Transcript for Retiring from Gender

Jim Fleming: However our gender roles have changed in the past few decades. There are still some people to whom neither "man" nor "woman" feels right. A growing number of people, mainly younger folks in bigger cities, aren't going by "he / she" or "him / her." Rae Spoon is a Canadian writer and singer/songwriter who goes by "they." Anne Strainchamps talked with Rae about gender.


Anne Strainchamps: Rae you came out as transgender more than, uh, a decade ago, I think, and began living as a transman. Can you tell me a little bit about that first transition?


Rae Spoon: I came out, uh, publicly a little bit after the, uh, when I came out to my friends in late 2001 or something like that. And I guess what happened was I met some other people who were trans and I'd never met anybody who had been assigned female breasts who had chosen to have as male. That was really an eye-opener for me that that was even a choice. I think I didn't know that was an option.


Anne Strainchamps: And once you, once you discovered it was an option, was there a moment of recognition like, "Oh, that's it."


Rae Spoon: Yeah. Or at least I was like, "Well, actually I don't really like being an androgynous female." I always had difficulty fitting into, like, the really stereotypical roles where I grew up which is, like, a very conservative place. So, partially, that would be like sexism, you know. Like not being allowed to play hockey and stuff like that. I think I knew that I didn't have the dolls or pink to be a girl. I don't know, something just resonated with me. And then as soon as I kinda started using the key pronouns and kinda learned certain things people did, like binding and, which is when, you wear something to like flatten your chest and, it all just felt like it fit.


Anne Strainchamps: And did you switch to guy clothes then?


Rae Spoon: No, I didn't really have to switch up the wardrobe.


Anne Strainchamps: Your wardrobe had already kind of been on the androgynous side?


Rae Spoon: Yeah, I think so. So, yeah.


Anne Strainchamps: Uh huh.


Rae Spoon: Country music more affected my wardrobe than being trans.


Anne Strainchamps: Well, I'm trying to imagine the process of stepping from one gender to another. I mean, I guess I'm imagining it might be a little bit like stepping out of a wrong-fitting suit of clothes into something that feels like it actually fits.


Rae Spoon: Yeah. The idea that I can request to be called male and, and, be accepted by certain groups of people was very alluring. There was like maybe more acceptance there for me than I had found being, you know.


Anne Strainchamps: How did that transform your life? I mean, was it just a small thing? "Oh yeah, now people call me, he."


Rae Spoon: I think it was a really big thing. I mean, at the time, it still wasn't really accepted by mainstream culture. Like I don't think there was a lot of people -- awareness, at least in Canada at that point, about what a transgender person was. So, I think that it definitely affected my life a lot. Especially because I'm a singer. I, I, had been singing and playing at folk festivals and releasing albums and you know, I happened to have a really high voice. Approaching the media with next release, okay, now I'm gonna go by "he" but my voice is gonna be the same, you know? So, it created a lot of complications.


Anne Strainchamps: So, at what point did you begin to feel like the transman label didn't quite fit either?


Rae Spoon: Um, I think it also happened in the same way where I met people who were -- I basically moved to Montreal like five years ago -- and I met, um, people who were living kind of gender-queer, gender-neutral kind of lives and asking to be called the vague pronoun or like other gender-neutral pronouns. And, so, I saw this option, I guess, you know, without changing my body, I ended up in all these absurd kinds of situations. Like having to argue over if I was a man or not. And, at some point, you know, arguing that I was a man became very absurd because I took like a closer look at the gender binary and I was like, well but, there are people who are born and they say male with high voices or people with hips or. There's all of these variances of then people who aren't trans in the gender binary and so it started to feel a bit more like a joke to me I guess.


Anne Strainchamps: Like just these artificial labels that we ascribe to people?


Rae Spoon: Yeah. You know, you're like, "Why can't you call me 'he'?" and someone's like, "Well, you have hips." and you're like, "And so does he." I don't know, so I kind of.


Anne Strainchamps: Well they're emphasizing -- there are a few other anatomical differences though.


Rae Spoon: Yeah, but you know, it is on a spectrum and for me, like the things that people could see and the differences just started to feel a bit like it was being more enforced on trans people than on people who are, aren't transgender.  So, so I decided to just kind of retire.


Anne Strainchamps: So, that's fascinating. What does that mean? How do you retire from a gender?


Rae Spoon: It means that I'm not doing anything to convince anyone that I'm, either side of the gender binary. Now if I want to wear like nail polish I'm just like right on, I'll wear nail polish. You know, because I can't actually change what people think my gender is necessarily. There's only so far you can go to convince people you are a gender. And so I retired from trying to convince people. Basically.


