Gender Failure is a beautiful, candid, moving account of Rae Spoon and Ivan E. Coyote’s “failure” to fit into the traditional gender binary. Its roots as a stage production are evident — the tone is conversational, even intimate, and you can almost imagine the authors telling you these stories in person. Photos from the show are interspersed throughout, and I wish I’d seen the production live, as it must have been an even more powerful experience than reading it on the page.
The casual tone of the narration belies the depths of emotion that Spoon and Coyote express. Spoon recounts the experience of a man approaching them after a show and laughing because he’d originally thought Spoon was “a dude,” until they started singing and he then “knew you were a chick.” The man appeared to expect Spoon to share in this hilarity, even grabbing them by the arm in a show of comradeship. Spoon’s response struck me: they walked away, and only then corrected the man that he’d been mistaken both times. The need to walk away before correcting the misconception speaks to Spoon’s awareness of their vulnerability. Not only do they experience “a feeling that I have failed to be seen” every time they are misgendered, they are also all too aware of the dangers in revealing themselves as trans.
Both Spoon and Coyote share their fear of public washrooms. Coyote writes about developing the skill to hold their pee for hours, in the hopes that they may not need to use the wheelchair-accessible gender-neutral stall and potentially inconvenience someone with mobility issues. “[Women] are afraid of men in a women’s washroom, because of what may happen,” Spoon says. “I am afraid of women in a women’s washroom because of what happens to be all the time.” Experiences include being assaulted with a handbag and being dragged out from a stall by security guards, not to mention the less physical but no less violent experience of being glared at in disgust. Spoon’s frustration is evident when they say that they can’t even react in anger, “because if I get angry, then I am seen as even more of a threat. Then it’s all my fault, isn’t it? Because then there is a man in the ladies’ room, and for some reason, he’s angry.”
Coyote writes about their difficulty in trying to get medical approval to have their top surgery funded. Ironically, their difficulty lay in finding a psychologist who could provide an unbiased assessment on whether Coyote was “trans enough” for the procedure, because most of the psychologists had studied Coyote’s work when training to make such assessments. They also speak about the intrusive questions people feel entitled to ask. In one interview, for example, the reporter tried to be coy around the question of sex assignment surgery, and when Coyote told her to just come right out and ask the question, they realized that the reporter didn’t even know what sex Coyote had been assigned at birth. “She couldn’t even be sure what I might want removed or added on to me,” Coyote says. “But still. She had to know. She just had to ask.”
The section about the Trans Day of Remembrance is especially moving. The event honours those who have died by reading their names aloud, but as Coyote notes,
What will be missing are these women’s stories… What will also be missing is a discussion about the difference between excluding someone and actively including them, and intentionally making space. And the day after we are suppose to remember, most of this will be forgotten.
In particular, Coyote remembers their friend Rosie, a trans woman who left town and is presumed dead, and whom Coyote memorializes in this book. “I refuse to reduce her life to nothing more than a name on a list of the deceased,” they say. “I will remember so much more about Rosie than just her absence from my life.”
Gender Failure is such a powerful, beautiful book. Spoon and Coyote have moved me, and I can only imagine the impact their stories can have on transgendered readers, particularly those who are young and still trying to figure things out. I cannot recommend this book enough, and I’ll just end this here, with Coyote’s words:
I realize that the English language is sadly devoid of names for people like me. I try to cut the world some slack for this every day. All day. And the day after that, too. But the truth is that every time I am misgendered, a tiny little sliver of me disappears, A tiny little sliver of me is reminded that I do not fit … I remember that the truth of me is invisible, and 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. All those slivers add up to something much harder to pretend around.
Thank you to Arsenal Pulp Press for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.