I am an Ivan Coyote fan. A devotee after 2010, the year I spent in The Writer`s Studio (TWS) Program at Simon Fraser University. I had been accepted into the non-fiction group with Ivan as my mentor. There was something that drew me to Ivan`s open demeanour, quick wit, and the stories about daily life that were shared freely. That down home Yukon personality has stuck with Ivan and as far as I’m concerned, Ivan is just plain good people. It has also likely kept her safe as she navigates an often hostile world that doesn’t accept Ivan for being Ivan. Gender pronouns are complicated and I have done my best to respect the artists’ preferred pronouns. While working with Ivan at TWS, she expressed that she preferred she for her public image.
When I heard that she was performing with long time collaborator Rae Spoon on March 1 at 7:30pm, I found a way to get two tickets to the sold out performance. The show was presented by the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice, and the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts. It was held in the Telus Studio Theatre, a black box theatre with the ambience of a cafe. The evening opened with Dr. Mary K. Bryson, Institute Director and Professor along with UBC student Susan Rice Tele. Mary and Susan each spoke to their own gender alienation at UBC and the importance of opening up the question—what is your gender?
Throughout this multi-media animated performance was a backdrop of videos created by Clyde Peterson representing Ivan and Rae at first in black silhouette and then other images including an oil rig and pickup truck when they talked of growing up in the Yukon and the Prairies or a city street from the perspective of a moving vehicle. In the end, Ivan and Rae were flying in the sky, free as birds, dressed in blue and white plaid capes with their first initials on the back, propelling them over tall buildings, getting their fuel from little flames flickering from the soles of their shoes. Real gender superheroes! Sounds bizarre, but it worked to make the stage performance personal, quirky, and humourous in between life as gender failures.
Ivan and Rae, who were kicking off their world tour, began by talking about being gender failures, that is, people who were never able fit into their bodies and therefore failed being slotted into the “appropriate gender.” The stories they chose to tell were carefully picked with just enough punch for the audience to understand how they have been perceived in the world, but not enough to deter people from not wanting to be themselves.
“I was never a good woman,” Ivan says. She has bound her breasts for seventeen years and is now experiencing numbness in her fingers due to the tight binding done daily, meaning the surgery is time-sensitive.
Rae, dressed in a black blazer, red tie with a gold clip, a white and black checked shirt, and glasses that complement their Buddy Holly haircut tells the audience that “gender became a comedy not a fact,” and “I decided to retire from the gender binary altogether and change my pronoun to they.” Rae’s singing was sweet and melodic. Their obviously trained voice was easy to hear as they told their personal stories through singing and playing the electric acoustic guitar. Ivan used her own surprisingly sweet voice to sing backup vocals.
Ivan and Rae tell their own stories of being gender failures side by side to an audience of mostly UBC students who are here not only for the first class entertainment, but to hear stories that will help them through their own gender struggles. Rae and Ivan`s stories weren’t horrific accounts of violence or their own anger, but of inner struggles within everyday life in a world that only sees male and female roles. They were able to speak about the violence they had sometimes endured in a way that still offered their audience humour, relief, and the possibility of survival and maybe even celebration.
One of Ivan’s strongest stories was about Rosie, the first transgender person she met when she moved to the West End. Rose dressed in women`s clothing despite a chest full of manly hair. “Don’t ever call me he,” Rosie told Ivan. They had a special relationship, punching arms instead of hugging. Rosie herself automatically called Ivan he and never questioned it. Ivan held back tears as she recalled Rosie’s terminal stomach cancer and eventual disappearance, which left Ivan wondering if maybe Rosie was still out there somewhere, but knowing that she’s not.
Ivan’s timing was impeccable. She was brilliant at changing the speed of her voice to suit the topic. Always finishing off her words, she sped up to emphasize humour and slowed down during poignant times. All of Ivan’s stories are carefully crafted and it showed regardless of whether you are reading or hearing them. Judging by the performances that Ivan does all over the world, people still crave a live performance perhaps for its intimate qualities and relatable narratives.
Ivan taught us well in our mentor group how to write for performance, to pick out the best phrases so the audience can clearly visualize our stories. I have read several of my own stories before an audience and know how hard it is to develop proper timing, a strong voice, and tailoring that writing for whatever audience to which you are reading.
