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I’ve been sitting in front of my computer for the last hour and a half, trying to put my thoughts into words, to make this post coherent. I don’t know if that’s even possible.

It’s been less than a month since my world turned sideways. On 28 February, I got a text message from Mom: “CJ call my cell”. I immediately thought something had happened to one of my grandparents. Instead, I learned that my cousin J had died. He was one month older than me.

According to the family photo albums, J and I met for the first time in early 1988, at the ages of 7 months and 6 months, respectively. I don’t remember that meeting; my memory may be good, but it doesn’t reach back that far! The pictures show that we got along right from the start, crawling around Aunt S’s house and playing with each other and M, J’s older sister.

For most of our lives, J and I lived in different cities in different states. Even so, we remained close. As kids, our time together would be spent playing with action figures, racing Hot Wheels cars, leaving rubber snakes all over the place, and chasing each other and our sisters with Nerf guns. With our sisters, we’d put on “magic shows”, consisting of tricks, songs, puppets, and general silliness. Most summers, his family would come to the Lake for at least a long weekend. We four cousins would spend the days in the water, tumbling one another off the rafts, blasting one another with water guns, and having dock jumping contests. For this activity, we’d stand at the beach end of the dock and run the whole length before flying off the other end into the water. Points were awarded for how far you could jump, or for how silly your jump looked.

Life got a little more complicated in high school (whose didn’t?). We both had known for years that we were different, but now we finally had words for those differences and used them when we talked. He was bisexual. I liked girls, so society at the time labeled me a lesbian. I didn’t have many people I felt comfortable talking to about this stuff, and I don’t think he did, either. Having each other there was a huge help and relief. Other topics of conversation included the latest Broadway shows, if the X-Men movies were as good as the comics we used to read, and our experiences with our respective high schools’ marching bands and spring musicals.

We started college at the same time, but our paths diverged pretty sharply from there. Over the next five years, I came out as a guy and began my Transition while completing first a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s. J left college, worked in retail for a time before moving into social services, and settled into a relationship with a guy. Our conversations became less frequent, but that didn’t mean we didn’t know or care about one another.

J spent the last four years managing a seizure disorder. Among other things, it led to the break up of his relationship, moving between several jobs, and ultimately, moving to my hometown and moving back in with his mom. I hated the circumstances, but I was happy to have one of my oldest friends close by when I would come back from Alaska. One of my strongest memories comes from the summer between my first and second years on the tundra, J’s first summer in the city. Prior to that year, I’d been keeping some of my things (okay, most of the stuff I didn’t take to Alaska) in Aunt S’s garage. Well, the stuff had been there for almost two years, and between that and J moving in, I decided it was high time to move all of that stuff to a storage unit. The day of the move, J graciously helped me load the boxes into the truck, rode with me to the storage facility, and helped unload everything and cart it into the new locker.

After J died, I felt like I needed to come back to my hometown. It’s not the first death that’s happened since I moved, but for the first time I could not keep my mind on my life on the tundra. I could have rushed back right away, but with no sub plans ready I knew I’d be even more stressed out if I tried. Instead, I spent a week and a half teaching and preparing sub plans and went to a job fair in Anchorage before hopping on a plane for the Lower 48. I’ve spent the past two and a half days connecting with family and friends. Yesterday I drove out to the storage unit. The entire time I was there, I could not stop thinking about how J helped me out with that initial trip. I’ve visited with my aunt several times, and each time I walk into her house I half expect to hear his voice. Because of the seizures, J couldn’t drive, so when I was in town I’d take him wherever he needed to go. A couple of times, as I’ve driven somewhere this trip, I would almost swear I’d see J out of the corner of my eye, sitting in the passenger seat.

I’m glad I came back. Being here has allowed me to breathe, just breathe, and process all that’s happened. The last two weeks in Alaska, I’ve felt like a sleepwalker. I couldn’t seem to get a good night’s sleep, yet several mornings getting out of bed was almost impossible. My mind kept going back over my last interactions with J during this past holiday season. I broke down in my apartment several times. And yes, I’ve had similar crying jags a couple of times while I’ve been here. But here, I don’t have to be Mr. CJ. I don’t have to worry about explaining everything I’m going through. I can grieve, I can breathe, and I’m a little more settled in my head now than I have been lately. And now I feel like I can actually say good-bye.

