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Monthly Archives: November 2016

Prior to moving to Alaska, I spent almost every Thanksgiving with my family. Some years, we’d travel to visit relatives in other cities. Other years, we’d host dinner at our place or go to my grandparents’ apartment. The only time I did not celebrate with my family was during my sophomore year of high school, when the marching band traveled to Los Angeles during the long weekend to march in a few parades.

Of course, moving three thousand miles away meant that holidays would be a little different. Thanks to a three-week break at the semester, I’ve been able to make it home for Christmas and New Year’s, but making the same trip for Thanksgiving is just not worth the effort and cost. My first year, my friend Michael invited me to spend Thanksgiving with him in Anchorage. Last year, I returned to Anchorage for the same holiday, this time spending the long weekend with some fellow teachers from my district. When I thought originally thought about this Thanksgiving, I figured I’d be spending it once more in Anchorage, hopefully with D, the girl I met earlier this year. Or I’d see if Michael would host me again.

Of course, life often has a way of changing your plans. Between a new girlfriend for D and roommate drama for Michael, by September a trip to Anchorage sounded a lot less appealing. My mind also chimed in with memories of how each year previously I’ve gotten stuck overnight in the Hub on the way back to Nunap. So I figured, why not just stay in Nunap?

As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one with this idea. Lucas and Andy have always spent the holiday in the village. So does Leigh, our second grade teacher. As for all of the new teachers, well, they make their own decisions. Somehow or other, by October it became clear that, with the exception of Jenny, all of us teachers had decided to spend the break in the village. Talk turned to how we’d celebrate the holiday. Lucas and Andy have always invited some of the other staff from our school to their holiday meal, and they wanted to continue this tradition. We all agreed that sounded great, but where could we gather? With teachers, staff, and family members, we were looking at about 25-30 people, too many for most of the teacher apartments. Then somebody suggested using the hallway at the building where Lucas and Andy and I live. We could put tables out there for both food and seating, and Lucas and Andy and I would also open up our apartments.

Thanksgiving morning brought the sounds of moving furniture as the three of us began setting things up. We maneuvered our dining room tables into the hall and added the table that lives out there to create one long surface. The couple of desks that normally sit at the end of the hallway (around here, any place can be used as storage) were pressed into duty as buffet tables. Vacuums ran, stoves and ovens heated up, and it wasn’t long before the whole building began to smell of cooking turkey and other goodies. As the morning went on, other staff members came by to drop off food and drinks, help with setting up, and even make use of oven space.

In all, we had probably close to 40 people at the meal. The buffet held not only things like turkey, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, and pumpkin pie, but also things like pasta, dried fish, akutaq (sometimes referred to as Eskimo ice cream), and berry pies. Not enough chairs at the table meant some of us had a picnic on the floor, while others ate in Lucas and Andy’s apartment. Conversation flowed easily among most of us present. Topics ranged from the day’s football scores to the various Thanksgiving traditions from our families. (I breathed a quiet sigh of relief when I didn’t hear anyone start in on politics.) I spent quite a bit of time playing games with the kids, as well as visiting with my coworkers. I think one of my favorite memories from the day is when we decided to take a group picture: More than a few of us made goofy faces or put moose antlers on people, resulting in much laughter.

After the main meal was over, most of us headed up to the school to start preparations for the basketball tournament. Hosted as a fundraiser for the senior class, the tournament took place Thursday, Friday, and Saturday afternoons. I spent five or six hours working the concession stand Thursday evening before returning home and collapsing into bed. Friday found me once more at the school, where I spent the morning entering grades and the afternoon and evening once again found me in the concession stand and taking a turn as hall monitor for the basketball tournament.

Saturday was spent reading, writing, and relaxing. Today I’m up at the school for my usual Sunday of writing lesson plans. Then it’s off to Lucas and Andy’s for the weekly pancake brunch. It doesn’t match the Thanksgiving holidays of past years, but I at least had the good fortune to spend it with good people.

In the two weeks since the results of the election were announced, I’ve been trying to put into words just how deeply the results have affected me. It seems only fitting that I find a bit of inspiration from the date. Today, 20 November, is the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance. This is day that trans communities around the world gather to memorialize those lost in the previous year, often times to hate crimes and suicide. The majority of these victims continue to be transwomen, particularly transwomen of color (TWOC). From January of June to this year alone, 166 trans and gender variant people were murdered, according to the Trans Murder Monitoring project.

