Gender Landmines: Trans Masculinities, Femininities, and Binaries: A Review of Ivan Coyote and Rae Spoon’s Gender Failure

9781551525372_GenderFailureI’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.”

rae ivan

via lemonhound.com

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.”

genderfailuredanger1

via genderfailures.wordpress.com

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.

via straight.com

via straight.com

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.

About caseythecanadianlesbrarian

I’m a writer from Canada’s west coast currently based in Vancouver. I have an honours BA in English and German from the University of Victoria and an MA in English from Dalhousie University in Halifax (yes, living near the ocean is a necessity for me). My love of literature is pretty inclusive, but I am especially partial to that which is queer, feminist, Canadian and/or written by women. Some of my favourite authors are: Alison Bechdel, Dionne Brand, Ivan E. Coyote, Anne Fleming, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Shani Mootoo, Eden Robinson, Sarah Waters, Zoe Whittall, Jeanette Winterson, and Virginia Woolf. When I’m not reading, I enjoy experimenting with creative vegetarian(ish) cooking, doing ashtanga yoga, running, cruising around on my bike named Harriet the Spy, and going to see live music.
This entry was posted in Alberta, Butch, Canadian, Graphic, Ivan E. Coyote, Montreal, Queer, Rural, Short Stories, Trans, Trans Masculine, Vancouver and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Gender Landmines: Trans Masculinities, Femininities, and Binaries: A Review of Ivan Coyote and Rae Spoon’s Gender Failure

  1. I love that in this review you brought up the hard questions a lot of folks, especially cis queer women, have voiced (or been scared to voice out loud) about the privilege of masculine presentation, whether acknowledged or denied, and the concomitant devaluing of women/femaleness. Good job!

  2. M-E Girard says:

    Wow, what a timely review. I just finished the book last night! I was glad to find this review in my inbox.

    I’ve been reading a lot (A LOT) about gender, queerness, and feminism this past year yet I’m still painfully aware that whenever I try and engage in discussion, my ignorance still shines through so I will apologize for that in advance. But I figure all these attempts at joining in on discussions can’t help but enlighten me and get me closer to forming my own opinions.

    So, as someone who’s still trying to deconstruct the gender binary for myself, while learning about trans* identities and feminism, it’s sometimes confusing for me to balance the gender-neutral identity alongside it. In my experience (from the bit of reading I’ve done, and through meeting gender-neutral-identified people), I thought identifying as gender-neutral meant a total rejection of the binary system; I was under the impression that identifying as gender-neutral wasn’t so much saying “I fall nowhere on the gender spectrum” but actually saying “I want nothing to do with your spectrum even if you think I fall somewhere specific on it. I don’t want to be judged according to this system. Nothing I do has anything to do with this system no matter how I might look and act.” Because of this, I don’t know how a gender-neutral individual would be able to claim their gender-based privilege without then being pulled back into the binary by having to examine everything about their being–their appearance and fashion especially–to see where it would have them fall in the privilege of masculinity. Does that make any sense? If I’m wrong somewhere in my assumption, can you point out where?!

    I’ve met a few FAABs who are very feminine in their gender presentation, yet they identify as gender-neutral. On one hand I’d like to dismantle the binary so I applaud these people, but I’m a FAAB with an interest in redefining what it means to be a woman. That’s where I’m conflicted. It makes me wonder if one ends up automatically opting out of feminism once they reject the binary, and if one can’t do that because one is a woman who moves through the world being read as such, then one is naturally reinforcing the binary–which doesn’t sit right with me. This is why I read books like Gender Failure, but I sometimes feel like I don’t have a right to feel like the rules of the gender binary have screwed me over because I identify as a woman and I still have an interest in fighting for women’s equality, so I’m part of the system.

    (Also, I found the information you shared about the gender-neutral and androgynous fashion super fascinating. Is there a book you could recommend that discusses this further?)

    • Thanks for reading! In my mind, the discussion around ‘rejecting the binary’ is often very problematic, as it can lead to not paying attention to the ways that the binary system has very real effects on us. As I said, the ‘smash the gender binary’ talk has, in my experience and other femme and/or trans women I’ve read, often targeted feminine women (cis and trans) and not masculine women and trans men / masculine spectrum folks. It has some roots in queer academia: Jack Halberstam is an example of a trans masculine spectrum person whose writing inspires this kind of binteary rejection. To me, this talk creates another binary: people who don’t identify in the binary are superior to those who do. In my experience, FAAB folks with masculine gender presentation make up most of the group of people who don’t identify in the binary. In other words, this new binary is the same as the old one: masculinity and/or maleness is more valid than femininity and/or femaleness.