 

 

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.

It’s a dysphoria day.

I’ve been living authentically for almost ten years; I’ve been on hormones for just over seven. Two surgeries, four-and-a-half and three-and-a-half years ago, went a long way towards banishing these moments of disconnect.In my daily life, no one questions my gender. And yet, I still have days where question myself, where the dysphoria that once occurred daily rises up from the dark corners of my mind and makes itself known again. I can’t always pinpoint the trigger for these feelings. Today, though, I know exactly what caused it.

I’m letting my hair grow again.

Some context: At its longest, my hair has never passed my jaw. In fifth grade, I got it cut so that it brushed the tops of my years. Not a “pixie” cut either. Some of the earlier pictures show a bowl-style cut; later, I styled it by parting it on the left and pushing my bangs off to the side. I got it cut again right around the time I started hormones and have spent the last seven years sporting an almost Tintin-like style: short back and sides, with the front long enough that it flips upwards. Until I moved to Alaska, haircuts occurred monthly, although I would occasionally grow it out a bit for Halloween costumes.

Things changed a bit here on the tundra. My coworker Jenny cuts hair, but between her schedule, my schedule, and the cooler temperatures I’ve taken to going two or three months between trims.

As has become my custom, I got a haircut in August right before I returned to Nunap. My intention was to then grow it out for Halloween. I ended up buying a wig to use with my costume, but I didn’t get my hair cut right away. For a while now I’ve been toying with the idea of doing something different with my hair anyway, so I figured this was as good a time as any to start.

Watching my hair get longer again has been interesting. Some things are funny, like seeing my students exclaim over how it no longer stands up. Other things are annoying, like the two cowlicks in the back that won’t lie flat no matter what I do. (One advantage to letting my hair continue to grow: Said cowlicks no longer exist.) And some things I’d just plain forgotten about, like how much static charge can build up in this dry air.

At one point a couple of weeks ago, I looked in the mirror and realized that my hair has now reached the same length it was in high school and my first few years of college. Back when I was bullied for how I looked. Back when I avoided public restrooms for fear of the looks and words that would come my way. Back when I started living authentically and had to deal with people questioning each and every thing about how I presented. Old memories and feelings I thought I’d dealt with began clamoring for attention again. For the last two weeks, I’ve been coping with these demons from my past as I try to go about my daily routine, teach my kids, prepare for the holidays.

The loudest voice keeps telling me, “You look like a girl.” Intellectually, I know this is bull. My hair is longer than other men, about the same as others, and far shorter than some. Emotionally, the words resonate with a different meaning: I look like I did when the world identified me as a girl. And that was not a happy time.

I admit, once I realized just what memories were stirring, I nearly texted Jenny and asked for an immediate haircut. But I didn’t. Instead, I spent time thinking and reflecting.Part of me wants to keep my hair this length, at least for a little while. Yes, I have bad memories associated with it, but if I get it cut again right now, then those will also be the only memories and feelings I have about this look. I’d rather overwrite them with a more positive take on things. And what does it say about the society that I was raised in, that I worry so much about if my appearance and gestures are more “feminine” than “masculine”? Because it’s not just the length of my hair that can cause dysphoria; I still worry about the shape of my body and the way I gesture with my hands or sit in a chair.

So how do I cope with dysphoria days? I reach out to my support network. In this case,  I took pictures and posted them on Facebook, seeking validation from my friends. They responded with nothing but positive energy. I pull myself out of my body for a bit by reading or writing fiction. I watch some of my favorite movies or TV series. I work out. Or sometimes, like today, I pull on a favorite baseball cap (backwards) and t-shirt, park myself in front of my computer, and spend hours working out how to arrange my thoughts into an articulate blog post. Because the naming of the demons gives them less power over me. Because “shared pain is lessened”. Because I know I’m not alone. Because I want other people struggling with similar issues to know that they aren’t alone, either.

 

 

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