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Gender Failure

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Ivan Coyote and Rae Spoon have both made a mark in Canada’s queer communities over the past decade in their own unique ways. Coyote has secured her place as a master storyteller, having produced an impressive volume of work that can be defined as “good old-fashioned kitchen table stories,” which ultimately serve as powerful narratives about everyday truths. Spoon, who just released their first collection of written stories, First Spring Grass Fire, has toured extensively throughout Canada and the world over the past decade, carving out a place as a talented songwriter who tackles subjects ranging from grief and loss, to their interactions with colonialism.

What could be considered both artists most significant contributions, however, is the way in which they engage with issues of gender and queerness through their creative work. With Coyote and Spoon’s most recent collaborative project, Gender Failure, the two Canadian artists bring together their writing, music, as well as the visual presentation of artist Clyde Peterson, to explore this side of their work and lives. Described as “an exploration and expose of their failed attempts at fitting into the gender binary, and ultimately, how the gender binary fails us all,” Gender Failure is an opportunity to see and hear how the artists negotiate gender and its limitations. The show includes commentary on subjects ranging from the frustrations of pronoun use and the difficulties of chest binding, to the exasperation and anger experienced when interacting with the medical establishment. And while each story and song shared by the two artists is highly personal and unique, they also possess many relatable, universal truths about lives lived outside the established norm.

“People have often treated my gender like there’s this truth behind it, and I’m not telling it, and they sort of re-roll the magic eight ball over and over when they keep getting answers that don’t measure up. And they want to know what genitals I have, and what sex I was assigned at birth, and what my name used to be, and…they want the truth. But the truth is, in all of the explaining why I was a man, I lost the plot. One day, when I was asking to be called ‘he,’ I realized I didn’t really even think I was a man anymore, because the absurdity of the struggle to be accepted had made gender feel more like a comedy than a fact. So I decided to retire from the gender binary altogether, and change my pronoun to the gender neutral ‘they.’” (Rae Spoon)

“I am a gender failure. 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 it still feels like I’m borrowing this word from someone else, but it’s not all the way mine, but my friend who lent it to me might need it back, or they might need it more than me, and really, these are all just words, and words are always imperfect, and words are just sounds we make with our mouths that point our minds to think of things that cannot be fully described in words anyway. I am a writer, so I know exactly where words fail us. And I know, that a name is not a person, it is just what we have agreed to call them.” (Ivan Coyote)

Gender Failure is currently on tour, and performance dates can be found here. 

And you can watch a clip from the final act of Gender Failure below.

Sources:

“Gender Failure,” British Film Institute (April 2013): https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/llgff/Online/gender-failure

“Biography,” Rae Spoon (April 2013): http://www.raespoon.com/?page_id=12

“Bio,” Ivan Coyote (April 2013): http://www.ivanecoyote.com/page/6/bio

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BUTCH: Not Like the Other Girls

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BUTCH: Not Like the Other Girls is a photo-based public art exhibition being displayed in transit shelters throughout Vancouver from March 11 2013 onwards. A gallery of the exhibition will also be on display at The Cultch from April 9 – 25 2013, with an Art Party on April 10 from 6-8pm!

The exhibition is an exploration of female masculinity in contemporary communities. The images celebrate and honour the beauty and power of those who transgress the gender binary. S.D. Holman conceptualizes Butch, “not as oppositional too Femme and Trans identities, but as an inclusive site of resistance to limitations on the way women, gender and sexuality are still defined” (sdholman.com).

The images aim to provide an alternative representation of what it means to be female outside the culture’s narrow vision of femininity. The images serve as a mirror to those who are not represented in mainstream ideas about what it means to be a woman. They also aim to  to reach an audience that has little to no exposure to or understanding of Butch identities. Holman states that she wanted to show straight society, in particular, that women exist outside the normative version of femininity that is generally represented (xtra.ca).

Holman also pushes beyond simple representation, aiming to contribute to a more diverse understanding of Butch identities, with subjects reflecting a wide range of Butch styles from diverse backgrounds. It is noteworthy that she approaches the work from the perspective of gender, rather than a coherent subject position. In doing so, she blurs the boundaries between Butch, Femme and Trans identities and diversifies our understanding of “butchness”. Rather than see Butch as simply a “lesbian with masculine characteristics,” she understands Butch as reflective of gender transgression more generally and as an inclusive site of resistance to dominant feminine norms. In strategically placing the images in the public sphere, she thereby complicates the dominant image of femininity in mainstream communities and encourages reflection on what it means to be female in this society.

