Mars Reviews “My Mother Says Drums Are For Boys: True Stories for Gender Rebels” by Rae Theodore

In this short autobiographical essay and poetry collection, Rae Theodore offers a frank and panoramic perspective on growing up butch. The titular term “gender rebel” is entirely accurate here as Theodore recalls a childhood and young adulthood where classic femininity chafed. All the outer accoutrements of fashion and stature were as complicated to her as the mental tightrope that so many butches walk, between a female-bodied experience and an intimate mental relationship with the masculine self. In the author’s case, performativity, or ‘walking the walk’ of socially-acceptable womanhood, was never enough, and was made extra complicated by the realization of her own homosexuality after having already married and built a life with a man.

Reading through this piece was a real pleasure. I haven’t read much LGBTQ+ work that centers the butch experience, and I can’t quite express how powerful and charming it felt to read simple anecdotes packing a reflective punch on the heavy burden that gender can be. I don’t know that I expected to identify so much with it either, but I suppose that’s the power of sharing diverse stories. The weaponization of clothing, jealously observing the freedom of boys, childish yearning for a father’s approval of a son, the immediate and intangible connection that a queer gender rebel feels when encountering one’s elders: Theodore recounts this and more in an honest and straightforward manner that keeps readers glued to the page.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who has ever been made to feel ashamed for their tomboyishness, or gender expression in general; to anyone who has ever needed to contain multitudes of softness and hardness towards the world and towards themselves; or to anyone who in any number of ways has ever felt like a late bloomer.

Disclaimer that there are mentions of violence in certain stories, and a lot of working through deep shame and internalized homophobia, especially earlier on. I will also add that while this is a serious (and sometimes very fun) recounting, the book summits with comforting self-actualization, and this butch seems to have attained a really lovely life. In a book like this, the nice thing about a happy ending is that it makes you believe you can have one too.

Marthese reviews Dragon Horse War: The Calling by  D. Jackson Leigh

‘’I am this animal because they need me and my warriors to protect their reign of peace’’

I made a yearly resolution to read more fantasy, especially series since those are the kind of books that I end up enjoying the most. I did some research and found this series which is centered around queer women (after I got the third book as an ARC on Netgalley…I thought it better to start from the first!). Happy Woman’s day (for yesterday!) this book series does contain some kickass and imperfect women.

The story is set in the future. After religious wars, people have recognized the Collective and most people are enlightened on the fact that they had past lives. The story follows Jael and Alyssa, however, there are some parts told from other characters’ point of view. In fact, the story starts from the antagonist’s Cyrus’ point of views and there are some parts from his views, but only a little. Most of the chapters follow Jael and Alyssa. Jael has been a warrior for the Collective in all her lives. She burns the bodies of those that die alone in order to release their soul; she also kills those that are badly-born in one life in order to have peace in another. Alyssa is a healer type and an Advocate for the Collective. Jael has some interesting abilities and Alyssa also. They are the ultimate power couple…only they do not always agree on the methods to use. This is very much a plot where one character finds light and the other darkness, in order to form gray together.

As I mentioned, some parts are told from other characters’ points of views. One of them follows Kyle, Cyrus’ daughter. Cyrus became a prophet for the One – a monotheistic god from ancient religions. He also became a preacher for capitalism in a world that distributes fairly and treats everyone equally. Kyle is very much not like him but for a while, she does not know what to do.

The main plot point is that the Natural Order formed by Cyrus is becoming too dangerous. Food and medicine is being stolen and redistributed by them in a world which is facing many natural disasters in all of its borderless territories. The Guard, which Jael is the leader on, are assessing people that have heard the Collective’s calling and training them…to become Dragon Horse warriors. Yes, the Guard have a bond with horses that come darkness, sprout wings.

This book is part of a trilogy – both the name and the plot itself show this. This is only the beginning. It does not start too fast but the end has some interesting action. I have to admit that it took until almost the end for me to become interested in what would happen.

I have been researching and discovering what makes good plots and characters and this book had all the right things in place. However, one thing really bothered me, enough for me considering quitting. This book was published in 2015, so not that long ago. To me, there were two main problems. The first is that the Guard are pureblood descendants. The Natural Order is also preaching pureblood-ness (and are racist, unlike the Guard). At least, the Guard have a reason for this, although it confused me why they should keep to ethnic couples if they all had the gene. Perhaps that will be explained later on. I admit to not knowing a lot of biology. This factor bothered me a bit but I could understand that it was a plot point not ideology pushing as the people of this Collective world, do not care much for ethnicity.

