Attempting to learn about issues that affect transgender people can be daunting for a cisgender person such as myself. I won’t pretend I’ve made anything approaching a thorough study, but I’m interested in learning more, and yet often when I touch the edge of this complex set of issues, it retreats from me, either into confusing queer-theory jargon or sensitivities that, through ignorance, I could easily tread upon.
Ivan E Coyote and Rae Spoon’s new book, Gender Failure, is the sort of beginner’s guide to trans issues that I needed. Based on Coyote and Spoon’s (both artists identify as transgender and use the gender-neutral pronoun “they”) live multimedia show of the same name, Gender Failure is a series of stories and reflections interspersed with song lyrics, illustrations and photos. The book didn’t suffocate me with esoteric terminology; it didn’t berate me or express disappointment that I didn’t know its contents beforehand. It just told me stories — stories about the lives of two interesting and resilient people struggling with the gender binary and many of its attendant difficulties.
The book is awash in rustic references and language. Right away I was swept up by a current of cowboys, horses, rocking chairs, hoedowns, trailers, belt buckles, Hank Williams and phrases like “her voice was low, like an eighteen-wheeler gearing down with its engine breaks grinding on a long steep hill from the summit,” “out Toronto way,” “everything worked perfect and we shined that sweetheart up” and “slippery as a little frog in his hands.” The hokey stuff was a bit hard to stomach at times, but I think it ultimately increases the book’s charm and readability; it would be difficult not to feel at home in a book that talks like my wholesome, rural relatives.
Gender Failure is full of personal stories from childhood and beyond, some of which I related to instantly. When Spoon talks about being a child and using a stick as a sword to whack underbrush near a ravine, it takes me back to doing the exact same thing in the stand of trees behind my grandma’s house. And I swear I’ve had (and sometimes still have) the intense urge to, as Spoon puts it, “live in a ravine, in a tree fort by myself.” Aided by folksy language and skilled storytelling, even the tales that I couldn’t relate to directly were thoroughly engrossing, from Spoon’s time touring as a country singer to how Coyote must have felt about their friend Rosie.
I certainly can’t claim to know what it’s like to be trans, but this book has taught me a few things. Coyote’s chapter on the Trans Day of Remembrance gave that date new significance for me. I know far more than I did about the difficulties involved in getting chest surgery, from the quagmire of trying to get the government to pay to loss of nipple sensation to telling family. The need for gender-neutral washrooms has been driven home. Finally, I know more than I did about figuring out your gender when it doesn’t fit society’s expectations, from the difficulties of binding your chest to navigating dating apps that weren’t really designed with you in mind.
The book didn’t answer all of my questions — in fact, I think it inspired a few new ones — but that’s all right, because it doesn’t claim to be a comprehensive manual on gender, and with this eminently readable book, I don’t think anyone can claim that there’s no easy way into understanding trans issues.