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Sometimes you open a book that feels like sitting down to catch up with an old friend. That was my experience as I began to read Ivan E. Coyote and Rae Spoon’s co-written book Gender Failure (Arsenal Pulp Press). The book is an adaptation of the duo’s successfully-toured performance, interspersed with Clyde Petersen’s art which was also initially projected during their live show. In the show, the duo alternate telling stories exploring their unique take on life outside the gender binary, and the failings of trying to think of gender simply as a simplistic polarized “male” and “female.”
Page after page, Gender Failure’s smooth storytelling flow and seamless reliability reminded me of the comfort of sitting with friends swapping stories late into the night. The essays, stories, and lyrics included in this collection explore the often-winding road to self-realization, the process of finding oneself again and again through shifting identities, and decisions around physical transition. Ivan and Rae are both exquisite storytellers and bring the page not only the struggle and danger that come with living authentically while simultaneously having to exist within a binary gender world, but also the humor,and joy that those outsider experiences create. I especially appreciate the ways in which Ivan and Rae’s experiences of gender and sexuality are in some ways quite different, but compliment each other brilliantly when woven together within the context of the book’s narrative .
Gender Failure is not a simple Trans 101 lesson, rather this book offers a far more compelling story that brings readers to the hotel rooms, kitchen tables, and inner lives of Rae and Ivan. Gender Failure is also a book that will foster dialogue and community amongst those of us whose lives also have existed outside of the binary, and whose identities, or the public portrayal/perception thereof, has shifted over time. The stories I found most compelling and connected to were when Rae and Ivan discussed their relationship to pronouns, identities, and the journey towards making peace with their bodies and how to negotiate that publicly. A poignant example of this being Ivan’s decision to, after 19 years of daily binding, and leading a very public life, and choosing to have top surgery in private, in part, to avoid having to defend a very personal choice.
This impressive adaptation of a live multimedia performance to the page mixes together essays, stories, lyrics, and sketches. You feel like you’re backstage at their show, with Rae and Ivan’s voices leaping from the book. Gender Failure is an important read for anyone looking for firsthand experiences from those whose lives and bodies have transgressed gender norms, and is definitely an important literary step beyond the traditional trans narrative. Rae and Ivan thoughtfully speak to the fact that a culture that adheres to a rigid gender binary is a culture that ultimately fails everyone.
By Ivan E. Coyote and Rae Spoon
Arsenal Pulp Press
Paperback, 9781551525365 , 160 pp.