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My first winter in Alaska didn’t have a lot of snow. A few inches covered the tundra from November until early April, getting replenished every once in a while, but never in large amounts. That winter stands out most for the fact that all of February passed without a single positive temperature. Ambient temperatures hovered in the -20s, and the wind chill frequently pulled that down to -40. I didn’t set foot outside without my heavy parka, insulated bib overalls, boots, gloves, hat, face mask, and goggles.

Last year’s winter had more snow and less extreme cold. I don’t think we ever saw below -25 with a windchill. On my return from the semester break, I enjoyed the discovery of at least a foot of snow covering everything, with drifts in some places that came up past my waist. One drift outside the store actually stood tall enough that you could almost walk directly onto the porch without needing the few stairs left uncovered. (Even this amount doesn’t match the stories I’ve heard from the locals. Several people have shared that, as recently as five or six years ago, so much snow would fall that buildings would effectively be buried, and you’d need to dig down into your home.)

This winter has been the most “Alaska” winter so far. As early as November, we experienced those incredibly cold temperatures again. Since the beginning of the calendar year, we’ve had what I consider record lows, including one day with an ambient temperature of -27 and a wind chill of -57. (That day, Lucas, Kelly, and I tried for ourselves the fact that boiling water thrown in the air will instantly freeze.) We’ve also had 3 outright blizzards since the beginning of the semester, two necessitating early dismissals and one cancelling school completely. Thanks to the snow, wind, ice fog, and low cloud ceilings, we’ve had more than a few days where no planes have flown, complicating travel plans and stopping the mail. The blizzards have brought quite a bit of snow, but the winds carry much of it away again. What doesn’t blow away gets sculpted into amazing forms. I look forward to what the rest of winter brings!

It takes a village to live in a village like Nunap.

My first day in Nunap, I arrived to late to get to the post office, which meant I couldn’t retrieve the bedding I’d mailed ahead of time. Fortunately, Lucas and Andy had a spare pillow and blanket I could borrow for the night.

The first day I went to the school, a couple of students helped me unpack the boxes and tidy up the classroom.

I didn’t have a fixed address when I moved up here. Things mailed ahead were addressed to the school or simply “General Delivery”. The postmistress, Chrissy, kindly kept everything in a pile in the back until I arrived. In the years since, she has tracked down missing packages, helped me mail and receive quite a few packages and letters, and kept me apprised of any changes in USPS procedures, like when prices for mailing flat rate boxes changed.

Kelly and Jenny provided a wealth of information that first year, telling me the stories of each of my students so I knew why they’d sometimes act the way they did. Lucas and Andy fed me on more than a few occasions, helping combat any lingering homesickness.

School sporting events are always an “everybody pitches in” affair. I’m usually on the dinner and breakfast shifts, helping serve food to the visiting teams and coaches. When I’m not in the kitchen, I can be found at the concession stand, or even at the admissions desk.

At the beginning of my second year, I moved into a different apartment. The previous tenant left something of a mess. Lucas, Andy, and Kelly all pitched in for a couple of hours to help me clean things up.

One of the new teachers, Aly, had a hard time adjusting. I told her that my door was always open if she wanted to talk, and she took me up on that offer several times.

Once a week, Kelly stays after school so her students can have computer free time. I do the same, though usually on a different day. Whichever one of us isn’t staying will pick up the other’s mail, because the post office closes at 4:30.

Actually, it’s pretty typical to check someone else’s mail for a day or two, as between sports practices, after-school meetings, and travel not everyone can make it to the post every day.

Speaking of travel, on several occasions I’ve found myself stranded due to weather. Sometimes, nothing can be done. Other times, alternative arrangements can be made. Twice, I’ve ridden in a truck on the frozen river to get from Nunap to the Hub and vice versa. Once, I made the same trip on the back of a snowgo (one of the local words for a snowmobile). Each trip would not have been possible without the help of community members.

If you need help getting luggage to and from the airport, or picking up packages from the post office, you can usually be assured of one or two students hanging around. Pay them in fruit snacks, and they are some of the best helpers available.

Sub-zero temperatures in the winter can mess with the pipes in teacher housing. It’s not uncommon to call a fellow teacher and ask to “borrow” their shower. Similar calls are sometimes made about laundry facilities.

Teachers often need help with something. If I have a question about my computer, I ask Lucas or Eech, our school tech guy. Questions about paperwork go to Dan, the principal, or Ellen, our school secretary. If I need resources for struggling students, I hit up Andy (she is the elementary special education person) or Kelly. Got a question about district policy? E-mail one of several people at the District Office. Recently, I’ve also found myself in the position of being the go-to person for more than a few of the new people, and several of the old, as well.

Outside of school, social lives for the teachers frequently revolve around our co-workers. Some people will go hunting, fishing, or berry picking with local families. Lucas, Andy, Kelly, and I often have dinner together. Lucas and Andy also host a weekly pancake brunch on Sundays. Movies nights happen with various groups of people at different times. Several teachers have kids; more than a few of us have watched the munchkins for some length of time.

In the last two years, we’ve had several people arrive mid-school year. The rest of the teachers really make an effort to include the newcomers and help them to adjust to the new place and routines. This can be as simple as saying “hi” and making sure to include them in things like Sunday pancakes, or something a little more, like providing housekeeping items or making dinner so the new people don’t have to worry about it after a long day of unpacking.

As much as I relish my friendships with my coworkers, there are times when I can’t or don’t want to talk to them. In that case, I can text or call Tina, a friend who works in the next village up river, or try to coordinate a phone call or FaceTime chat with friends and family back home. I’ve also started seeing a counselor again, and Dr. A is always just an e-mail or Skype call away.

It takes a village to live in a village, and I’ve got one of the best villages in the world.

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.

