The Yukon’s Queer Bard
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Ivan Coyote is bringing the power of storytelling to a community that needs it most now.
By Jack Doyle
Broad-shouldered, sporting a lazy smile and exuding rugged Yukon-born confidence, Ivan Coyote wouldn’t look out of place in a rural late-night bar or a truckers’ stop.
But this coyote raconteur is more at home on stage as a traveling storyteller who has set foot in more states, territories and nations than you can shake a stick at. Their audience is less than traditional. Ivan, who uses gender-neutral pronouns and identifies as transgender, writes and speaks as a distinctly modern member of the queer community.
Once a “three-or-four-chord lesbian folk singer” in the early ’90s, Ivan quickly found that the banter between songs — the kinds of stories you tell around a dinner table or a campfire — appealed more than music.
Every community needs a storyteller, and Ivan Coyote is building a tradition for those who have been denied it longest.
Storytelling is a dying art in North America. Garrison Keillor, the sonorous voice of Prairie Home Companion for 40 years, has evolved over the years into the lone but formidable sentry of public radio. While rap and slam poetry have given artistic voice to contemporary issues, the experience of sitting down to listen for 15 minutes or more is often too much for our Twitter-happy brains.
But as a writer and performer, Ivan has never faltered in the face of changing times.
Once a member of Taste This, a four-person queer performance troupe, and now a solo performer, they challenge audiences with poetry, stories, books and the spoken word. Between their prolific publications and teaching, including a writer-in-residence post at Carleton University in Ontario, they manage a grueling tour schedule around North America and Europe.
Ivan’s stories often start disarmingly casual. Forget about being “queer” for a moment — everyone can relate to the pain of trying to find a cheap haircut in a new town. In “Hair Today,” Ivan grins and shrugs through a fancy salon haircut, and then recounts their relief at discovering an old-fashioned $15-a-cut barber down the street. Their body language is relaxed and friendly, their low voice is classic radio — soothing and timeless. The eccentric personalities and age-old smells of the barbershop come vividly to life.
But there’s always a kicker — and here, for Ivan, it’s when the person doing the cutting realizes there’s more than meets the eye with this customer. It’s a delicate moment of reckoning any gender-nonconforming person knows all too well.
“They might not care at all. Most people don’t care at all. But some people — they care a whole lot. … They might change their tone of voice. They might change their mind — about how much they like me. And oddly, I have really no control over any of this.”
Ivan’s work is both self-referential and more broadly universal. For them, being queer is just as much part of their “everyday ordinary human business” as it is the more abstract concept of being part of a marginalized group. Going to a bar, watching a hockey game, dating and buying a newspaper as a butch person is different and even dangerous — and all worth celebrating.
In “A Butch Roadmap,” Ivan relishes the little quirks of their identity and the other half of the butch-femme dichotomy. They laugh about Canadian stereotypes and fondly praise their partner. Their persona is infectious — “ ’50s charm,” one YouTuber comments — but they also place themselves firmly and boldly within a far-reaching community that has had few voices speaking up for it — until now.
Ivan is on the road performing from their 11th book, Gender Failure. Their stories, broad-ranging and inviting as they are, do not appeal to every young queer person, especially those who don’t identify as transgender. But Ivan’s work suggests, after two decades of performing, they might be the kind of role model many need.
Every community deserves a storyteller, and Ivan Coyote is building a tradition for those who have been denied it longest: “People who, even when forced into a gender box, refuse to close the lid,” as they put it.
- Jack Doyle, OZY AuthorContact Jack Doyle