Julie Thompson reviews Butch Lesbians of the 20s 30s and 40s: Coloring Book edited by Avery Cassell and Jon Macy, Foreword by Sasha T. Golberg

From the publisher of The Queer Heroes Coloring Book (featuring a delightfully bedecked Edward Gorey on the cover) comes Butch Lesbians of the 20s 30s and 40s: Coloring Book, a collection of performers, mechanics, millionaires, and unknowns, from the 1920s through the 1940s. Nineteen artists, including Maia Kobabe (Louise), Avery Cassell, and Jon Macy (X Garage), bring these figures to life. The expressive takes on famous photographs and persons allow you to fill in each image with your own technicolor sensibilities, as well as fill in gaps in your own knowledge of queer history. The more time you spend with the woman or women on the page, carefully selecting just the right shade of purple for a suit jacket, the more time you end up spending thinking about who it is you’re looking at. Who is this defiant individual gazing back at me from a mugshot? What does it mean to find community in a public place, yet remain anonymous to history? I love the assortment of intimate moments between couples; the affability and charm exuded in solo portraits, coming across more as a conversation between the subject and the viewer; and the moments that project calm or exhilaration, and everything emotion in between. In the foreword, Sasha T. Goldberg, offers up her thoughts on butch identity and history. Goldberg acknowledges that the lens of experience and parameters through which she sees this collection and the identities of its subjects, may differ from yours.

Biographies of known persons and historical context for unknown persons, found at the back of the book, provide this collection with extra heft. A few of the images were familiar to me during my own readings of the eras covered here, such as thrill seeking heiress Joe Carstairs and the X Garage she ran with friends following WWI; night club performers, Gladys Bentley and Buddy Kent; and writers Djuna Barnes, Willa Cather, and Radclyffe Hall. There are a few historical figures that I’m unsure about, though, regarding their inclusion as butch lesbians. For instance, I haven’t found information about Bessie Coleman’s sexual preferences, though I admit I don’t know much about her aside from tales of her aviation prowess. The collection could also benefit from the addition of a book list for further reading. Readers and colorists will better connect with the writers’ and artists’ intentions of honoring these women.

I had a lot of fun (and plenty of hand cramps and that red indent on my ring finger) coloring in Louise and the X Garage crew. Coloring books for adults are seeing a surge in renewed interest, popping up as library programs, meditative exercises, and small gatherings. Does your book club need an excuse to spend afternoons coloring and discussing art and history? The end of the coloring book includes three discussion questions from Ajuan Mance about gender, how artistic visions influence a viewer’s interpretation.

I’ve included a list of titles if you’d like to learn more about these women’s lives or want a more general context of what life was like for queer people during the 1920s-1940s. The list is by no mean comprehensive and the asterisked titles reside on my TBR shelf. You can help grow this list by adding suggestions in the comments below.

Further Reading:

Danika reviews Tomboy Survival Guide by Ivan Coyote

“I was not ladylike, nor was I manly. I was something else altogether. There were so many different ways to be beautiful.”

– Michael Cunningham, A Home at the Edge of the World, epigraph to Tomboy Survival Guide

I am in love with this book, as I am in love with Ivan Coyote’s writing in general.

First of all, this is a beautiful book just as an object. I love the cover, and there are lots of small details that really add to the design, including the back cover edge being usable as a ruler. Throughout the book, between essays, are diagrams, including a disassembled stand mixer, knot-tying, and pastry-making.

I love Ivan Coyote’s writing because it’s both easy to read and deeply moving. Most of their stories come out of a rural setting, often up north, and they combine that often harsh environment with a kindness and generosity that underlies all their words. In one story, they talk about being one of only two people in a trades class that wasn’t a cis guy, and the harassment they faced. One day, they came in to find that someone had pissed in their toolbox. They cleaned it before class so no one would see them flinch at this.

In this same class, the same day, a guy asks them for relationship advice. They proceed to give possibly the best relationship advice I’ve ever heard, including detailed instructions on both dinner preparation and cunnilingus. The guy came back the next day and gave them the only hug they’d ever seen him participate in. He was beaming. Coyote absorbs this environment’s cruelty and still offers kindness–kindness that pays off, that is multiplied.

This conviction to remain kind even in a cruel world is inspiring to read. It’s not laid out as a philosophy; it’s just apparent behind every story. In one essay, they talk about forgiving their mother for “squeezing” them into things, recognizing that what they read as shame for all those years was actually fear–and wishing that their mother had named it then.

Once I came out, I stayed out. I got a regrettable pink triangle tattoo on my shoulder and plastered Queer Nation stickers on my leather jacket and went to kiss-in protests at the old coffee shop on Commercial Drive. I wanted to fight homophobia everywhere, in everyone. I wanted to Act Up, to act out, to have sit-ins, and not stand for it anymore.

