DECEMBER 7, 2016
IVAN COYOTE LIKES to fix things. Reading Tomboy Survival Guide, you get the feeling that Coyote would be the first person you would call if your stove caught fire in the middle of cooking your morning eggs. They — Coyote uses the plural pronoun — would laugh one of those laughs that make you feel part of the joke even though you are the joke and then calmly tell you what you need to do: Did you move the frying pan off the burner? Did you turn off the stove? Are you going to need to buy a new smoke detector because you threw your shoe at this one? Once the crisis is over, they would let you go — Coyote is too busy putting out too many fires as it is. Between authoring 11 books, creating four short films, releasing three albums, and touring the world speaking about bullying in public schools, it’s amazing they had the time to take your hypothetical call at all. Their latest book, Tomboy Survival Guide, chronicles Coyote’s formative years as a young butch and their life navigating treacherous gender landscapes as a gender-nonconforming adult, ultimately landing in a place of self-acceptance, power, and inner strength. I spoke to Ivan about Donald Trump, gendered spaces, and circumnavigating the patriarchy with vintage instruction manuals.
EDGAR GOMEZ: Tomboy Survival Guide began as a stage show in spring 2015. Why did you decide to translate these stories into print?
IVAN COYOTE: It was a little more organic than that. The text of the stories from the live stage show that are included in Tomboy were written specifically for that project, specifically for that live project, and even custom-built for the members of the band that play with me. The hymn was commissioned and written by all of us. I’ve always been interested in this live conversation between performed narrative or story and musician(s). Much of what I write and publish has its roots in live storytelling, so it’s not so much a translation as an adaptation, if you know what I mean. An adaptation that I have been experimenting with for 20 years now, in some form or another.
One of the recurring themes of your latest collection is of navigating spaces designed for the rigid male and female gender binary.
I was born and raised and socialized to be female. To be a good Catholic girl. That is part of my history and who I am. There is an important distinction to make here, between public spaces designated as for women only, and gatherings or spaces that are for women that I am invited to share with women. In the case of “ladies” or “women’s” bathrooms and change rooms, which I have to sometimes use for reasons of my own safety if there are no other options, I feel that I have as much right as any woman has to access those spaces, especially when there are no gender-neutral options available. That said, I mostly use the stall in men’s bathrooms. I don’t like to scare anyone or make them feel unsafe if there are other options for me. The men’s room is not an option for me when it comes to showers or change rooms.
One story in Tomboy is about being invited to a work party held for your female co-workers. What does it mean to you to be allowed entry into female spaces? Is it invalidating, empowering, subversive, a mixture of all, or none?
As for women’s spaces or gatherings or parties where I have been invited and welcomed, I consider it an honor to still be sometimes allowed entry into these spaces. An honor I don’t take lightly. I acknowledge my masculinity and the baggage and privilege it brings with it. I try to be conscious of how much space I take up, my physical presence. Keep my eyes and hands and knees in my own space. Think about not interrupting, about who gets listened to and who feels most entitled to speak. Never ever touch anyone without invitation or consent. Actively work on educating myself around my own feminism and internalized misogyny. Unlearn so much. The shit that more men should try to do.
As a trans writer of note, gender-nonconforming people and their inner circles often write to you for guidance and affirmation. Is this something you expected? What does it mean to you to be thrust into an educator role?
I was 26 when my first book came out. I thought my grandmother wouldn’t read it if I didn’t give her a copy with my own hands. I had no concept or real idea what it would be like to put personal stories out there in the world, or where they would go or what they could do and who they could touch or help. I try to be pretty clear that I am just an artist and a writer and a saxophone player and an electrician and a trans person. I can’t counsel anyone, especially a perfect stranger and their troubled trans youth from a town I’ve never been to. I just do what I can. Try to do my best. See them and write stories that they might be able to see themselves living and thriving in, a little. Just do what I can.
The chapter breaks play with the idea of assembly: images of the insides of machines, a hacksaw, a dissected toaster, a brief cookie-making comic. Are these intended to be read as tongue in cheek, as if there is a “how-to” guide for assembling the perfect tomboy?