I’ve written before how isolated my life can be, what I referred to as the “tundra bubble”. I’m one of a handful of non-Natives living in an Alaska Native village 27 miles from the nearest town. The only ways in or out are by bush plane (year round), boat (spring thaw until freeze up), or river taxi or snowmobile (freeze up until thaw). In addition to the geographic isolation, I am personally isolated further by my status as a transman. It’s a self-imposed isolation: I made the decision when I moved up here to live stealth because I didn’t know how the locals would react if they found out. (Based on my research, First Nations people often times were quite understanding of people like me, but a lot of things changed when the missionaries came, and religion plays a big part in the lives of the villagers.) Since I “pass” as a cisgender man (that is, a person passing me on the street doesn’t think I’ve ever been identified as anything other than a man), no one has ever had reason to question my gender identity. As far as the locals are concerned, I’m Mr. CJ, the third-grade teacher. They don’t see the barrier that exists between us, the tightrope that I walk on a daily basis to make sure that I don’t say or do something to out myself. After all this time, I doubt that there’s anyone here who dislikes me enough to make an issue out of my trans status, but you never know….

This bubble not only keeps things in, it also keeps things out. My students know that they live in Alaska, but are still struggling to grasp the concept that Alaska is only one part of the US. Most of my kids have been to the Hub, that town 27 miles away, and some as far as Anchorage. But beyond that? Nope. As far as they’re concerned, anything outside of Alaska may as well be happening on another planet. Now, I certainly didn’t know all about current events when I was their age. I only vaguely understood the importance of news reports on the TV or stories printed in the newspaper. While I’m sure there are TVs in most of the homes here, I know there isn’t a satellite hook-up in every one. (Cable TV doesn’t exist out here.) With one or two possible exceptions, families don’t have a home Internet connection. There’s only one newspaper, and it focuses predominantly on news and events a little closer to home. Heck, until midway through my first year here, there wasn’t even 3G service for cell phones in the villages!

Through the school, I’m connected to the Internet. Between that and my phone, I have a lifeline to the world beyond the bubble. On a daily basis, I can get in touch with friends and family through Facebook or e-mail. I can call my grandparents to say “hi”. I stay as active as I can in organizations I care about, mostly through signing online petitions and making donations to various groups. When I’m feeling especially isolated for whatever reason, I have a way to remind myself that the world doesn’t end at the horizon. This can be both a blessing and a curse. I make a point of following news from the US and around the world, so of course I see both the good, the bad, and the downright ugly.

I followed this year’s election more closely than I ever have, because I knew just how much was at stake for my communities both physical and of the heart. The villages out here on the tundra are feeling the effects of climate change. Higher temperatures means rivers don’t freeze as solidly, or freeze and thaw more frequently, which can cause problems with transportation. It also affects the availability of fish and game, a large part of the still-predominantly subsistence lifestyle by which the locals live.

As for my community of the heart: Half of my family is Jewish. I have a large number of POC friends, and many, many relatives and friends who identify as part of the LGBTQ community. For more than a few of them, legislation like the Affordable Care Act and the legalization of same-sex marriage were important steps in their fight to be recognized as human beings. Even with these major steps forward, there continue to be battles that must be fought, notable the wave of anti-transgender legislation (the so-called “bathroom bills”) that has been sweeping through the nation in recent years.

When the results of the election hit the news two weeks ago, I felt sick. And worried. And, for the first time in a long time, scared. The increased reports of hate crimes in the days since haven’t alleviated those feelings, either. I’m relatively safe here in the village, but what about when I travel home for the holidays? Yes, all of my ID has the correct gender marker on it, but just suppose? And what about my friends? Are they safe? How much harder will it be for them to get their ID changed if they haven’t already done so? What about everyone’s mental well-being? Calls to help lines like the Trans Lifeline spiked following the election, because everyone is suddenly that much more afraid.

And what about my students? How will all of this affect them? Thankfully, they’ve been spared the horrendous bullying that I’ve read about, but what about their futures? Will their way of life survive the next four years? Will they? (If that last question seems extreme, look up the suicide statistics for American Indians and Alaska Natives.)

