Friday, July 18, 2014

Gender Failure: Trans Literature

A couple of months ago, I found a notice in The Coast about an event to be held at the Bus Stop Theatre in Halifax. Rae Spoon and Ivan E. Coyote were in town to perform a multimedia show to launch their book, Gender Failure (2014). I was free but not in the mood to have my inflexible and uninformed ideas about transgender challenged on that particular evening. Not that I would have explained my reluctance to attend in these words. Not on that particular evening.

Two months later, a colleague suggested the book to me. She had been reading it herself and thought that I might find it interesting. I took this as a sign to reconsider. I placed a hold on Gender Failure with a more open mind.

Although I've since read other books on the same theme that I enjoyed more (like S. Bear Berman's The Nearest Exit May be Behind You (2009), Gender Failure made an impression on me.

Anyone familiar with Gay/Lesbian/Bi/Queer/Trans/Intersex literature (or who shares this experience themselves) may appreciate how unstable are the boundaries between genders and sexual orientations. Feminist academics have been theorizing about gender as performance for decades. This is the idea that we are all, in a sense, "passing" as men or women, boys or girls, as we try and try again (and sometimes fail) to appear and behave according to culturally accepted norms around masculinity and femininity.

In Gender Failure, Spoon writes about "gender retirement", which Spoon describes as "the refusal to identify myself within the gender binary." Spoon, who identifies as transgender, also prefers to be referred to by gender-neutral pronouns, such as "they", "them", and "their", instead of "he" or "she". They explain that

the whole point of changing my pronoun to the gender-neutral 'they' was to state that I feel like neither. Yet almost every day, I am expected to declare myself as either a man or a woman or, at the very least, somewhere in the spectrum in between. To me, gender retirement is very much about refusing to be put on that spectrum.

Spoon argues that this kind of retirement plan should be available to anyone who doesn't want to be limited by the restrictions of gender roles, be they masculine or feminine.

I loved this idea of retiring from gender, which Spoon doesn't necessarily limit to those who identify as trans. As someone who has tried (and failed) for decades to, in Bergman's words "set about changing what it means to be a girl." I felt amazed and empowered by the discovery of all that I have to learn from trans writers like Spoon and Coyote and Bergman. There is a wealth of fascinating and enlightening literature here.

Happy Pride!

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