My Prairie Home, the 2013 musical documentary about Calgary-born-and-raised multi-platform artist Rae Spoon, begins with a wide-angle shot of the Alberta prairie, upside down, through the window of a moving bus. The second scene shows a plaid-shirt-clad Spoon in a diner. I wanted you to think I was a cowboy, Spoon sings, navigating the room with a guitar as the other breakfasters eat bacon and eggs. So I told you where I am from./ And I walked around like I didn’t care/ that I lost everyone.
Spoon grew up a suburban girl in an evangelical Pentecostal family and is now a transgender Montrealer who has “retired from gender” and adopted the gender-neutral pronoun “they.” Spoon identified first as a lesbian and then as a transgender man, but ultimately decided that neither “he” nor “she” felt authentic. Spoon acknowledges that “they” is grammatically awkward; however, that awkwardness arguably arises from an inadequacy of the English language itself, which allows no space for people who don’t fit into the feminine/masculine binary.
Spoon is best known for their clear, radiant voice. My Prairie Home’s release closely followed an album of the same name, which serves as the film’s score and incorporates folk, country, gospel and grunge influences. The film also came on the heels of an autobiographical novel, First Spring Grass Fire. All explore Spoon’s complex relationship with the past and with Alberta.
For 14 years, Spoon moved east and farther east, making radical changes along the way. “I just throw it off,” says Spoon—in times of transition, the past simply sloughs away: religious upbringing, family, artistic affiliations, gender. Alberta itself, though, seems to have stuck.
Spoon’s life as a musician began in the late 1990s, after they graduated at 17 from Sir Winston Churchill High School in Calgary’s northwest. They played in coffee shops and hosted shows at local venues such as the Ship & Anchor on 17th Avenue, but was eager to move on, and at 19—in 2000—made the move to Vancouver. After meeting transgender people in the Vancouver queer scene, Spoon began identifying as a trans man rather than as a lesbian.
Though Spoon had planned to leave the past behind and start anew, they realized only after leaving the province how Albertan they really were. Spoon started playing country music, with lyrics about subjects like “uncles working the oil rigs,” and within a year had found a most eager audience back in Alberta. The first folk fest they played was the 2001 North Country Fair. Ever since, Spoon has played regularly in this province and has found a fanbase here. As My Prairie Home director Chelsea McMullan says, “No matter how far from the prairies they get, there’s sort of a magnetic pull, and it clearly influences their art so much.”
From Vancouver, Spoon moved to be with their partner in Germany, and then moved back to Canada in 2008, this time to Montreal. That year, McMullan approached Spoon about composing a subversive country score for a film about a Western theme park. Spoon and McMullan forged a friendship, and the more McMullan learned, the more she thought her charismatic and talented new friend would make a fascinating subject for a musical documentary. She wasn’t sure, going in, exactly what she wanted her film to do; the two made several music videos to get used to working together, and so Spoon could get used to being filmed.
Years passed, during which McMullan toured with Spoon twice. A lot changed between the film’s conception and its completion, McMullan says. Originally she wanted to explore how a transgender man had found his place in the country music world, where the “gender binary was so strict.” But long before filming was complete, Spoon stopped identifying as a man and also stopped playing country music, experimenting with a more electronic-infused, folk-influenced style. McMullan kept filming and ultimately found Spoon’s story was, to her, about “the idea of home and identity and how the two confront and influence each other.”
Spoon agreed to take part in the film, hoping to avoid delving much into their childhood, meanwhile writing the songs that are now the album and score. The lyrics revealed things Spoon had never talked about with McMullan, through images of a traumatic past. Sometimes the lyrics were direct, as in “Can’t Tear It from Me:” My mother is a steeple and my father is a stalker./ They come to me at night and speak in tongues…/ Jesus didn’t save me, but my grandmother did./ She pulled me from the wreckage and made me eat again./ She taught me to be strong and to sing my way through things./ Without her I would have never learned to love.
McMullan started interviewing Spoon about the childhood depicted in those songs, but says Spoon had “a tough time mining a lot of those memories.” Meanwhile, McMullan knew so little that she wasn’t sure what questions to ask: “I felt like I was in the dark, poking and prodding.”
“It was definitely a reluctant return for me,” Spoon says. “Chelsea was the driving force.” Though Spoon found it wrenching to recall the childhood they had worked so hard to throw off, they couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work on a musical about their life—though, Spoon says, the project wouldn’t have been possible with anyone except McMullan. The two discovered that the process worked best if Spoon wrote vignettes and sent them to McMullan: vignettes about their father’s abuse and schizophrenia, a bout with anorexia, an infant brother who was born and died during the Calgary Olympics, moving in with their grandmother to find some peace, their first girlfriend, losing faith in God and in Alberta’s one-party regime—Spoon describes laughing at the notion of anyone voting for another party until an eye-opening discussion with their high-school girlfriend, whose immigrant family felt marginalized by the status quo. And of course, Spoon wrote about music and gender and sexuality.
McMullan told Spoon she thought the vignettes could be the start of a book, and her friend ran with the idea. “Two months later it was a book,” McMullan enthuses. “It was amazing.” That’s what’s so incredible about Rae Spoon, McMullan adds. They decide to do something and nothing holds them back. Before long Spoon had connected with Arsenal Pulp Press, who ultimately published First Spring Grass Fire as a novel. Spoon calls the book a work of fiction, though undisguisedly autobiographical.
