Book Corner: Gender Failure, by Rae Spoon and Ivan E. Coyote

Welcome back to Book Corner, an irregularly scheduled feature where I (and any other Culture Cluster members who want to share what they’ve been reading) review books from off the beaten path—or at least, from outside the academy—that we might not otherwise hear of.

I recently finished Gender Failure, by Rae Spoon and Ivan E. Coyote. This highly engaging and enjoyable read is a series of first-person essays written by two artists: an indie/folk/electronic musician (Spoon) and a storyteller (Coyote). Through a narrative non-fiction format, Spoon and Coyote ruminate on how being “gender failures”—that is, people with non-binary gender identities— has shaped both their personal lives and artistic practice.

Spoon and Coyote deftly describe the daily reality of living as non-binary artists: being mis-gendered, having to establish their gender identities with medical authorities, coworkers, and family members,  navigating sexism and judgement even within queer communities, and figuring out how to present themselves to audiences and media.

Gender Failure will interest sociologists studying either gender or culture. One of the book’s greatest strengths is that Spoon and Coyote treat both their gender and artistic identities as fluid rather than fixed. Throughout the course of the book, readers see Spoon develop from a tomboy, to a lesbian, to a trans man, to rejecting available categories altogether and developing their* own gender identity: “retired from gender.”  There are subtle but wonderful parallels with Spoon’s artistic identity: they spend significant time trying to wedge themselves into recognizable genres and jumping at any available performance opportunity, but eventually move beyond those genres and spaces, which quickly become constraining.

Many of the essays in Gender Failure would make great additions to an introductory Sociology of Gender syllabus. Spoon and Coyote patiently walk readers through many Gender 101 points: sex, gender, and sexuality are all different; not all trans people take hormones or have surgery; the entire concept of a gender binary is questionable at best. And, there is incredible value in letting non-binary people speak for themselves rather than assigning dry, academic texts about gender fluidity written from an outsider’s perspective.

Although it is less explicitly stated than the critical analysis of sex and gender, Gender Failure also has a lot to say about the implications of non-conformity in artistic practice. The authors raise important questions about how to navigate disclosure as public figures, how to manage abusive social media commentary, how to decide exactly how queer they can be with which audiences, and how to deal with media industries that are not equipped to talk about non-binary gender identities. Reading this book certainly shatters any lingering illusions of creative communities as tolerant and accepting havens.

The most moving parts of this book, though, are not academic at all. They are small moments of connection with family, with an upstairs neighbour who is clearly still loved and missed, and with budding butch and transgender teenagers met at shows, and through happenstance. They are moments of realization that the authors are not failing at gender; the gender system fails them.

*both Spoon and Coyote state that their preferred pronoun is the singular “they.”

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