Two weeks ago I found an envelope in my school mail box from a 3rd grade class in Massachusetts. Inside was a letter from a student in that class, a questionnaire with information about Massachusetts in general and the class in particular, a blank questionnaire, and an invitation to participate in something called The Great Mail Race. The idea behind the race is for third grade students to learn about the 50 states by communicating with their peers around the country. After turning the idea over in my mind for a few days, I asked my students if they wanted to participate. They voted yes. The envelopes aren’t supposed to contain anything from the teachers aside from the instruction letters, but this is what I want to say to each classroom we communicate with.

Dear New Friends,

Greetings from Nunap, AK! Did you know that there are places in the USA with no roads? Well, our little village is one of them. The only ways in or out are by plane, boat, or snowmobile. Within the village, we walk on boardwalks. Some people drive four-wheelers, and many people use bicycles. We are surrounded by lakes, ponds, and rivers. In fact, one river cuts right through our village. In the warmer months, many students need to ride a boat to come to school. In the winter, they just walk on the ice.

I’m sorry if these letters are a little hard to read. All of the students in our class are English-language learners. At home, many of them speak Yup’ik, the language of their tribe. If you got a photocopied letter, please don’t be offended. I wish you could have seen how hard they worked to write just one letter by hand. In a larger class, each student would only need to write one or two letters. When there are only ten students in the entire third grade, however, everyone has to do a lot more work.

Actually, we only had 6 students this week, because the river is freezing up. This doesn’t happen overnight. Instead, it can take many days. In the beginning, boats can still break through the ice, but it reaches a point where it’s too thick for that but not yet safe to walk on. When this happens, many students stay home from school. In fact, we sometimes have river days instead of snow days, because it’s not safe for anyone to cross.

But even with these differences, our class are third graders, just like you. They love to play outside. Most days, I can see several of them riding their bikes along the boardwalk. They enjoy playing basketball at recess. One of their favorite parts of the school day is when we take time to read, either by ourselves or with partners. When I suggested this project to them, I warned them that it would be a lot of work. They still said yes, because they love the idea of learning about other kids their own age.

Thanks for taking the time to be a part of this project. We hope to hear from you soon.

Your Friend,

Mr. CJ

A few days ago, an article popped up on my Facebook news feed: a group called the Binding Health Project just published the first study on chest binding to be carried by a medical journal (Culture, Health, and Society).  As I read through the article (which can be found here), I found myself immersed in memories of my own experiences.

As a youngling, my body didn’t offer too much in the way of dysphoric triggers. In my experience, society as a whole and my family in particular were more lax in what kids got to wear and how they acted. Several photos exist of me running around the family lake house as a toddler with the top of my one piece bathing suit pushed down around my waist, and I have strong memories of sitting by fires on the beach there in just shorts or pants.

Initially, I was in denial about the changes puberty brought to my body. I saw myself as a boy, and the idea that my body may be developing in a different way intensified the feelings of discomfort I was already experiencing. When I couldn’t deny the changes to my body any longer, I insisted on only buying sports bras. Through high school, my dysphoria and body image issues only continued to grow. The sports bras became both a blessing and a curse: Underneath my preferred t-shirt and vests or hoodies, the undergarments provided enough camouflage that I felt comfortable moving through the world, but at the same time the very name of the things reminded me that society saw me as a girl. I only wore a “regular” bra a handful of times, and never outside a dressing room or my own bedroom. To this day, even the memories of those few experiences bring an overwhelming feeling of disconnect between the mental and the physical, a dizziness that only increased when I’d contemplate wearing the things out in public.

College brought the opportunity to explore my identity and begin living authentically. No longer happy with the sports bras, I researched other means of binding my chest. For the immediate future, buying commercial binders was out of the question. Instead, I settled on using Ace bandages. Each morning I’d wrap the elasticized cloth around my torso, pinning the end in place with my arm as I secured the little clips. This method had its drawbacks: The bandages would roll around the edges, leading to an oddly lumpy silhouette. And while I joked that it forced me to breathe from the diaphragm, I would sometimes feel short of breath when exercising or playing trombone. I never had trouble following the so-called “eight hour rule”; by the time my classes had ended for the day, I was more than happy to return to my dorm room and ditch the bandages while lounging in a baggy t-shirt.

In the middle of my junior year, I finally bought several binders from Underworks, one of several companies that sells these items. After the constriction of the bandages, the binders brought a new feeling of freedom, both physical and psychological. Instead of a tight band around the center of my chest, the binders spread the compression out over my entire torso, which meant no more unsightly bulges. Even better, the garments looked like an undershirt, which meant I no longer had to worry about what would happen if someone caught a glimpse of one. Best of all, I no longer wore a bra, which marked me as a girl, or a bandage, which implied I was damaged in some way.

I wore binders for four years. While never as uncomfortable as the bras and bandages, I still had to deal with a near-constant feeling of over-heating, particularly in summer. After I started hormones and my body began changing, the binders gradually became even less amenable. Testosterone combined with my workout habits to begin reshaping my chest even without surgery, which lead to chafing around my armpits and shoulders. I also had the fun of learning how it feels when hair grows in underneath such tight garments. Not binding was never an option: I couldn’t bear the sight of my naked chest for more than a few moments at a time, and hated the weight that hung off my body without support. However, the idea of wearing binders for the rest of my life never held much appeal, either. Like so many others, I sought a more permanent solution in the form of top surgery.

Even though it’s been over four years since I last bound my chest, I still think about how that experience shaped me, both psychically and physically. I worry that the Ace bandages in particular re-shaped my ribs in some way, and wonder what the consequences of that will be further down the line. I also worry about my trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming siblings who resort to even more dangerous methods of binding themselves. I sincerely hope that the Binding Health Project continues their good work, and that that work influences how the medical community helps others like me.