Marking 20 years
of bold journalism,
reader supported.
Culture
Gender + Sexuality

‘Don’t Call Me by Your Deadname’

Young and queer on the frontlines. An exchange from Ivan Coyote’s latest book, ‘Care Of.’

Ivan Coyote 13 Jul 2021TheTyee.ca

Born and raised in Whitehorse, Yukon, Ivan Coyote is the award-winning author of 13 books, and creator of four films, six stage shows, and three albums combining storytelling with music. 

[Editor’s note: Ivan Coyote’s latest, Care Of (McClelland & Stewart), is a series of letters — some handwritten, some emailed, some sent via Facebook — from readers and audience members. Coyote began saving these letters in 2009, sometimes finding a moment to write back — but it was only the stuck-in-time halted momentum of the pandemic that allowed them to answer many in earnest. The result is an intimate anthology of queer experience, with youth and elders and parents sharing their own stories after reading Coyote’s or attending one of their many pre-pandemic performances. This excerpt, letters between Coyote and Leslee, who share a deadname — a birth name they no longer use — was a particular favourite amongst Tyee editors.]

Dear Ivan,

When I was I think 13 or 14, me and my mom came to see you tell some stories in Monterey. We drove a few hours to see you and then after your show we went up to talk to you, and I asked you to sign my copy of One in Every Crowd. When I told you who to sign it to, you got real quiet and told me that we had the same birth name. I think you could tell by looking at me that I wouldn’t be going by that name forever. My mom took a picture of us and I remember how firm your grip on my arm was. It was the same night that you talked, for the first time I believe, about just having top surgery. I dunno if you remember me or this, but I certainly do. I’m writing this to let you know that now I’m 20, had top surgery myself a year and a half ago, I use they/them pronouns, and my name is Leslee.

Your stories mean so much to me. I just finished reading Rebent Sinner and loved it by the way. But your stories did a lot for me. “Dear Lady in the Women’s Washroom” was I think the first piece of yours I saw, a video of you reading it, and as someone who has been harassed in restrooms for as long as I can remember, it was the first time hearing that I wasn’t alone in that. It was the first thing that made my dad really understand why I was always so upset about using the bathroom in public. (He’s a great guy btw.) After that I tried to get ahold of as much of your writing as I could find. Your stories helped teach me how to be non-binary, trans, butch, attracted to women, and what someone like me might look like. That I could learn to fit, even a bit uncomfortably sometimes, into my own skin. That I could be strong and gentle and loving. So thank you thank you thank you from the bottom of my heart. If you’re ever in California again I really hope to see you perform. I’m sure you get a lot of emails like this. I don’t intend to lay my traumas down at your feet, I’m sure you get a lot of that too. But I hope it’s OK if I tell you a little bit about me, maybe tell you a story.

I’ve got a real supportive family, which I am so thankful for. Turns out my two younger sisters are both gay too, we make quite a squad. I’ve got eight piercings (hopefully more soon), and two tattoos. One of them says “they/them” on my collarbone, and one of them is a tube of lipstick on my ribs, a reminder to always love and support femmes in the community and to remember an old mentor of mine who passed away, in one of those ways I’m sure you’re thinking. I also got a denim vest with a buncha buttons and handmade patches. A regular old punk, but I think I clean up nice. I’m studying to be a math teacher right now, but who knows. Partly ’cause I love math, partly I think I’d be good at it, and largely cause I wanna make high school better for others than it was for me. A lot of the stuff that happened to me and my friends in high school I’m realizing now shouldn’t have happened. So maybe I’ll be able to help with that.

I also have worked for the past five years as a counsellor at a summer day camp for young trans and gender non-conforming kids and their families. I watched it grow from 12 kids the first year, to the 68 we had enrolled last year. We have kids from four- to 13-years-old, and it’s legitimately the best part of my summer, getting to meet these beautiful, powerful, silly-as-all-fuck kids. I wanted to share some of the stories from there, ’cause they make me real happy and I think you might enjoy them.

Judith Butler came down one year to interview the kids and us for a book or something. I did an interview with her where I talked about my experiences and we ended up talking about my packer, and I’ll never forget that she said, “Oh kid, I’ve been packing since long before you were crawling.” She’s so cool. Anyway it was water day, which meant we spray all the kids with hoses and have water balloons and a kiddie pool and throw a big old plastic tarp on the grass and slide down it, Slip ’N Slide style. Eventually we convinced Judith Butler to run down this Slip ’N Slide, and me and some other counsellors snuck up behind her at the end to dump a big bucket of water all over her. I dunno how many people can say that they’ve seen one of the most prominent gender theorists slide down a Slip ’N Slide and then get ambushed by a bunch of trans teenagers with a bucket, but I can.

