Of Gowns and Gays
February 15, 2002
And so, I am officially inviting you to come
and help us celebrate 'Canada Weeks Alaska,' and Women's
History Month. In Anchorage. In March." Kevin Cook
was speaking from the Canadian Consulate, in Seattle. "It's
a collaborative effort that will celebrate the shared history
of Alaska and Canada with a series of business, cultural,
artistic, educational, and social events throughout the
greater Anchorage community..
"You and Ivan Coyote will represent the Yukon writing
community, presenting two different generations; two different
points of view."
Hmm, I thought. Me and Ivan E. Coyote? We'd give 'em different.
No doubt about that!
But Kevin wasn't finished. "The celebration will culminate
in a Gala evening on March 9. You and Ivan will attend as
guests of the Consulate. By the way, I wouldn't presume
to tell you what to wear, but you should know that the men
will be wearing tuxedos
Oh well, fine. Just bloody fine.
In one breath, I am invited to a prestigious international
event, all expenses paid, held in a city that has been a
Mecca to me from my earliest days on the highway, to share
readings with an author whose work I come recently to know
and admire even as it had left me feeling somewhat baffled
and uneasy. In the next, I am admonished - in the nicest
possible way, of course - that the tired old black velour
slacks and the Rendezvous stars-and-moon vest over one of
Phil's old dress shirts, are just not going to cut it.
Well, shoot! Did they make ball gowns in a size 20? I wondered.
And if they did, would it cost my entire clothing budget
for the next two years and how in the world would I convince
Phil that it had been hanging around in the back of the
"What? This old thing? You remember, I
wore it, when? That last New year's party at Teslin? 1990?
'91? Sure. You remember!"
Hell with it, I decided, and went with a pair of new black
britches and a gold top. Still cost me a couple months wages
but I looked okay, felt glamourous, and, best of all, the
outfit packed up small enough to fit into my overnight case
so I didn't have to get too creative when you-know-who got
down to the nitty-gritty.
"So. What's it gonna cost you to go to that big party?"
"Oh, nothing," I said, airily, deliberately misinterpreting
his question. "It's all paid for."
"Yeah? They paying for your dressing-up, too? Yeah,
"Oh, you mean my clothes. Nah, of course not."
I put my hands behind my back and crossed my fingers. "But
I thought I'd wear those black slacks." I didn't specify
which ones. "They'll be nice enough. And that old yellow
top, been lying around in the back of my drawer for years
Well, that was one problem solved. Now, how about Ivan?
Yeah, what ABOUT Ivan
Ivan the Terrible, a nasty little
voice suggested from deep down in an unenlightened area
of my tiny mind.
I had met Ivan last fall, an in-your-face encounter at
Mac's when she had come in, looking around for some evidence
that we were supportive of her work, a slim volume of stories
about growing up in the Yukon. We could have been excused
for not recognizing Close to Spiderman as a Northern title
but the polite but determined Ivan soon had me scrambling
, first to locate it (and thank God we had a few copies!)
then, to display it with the other local authors, and, finally,
to promise a review of it in my next column.
And now, here we were: Ellen and Ivan. Together.
I snickered. I could see us walking into Cyranos Bookstore
for our first reading, the large, enthusiastic crowd of
Alaskan literati falling silent at the sight of us. They
wouldn't have much trouble identifying me, the Cinnamon
Mine lady who's been over the road a zillion times; a big
old gal with the wrinkles and the grey roots, the grey polyester
pants and the tidy pink shirt to which a faint aura of spice
They might have been forgiven a collective double-take
at the sight of my companion.
If you dismissed the "she" and "her"
reference, a few paragraphs back, as typos, you, too, could
be forgiven. Pale faced and mouse-haired, scrawny, with
ratty jeans belted low on her flat hips, seventies'- style
floral shirt and scuffed leather jacket over all, she looks
like a teenage boy. But she isn't. Ivan E. Coyote is a girl.
At least, that's what it said on her birth certificate.
For more than thirty years, by word and deed, she has been
trying to convince the world otherwise.
And WE were what the Canadian Consulate was sending to
represent the Yukon: the consummate Earth Mother/Grandmother
and the blatant Boy-Girl. Oh yeah, I thought again, we'd
be different, all right!
Turns out, I couldn't have been more wrong, about a lot
Oh sure, there were obvious discrepancies, those of age,
size, dress, and sexual orientation between Ivan and me.
And that big crowds of Alaskans palpitating to share in
the exotic adventures of their invited guests? Four people,
at Cyranos, and those had to be bribed with tea and Danishes
to come in and be entertained. At Barnes and Noble, we read
for the folks who came with us: Kevin Cook and a friend,
Sara Neilsen, who stopped by to say hello and pick up some
goodies that Lene had sent along with me, and Wendell and
Betty Burns, old friends from our Highway days, there to
hear us read and then take me home for dinner.
It would be different at the University, we reassured each
other. There, we were to read and discuss the writing process
with a Creative Writing Class. "It will probably be
in an auditorium," I suggested. "Stand up straight,"
I continued, pulling together the edges of the hole in the
elbow of her old grey sweater she'd layered on over the
flowered shirt, "and don't be nervous. We'll stand
'em on their ear
There were the two organizers, three students, and a nice
older lady with a group of three mentally and physically
challenged people who asked if they could come in and eat
their lunch at our table.
Bad organization and poor advertising, each sponsor admitted,
apologetically. And it would have been sad if it hadn't
been so funny. But it would have been funnier if we hadn't
been so darn good together.
Because Ivan and I ROCKED!
All those differences notwithstanding, we were the Two
Musketeers, The Lone Ranger and Tonto, Laurel and Hardy,
all rolled up into one entertaining entity.
Warm and funny, reading her material with clarity and a
unique lilt and cadence that comes from having performed
it many times with a background of music, Ivan gifted us
with gritty stories of her childhood, of growing up gay
in a less-than-accepting family and community. As expected,
I provided the counter point of view from an earlier - and
easier - childhood. What was not expected was the way our
lives and experiences paralleled and complemented each other.
She writes of a difficult father, of an unvoiced attraction
to the little girl next door, of her reluctance to wear
dresses. I write of a difficult father, of showing and telling
with the Morris boys under the high crawl spaces of the
old buildings at JC, and my preference for wearing my brother's
castoffs rather than frills and long stocking. My mother
had been shocked by my airing of our dirty family laundry
i.e. a couple of divorces; her grandmother had wanted to
disown her because she had written of an uncle who had been
caught masturbating under a blanket on Main Street in beautiful
downtown Whitehorse. We both write of various bodily functions,
tell tales on friends and neighbors, and see nothing as
too sacred to dissect and study. And we'd both been kick
to resign from Brownies. What were the odds, I wondered.
As we finished up at the University and she prepared to
catch the taxi that would take her to the airport and home
while I remained for another day, I looked at this unpretentious
little gal who could so easily have been my kid brother.
Damn, I thought, I think I'm in love.
We hugged and then hugged again. "Let's keep in touch,"
I said. "Come up and see me some time
"I will." Then, "Take care
it was great."
And she was gone, home to Vancouver and her partner, Melissa,
and her writing: sensitive, exciting, and unrepentant, just
like Ivan herself.
Oh, and I know you are dying to hear what Ivan wore to
the Gala. She wore a blue ("periwinkle blue,"
she told me with a slight smile) tuxedo with a slightly
wrinkled white cotton shirt with the collar layered out.
What did you expect?
P.S. Ivan E Coyote's new book, entitled One Man's Treasure,
will be out in April. Look for it at Mac's, I'll be one
standing beside the stack, hawking them like a proud sister!