I wish now I has been kinder to my mother about it all.

Ellen moved into a big house in East Vancouver and started to date a guy who played trombone in her jazz quintet. I told her I couldn’t spend too much time with her and all her straight friends anymore lest I by homogenized by their infectious heterosexuality. My politics didn’t leave anyone, including me, a lot of room for nuance, or grey areas.

I wish I had been kinder to a lot of people about it all, come to think of it.

Queer and trans people are often depicted in media as being perpetually teenagers or twenty-somethings. That’s another reason that I appreciate Ivan Coyote’s place in queer lit. They are in their 40s, which means both that they offer a look into a possible queer future for ourselves (it’s hard to imagine your future when none are depicted in media) and that they offer a more nuanced view of queer politics.

One essay that really stood out to me talked about the response they got from their Slate piece about gender neutral bathrooms, and about the harassment they face in public bathrooms. Their piece got shared at the same time on two sites: one, a pray-away-the-gay site, and the other, a “radical feminist” anti-trans site. The odd thing, they said, was how difficult it was to tell from the hateful emails which site the person was from. These are supposed to extreme opposite ends of the political spectrum, and yet the “radical feminists” and ultra right-wing camp sound almost identical. There is an unfortunate amount of TERFs (trans-exclusionary/trans-exterminatory “radical feminists”) on tumblr, and I’m constantly stumbling on their posts and remarking at how conservative their stances are, with minor vocabulary changes.

Of course, as the title would suggest, most of this collection has to do with gender.

But my day-to-day struggles are not so much between me and my body. I am not trapped in the wrong body; I am trapped in a world that makes very little space for bodies like mine. I live in a world where public washrooms are a battle ground, where politicians can stand up and be applauded for putting forth an amendment barring me from choosing which gendered bathroom I belong in. I live in a world where my trans sisters are routinely murdered without consequence or justice. I like in a world where trans youth get kicked out onto the street by their parents who think their God is standing behind them as they close their front doors on their own children. Going to the beach is an act of bravery for me. None of this is a battle between me and my own flesh. For me to be free, it is the world that has to change, not trans people.

I think this would be an excellent book to give both trans/butch/gender-nonconforming people, especially teenagers, but also to give to someone who wants to learn about trans politics and lives, but doesn’t know where to start. Coyote is generous and forgiving in their writing, and despite the almost endless opportunities to respond to a situation with rage, there is very little anger in this book.

Basically, I can’t recommend Ivan Coyote’s writing highly enough, and Tomboy Survival Guide is a superb example of it.

Danika reviews Gender Failure by Rae Spoon & Ivan E. Coyote

genderfailure

 

Ivan Coyote is one of my favourite authors, and this is actually the ninth book edited or written by them that I’ve read. Rae Spoon was already one my most listened to musicians before their first book, First Spring Grass Fire blew me away. So it’s no great surprise that I loved this book. I was actually lucky enough to attend one of their shows during the Gender Failure tour. Both Ivan and Rae are fantastic performers, and they played off each other really well. It made me even more eager to pick up the book.

The performance and the book obviously have a lot in common. I liked that Gender Failure attempts to recreate some of the visual aspects, including lots of black-and-white photos, illustrations, and even hand-written lyrics. Many of the stories included were performed during the show, but there are still lots more that weren’t, so it’s definitely worth the read even if you were able to see the performance. I was surprised to see that the first essay included in the collection was the story that I found the most powerful and painful of the show.

Both Rae and Ivan are extremely talented storytellers. Ivan writes very much like they speak, and it feels like someone you know is sitting across the table from you, filling you in on their life since they talked to you last. It’s casual, but very personal, giving the stories a vulnerability that makes the emotional punches even stronger. Ivan and Rae explore different aspects of being a “gender failure”, from their childhoods to their everyday lives now. I especially appreciated Rae’s contrasting of performing as a country singer in both small-town prairie bars and big-city queer clubs, and pointing out that they weren’t more likely to get called the correct pronoun in either place.

I found myself tearing up while reading Gender Failure more than once. It’s emotional, but there’s also a lot to think about here. Rae and Ivan bring up some powerful questions, and examine gender in different ways and contexts. I appreciated that though this is a collection of personal essays by two AFAB “gender failures”, Ivan includes several essays that focus on a trans woman friend of theirs, and the transmisogyny that is different from Ivan’s own experiences with being a “gender failure”. This is an accessible book, even if you haven’t read a lot of trans narratives, but it also has a lot to offer if you’re more familiar. This is a book I would hand to almost anyone, whether it’s to broaden someone’s mind or offer comfort in knowing that you’re not alone.

As a side note, this isn’t a lesbian book, to be clear. I started the Lesbrary to have a queer book blog that wasn’t focused on men, so I’m happy to showcase nonbinary authors as well.