So on this TDoR, I’m not only remembering those that lost their lives this year, but am also pledging to do my part to make sure that there aren’t more in the coming years. I’ve upped the amounts of my monthly donations to organizations like Trans LifeLine and the ACLU. I’m reading up on how to be an ally to anyone who might need my help, and how to do so in a way that will hopefully bring about a (relatively) peaceful resolution. I’m done sitting on the sidelines, done being afraid.

As a child, my parents made a point of taking me with them to the polls on Election Day. In the lobby of an empty school, three or four gigantic voting machines would be set up. Mom or Dad would greet the person working the front table, sign the book, and receive a piece of paper in return. The person at the table would always ask if I’d be accompanying them into the voting booth and remind them that I had to stand on their right side and not touch anything. Sometimes we’d have to wait for a booth to be available. Other times, we’d be led right away to an open booth. One of the volunteers would pull the curtain (I always thought those curtains were silly because they only went halfway to the floor) around us, and Mom or Dad would begin to vote. They’d look at the list, then reach up and pull one of the many little levers that covered the top half of the voting booth. Each lever made a distinctive mechanical click, which I thought sounded a bit like a typewriter. After double-checking their responses, they reach to their left and push the big button on that side (in my mind, I remember it as red, but I don’t know if that’s accurate). The whole machine would then make a series of clicks and then a much louder clunk, and that was it. Mom or Dad would pull back the curtain and pass their sheet of paper back to the person at the front table as we left.

As I got older, I stopped accompanying my parents to the polls. They still voted of course, and made a point of talking to my sister and I about the importance of this duty. It wasn’t until I was in high school, when George W. Bush was running for a second term, that their words began to really make sense. Yes, I was in high school, but I knew a lot of people who hoped Bush would not be successful in his campaign.

I voted for the first time via absentee ballot. I was a freshman at college, two hours away from home. Since it wasn’t a presidential election year, I didn’t do a whole lot of research prior to filling out the ballot. But fill it out I did, sitting in the campus center lobby so that I could mail it as soon as I finished.

Absentee voting continued to be a feature of my college years, both for the primaries and the main event. I remember filling out the ballots for the primaries and the election in 2008, and feeling amazed and proud when Obama was elected. I helped do that!

The first time I voted after college was a bit of a shock. I’d moved back home, but the old school that I remembered from my childhood was gone. Instead, the polls had moved to a local community building. Not only that, but the old mechanical voting booths had been replaced by sleek, small electronic voting machines. I was a little nervous that first time, because I’d only recently had my name changed, and my driver’s license still said “F”, and what if someone decided to cause problems for me? Fortunately, my fears proved unfounded.

About this time, I also made a concerted effort to become more politically aware. The legal hoops I’d begun jumping through as part of my Transition had opened my eyes in a big way to just how much the laws and policies of my community, state, and country affected me, and I finally fully grasped the lesson my parents had first started teaching me so long ago: You have a say in those laws and policies because you elect the people that make them.

Two years ago, I moved to Alaska, to a tiny village in the middle of nowhere. I voted by absentee ballot that first year, as I hadn’t yet succeeded in changing my registration. Since my second year, I’ve voted in person. Currently, the community uses the bingo hall as the polling place. I can literally walk there in about two minutes, as opposed to driving somewhere. In contrast to voting machines (electronic or mechanical), here we use paper ballots. No booths, just cardboard dividers set up on folding tables to offer a modicum of privacy. When you’re done, the ballot gets folded up and put in a cardboard box. I haven’t ever needed my ID because by the time I started voting here folks already knew me. As for voting while trans? None of the locals know my background, and all of my paperwork now reads “M”. No issues.

I’ve tried to continue my efforts to be a well-informed voter, but I do get lulled by the sense of isolation into thinking that things don’t affect me as much. Case in point: This year, I discovered the day before said events that Alaska uses caucuses to nominate Presidential candidates. These events take place in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau. Here’s the catch: I live 400 miles WEST of Anchorage, and the only way to get there from here is via plane. If I’d known about things far enough in advance, I’d’ve made plans for a sub, bought my ticket, and been on my way. Sadly, this was not the case.

Woken up by that misstep, I worked extra hard in the run up to Election Day to remain informed on the candidates. Fortunately, in big election years such as this, all Alaska-registered voters get a booklet in the mail with information on most of the candidates running for the various offices, particularly their platforms. I studied the booklet, looked up information on-line, and knew exactly who I’d vote for when I went to the polls yesterday afternoon. Five minutes later, I was back outside with a shiny new “I Voted” sticker.