#866 Beware rainbow-filled Oreos
by Ivan Coyote
Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2019
$19.75 / 9781551527734
Reviewed by Anna Spencer with Heather Simeney MacLeod
On March 12, 2020, Ivan Coyote’s Rebent Sinner was shortlisted for the 2020 Jim Deva Prize (for “writing that provokes”) and was also shortlisted for the Hubert Evans Non-fiction Prize, both of the BC and Yukon Book Prizes. Winners will be announced on September 19th – Ed.
Ivan E. Coyote was born and raised in Whitehorse to working class parents. They’re a writer, performer, actor, and director. Coyote has published thirteen books including Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme (Arsenal, 2011), co-authored with Zena Sharman. Coyote has been building understanding and acceptance of the diverse queer community since 1992. They have, of course, done this through their writing, albums, and films, but also through visiting for 15 years junior and senior high schools where, through the art and craft of telling stories, Coyote has stimulated communication and taking action to raise safety and social justice.
As a memoir, Rebent Sinner, Coyote’s most recent book, doesn’t follow a so-called natural story arc of a beginning, middle, or end, nor does it necessarily have a so-called traditional plot or theme. What it does do is cross boundaries and barricades regarding gender and identities that are perceived to be attached to the heteronormative constructions built so carefully into society and culture. Rebent Sinner is structured as a diary with the earliest date going back to 1997, though the journal entries are for the most part dated from 2016-17, when Coyote was around 46. Coyote is a person who has experience, who has lived their life bravely, courageously, and openly as their true self — queer, nonbinary, trans. Rebent Sinner is easily accessible; it is relatable regardless of gender and regardless of sexual orientation, and it is funny.
Coyote’s memoir reveals experiences that are common among everyone as part of the human condition, and this is what makes the memoir so accessible: it speaks to all of us. This is achieved by telling stories that may seem arbitrary, such as “Sometimes there you are on the highway, and you drive right through a flock of memories, like ghosts. All you can do is keep your eyes on the road” (p. 75). There are moments in the memoir that are random, but that’s the point: queer lives are lived as arbitrarily as non-queer lives, and not every moment is monumental, any more than it can stand in for the entire queer community.
Being queer means living in awkward situations. In my experience, it is difficult not to want to lecture and explain. Ivan Coyote doesn’t lecture: they reveal. Part of that revealing is at times gut wrenching, haunting, and draining; whereas, at other times it’s funny and it’s human. For example, “‘Yes,’ he tells me. ‘We are just transitioning.’ He looks uncomfortable for a second. ‘Uh, I mean, it’s a transition period. We are, uh, undergoing a period … of change. We’re trying to, uh, change. Be better. With this stuff.’ I smile. He looks relieved” (p. 65). Coyote takes uncomfortable interactions and deconstructs them. They make them humorous. They make them easier to digest. To me, Coyote is an interpreter as well as a storyteller: they indicate that our experiences as human beings are more similar than they are different, and these uncomfortable interactions can be met with humour and love instead of anger and sadness.
Then again, sometimes they write with that same humorous spark even as they remind us that cruel, homophobic acts against queer people are still occurring, legally and illegally, and that queer people are disregarded by numerous judicial systems. In 68 United Nations states, same-sex consensual relationships are still illegal and in 12 of those states homosexuality is punishable by death (Ramón Mendos 2019). Even in states where homosexuality is legal, social and cultural barriers often remain, making existence for queer people unsafe, as Coyote explains:
Don’t bite the effing rainbow-filled Oreo, people. It’s a trick. Smoke and mirrors. Until a gay boy wearing eyeliner can walk safely up Commercial Drive in Vancouver right after Italy wins a soccer match, and our kids don’t get harassed trying to get an education, and young lesbian couples are not shot in parks in Texas, and there is no death penalty anywhere for being queer, and everyone can piss in a public washroom without hassle or fear, then I will swallow no rainbow cookie. Plus, think of the chemicals in those things (p. 86).
Here, Coyote indicates that much more is required, certainly in Canada, then merely painting a rainbow on a sidewalk. They are telling us to not be fooled, a message that is especially relevant because many Canadians are under the false impression that hate crimes are virtually nonexistent. They are telling us not to eat that rainbow-hued cookie of complacency.
Though humour is one way to deal with the connotations and difficulties that come attached to these identities, Coyote does not go without their raw moments, for example:
Yesterday I was hassled again in a woman’s bathroom, by a staff member of the restaurant I had just eaten in. She questioned me, and then left to gather a group of male staff to confront me. Here’s the thing about when this stuff happens: in addition to making me feel unwelcome and uncomfortable (and sometimes even unsafe) in a so-called public place, often the person doing the hassling is not only assuming that I am a man in a woman’s bathroom but also inferring that I am there to do harm to women and/or children. So if I seem offended when this happens, it is probably because I am. It is this assumption of ill intent that really gets me. So much more hurtful than the plain old silly-man-can’t-read-the-sign version (p. 64).