The second factor that bothered me was that the author, in my opinion, confused gender and sex. A person that is intersex but identifies more towards being male, is said to be a third gender. There was also the phrase ‘same-sex oriented’ being used which is used in today’s reality but it would be more accurate to say, especially towards one particular character, that it was same-gender oriented. I have to admit that I cringed a bit with all these happenings in the book. At one point, ‘gendered’ is used. It’s also a very binary world still…you would think that it being set in such a fair and enlightened future, that it would be otherwise.

Despite this, the world building was okay. It was interesting to see what things from today would be called then. The horses were interested and the powers as well. It was interesting to see how Jael and Alyssa changed each other. Jael is a realist and Alyssa is an idealist but they both question what needs to be done. Jael at times was a bit too aggressive and at the beginning to sexually driven (she saw Alyssa as a sort of spoil of war! That changed quick however). Alyssa was very interesting. Although she’s a first life-er and Jael has so much experience, she isn’t pushed around. Even during sex, she doesn’t just sit there but she initiates as well and is active. There isn’t a lot of sex scenes although there are a few. There was one however, where even I (somewhat asexual and I tend to skim them) thought it was very hot and different from how they are usually written.

The fact that they like each other, doesn’t resolve their problems and their incompatibility. The characters are realistic, not always likable and that’s ok. Their relationship has chemistry but I found it a bit squeaky that they had sex before discussing and that one is super-protective even though Second, another character, said that Alyssa is a grown adult who makes her own decisions. Jael especially is ethically dubious, not in the fact that she must kill people but in the way she acts.

Overall, I’m intrigued enough to continue reading the series. I would give this book 3 stars. The ending was better than the start or the middle. I want to see the characters evolve. Whoever is interested in reading the series should proceed with caution on the topics mentioned above.

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 live 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.

Danika reviews Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme edited by Ivan Coyote and Zena Sharman

I’ve been a fan of Ivan Coyote for years, so I had high expectations for this collection. It absolutely delivered.

It’s hard to sum up Persistence other than using its own subtitle. It contains a huge array of different kind of butches and femmes (and a futch, and some switches, and…), embodied by many different genders and sexualities.

The writing it top-notch, and there are a lot of big names:  Ivan Coyote, Jewelle Gomez, S. Bear Bergman, Joan Nestle, Sinclair Sexsmith… The content ranges from academic essays to poem and short stories. Some are incredibly personal, and some are political declarations. I really appreciated the amount of essays that approached how race intersects with butch/femme, and a few that also address class.

If I could guarantee one thing, it’s that at least one entry in this collection will piss you off. There are opinions all over the spectrum in this collection, and there is a lot to be debated. For example: do butch and femme constitute each other, or can you be a butch without a femme and vice versa? Are femmes more privileged by having “passing privilege”, or are they invisibilized, or are people just not looking hard enough for femmes? Is the concept of “butch” too tied to whiteness to be used in an antiracist way? Can other sexualities and genders by butch or femme, or only lesbians? Where do butch and femme fit into the trans spectrum, or vice versa, or are they unconnected? It is the trans questions that are particularly divisive. But I think this range is the strength of the collection: it is a good attempt to encapsulate a broad-ranging community that is entirely in flux. And the voices are strong, so even the essays that were actively angering me were still compelling.

I definitely recommend Persistence, even (especially?) if you’re not butch or femme or know very little about butch and femme. It is an important part of the queer community as a whole today, and lesbian history as well. There are quite a few contributors that I will now be seeking out in a longer format.

Danika reviews Butch is a Noun by S. Bear Bergman

I feel the need to start off by saying: I loved this book. I only keep books that I plan on re-reading, and this one is firmly in the permanent collection. It also an example of why I really try to keep the definition of which books are included in the Lesbrary as open as possible, because I really want to be able to review books like this, which are not just “lesbian” or “bisexual woman” or always “woman” and butch/femme identity is an overlap between sexuality and gender. (On a sidenote, the identities of “butch” and “lesbian” were once problematically merged under the term of “invert”, such as in Well of Loneliness.) This clip of Bergman reading “I Know What Butch Is” (included in this collection) clarifies. [Trigger warning for trans slur]

Overall, I loved the writing (though I thought some of the extended metaphors were a little too extended). It’s easy to read and casual. It remind me of Ivan E. Coyote, one of my favourite authors, although obviously in this collection the writings are all about butch identity, where they are more of a undertone in Coyote’s. It has serious and funny parts, personal and general points, and is extremely personal and honest. The writing tries to be inclusive of all butches (as you can see in the clip).

One that stood out for me was “Stick and Stones Will Break My Bones, But Words Will Kill Me”, in which Bergman appears to have quoted some of the things said to hir about hir butch identity. The sentiments are painful just to read, and Bergman leaves you to take them in without hir commentary.

You won’t necessarily agree with everything Bergman says, but ze raises some really interesting questions and observations. Butch is a Noun is a fascinating butch manifesto and a brilliant and timely re-examination of masculinity. Highly recommended.