Spoon says they now realize that queer youth elsewhere in Canada did not face the same kind of adversity that queer youth experienced in Alberta.
My prairie home, Spoon sings, fits like a Sunday dress. Growing up in Calgary’s northwest, Spoon struggled both with being a girl and with being a Pentecostal Christian. In the book and documentary, Spoon pictures an adult life under the thumb not only of a domineering husband like their father, but also of an unforgiving church and God. That is, if the Rapture didn’t come first. And any transgressions meant an eternity in hell.
McMullan does not dwell on Spoon’s gender in the documentary. “Mostly I just wasn’t that interested in it,” she says. Though Spoon adopted the “they” pronoun during filming, McMullan does not explore that decision at all. “Rae’s my friend, and they are this really talented musician and multi-platform artist,” McMullan says. Being transgender just isn’t the most interesting thing about them.
Still, Spoon is almost always identified as “a transgender musician” in bios and articles, and says they are fine with leading with their gender or lack thereof. They are proud of being transgender, they say, and “I want people to call me the right pronoun when they meet me, so I have to put it in there. …When I meet people, I have to be like, ‘By the way’—because people don’t ask.”
Coming of age in a 1990s suburb, however, Spoon had neither the community nor even the language that allows fundamental questions about identity or gender politics. Classmates had always teased Spoon for failing to embody typical femininity, but as a teenager, Spoon had never heard of transgender people. Spoon identified as lesbian, but didn’t know anyone gay, and fell in love with a close school friend, Sandya, who appears in the documentary. Not only were the two girls a same-sex couple, but also interracial, at a high school where either one of those aspects was enough to inspire bullying and threats. Spoon’s mother remained preoccupied with raising four children and acquiring a restraining order against her husband, and didn’t ask herself why her daughter’s new friend slept over so much, though Spoon couldn’t go out walking without being recognized and chased.
In a relationship strained by secrecy and bullying, not to mention a nagging fear of eternal damnation on Spoon’s part, the two found solace in pop culture. Together, they watched Ellen DeGeneres and her sitcom character come out, to much fanfare, on primetime TV, and revelled in the notion that, elsewhere, queer people were proud.
Spoon, now living in Montreal, says that queer youth elsewhere in Canada did not necessarily face the same kind of adversity. Alberta was the last province to legally preclude discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, and only lost the fight to allow discrimination on those grounds at the Supreme Court in 1998, the same year Spoon graduated from high school. And though Ellen was coming out on TV, this was an Alberta where the ubiquitous Alberta Report magazine was waging all-out war on gay rights and gay people in general, with an onslaught of cover lines such as Can Gays Be Cured? (Aug 1993), The Adverse Health Effects of Homosexuality Should Be Taught (Oct 1996) and Winners & Losers: Why do Canada’s courts invent charter rights for gays and not for babies? (Nov 1997). Editorials by Report publisher Link Byfield equated gay people with pedophiles, and homosexuality with insanity.
Spoon and Sandya dreamed of running away to Vancouver, if not to LA—and both did flee the province eventually, along with many of the queer people Spoon knew here.
Since leaving Alberta, Spoon has been drawn back again and again. The singer attributes the sparseness of their music to a prairie influence, and speaks of feeling homesick—not for suburban Calgary but for the prairie landscape and the mountains, the Athabasca glacier and Drumheller. McMullan filmed Spoon singing “This Used To Be the Bottom of an Ocean,” appropriately enough, to a dinosaur skeleton at the Royal Tyrrell Museum.
Spoon returns to Calgary not only to play music, hike on the glacier and visit friends, but to lead feminist workshops and songwriting workshops for queer youth in Alberta. Spoon speaks across Canada at gay–straight alliance conferences and talks about sexism and racism within the queer community, because “it’s not enough for things to get better only for white queer youth.” The high school Spoon attended has recently instituted a gay–straight alliance of its own, which indicates how the province is changing. Queer youth growing up in Alberta now won’t need to flee, Spoon says. Calgary and Edmonton both offer strong communities and role models.
Last year, the House of Commons sent to the Senate Bill C-279, which would make it illegal nationwide to discriminate against transgender people. The bill met opposition by the lone voice of Calgary-West MP Rob Anders, who insisted the “bathroom bill” would allow predatory men into women’s public washrooms. But Anders found negligible public support; his certainly isn’t the voice of the typical Albertan these days.
Our premier now takes part in pride parades. The University of Alberta’s Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services has been credited for saving young lives through their Camp fYrefly. In 2011 the Edmonton Public School Board was the first in Alberta to institute policy that protects gay, lesbian and transgender students and staff from discrimination based on sexual orientation, and in 2013 Wren Kauffman returned to his Edmonton school identifying as a boy, after spending the first 11 years of his life as a girl. The apparently self-confident and well-adjusted Wren and his parents participated in numerous media interviews and by all appearances have the full support of their community.
Alberta has also changed for artists, though Spoon stresses that sexism pervades the music industry everywhere. Whether in Alberta or Quebec or California, it’s still a struggle for women to break in, never mind transgender people. But with relatively strong audience support for the arts, Alberta offers room for a young musician to thrive, Spoon suggests, without the pressure of competing with an oversaturation of artists, as in Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver.
Would Spoon consider moving back to their prairie home? Maybe not entirely unthinkable, they suggest. The artist already spends so much time here that some people think they live here. In a way, they never left.
Naomi K. Lewis is the associate editor of Alberta Views. She is also the co-editor of Shy: An Anthology.