Though Holman wishes to represent Butch identities, she nevertheless understands “Butchness” as an inherently fraught concept. “I don’t believe in the objective. We always bring something to it. We bring whatever our preconceived notions are. I don’t believe in the perfect moment. I believe we’re a bunch of messy, imperfect moments,” says Holman (xtra.com). Her work contributes to a growing body of queer and trans theory in which “categories like ‘woman,’ ‘man,’ ‘butch,’ ‘lesbian’ and ‘transsexual’ are all imperfect, historical, temporary, and arbitrary” (Rubin, 2006, p.479).

Historically, “butch” and “femme” have been presupposed as existing in a fixed relationship to each other, with “butch” representing the hypermasculine, active role and “femme” being their hyperfeminine counterpart (Rubin, 2006). As Rubin states, within this system, “gender role, sexual orientation, and erotic behaviour” were defined always in relation to each other (p.475). However, it is increasingly recognized that virtually every conceivable combination of gender and desire exists in Butch sexualities (Rubin, p.475). There are Butches who prefer their partners to control and direct sexual behaviour, Butches who desire other Butches, Butches who are tops, bottoms, FTM transsexual Butches who prefer femmes and those who prefer other Butches.

The Butch aesthetic is also infinitely variable, “historical, temporary and arbitrary” (Rubin, p.479. As Rubin delineates, Butch identity is “semiotically related to a long line of images of young, rebellious, sexy, white, working-class masculinity” and she is “usually accompanied by a half-dressed, ultrafeminine creature who is artfully draped on her boots, her bike, or one of her muscular, tattooed forearms” (p.473). However, this conveys a limited and stereotypical picture of an actually much more diverse community. Butches vary in their expressions of masculinity, the way they present themselves, and the way they relate to their female bodies (Rubin, p.474). Some prefer masculine appearance, style, and clothing, while others may remain relatively unmarked or more intermediate in their gender identities (Rubin, p.472). Some might enjoy their breasts while others choose to pass as men or even desire to alter their bodies.

It is important that Holman situates her work as a critique of binaristic conceptualizations of gender. As such, she conceptualizes the boundaries between Butch and Trans identities as permeable. Within the lesbian community, many lesbians have conceived of this permeability as a threat to lesbian gender categories and have treated FTMs as deserters (Rubin, p.476). In another act of policing gender boundaries, early lesbian-feminists denounced “butch-femme” identities, assuming that they were simply mirroring heteronormative roles (Rubin, p.479). These claims of moral and political superiority are increasingly being recognized as imposing new rigid limitations on gender roles (Rubin, p.479).

Although identity is undeniably a meaningful and formative part of our social lives, Holman’s work speaks to the way that all categories constrain our reality in particular ways. The following quote by Gayle Rubin (2006) serves as a reminder to be curious about the categories that we impose, rather than imposing new rigid rules for already marginalized populations.

“Our categories are important. We cannot organize a social life, a political movement, or our individual identities and desires without them. The fact that categories invariably leak and can never contain all the relevant “existing things” does not render them useless, only limited. Categories like ‘woman,’ ‘butch,’ ‘lesbian,’ or ‘transsexual’ are all imperfect, historical, temporary, and arbitrary. We use them, and they use us. We use them to construct meaningful lives, and they mold us into historically specific forms of personhood. Instead of fighting for immaculate classifications and impenetrable boundaries, let us strive to maintain a community that understands diversity as a gift, sees anomalies as precious, and treats all basic principles with a hefty dose of skepticism”.

49th ave at CambieNanaimo & HastingsNanaimo and 20th Ave

10th near alma 19th and fraser king ed and bleinhem

sd   hol

Links/Sources:

Rubin, G. (2006). Of Catamites and Kings. The Transgender Studies Reader, 471.

SD Holman – Official Website

xtra.ca – Butches on Bus Shelters

Google Map – Butches on Bus Shelters in Vancouver

The Cultch Gallery Exhibits

BUTCH: Not Like the Other Girls – Facebook Event Page