Ivan always spoke from heart using vivid images that were personal to tell tales everyone could relate to whether it’s the “Oh Mickey, you’re so fine,” 1980’s era or the transgender community today. No matter what the subject matter was, Ivan’s metaphors always fit the scene perfectly, for example, when a policeman asked if she had a gender, Ivan wrote, “his words are clipped; severe, like a brush cut.”
The year I spent with Ivan I was in awe at what tolerance she had for the world that had often been met with alienation and violence. I tried to take a page from her book and attempt to apply it to my own life, which is devoid of being called names or being looked at with disdain (to the best of my knowledge anyway), when my own anger in every day issues erupted. Seriously, what do I have to be angry about? Ivan’s stories have the power to make those of us who function in the world comfortably in our normative gender, consider this privilege and how we can work against gender oppression.
When Ivan talks about gendered bathrooms as being a source of danger, I was taken back to one of her stories about going into a gas station somewhere on the highway that she was driving at night to Whitehorse. At each station, with usually a lone male cashier sometimes with a group of men outside smoking, Ivan had to decide what was safer that particular evening – to identify as a man or as a woman, knowing that the decision would dictate whether or not the outcome would be uneventful or violent. That was when I changed my mind about gender-neutral bathrooms and not wanting to share a bathroom with men who tend to urinate on the floor and on toilet seats in favour of keeping people like Ivan safe.
After a 20 minute intermission – Ivan believes that live shows need to also have lots of time to mingle and meet with people with similar struggles – the show turned to decisions around gender reassignment.
Ivan, dressed in a brown tweed blazer, her signature hanky in the front pocket, stripped tie, jeans, and one of her several pairs of black Fluevogs, spoke of the old days of “packing” by using condoms, hair gel, and nylons. Not like the kids do now who only have to “go to the dick store,” to buy an artificial penis to put in their pants to give the appearance of male genitals. The crowd laughed, especially the young ones who had never heard of dicks made of hair gel.
After talking to her doctor about wanting gender reassignment surgery, Ivan was sent to a psychologist who questioned whether Ivan was transgender enough to have the breast surgery funded. It came down to whether she “packed” or not.
Next, it was off to a psychiatrist, who had a tendency to laugh and slap his hand down on the desk. It’s these little gestures that Ivan observes in everyone that made the storytelling so rich, deep, and relatable.
Ivan eventually asked the audience “am I Trans enough or do I still belong in the sisterhood?” In the end, gender re-assignment surgery without hormones was recommended – exactly what Ivan wanted.
Rae told their own story about an airplane ride and being called a lady by the flight attendants while a man sitting beside them was absolutely shocked that the pilot flying the plane was a woman and then singing the song “Who do you think you’re fooling?” a folkie-rock tune that made you want to tap your foot along to the music.
In the end, Ivan read out a list of questions from the gender reassignment questionnaire while Rae sung “I will be your failure,” a toe-tapping ditty about not measuring up to society`s standards of gender normativity.
Of course, being an Ivan devotee, I was unaware of the flaws in her performance. My friend Kiran, who got my extra ticket, has a strong interest in gender and race identification, and felt that both Ivan and Rae are coming from a white, Canadian, working class view. She spoke with frustration about how they seemed to centre their experiences as the ultimate gender failure—one of growing up in Alberta and the Yukon without speaking about the complexities of the land they were on. As Kiran says, “a solidarity with indigenous struggles was not expressed, and even hidden in the context of Rae’s discussions about wanting to be a ‘cowboy’ just like their uncles who worked on the oil rigs. This brought to questions of how the centering of a white gender failure was now acceptable to UBC and worth patronage by the Chan Centre, why were transwomen like Rosie’s stories having to be written by someone else, and why were racialized and indigenous trans, genderqueer, and two-spirit people not of equal artistic patronage?”
Rae’s last song was the debut of “Danger” with the lyrics “not obligated to be a woman or a man, we are stronger together, we won’t hide when we’re hunted, let’s walk home holding hands.”
However, you look at it, I think and hope that the young people that made up 90% of the audience felt that they had allies out there in a harsh world that is slow to change. The feeling throughout the evening was one of acceptance, camaraderie, and optimism for a future where people can embrace their gender failures and are included in a society that stretches beyond its narrow and suffocating rules and possibly breaking them.