt he’d be outing her on a major media platform, she killed herself. Published after her death, the story was vigorously defended by many journalists.
Spoon and Coyote have been failed by the media many times themselves. Spoon recalls a radio interview in which says the journalist asked, “Do you feel more like a man on some days and more like a woman on others?” The question, Spoon points out, assumes that you can’t live outside the gender binary, which misses the point of their retirement altogether. Despite the preponderance of guides—from GLAAD and The Guardian and Trans Media Watch and Poynter—and more advice in the various style guides, the problem is that too many journalists don’t even bother to look it up. “It’s not really up to me what pronoun people are going to call me, they’re just gonna pick one,” Spoon says with only a hint of resignation. “I kind of gave up on trying to control that.”
Coyote says that when interacting with journalists, they used to use the female pronoun, “because I don’t trust them enough to request that they do anything else.” How sad that a gifted storyteller can’t even feel safe among other storytellers, and that journalists, who are meant to be committed to truth, are more comfortable with fudging it than telling people how people really are — that is, not the cut-out silhouettes on the front of our washrooms (perhaps in a sly nod, each chapter indicates who’s speaking with silhouetted portraits of each author, both in suits, Spoon with a guitar jutting from the hip).
I’m glad that perhaps Coyote has changed their mind. On Gender Failure's press package, it clearly states that both authors use “they.” Fingers crossed that we don’t disappoint.