      I, too, feel angry about the hierarchy and the oppressive implications of the gender binary system. The thing is, you can choose to identify within the binary or not, but you can’t choose to remove yourself from society and how you present yourself and how you are read by others–ie, how society gives you privilege. I feel really angry about the binary between trans and cis genders that implies trans ones are not real and less legitimate. In this way, I could say I ‘reject’ this binary. But to do that would imply not claiming that I am cisgender and am read as cisgender everywhere I go in this world. It would be an enormous disservice and insult to everyone who is trans and who feels the very real effects of this binary everyday. That’s why we have to acknowledge our place in them.

      I’ve heard an analogy that made sense to me when people talk about gender being a fiction or wanting to opt out of the gender binary system. Yes it is a fiction, and so are the rules of the road. Doesn’t make it any less real when you get hit by a car..

    • Oh and about androgyny: here are a few of the books I read for my thesis which are a bit dry and academic, as well as literature focused:
      Weil, Kari. Androgyny and the Denial of Difference. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1992.
      Shaheen, Aaron. Androgynous Democracy: Modern American Literature and the Dual-Sexed Body Politic. Knoxville, TN: U of Tennessee P, 2010.
      Hargreaves, Tracy. Androgyny in Modern Literature. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005.

      Hope that helps!

  3. Anonymous says:

    This review comes across to me as a really harsh policing and criticism of Rae’s gender identity, and by extension of anyone who IDs as genderqueer or gender neutral. Describing themself as a “gender-neutral (formerly trans masculine) person” is not “a refusal to admit they fall onto the trans masculine scale.” On the contrary, I think it really clearly acknowledges their perceived trans-masculinity, while asserting their gender identity as neutral. Your critique really harshly says: you cannot and never will be neutral, you will always be masculine, according to me.

    You point to Rae’s pants, dress shirts, ties, and jackets as proof of their masculinity. What about Rae’s floral prints, silks, nail polish, and vocal range or other physical traits that are generally perceived as feminine? (Not that any of these things is an indication of gender – just following your lead about appearances.) Who are you to decide that Rae is and always will be masculine? Is there a specific way a gender-neutral person is supposed to dress or otherwise present themself that you would like to share with us?

    Would you similarly police the ID of a gender-neutral person who was male-assigned-at-birth? Would you say that their gender presentation is clearly feminine? That they must always identify as trans-feminine and not as neutral? Your review really reads as an attack on anyone with a neutral gender identity, MAAB or FAAB. It says, you will always be on one spectrum or the other.

    You claim that identifying as gender-neutral does not acknowledge privilege, but at the same time tell us that Rae does specify that they benefit from privilege especially in queer communities. What else are they supposed to do? You are saying that they are both denying and acknowledging privilege at the same time.

    You also state that “genderqueer and gender-neutral is often shorthand for FAAB and masculine gender presentation.” According to whom? This claim is really dismissive and offensive to anyone who is MAAB or feminine-presenting who also identifies as genderqueer. I also think it is your own perception that “women and trans” means FAAB. To me, it means “no cis-men.” Women includes trans-women. Trans includes trans-men and other non-binary gender identities.

    • Lex says:

      Why is this comment anonymous?…

      • Anonymous says:

        I feel that my own gender identity is being attacked and delegitimized here along with Rae’s. Choosing to comment anonymously helped me feel less vulnerable while sharing my feelings about it.

    • Ka. says:

      I see you.
      That’s also what was on my mind when reading these parts of the review.
      I felt really uncomfortable reading these passages to the point of wanting to stop reading. Otherwise really interesting review and somehow I can imagine where the author is coming from… but please reflect on this topic and take a look at your feelings concerning these things (what is it all about…?) (…in order to not cross boundaries (“defining” someones gender identity) and hurt other people).

    • Thanks for reading. It’s certainly not my intent to police anyone’s gender here and I’m sorry if it felt that way to you.

      I like your phrase “perceived trans masculinity”; it’s something I would have been happy to see Rae use in Gender Failure. To me, Rae Spoon’s phrasing of having privilege in the queer community was pretty vague and did not address the gender-based privilege (I believe) they benefit from; they also mention being white, for example, in the same sentence, which also certainly affords plenty of privilege in queer communities.

      I certainly did not write or mean to imply that Rae “is” masculine; their gender presentation (you use the word appearance) as I read it, however, in the photographs and illustrations for the book and the promotional material for the book, is relatively masculine (I mean, on the masculine end of a feminine to masculine spectrum). How someone looks and presents themselves don’t equal their gender, but it is a large part of how others perceive their gender and how a lot of people express their gender. I don’t see any of the other aspects you mention about Rae’s appearance in the book. But, I don’t know Rae in person, so maybe their clothing choices are more varied than they appear in the book. I don’t see vocal range as part of gender presentation because that’s not a choice (other than taking hormones) that people make (which is what presentation means to me).

