I got an email from my publicist last week, with a link in it to a book blog that reviewed my latest short-story collection. The blog’s author was a heterosexual guy from up north, and my publicist had included a note saying that she thought his review was “insightful.”
The review was a pretty positive one overall, and I did find it quite insightful, but perhaps not in the way that either my publicist or the blog’s author meant it to be.
This guy liked my book quite a bit, even though, in his words, “the majority of the stories in Missed Her revolve around the butch lesbian aspect of Coyote’s life.” He went on to say how he tires of watching fat comedians make jokes about being fat, or Asian comedians tell jokes about being Asian, saying it was “too predictable.”
He then goes on to commend me for helping him get over his “inner bigot” during the process of enjoying my predominately butch and lesbian (and thus predictable) stories because they were funny, and well written.
I want to say right here that I appreciate this guy, and his honesty; I truly do. One of my main goals with my work is to tell funny and well-written stories from an unapologetically butch perspective to straight white guys in small towns all over the world because this is the very best method I have found to do my bit to get them to address their “inner bigots” — by unwrapping and unravelling and touching the often redeemable hearts inside of them, thus slowly making this world a better place for all of us to live in.
So on the one hand, you could say this guy’s words confirmed for me that I am doing exactly what I set out to do, one good old boy at a time.
On the other hand, I do feel it necessary to point out that when he writes a love story, it is just that, a love story. When he tells a joke about his life, it is just that, a joke about his life. When I tell a love story, it is a queer love story, and regardless of where my heart stands in the telling, I am making a political statement, or protesting the heterosexual hegemony, merely by engaging in the act of telling the truth about my life, and my love.
When I tell a joke onstage about my reality, I am in some way always telling a butch joke, simply by virtue of the body I inhabit. This has less to do with my intentions as the writer or performer than it has to do with the biases and judgments of the listener, and I learned a long time ago to let go of as much of that as I could, and just be myself and tell the best story I could.
A couple of months ago I was invited to tell stories in a very small town. I select my material very carefully in situations like this, watching and listening to the other artists and tweaking my set to pick as close to the perfect piece as I can. The real job of any good storyteller is to tell just the right story at the ideal moment, in order to touch the greatest number of people in the room in the best way possible.
I would not be doing anyone any favours if I were to bust out my queerest material in front of an audience full of small-town farmers and Sunday-school teachers. For some of them, just my appearance is pushing the envelope enough. Horrifying them or offending them will not entertain them or make them return to the festival that invited me, or sell books.
So I tell a story about my grandmother, or my uncles, or my neighbour. That’s the thing about stories. They can be so deceptively simple on the outside, and at the same time worm their way inside your heart and sideways tackle your loves, your fears, and fate, God, religion and hope, and remind you of the saddest thing that ever happened at the same time as you are laughing at the humanity of it all.
I rarely feel like I am compromising myself when I do this. I am simply doing the best job I can. And besides, I am so much more than simply queer, as are all of us. I like to think that instead of telling them stories of how different I am, I am showing them how much we have in common.
This usually works for everyone, but this time I looked out and saw a whole row of dykes looking back at me. I had spoken to them just before the show and knew that most of them had travelled here just to see me; one had even driven for six hours. I stood in front of them and told a heterosexual love story about my father and his wife. If I had had a longer set I would have followed it up with something a little more risky, once the Sunday-school teachers had laughed a little and let their guards down. But all I had was a 15-minute set, so I did what was best for the majority and let my queer family, almost always the minority, down a little.
So what am I really getting at? The reality is, if I only ever told queer stories to queer people, nothing would change in the big bad world. Not to mention that queer festivals pay far less and often ask artists to work for free, so to make any kind of a real living, I have to diversify.
But in order to keep my little storyteller’s heart beating, I have to make sure that I honour my people and push the queer envelope and make sure to write and perform material that reflects and represents us, with no apologies. Because after all, no matter what I say, it is still a butch story for most people, whether I speak the word aloud or not.