10 Years of Tears: One in Every Gymnasium

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It's our 10th anniversary this year and we're feeling a little weepy‒that’s why we’ve dusted off the archives to bring you highlights from our back issues over the last 10 years. Join us as we take a look back at 10 years of SAD Magazine, revisiting the memories and the people that made SAD what it is today. We're not crying, you’re crying.

11. That’s how many books transgender activist, performer, and award-winning author Ivan E. Coyote has written in the last 17 years. Three is the number of times Boys Like Her (Raincoast Books, 2002), one of the most notable contributions to Canada’s dialogue on gender and sexuality, sold out. Seven hundred is, on average, the number of kids that fill the high school gymnasiums Coyote has been speaking at for over 10 years, working to free students from a culture of bullying, homophobia, and transphobia. One hour is how long their show, “Ivan in Schools”, generally lasts. Nine thousand is the estimated number of times Coyote’s heart has been broken during the question-and-answer period. And 9,000 is also the estimated number of times Coyote has been inspired during the question-and-answer period. Their newest book, co-authored by Canadian trans musician Rae Spoon, is called Gender Failure, and has over 1,000 likes on Facebook.

It’s difficult to quantify the effect of art on culture, especially when that culture resists change, actively working to sweep certain realities under the rug. Who and what should we be counting? The number of teenagers who commit suicide due to bullying? Or the number of teenagers who, though bullied, go on to lead successful and fulfilling lives after high school? Coyote doesn’t attempt to answer these questions for me during our 45-minute phone conversation, which on my end takes place in my partner’s childhood bedroom, relics of high school in South Delta eerily lining the walls. They use a lot of numbers in our conversation, however: 700 kids, 45 seconds, 18 years old, 36 tattoos. I find myself replicating the logic in my own speech—when did you know? How many books? How long does it take?—and I wonder what mystery we are trying to get to the bottom of, with our impossible counting and calculations. I can almost picture flowcharts, though we are primarily speaking of feelings.

“I have about 45 seconds for 700 kids to decide whether they like me or not, or whether they’re going to listen to me for the next hour or not,” Coyote says. “It’s not for the faint of heart. I call it storytelling on the edge.” I’ve asked them to tell me about the work they do in high schools, performing their one-person show “Ivan in Schools”. “It’s basically designed for the awful world of presenting arts in high school, which is the most bang for your buck that the school can get,” they explain. “So it’s presented in a high school gymnasium with an echo-y cordless microphone and terrible lighting, and they file all the kids in there and there’s an awkward introduction by the principal or counsellor or whoever.” Coyote starts the show with stories about growing up broke in the Yukon. A member of a big family and a die-hard tomboy, they admit that they didn’t come out until after high school—a time that was rife with confusing feelings surrounding their female-assigned gender. “I wasn’t out as trans; I had never heard the word before. Although I definitely knew something was going on, I didn’t know what, and I definitely didn’t have that language at all,” explains Coyote. “I struggled more in my gender box than anything and I got bullied, but it was honestly more for being a tomboy than anything else. It was more for not fitting into a gender box than it was for being queer.”

In high school, they did a fairly good job of feigning heterosexuality, even to themselves. “Once, I had a bad experience with this guy who I was on a date with,” they recall. “Looking back, I would definitely call it a date rape, but again, I didn’t have that language. I never went to the authorities. I never told my parents what happened. I sort of kept it to myself, but I think he knew that he had done something wrong and his answer was to exclude me.” The girl that Coyote’s assaulter dated after them would continue to bully them throughout the rest of their time in high school—an experience which makes up the bulk of the forward to One in Every Crowd (Arsenal Pulp, 2012), a collection of some of their young-adult oriented, previously-published short stories. Still, in regards to their own high school experience, Coyote insists that they “didn’t have it as bad as other kids that come to mind.” One kid that comes to mind is Coyote’s cousin Christopher, the subject of one of the heart-wrenching stories that make up the “Ivan in Schools” show.

