In the pantheon of artistic accolades, being presented with the Stonewall Honor Book Award by the American Library Association for their 11th book - Tomboy Survival Guide - held a special sort of resonance for non-binary, trans author Ivan Coyote.
"That one means a lot to me because I see librarians as one of the most organised forces against censorship,” Coyote says. “They are the ones who are going to get books into the hands of the people who need them the most and that’s huge.”
Now living in Vancouver, Coyote was raised in a large Irish Catholic family in North-western Canada’s mountainously remote Yukon. One of 36 cousins in a small town where an uncle was the local priest, negotiating identity was tricky. Sneaking looks at their parent’s dog-eared copy of The Joy of Sex with their sister and failing to find any queer content drove Coyote to the local library. Their grandmother was a bookbinder who knew all the librarians, necessitating furtive searches.
“Finally a librarian cottoned on that I was sneaking in and reading books without taking them out and told me basically that the library was like a sacred place and what I took out and what I read was nobody’s business whatsoever,” Coyote says.
Informing the librarian that they wanted anything on spontaneous human combustion and also homosexuality, the only book falling under the latter category was Radclyffe Hall’s tragic The Well of Loneliness.
A guest of this year’s Sydney Writers' Festival appearing at multiple events, one session, Gay For Page - also including SBS presenters Anton Enus and Patrick Abboud as well as C.S. Pacat, best-selling author of the Captive Prince trilogy - asks participants to identify queer literary heroes, of which there were a dearth for Coyote.
“There wasn’t any queer literature,” they chuckle. “I mean, there was Oscar Wilde, which from a class perspective had no resonance whatsoever for me.”
There were two sacred privacy rules growing up. One, you never looked in a woman’s purse, ever. Two, you didn’t look in someone’s diary, though their sister sure tried. It was in this emotional record that Coyote navigated their tomboy youth and coming out as a lesbian at 18 in college, periods explored in Tomboy Survival Guide which then connects through to their non-binary present. That diary inspired a hunger for writing, but not with any grand plan of plugging the queer literary gap.
“I think it would send me into a giant bout of writers block if I were to think about any lofty aim like that,” Coyote insists. “I just need to get the stories that are kicking around my head onto the page and out there. I don’t really think big picture. I think word after word after word.”
Looking around at the rising profile of queer colleagues worldwide, Coyote nonetheless identifies a renaissance period for LGBTIQ+ narratives. “We’re hearing from a lot more trans authors,” they say. “A lot of folks on the non-binary spectrum; more writers of colour from all corners of the LGBTQ communities. We’re seeing more work that incorporates ideas around class. Around ableism and disability.”
While these voices have always been writing, now they have access to wider audiences through more mainstream publishers. Coyote also regularly speaks in schools to foster sensitive communication and support amongst students and also their teachers. “Even well-meaning teachers who care don’t have all the words yet. They don’t have the respectful language to talk to or about their queer and trans students, much less fully support them.”
The schoolwork, while “necessary and vital,” can be emotionally taxing. “It’s sometimes disheartening to see a lot of the same stuff that we had to deal with when we first came out of the closet. Kids are still getting called names in the hallway, the difference being that I didn’t come out of the closet in high school. These kids have the words now and they are coming out as queer and trans and transitioning in school younger and younger. Our education system has to pick up the pace to be there to support them.”
Seeing a successful, award-winning non-binary trans author plays its part. “It’s a game-changer for a lot of these kids. For a lot of people, it’s the first time anyone has said the word queer when it’s not couched in shame or secrecy.”
Coyote is certainly a loud and proud voice, one that’s wary about being boxed in.
“I feel uncomfortable giving talks about diversity,” they says. “Diversity is a term which is situated in whiteness, because it’s not diversity, it’s reality. I don’t feel particularly marginalised. I’m a trans writer. I’m a queer writer. I’m also able-bodied, fairly middle class and white. English is my first language. In the grand scheme of marginalisation, I’m still fairly privileged.”
Queer authors should be prepared to cause a ruckus occasionally, Coyote suggests. “One of the things I’m seeking out right now is places to have uncomfortable conversations. Not all liberation is going to be won civilly. We have to make space in the dialogue for rage and frustration sometimes, and for impatience.”
Catch Ivan Coyote at these events at the Sydney Writers Festival, on until May 28, and will be at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne on May 29. Find out more about the author and other Australian events here.