Thursday, January 26, 2017

Tomboy Survival Guide (Sydney Festival)

Tomboy Survival Guide by Ivan Coyote and Band (Canada) at Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent, Meriton Festival Village, Hyde Park North, January 25-29, 2017.

Storyteller and Writer – Ivan Coyote; Bass Guitar – Pebbles Willekes; Drums – Sally Zori; Trumpet – Alison Gorman

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 26

Claire Cain Miller in the New York Times (June 8, 2015) has written: “The recent debate over public restroom access for transgender people has prompted some questions on just how big an issue this is — how many people are affected by such rules? The size of the transgender population is tricky to estimate….There are no national data, but two studies have tried to quantify or describe the transgender population in the United States.”
The results suggest that somewhere between 0.3% and 0.5% of the total population is transgender.

Ivan Coyote’s Tomboy Survival Guide is designed for these people and their parents, focussing on “misfits and boy-girls and butches and lady mechanics.  It’s a show for nelly boys and drama queens and anyone who ever put the camp in camping.”

In fact, I found his storytelling, set to a range of music from about the days of Cat Stevens’ Tea for Tillerman to today, and his direct talking to us, left me much more seriously affected than this comic description.  His sense of humour was a bright shield for what for so many is a tragedy underneath.

But, as he concluded, “our freedom depends on society changing, not us changing.”

This is because people may be born with physical sexual features along a spectrum.  Being between male/female may mean behaviours and feelings are different from assumed conventional norms.  What do you, as a parent, do when your very young daughter really does behave like a boy?

The story to demonstrate this was when Ivan’s favourite uncle visited when Ivan was four.  This happened in northern Canada, while the uncle was visiting from New Zealand, and explains why this uncle became Ivan’s favourite.

When Uncle knocked on the door, it was opened by Ivan (at that time having a girl’s name which was not revealed), standing with one hand behind her back.  Uncle shook her hand and introduced himself to “my niece”, who responded: “Do you want to see a dead gopher?”

Quick on the uptake uncle replied, “Only the last few days I’ve been thinking about seeing a dead gopher.”  At which point, Ivan produced his other hand, holding up a very flat, bloodied, road-killed small possum-sized gopher for inspection.

He said to us it took until he was 44 years old to become fully comfortable as transgender, even though his mother always fully supported him through difficult situations when he was a child.  One reason it took so long is simply that only quite recently have people begun to accept the fact of transgender, distinct from male or female.  In fact the Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence (  gives this list: “lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, queer, heterosexual, or questioning. Trans: This term is used as an umbrella term and can include anyone who identifies as transgender, transgenderist, or transsexual. Transgender: This term has many definitions.”

The evidence that all four in the group are both trans and comfortable (at least as much as any of us might be) was the quality of the writing, humour, music and especially their singing a “hymn” to conclude the show which just about brought the Spiegeltent down.  This show is not complaint but a celebration with pride.  The cheers and standing ovation in return showed our pride in their work as performers as well as for their personal human qualities.

For me, the most important message was to standard men.  Don’t deny feminity in oneself; don’t get locked into ‘being a man’ with all its implied aggression and violence; treat women genuinely as equals.  And when your daughter wants to show you a dead gopher, accept the offer and, as Ivan’s mother finally did, let ‘her’ dress in corduroys instead of skirts.  And always support your children in what they know to be their true feelings.

And provide toilets so that any sex may safely use them.  Which was the case at the Sydney Festival, at least right next door to the Spiegeltent, where each toilet was a separate, private cubicle.  With a washroom open to all.  Well done, Sydney Festival.

It’s not easy, but it’s the change society must make.  Then the tomboys can do more than just survive.  They can thrive as Tomboy Survival Guide shows they can.