They recount the story: “I go to the Salvation Army thrift store with my grandmother and she buys us all roller skates … but there are no roller skates for my cousin Christopher who was a super awkward, tall, picked-on, gangly kid who had these gigantic feet. He had these weird looked-like-he-was-wearing-clown-shoes feet. So there were no roller skates for him, and we had to go to the Bay on the bus and buy him those crappy, buckle-on metal ones, and he wipes out and shits his pants.” Christopher’s pant-shitting saga is usually Coyote’s first story of the presentation, their go-to attention getter and crowd leveller. “I don’t care how old you are or who you are: everyone loves a great poop-your-pants story,” they say. The anecdote is also designed to get kids in an empathetic mood, so that Coyote can start tackling more serious issues in the stories that follow—issues like gender, sexuality, misogyny, and homophobia. And that’s not to say that Christopher’s story isn’t serious. Students find out later, usually during the question-and-answer period, that Christopher committed suicide at the age of 21. “Unless we’ve gone way over time and the lunch bell’s about to ring, [the students] always ask me, ‘Where’s Christopher?’” Coyote says. “And I say, ‘Everybody always asks me where Christopher is. And I know what you want me to tell you. I know you want me to tell you he grew up into his gigantic hands and feet and that he’s a handsome tall man who married a handsome tall lady and they have two happy, heterosexual children. And I’ll tell you I’ll make up that Disney ending for you or I’ll tell you the truth. It’s up to you guys.’” When Coyote reveals the true ending of Christopher’s sobering tale, they offer a glimpse of what fuels their passion for this work, which often involves visiting three or four schools a day, and over 11,000 students a week. That leaves only minutes for eating, and when you factor in driving long distances to remote communities in Northern BC and Manitoba, only minutes for sleeping, too.

“[Christopher] is why I come into public high schools,” they say. “I want to talk about school culture. I know that part of his story was that he was brutally, brutally bullied in school to the point where he almost couldn’t stay in school. And even though he came from this gigantic tight-knit family, we couldn’t protect him all the time. He carried those lessons about not being as worthy as the rest of us into his adult life, and it became a burden that he could not bear at some point.” They add that getting all students to think about their own social power, and how they wield that power in school, is the most important endgame in telling Christopher’s story. “I often meet with the GSA [Gay Straight Alliance] personally, but I still think it’s important for me to address and engage as much of the school body as possible, because the ‘Wendy Tracy Sandra Jeans’ of the world are the ones that we actually have to resonate with on some level if we’re going to put a dent in homophobic and transphobic school culture, right?”

Students, though the main focus of Coyote’s talks, are not even the whole of their intended audience; they often lead workshops with teachers and school staff, as well. “I remember this janitor coming up one time and he couldn’t even talk,” they recall. “And he was just this big, huge guy wearing green Dickies and a work shirt: your archetypal janitor guy. He just hugged me and said, ‘Oh, I wish you would have been here when I was here. I went to this school.’” Often parents end up being an unintended audience for Coyote’s talks, too. A few years ago, when they toured schools in Eugene, Oregon, a large group of fundamentalist Christian parents protested Coyote’s arrival, believing that the content of their talk would be too mature and too controversial for the middle school–aged kids.

In Coyote’s words, the parents caused a “big fuckin’ furor.” The school board was called in to attend the show, and some GSA kids who felt they were being censored wore rainbow flags twice the size of their own bodies. After the show, a father approached Coyote in tears, saying, “I came here to find a problem with you. How old was your cousin when he committed suicide? I was 19 the first time I tried.”

These are the kinds of moments that Coyote has trouble quantifying. Nine thousand is not the actual number of times their heart has been split out of their chest on the job—rather it is a number that represents the uselessness of numbers in this line of work. What is the difference between 9,000 heartbreaks and 10,000 heartbreaks? That’s still thousands too many.

This piece was originally published in Issue No. 20/21: High School.
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