For more than two decades, Ivan Coyote has been using the power of personal narrative to work toward a better world. The award-winning author and seasoned stage performer often grapples with the complex and intensely personal issues of gender identity, as well as family, class, social justice and queer liberation.
Huron University College picked Coyote’s 2014 book, Gender Failure, as the Huron1Read 2017-18 selection. Based on their acclaimed 2012 live show, Gender Failure is a collection of autobiographical essays, lyrics and images personal documenting the personal journeys of Coyote and fellow author and musician Rae Spoon from gender failure to gender self-acceptance. Read an excerpt from the book – Their, There –by clicking here.
Coyote, Western’s 2012-13 Writer-in-Residence, returns to campus to deliver a public performance – Neither / Nor: Circumnavigating the Gender Binary in 7000 Easy Steps – followed by author Q&A and book signing, at 2 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 28, in the Kingsmill Room, Huron University College.
Western News editor Jason Winders and Coyote recently discussed the intersection of art, activism and how the fight for trans rights is right on our doorsteps.
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Re-watching your TED Talk, it struck me again, what is the deal with people and bathrooms? One of my former homes, North Carolina, was willing to drive its economy straight into the rocks to deny people the opportunity to use a bathroom of their choice. Why do people lose their minds on this issue?
I honestly do not have any idea what possesses someone to be so invested in the genitals of the person who is using a locked bathroom stall in the same public washroom as they are. I really do not. We all have gender-neutral bathrooms at home. We just call them bathrooms.
It all seems to be based on an irrational, unsupported by any evidence claim that men will dress up as women to enter ‘the wrong’ washroom and harass or assault women and children. But if they were so worried about men who harass and assault children then why don’t they convict them? Sentence them? Not elect a man who brags about sexual assault? Believe survivors?
This ‘protecting women and children’ ruse doesn’t hold up under any kind of scrutiny whatsoever. It’s about transphobia, plain and simple.
In that same talk, you speak so beautifully about the need for gender-neutral facilities, boiling it down to that single little kid, the tomboy daughter of your friend. That story broke my heart as a dad – and it angered me as a human being. Where is our humanity when discussing anything around gender identity? How do we forget these issues impact real people?
I don’t ever forget that these issues impact real people. The world never lets me forget that, not for one day. The bathroom issue is one I have dealt with for as far back as I can remember, and I have it easy compared to trans feminine people. I meet kids nearly every day I’m out there who are struggling in so-called public schools because they don’t have safe and easy access to a bathroom or change room. I don’t ever forget that.
You have such an impressive body of work already. What would you say you are fighting for? What is your hope for us as a society?
I’m a writer. That is my first impulse, to write. To tell a story, to uncover and get at the essential truths that make a good and moving story. Do I want to change the world? Any person with a heart couldn’t want anything but, these days, and my craft is just one of the tools at my disposal.
My hope for us as a society is a little too long and broad of a question to answer in any kind of an interview. We would need days, and coffee, and good food, and a lot of tears and discussion. I do hope to use the power of personal narrative to work towards a better world for all of us, and to empower others to uncover and believe in their own stories, and that they can be a powerful tool that can be used to change the world.
Being an outspoken artist and advocate cannot be easy on an issue that hasn’t found mainstream footing – in fact, it still draws a lot of mainstream scorn. How goes the fight, as they say?
First of all, I don’t necessarily agree that trans issues have not found some mainstream footing, in the last few years especially. If trans issues were totally off of the radar, (U.S. President Donald) Trump would not be targeting us as he has. And things have amped up since they elected the orangutang – that is for sure.
But with every push back, the resistance to that bigotry grows stronger and more sure footed, too. We literally have white supremacists marching in our streets, and people are taking that kind of thing seriously.
So, the fight, it’s right on our doorsteps. It’s in our classrooms and streets and courtrooms, and in our hearts, too. It has always been, especially for those marginalized or on the receiving end of that bigotry, but I think the mainstream is waking up to it too. It has become too ugly and obvious for even people who are not impacted directly to ignore.
Civil rights fights like this are long, tough hauls. I remember speaking to folks who went through the 1960s, marching in the streets of the U.S. South, seeking recognition of black equality in society. They often spoke about how depressed they could become seeing hate so up close. How do you remain optimistic about the future – if you are? What do you lean on to keep moving forward?
I’m an artist, first. I think you have mistaken me for someone who sees themselves as a full-time activist, and that is not me.
Am I grateful and honoured that my work is used as a tool to promote understanding and to make the world better for other trans and queer people? Absolutely.
But I am a writer and a storyteller first. That means I get to meet and perform for and shake hands with and listen to the stories of others like me, and to see them thrive and survive and succeed and fail and live and be out and proud and beautiful and amazing. I get letters and hugs as a year-end bonus. I meet 80-year-old butch women who cry because nobody ever told a story that they could see themselves reflected in.
I don’t lean on these experiences – but they sure do hold me up.
With the hope you give people through your writing and speaking, I can only guess how many experiences are heaped upon you, how many times you are pulled aside and told a story that just tears your heart out. How do you process those? How do you use them in your work?
I cry in my truck after shows a lot. I just let it out. I lift weights. I roast chickens and read Scandinavian mystery novels. I write back to people. Two pieces in my latest book are letters I received and the responses I wrote back. If I think their questions and my answers will help others, with permission, I craft that exchange into a piece or story and hope it helps other people find themselves or their struggles in it.
With your book’s selection for Huron One Read, you’ll have a broad audience, not necessarily one who would pick up the book on their own, or even one interested in the subject. This might be the one shot at getting to them. What would you ask of a newcomer approaching the work? How do they enter into it and get the most out of it?
This brings me back to being a storyteller. That is where the craft comes in. A good storyteller can ‘broaden the joining’ as Bell Hooks says. A good story has the ability to reach into the heart of an audience member or listener and do what I call ‘rattle the ghosts,’ that is, make them see something similar or familiar in what they might have mistaken as someone who is The Other.
Beyond physical spaces, you talk about words – pronouns, especially, and how the shape perception. What is the main way words fail us as a society, especially regarding issues around gender? And how do we fix it?
Well, words will always fail us somewhere, right? Human emotion and reality is simply too complicated and nuanced for mere words. It’s why you have to watch a sunset; you have to hear someone’s laugh; you have to touch a puppy’s ear and smell a baby’s head.
Words can only ever point us to think about something, not take us there.
In terms of gender, words are often used to enforce the binary, not describe it. So I would say we just need a lot more words, and we have to use them until everybody knows them.
You have seen some recognition of the power of words – The New York Times, Associated Press, numerous academic style guides are all making allowances for gender-neutral pronouns and constructions. This would not have happened five years ago. That may sound like inside politics, but it is one mechanism of how language takes on widespread change. What do popular changes like this say to you?
It means keep up the good work. It means we are further away from where we left than we are to where we are trying to get to. It means movement is happening. It means one day we will win.
The show the book was based on was staged in 2012; the book was published in 2014. Now, a few years removed from the book’s origin, what needs to be understood about the issues it raises to bring its story up to today? If you had a chapter to add today, what might it say?
I wouldn’t add a chapter. It’s just not how I work. I would just write another book. The next one is called If and When, due out in 2019, if I get my shit together and finish it.