Sunday, 25 September 2016

Gender Failure.

I recently joined a non-binary book club (FB group) and the first book selected (democratically) for reading and discussion was ‘Gender Failure’ by Rae Spoon and Ivan E. Coyote (Arsenal Pulp Press 2014). I'd already read this – being a big fan of Ivan's work – so it was a case of rereading for me and this time making notes.

I like the title for a start, which follows that of the authors’ toured show. In a more positive mood – or world – I might be up for Kate Bornstein's notion of ‘Gender Outlaw’ (her book is about to be reissued too btw), but currently the more diffident ‘Gender Failure’ suits me better.

Gender failure, in the authors’ terms, refers primarily to the gender binary; both as in failing at and being failed by:

Rae (p242): “I am a gender failure. I failed at the gender binary, unable to find a place in being either a man or a woman with which I felt comfortable. But ultimately I believe that it's the binary that fails to leave room for most people to write their own gender stories.

Rae (p217): “Throughout the interactions I've had over the past ten years, I've learned that the gender binary is more of a comedy skit than a fact. People read each other, assign identifiers, and then play out a script accordingly. A lot of the time these interactions are absurd, playing themselves out on the ground and thirty thousand feet in the air in the same ways.

Ivan (p247): “Sometimes it exhausts me, all the head shaking and stumbling around to navigate and negotiate the two-ring circus that is this gender binary, walking pronoun tightropes and balancing between my safety and someone else's comfort.

But also, failing at being trans:

Ivan (p247): “You are free to call me trans and I am proud to lift this name up and hold it, right there in the sun, and you would not be wrong, but this still feels like I am borrowing a word from someone else, that it is not all the way mine, really, and my friend who lent it to me might need it back, or they might need it more than me”.

Rae (p200): “The invisibility of not even being considered trans at all by some members of the trans community because I had not changed my body with hormones or surgery.

Rae (p105): “I opened my mouth to respond, but then shut it. I didn't know where to begin to express how invisible I felt.

The sense of not being trans in the right way, or feeling you're not trans enough, or even at all, is certainly something I understand – as well as identifying within border territories:

Ivan (p234): “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.

Having to a large extent theorized myself out of a trans identity, putting most of my weight on the (femme) dock, I'm still reluctant to untie the painter and let the (trans) boat float away without me. Then again, I might just follow Rae's advice and retire from gender altogether:

Rae (p250/1): “I would highly recommend retiring from gender to anyone who is feeling like the spectrum or the binary doesn't fit. Many people look at me strangely when I tell them, but the decreased pressure of having to perform a gender makes up for all the misunderstandings.

The refusal to participate is a valid response. Don't gender, it only encourages them. Or something.

Throughout the book, the authors, in alternate chapters, write about their own lives and related topics – Ivan includes a couple of essays: on TDOR (‘Listing My Sisters’) and problems in public toilets (‘The Facilities’) – or just tell stories, with gender itself being one of them:

Rae (p239-242): “More and more, I have thought of my gender as a story I tell myself. (...) After all that has changed for me, I'm more inclined to leave the narrative open for myself than I have in the past. Now that I define my gender and sexuality as stories I tell and agree upon, I want to leave room for future possibilities that I have not been presented with yet.

There are many fine words, much fine writing here. I've copied out numerous passages for my own reference, and may quote from one or two more in later posts. In the meantime:

Rae (p19): “There should be as many books like this as there are people constrained by the gender binary, and I hope in my lifetime to read as many of them as possible.

Yes, indeed. And me, too :)


  1. Humans are absurd creatures when en mass. They dismiss the evidence of their own eyes about the great spectrum of gender expression and chose much like strongly opposed fundamentalist religions to eschew logic and deem there to only be two absolutes.

    How each individual lives their life will depend somewhat on how strong a grip the mad fundamentalist ideas are expressed where they live. I spent many decades in a gender limbo after being told that there would be no help in my lifetime to change but in the end the world changed about me and I was finally free.

    Do not let a small self appointed group of trans gender police confuse the issue. Find your place on the spectrum, that may or may not include the necessity of surgical and chemical intervention but it is there if you NEED it.

    I know from experience that life can be dominated by constant thinking and reading about gender and what if.... I am now settled and my mind is free and a real life goes on.

  2. Hi Coline. Thanks for commenting :)

    Yes, rigid adherence to the gender binary is a sort of fundamentalism, I guess. That probably applies to most (discrete) binaries. Us/Them. Whereas things are usually more complicated.

    Good advice too about the "transgender police", who are certainly out there, though they don't really bother me. My local trans group is very inclusive. My issues mostly arise from my own insecurity. Oops.

    But I like thinking and reading about gender :)


  3. ...but this still feels like I am borrowing a word from someone else, that it is not all the way mine, really...

    Oh, a hundred times yes. Okay, a dozen realistically. :-)

    Congratulations on making it to T-Central.

    1. Thanks, Lynn :)

      I'm not actually sure whether it's my second or third time on T-Central. I guess fame must be going to my head ;)

    2. If you find the fame getting to you, just repeat "Only the third time? Well..." in a condescending tone. I find that keeps my feet on the ground. :-)