Anne Strainchamps: So that's really interesting because that suggests that gender has everything to do with how other people see you rather than how you see yourself. What about internally, personally, for you, do you feel like, "I'm not a man, I'm not a man, I'm neither, or I'm both?"


Rae Spoon: I feel I'm neither. I mean, I think, that for me, whenever I try to boil down you know the ways you behave to be a man or a woman, I always end up back in sexism. I just try to stop describing like behavior patterns or like bodies or certain things to a gender, so that I kind of got lost in it. I do feel like I've retired. Like I've tried a few things. The retirement was like my sort of like homecoming from trying or something to really differentiate myself from people to tell them what I was and what I wasn't.


Anne Strainchamps: So what does it mean practically to retire from gender? I mean, what have you changed about your lifestyle?


Rae Spoon: Well, fortunately, you know, I'm self-employed so I don't have to like convince a boss to go along with it. And basically I interact a lot with media and different people so it's been kind of interesting because I was out in Canada and then in the States and in Europe when I was touring as a trans man and then I was just like, "Okay, I guess I'm going to start going by the 'vague pronoun.'" And so I came out and my publicist knew and that has been really interesting because what publications will actually use it in print and all the arguments getting into about the correctness of it and. And I was doing interviews with people in really small towns in the prairies and actually like I've seen media use it in these sort of mainstream papers in these small towns.


Anne Strainchamps: You know, it seems to me like, the trans community is becoming increasingly visible in North America. I mean, I just learned, for example, that there's a transgender bathroom at my kid's public high school. But to drop gender altogether seems like something that a lot of people will find a brand new idea and maybe kind of challenging. You must end up doing a lot of explaining?


Rae Spoon: Um, yeah, I guess so. I don't mind though you know. Yeah, when people ask me about retiring, I kind of just say what I said to you. Just that it kind of became absurd to me at one point fighting for, for a pronoun. Because there were certain things like the higher voice or certain things that would make people convinced that I wasn't allowed to be called the male pronoun. I think I basically just wanted to take the authority out of other people's hands to decide.


Anne Strainchamps: Mm-hmm.


Rae Spoon: But I think it's actually to go by the vague pronoun is like getting more popular, especially in like younger queer communities at least where I've been lately so. It's an interesting kind of movement.


Anne Strainchamps: I'm curious just thinking about it, you know, as we talk, I'm thinking, you're having the freedom to walk away from all of the expectations that we place on ourselves because of gender. That seems potentially very liberating.


Rae Spoon: I do feel very free. And also musically, like, because I am kind of taking this what could be seen as like a really far over the edge standpoint on gender, it kind of frees me from having a commercial music career. So, like artistically, it's freed me to do whatever I want. I was a country singer and then I was like, "Ah, let's go make some electronica music." And nobody really complained. I'm not certainly declaring that everybody should be gender-neutral and that that is the ideal thing to do and you know, I just think it's great to see different options and for youth you know younger people who are trans or queer to see different options of ways to live your life.


Anne Strainchamps: You know, to people who, to a lot of people this is just gonna to sound so strange. Like, a strange, new world. And yet, for you, it feels really natural and really fluid. Do you feel like the community you live inside is the vision of the future?


Rae Spoon: I don't know. I don't think it's a vision of the future for you know for the whole world. I just think that it's nice mixed space for people in any way. Yeah. I, I, I know it actually sounds strange like. When I decided to change to the vague pronoun, I was like quite aware that a lot of places that I tour when I went back and said that it was going to sound like the robots have landed or something. But then, you know, as I've been returning to places or being in small towns or being on tour and interacting with lots of people outside of that community I've found like a lot of acceptance for it. So, that's why I'm so optimistic now. It's been a year, two years since I came out and started. People, you know, are putting an effort in to make space for me and I really appreciate it.


Anne Strainchamps: Well, thank you. That's great. Thank you so much for talking with us about it.


Rae Spoon: Thank you. It was nice to meet you.


Anne Strainchamps: And you.


Jim Fleming: Rae Spoon is a Canadian writer and musician. Her recent memoir is called "First Spring, Grass Fire." You can watch Rae Spoon's "Gender Failure" performance on our website

Comments for this interview

The fact that this is weird (Kai, 10/05/2013 - 12:20am)

The fact that this is weird to a lot of people, that people don't know that this happens, is one of the most important reasons for talking about it.

This is just awesome (Jude, 09/02/2013 - 12:31pm)

This is one of the few things that I relate to on a deep level

This is just weird (Fred Simpson, 09/01/2013 - 2:01pm)

I just cannot relate