We were reading a story all together one day, and the character in it talked about wearing her best outfit, so we paused to ask the kids what their best outfit would be. We had a lot of fun responses, but my favourite was from this young girl who said she would want to wear “all leather.”

Another good one was when a kid got slime stuck in her hair, because she’s a kid and of course she did. My sister, who also works there, worked diligently to get it out. The kids asked her how she could be so good at getting the slime out, and she replied, “Well at home I’m a professional slime remover.” One of them asked, “Wait that’s a job?” and my sister said, mostly truthfully, “Well almost anything can be a job.” And one of the kids, bless her ’lil heart, shouted back, “I wanna spank people for my job!”

A lot of being a counsellor is really nice, just to get to see these kids enjoy a summer camp. Especially as someone who got called a “he/she” at summer camp, before I even knew what that meant. No matter how hard things are getting at school or what things are like at home, just for a week or two the kids can play around and just be kids. Some of it is more intense though, in all the ways you’re probably thinking. Some of it is beautiful, I’ve had kids come out to me and tell me how cool it was to meet someone like me. They and their parents say I’m a role model, which feels wild because I’m only 20 and also a mess. But it still feels very important to be there for them.

I hope it was alright for me to send this to you. Your work has seriously changed my life. I hope I can be the kind of person who makes my community, all the people who came before me and made this world better for me, and all the people yet to come, proud. Thanks for showing me the kind of person I hope I can become. I hope you’re having a really great day!

Sincerely,

Your birth name buddy (deadname dude?) Leslee

DEC. 2, 2019

Hey Leslee:

Thank you for your great letter. It brought a smile to my face in the middle of this swamp of email I am trying to catch up on, and this grey and rainy Vancouver day. I will keep it and re-read it on the hard days.

I wish you the very best in your good work with the kids. It sounds to me like you are already well on your way to being a great role model. Knowing that most of us are often a mess is step one, I have come to believe.

Thank you so much for writing. I’m glad my stories bring you some sense of community and reflection. This is, for me, the greatest compliment ever.

Love your birth name buddy,

Ivan

MARCH 23, 2020

Dear Ivan,

Thank you so much for replying!! It means a lot that you liked my email and that you had the time to answer. I’ve tried to reply to it a couple times but I always got real worried about what to say. I was real sick for the last few months, with mono, that I didn’t even get from kissing anyone which would have been a good story, and I’ve been reading a bunch. My mom, who says hi by the way, got me Tomboy Survival Guide and it’s been amazing to read. I remember when I was a kid and a teen and I thought I was the only one. I’m sad so many of us think that but even now, with three trans roommates, it’s good to read about you and your life and remember what it was like when I thought I was alone, and how I really wasn’t. Though it did make me freak out for a second about whether my nipples were swapped lmao. I also read Stone Butch Blues for the first time, which was a transformative experience. It felt like the first time I watched any of your poetry.

I’m all hunkered down right now, ’cause of the virus and everything. We all work in food service and are essential services but my roommate is immunocompromised so we’re not going out at all to keep him safe. Luckily we have sick pay. I hope you’re safe and doing well! If you’re ever in California again doing performances or anything I’ll do my best to make it. Hope you’re good, or at least OK given the current everything.

Your birth name buddy,

Leslee

JULY 26, 2020

Dear Leslee:

Thank you for your email. Please say hi back to your Mom for me.

Last December I wrote you a short response to your letter. Now, it’s July, and the world has both slowed down and somehow sped up all at the same time, and everything has changed. I’m sitting down to write you the response I wish I had had the time to give you way back in December.

I’m going to start with taking a couple of minutes to be grateful for moms like yours. Those moms that will take the time to drive for several hours all the way to Monterey Bay to take their 13-year-old kid to see some writer reading stories on a stage in a dusty auditorium on a college campus. I do remember meeting you both, even though that was seven years ago now, almost to the day. I remember all those tall glass windows in the foyer next to the book table, that terrible carpet under our feet. If I remember correctly, didn’t we talk about the styley plaid short-sleeved shirt you were wearing that night? I’m pretty sure we did.

I meet quite a few moms like yours, and I meet quite a few 13-year-olds that resemble that kid you were back in 2013, and I truly believe this makes me a very lucky person.

I know it’s kind of a cliché to say that it is getting letters like yours that keeps my foot on the gas and my feet in my boots and my eyes on the yellow lines when the road gets rough, but that doesn’t make it any less true for me.