      Obviously, I don’t believe that Rae shouldn’t identify and conceive of themselves as gender-neutral. Of course they can, and do. I think I state pretty clearly everyone has the right to identify their gender as they want to. The thing is, your identity and how others perceive you can sometimes be different. I could choose not to identify as feminine, but since the way I conduct myself and dress falls on that end of the gender scale our society functions on I would be read as feminine and treated as such regardless.

      I certainly know that there are male-assigned at birth folks who identify as genderqueer/neutral/androgynous. I would love to hear one of those people’s opinion on Rae and Ivan’s book. I also know that some people who are genderqueer present as feminine. However, in my experiences in different queer communities across Canada, I have met tons of FAAB gender-neutral/etc masculine presenting folks and very few MAAB genderqueer/etc folks either masculine or feminine presenting. This is a phenomenon that Julia Serano also writes about in both her books Whipping Girl and Excluded. In particular, Serano talks about the focus on your gender being subversive, and how masculine genders are considered radical and transgressive and binary smashing whereas feminine ones are not.

      I am not a trans woman, and as a cis femme ally I felt like I wanted to take what I had learnt from reading trans women writers about these issues and write about how I saw the phenomenon they were talking about in Rae and Ivan’s book. In my experience, it sucks to always have to be the one pointing out oppression directed at you and it’s nice sometimes when allies take that on. This of course, makes my position complicated in relation to Rae and Ivan: they’re trans while I’m cis—so I’m privileged. They’re both, however, masculine presenting while I’m feminine—which puts them in a position of privilege. This is a reductive way of looking at it, but the categories that bestow privilege are reductive.

      I’m glad that your experience of ‘women and trans’ includes trans women; that’s what it should do. However, especially since you specify that you’re not a trans woman, I don’t think you have the right to decide that’s how everyone experiences it. Some feminist and/or queer organizations and communities are great about including trans female/feminine spectrum folks. Many are not, and the history of excluding those people is long and documented (see Julia Serano, Imogen Binnie, Red Durkin, Laverne Cox, to mention a few trans women writers/activists). I’ve been examining my position of privilege as a cis queer woman in relation to people on the trans female/feminine spectrum and one result of it was seeing some of the things Rae wrote in a different light than I would have in the past.

      I hope this helps clarify my intentions and where I’m coming from!

    • Kiwi says:

      I take huge umbrage with your last paragraph. I love the queer communities I participate in and belong to, and I believe they are mostly made up of good people who want to do good work, but when I look around I see that these communities are overwhelmingly dominated by afab women and trans folks. Sometimes I see trans women (always with gender presentations that would be read as fairly binary), but I have almost never seen non-binary AMAB individuals in these spaces–which made sense once I began to talk to non-binary AMAB folks and learned that many of them felt extremely unwelcome in most queer spaces for “women and trans” individuals. While “women and trans” generally translates to “no cis men” in theory (and even this, I think, raises questions about our systemic separation of trans men from cis men: to me this carries hints of delegitimization, as well as reinforcing the problems invoked in this review concerning the privilege afforded to masculine individuals in places that are meant to be safe spaces for non-male folks), it usually winds up amounting to “FAAB queers” in practice. It seems to me that you are accusing the author of gender dismissiveness merely for invoking the existence of these problems–and, thus, that you are in turn denying that these problems exist in the first place.

      • Thanks for adding a perspective about non-binary MAAB folks! I don’t personally know anyone who fits into that category (in large part because of the exclusion from communities I belong to that you point out) so I am really happy that you brought this up. It’s really important connected but distinct point of view from trans women.

        Your point about the inclusion of trans men in queer (women’s) spaces being a delegitimization is also very interesting to me, as it’s something I’ve thought as well, but I didn’t want to assume how trans men felt. I always find it weird when lesbian identified women date trans men–it feels both transphobic (implying trans men are really women) as well as biphobic (don’t identify as bi at all costs even if you experience multi-gender attraction).

  4. First off, I haven’t read the book, and I am no expert on gender issues. I don’t see this review as “harsh policing and criticism.” It is complicated stuff and as a society we are just beginning to figure out how to navigate these waters. It seems to me that you have a pretty good grasp of what you are talking about, and are still asking questions. I honestly think this is really normal. We are in more trouble if we don’t ask them. I think that eventually we will all settle down and let people just be who they are irrespective of gender, but that’s a ways off. (I remember when all hell broke loose over the introduction of the use of Ms) I like that you are so obviously conflicted about this book. It makes me really want to read it!

    • Thanks for reading Cheriee! I am being critical in this review, so in that way it does fall under the category of criticism. Like I wrote though, if I didn’t respect Rae and Ivan I wouldn’t bother taking the time to share my thoughts. I think they’re both talented artists who have a lot of things to teach people about gender. That doesn’t mean they don’t have stuff to learn though too!

  5. Pingback: Link Round Up: July 3 – 16 | The Lesbrary

  6. As a mother and as a social worker I find this discussion fascinating, bravo!

Let me know what you think!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s