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  Ellen Davignon: Lives of Quiet Desperation

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 closet…"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, right!"

"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 still clung.

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 of things.

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…ER…requested 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!

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