Sometimes I wish I could magically contact every 13-year-old trans or non-binary kid that I have ever met over the last two decades of road, and gather us all together somewhere so that we could all see just how not alone we really are. So we could all see and believe in each other. Turn that army of lonely into the best party any of us have ever been to.

I think it was later that same night that you and I met that I went swimming for the first time since having my top surgery. I wish I could bottle that feeling of water running over my brand-new chest, and take a sip of it whenever I’m scared of doing something that involves change, or pain, or facing down something unknown.

I just read your letter again, and then scrolled through Twitter for a minute while the kettle boiled, only to find that the Famous Author of Wizard Books has penned a third transphobic rant to her 14 million followers, once again claiming that Innocent Children are being forced into unwanted surgery or hormone blockers by the Evil Trans Lobby.

It makes me wonder if she has ever met and really listened to a kid like the one I met in that theatre in Monterey Bay back in 2013. Makes me wonder if she really cares about the kid I once was.

Between the two of us, we could tell her 10,000 stories about all the times we were scared to be in a public washroom, and how it wasn’t trans people hassling us in there, it was people who look and talk a lot like her.

I wish she would listen to our stories of how we came to find ourselves, how we fought the lonely and the fear and the forced conformity and found ourselves, without a roadmap, without a mirror, and with most of the world still screaming in our ears that we don’t even exist.

Thank you for sharing some of your stories about teaching at the youth camp.

I remember the first queer youth camp I worked at, in Alberta in 2007. Alberta is one of the most conservative provinces in Canada, in nearly every sense of the word, and there were kids who had travelled to be there from all over the region. I remember watching the youth file into the cafeteria on that first day, from places with names like Canmore and Fort Smith and Moose Jaw and High Level. Kids who were so used to being the only one at school were now magically the majority, if only for those four glorious summer days in Edmonton. I remember the talent show on the last night, watching the shy, long-eyelashed kid from a small reserve up north do the full-on splits onstage to a Lady Gaga song while 50 brand new friends sang along to every word and exploded with joy at the end. I remember hoping for some version of that for all of us.

I also really appreciated the image of Judith Butler on a Slip ’N Slide. Maybe I will try to keep that story in my head the next time I try to read all of Gender Trouble without getting lost and giving up.

Here is the thing about role models that I have learned from you, Leslee: I need you just as much as you need me. Ours is a symbiotic relationship, where we trade strength and hope and bravery back and forth, and I am so grateful for these words and stories that continue to string us together. I’m glad you found a skin that fits you. I’m blessed to be able to create art that brings people like you into my life. It’s a great and cosmic circle that keeps me breathing and believing and writing.

I don’t know when I will make it back to California. I was supposed to do a gig in Santa Monica in the middle of May, but it was cancelled, and it doesn’t look like the border that separates us will open any time soon. Google tells me there are over 10,000 new cases in your state today, alone. I hope you and your roommates are still able to mostly stay home, and keep relatively healthy. I think of you, and your roommates, and your essential-service jobs in food service, whenever someone writes yet another half-researched article or tweets a clueless comment about why infection rates are on the rise in the youth population. Who exactly do they think is flipping their burger and pouring that beer that they are enjoying on that restaurant patio?

Please, please stay as safe as you can and keep in touch,

Your friend,

Ivan


Excerpted from 'Care Of' by Ivan Coyote. Copyright 2021 Ivan Coyote. Published by McClelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.  [Tyee]

Read more: Gender + Sexuality

Tyee Commenting Guidelines

Comments that violate guidelines risk being deleted, and violations may result in a temporary or permanent user ban. Maintain the spirit of good conversation to stay in the discussion.
*Please note The Tyee is not a forum for spreading misinformation about COVID-19, denying its existence or minimizing its risk to public health.

Do:

  • Be thoughtful about how your words may affect the communities you are addressing. Language matters
  • Challenge arguments, not commenters
  • Flag trolls and guideline violations
  • Treat all with respect and curiosity, learn from differences of opinion
  • Verify facts, debunk rumours, point out logical fallacies
  • Add context and background
  • Note typos and reporting blind spots
  • Stay on topic

Do not:

  • Use sexist, classist, racist, homophobic or transphobic language
  • Ridicule, misgender, bully, threaten, name call, troll or wish harm on others
  • Personally attack authors or contributors
  • Spread misinformation or perpetuate conspiracies
  • Libel, defame or publish falsehoods
  • Attempt to guess other commenters’ real-life identities
  • Post links without providing context

Most Popular

Most Commented

Most Emailed

LATEST STORIES

The Barometer

Are You Concerned about Your Municipality’s Water Security?

  • Yes
  • No
  • Tell us more…

Take this week's poll