Gender Failure


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.


“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


A Series of Questions


This ongoing body of work explores the power dynamics inherent in the questions asked of transgender, transsexual, genderqueer, gender non-conforming, and gender-variant people.

Many documentary photographic projects that deal with trans issues exploit the genders of their subjects, pointing to an “otherness” or inappropriately exoticizing their bodies. A Series of Questions seeks instead to make visible the transphobia and gender-baiting that can become part of everyday interactions and lives, forming a fuller picture of the various lived experiences. In so doing, this work contrasts with the dehumanizing approaches that predominate the images made of transgender, transsexual, genderqueer, gender non-conforming, and gender-variant people, which often focus solely on their gender or trans status, or use them to further a specific point about social construction and gender.

The subjects hold signs depicting questions that each has had posed to them personally— some by strangers, others by loved ones, friends, or colleagues. Presented on white wooden boards, the questions are turned on the viewer, shifting the dynamics under which they were originally asked, and prompting the viewer to cast a reflective, self-critical eye upon themself, revealing how invasive this frame of reference can be.

As a greater number of subjects and questions are accumulated, a relentless conversation of questioning emerges. Attention is directed not on the backgrounds of the transgender, transsexual, genderqueer, gender non-conforming, or gender-variant subjects, but on the dynamics at work in these conversations. I am interested in uncovering the typology of these questions, discovering what categories of questions emerge as the script of power dynamics and interrogation is flipped.

-L. Weingarten

A Series of Questions is, well, a series of questions in which the subjects of the photos are not the focus – the viewer is. A picture is worth a thousand words – each image can be the subject of a critical analytic essay in and of themselves (see here for a discussion on the above photo).


Many are supremely invasive.


Akin to Kate Bornstein’s piece Gender Terror, Gender Rage¹A Series of Questions speaks not from a personal trans perspective, but rather serves as a mirror to point out all the gender defending that is pervasive and invisible in our society.


Each photo deals with an individual issue that many trans scholars have written on before. David Valentine’s I Went to Bed With My Own Kind Once² is a piece that discusses the conflation of orientation and gender, and the clear lines society draws between everything with no room for black and white.


Of Catamites and Kings: Reflections on Butch, Gender, and Boundaries by Gayle Rubin³ is a good read that discusses the issues implied in the photo below:


The project has been on-going since 2008 and the artist is still searching for participants. See more details about it here.

¹ Bornstein, Kate. Gender Terror, Gender Rage. In S. Stryker & S. Whittle (Eds.) The Transgender Studies Reader, Taylor and Francis Group, New York, 2006, p. 236-243.

² Valentine, David. I Went to Bed With My Own Kind Once. In S. Stryker & S. Whittle (Eds.) The Transgender Studies Reader, Taylor and Francis Group, New York, 2006, p. 407-419.

³ Rubin, Gayle. Of Catamites and Kings: Reflections on Butch, Gender, and Boundaries. In S. Stryker & S. Whittle (Eds.) The Transgender Studies Reader, Taylor and Francis Group, New York, 2006, p. 471-481.