This is a common trans experience, which Coyote highlights when they write “again.” Sometimes prejudice does not come in the form of assumptions. It can be blatant and overt, a reminder of the ill intent meant by some people. One woman who came up to Coyote after a show asked them, “When did you have your penis removed?” (p. 193). Some things leave scars on the soul of the person we become long after the events are over. “I got called a dyke bitch in the elevator at the hotel. No one wants to hear that story, though. But that happened, too” (p. 72). Both attacks are based upon a subjective assumption of appearance. The body is political, but perhaps it isn’t political or nearly so problematic when it falls under an umbrella of white, so-called acceptable notions of appearance and heteronormativity.
Coyote is brave. Their bravery is tangible. Their bravery is tangible for me as a young, queer person moving through the world. Their bravery is unmistakeable and self-evident as Coyote speaks candidly about situations that many of us in the queer community experience, live through, and must survive daily. Coyote’s bravery is blatant and unambiguous when they articulate with such grace and intelligence the intense emotional and, sadly, sometimes physical perils and realities facing the queer community. Coyote appears unafraid of confrontation. “I do hate the patriarchy, though, and I’m not afraid to use terms like ‘rape culture’ and ‘toxic masculinity’ and ‘cissexism’ and ‘white supremacy’ and ‘genocide’” (p. 196).
At the same time, this outspoken, brave, gender-barrier-smashing individual seems to escape the comfort afforded to so many of us — invisibility: “No one is staring at you, I tell myself. There are all kinds of bodies here, I tell myself. But still. None that look like mine” (p. 211). Perhaps it may be helpful if we all remember that we cannot escape the skin we’re in, even in our most vulnerable situations. Coyote reminds us of their and, I hope, our own humanity. But … doesn’t Coyote even need to slip off their cape every now and again?
Coyote’s memoir has allowed me to reach my own realizations and explorations regarding gender and sexual identity. Importantly, it’s nobody’s f**king business. Society – which, let’s remember, is made up of people — needs to let others come to their identity on their own terms and whenever they are ready. As Coyote writes: “The people asking if a nine-year-old kid can even know that he is gay should be asking how the other nine-year-olds already know how to bully him for coming out” (p. 83). Also, there is no one right way to define, “Because queer means so much more to me than just the absence of straightness” (p. 197). Gender and sexuality are fluid concepts. “I don’t want to erase anyone because we share a word that means different things to each of us” (p. 197).
To me, Queer means a space to exist with a label that is ever-changing and where there is no need to define. Coyote has also taught me that the society we live in is not as progressive as I had thought. Their experience speaks to Canadian mentality: “Today I called a spa to find out whether they had gender-neutral change rooms and was asked, ‘Are you American? Because in Canada everybody is pretty cool with that stuff.’ (Not relaxing for me. Just FYI, full-speed-ahead denial is not helpful” (p. 82). Don’t bite that effing rainbow-filled Oreo.
Rebent Sinner is a must-read, must-learn, must-teach book. As a future schoolteacher this is something I would like to see within the educational curriculum, as Coyote explains. “We’re talking about gender here. It is complicated. It is important. There are so many ways to not get this right” (p. 108). It is only through educating one another and recognizing that this is an intricate topic that we can begin to address binary notions of ignorance.
Ivan E. Coyote is brave. They are one of the bravest writers of the 21st century. Coyote takes on gender binaries from the position of a queer, nonbinary, trans individual, and they prevail. Coyote’s words beautifully inspire and encourage conversations that foster acceptance and understanding of all members of a community, queer and not. The emotions that I felt while reading Rebent Sinner were overwhelmingly joyful, meaningful, and difficult; but ultimately Coyote’s memoir is a reality, and it celebrates the queer experience in all its nuances. As Coyote so accurately describes, for so many of us: we’re not angry, just tired.
Anna Spencer is an openly queer Bachelor of Education candidate and student of Indigenous Studies and Social Sciences at Thompson Rivers University. At 22 years old, she has had a passion to become a schoolteacher for as long as she can recall. Anna believes that education is the most important step in creating a more inclusive tomorrow for all inhabitants of Earth and has dedicated herself to starting with the youngest minds in her future career. Anna’s Aboriginal Studies Certificate has awoken her to a world of settler privilege that people often feel immune to or find a way to ignore in contemporary Canadian society. Privileged assumptions need to be examined and recognized in our postcolonial society as oppressive cultural discourses. Anna believes that only when we recognize that inequalities and injustices exist, and educate ourselves about these occurrences, can we create a compassionate world that changes the way we exist now.
Heather Simeney MacLeod is a Métis writer, playwright, poet, and artist. Her creative nonfiction piece, “To Discover the Various Uses of Things,” won first play in the Malahat Creative Nonfiction prize. Her visual art has been exhibited in Victoria and Yellowknife. She is a Lecturer at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops.
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 Homophobia Report 2019: Global Legislation Overview Update. 13th ed., IGLA World, 2019.