There is absolutely no how-to guide for the perfect tomboy. I have always loved manuals; to me they were a way to gain knowledge and competency about often male-dominated interests of mine. Mechanics. Rope. Carpentry. Electricity. Music. Archery. Knives. Tools. Scouting. Fishing. How to build a booby trap. Survival. I spent a lot of time in the shop and on jobsites with my dad and my uncles, too, but I sometimes had to fight a lot of sexism and weird shit around being a girl and wanting to do those things, and there was even sometimes a weird pushback if I was too good or showed a natural ability with certain skills. Manuals circumvented the patriarchy and allowed me to learn without that hassle. I have collected manuals all of my life, but lost them all in a house fire in 2005, along with all of my other material possessions. Except my tools, oddly, which were in the garage and survived. So I started my manual collection over again, and especially in the last three years while working on this book I collected them up actively.
The images are drawn from that collection, anything over 50 years old, as I am nearly 50, and after 50 years the images become public domain. Many of them are from one manual in particular, called Audels Home Appliance Service Guide. It has all the cutaways of how to disassemble and repair “home” appliances, which means things like vacuums and toasters and washing machines and irons and mixers. You know. Girl Stuff. Ha. It was a metaphor, not directions per se. Although there is a lot of handy stuff in there. Where else will you find basic knot tying, a how-to for fixing your iron, the parts of a compound bow, a bolt identification chart, and directions on how to take a common wire hanger and bend it into a hammer holder for your belt?
Have you found writing and performing to be useful for you as tools for survival?
I would never have lived all the way through grade eight without music, writing, reading, and art. They have always been my only means of survival.
Your affection for your family and, in particular, your mother is a constant throughout your essays. You chalk up missteps she may have made when you were younger to a parent’s natural fear that their child’s gender identity will bring them harm. What would you say to gender-nonconforming children who as yet do not have the emotional distance to understand their parents’ behavior?
I can’t fully answer this because I am lucky. My mother loves me and always has. She made mistakes but, as I try to be very clear about, she was a very young, nearly single mother with two kids in the Yukon in the 1970s. I can’t counsel all gender-nonconforming kids on their parents’ behavior because some of their parents are evangelical nut jobs who want to send them off to conversion therapy or will kick their own children out onto the street for telling the truth. I don’t, nor will I ever, understand those behaviors, so I can’t really answer this question responsibly.
In another essay, you describe a fan of yours who is an employee at a tourist information stop. After inquiring about gender-neutral changing-room accommodations at the hot springs you plan on visiting, they call the destination in advance to “warn” them of your arrival. While well intentioned, how do you balance the desire of people to make things more comfortable for you when their actions are more hurtful than helpful?
I think every trans person I know is very familiar with the gender fumblings of cisgender folks. It’s inevitable, it’s pervasive, it’s every single day all day for probably the rest of my life for me. You don’t realize how much you are slotted into your gender box by the world until you don’t or won’t or can’t fit into one. I just try to see the difference between well-intentioned clumsiness and sheer not knowing, and bigotry, or apathy, or cruelty, or active hatred and violence. There are blurry times to be sure, but most of the time I think most people are at varying degrees, trying to get it and be better. In my world and circles, anyway. I haven’t been to North Dakota or Mississippi or many of the countries where I could be imprisoned or raped or shot and killed by police or the military for being trans or even queer, so I know I live in a bit of a bubble. To sum up, I assume that they mean well, and I try to have patience and compassion where and when I am capable of it. I give myself a break when I can’t be a saint about it all, and I write about this shit so people can learn about some of this stuff, my experience anyway, not so much off of the backs of trans people, in the moment. It can get exhausting and really kill your buzz to be stopped in the middle of your day to educate someone about something they could Google, especially if they feel entitled to your time or will follow up your lesson with an argument or a “devil’s advocate” type of response.
In “I Wish My Son,” you mention that “most days I can see the changes happening,” in reference to improvements in the lives of gender-nonconforming people.
My thoughts on the future have changed drastically since the US election. We need to buckle down. We need to be prepared to stand up and fight for our very lives. It is more important than ever that the trans community seek alliances and support those members who are already rooted in other communities under fire from Trump and company — I call them fascists. And make no mistake, for that is exactly who we are dealing with here. So we need to strengthen our ties and listen to and support trans folk who are black, Muslim, indigenous, disabled, poor, sick, and or immigrants. For it is all of us who are under attack.
Do you see any progress in the treatment of trans people?
The patriarchy is coming down around us as we speak. Black Lives Matter grows in size and knowledge and power and influence every day. The world’s eyes are on Standing Rock. In 20 years, if we don’t destroy the planet, gendered bathrooms will be the stuff of children’s fairy tales. Women and girls and trans people will all know their full power and the world will be a safer, more beautiful place for all of us. This is my mantra, anyway.