Archive

Tag Archives: gender

Content warning: Depression, anxiety

 

This weekend, I made an appointment for a haircut. You’re probably thinking, What’s the big deal? Allow me to explain.

From a young age, I have been wary around strangers. The adjective “shy” readily applied to me for a long time. As I moved through school, my growing dysphoria affected my interactions with others. In my teens, I avoided large social gatherings like the plague. I’d go to the end-of-season banquets for marching band and musical, but dances, parties, and such? No way. I hate loud noises, didn’t like any of the music that was popular, couldn’t dance, and didn’t want to deal with the stress of what to wear and how to act and how people might be reading my gender at any given point. I started to break out of this shell in college, thanks to friends who understood and supported me and knew when to call me on my bullshit.

However, to this day, I don’t like talking to new people unless absolutely necessary. I have to psych myself up for these encounters, remind myself of the fact that anyone who looks at me now sees me for who I am. This is easy at some times, difficult at others. It’s especially difficult when I’m dealing with depression.

My life lately has brought a lot of change. A new job in a new city in a new part of the state necessitating an actual cross-country road trip means I’ve encountered more new people in the past couple of months than probably in the last couple of years. At least, it’s felt that way. I’ve got a classroom full of completely new faces, new-to-me curricula to learn, a new way of grading, new expectations to follow. My new co-workers and I are still figuring one another out and learning how to work together. And unlike the village, we don’t live with or next door to one another, which limits how much I see them. Like I said, a lot of change.

When I accepted this job, I expected to deal with the blues. I remember when I moved to Nunap: New places and faces means learning who and where is safe, and that’s stressful. And while I don’t get homesick to the degree I did as a youngster, I still will find myself longing for the familiar. So yes, I expected a little dip in my otherwise normally optimistic personality. I didn’t expect to spend over a month in the worst depressive funk I’ve suffered since college.

Bear with me: Twenty-five years ago, I acquired a third grandmother. Granny R lives down the street from my parents. When I was four or five, Mom started giving Granny the occasional ride to work (Granny has never driven since I’ve known her and would usually take the bus). Occasional rides soon turned into more frequent rides turned into visits turned into dinners at our house. By the time I was six, Granny was as much a part of the family as my Dad’s parents. Over the years, she came to concerts, plays, and musicals. She ooh’d and aah’d over report cards and other achievements. It became standard procedure to stop in and visit with her when walking the dog. When I came out, she hugged me tight. She has always been one of my biggest supporters.

Granny’s health hasn’t been so great the last few years. Nothing unexpected, especially considering her age. I think I started noticing things more once I moved to Alaska; since I saw her less frequently, the changes were more noticeable. This past summer, I suddenly realized how frail she looked. Visits would be a little shorter, and I often had to let myself in to her house when visiting. Pauses broke up her speech as she caught her breath. But she still eagerly asked for any details I could give about my upcoming move and new job, and would tease with the same twinkle in her eye as always.

About three weeks after I arrived in Seward, I got a call from Mom: Granny had fallen and broken her collarbone. This seems to have been the proverbial straw, as from then on most of the updates I’ve gotten are not what one would consider “good”. I spent the next few weeks feeling torn between being here, doing my job, and being there, wanting to spend more time with Granny. I used to call her on the phone weekly, but soon after her fall I stopped. More often than not, the phone would be picked up by the caretaker, and I’d be told Granny was not available. Such conversations didn’t do my mental state any good.

Combined with the stress of all the new, I spiraled down. I couldn’t get to sleep at night, but getting up in the morning was a chore. I knew I had things I had to do, but I couldn’t find the energy to do more than read. Numerous mornings, I’d debate calling off from work, because I just didn’t see how I could find the energy to deal with the kids. I had a TON of things that needed doing at school, but couldn’t stand to be in the building longer than absolutely necessary. Where I could usually see and recall the good moments of a day, all I could hold on to were the bad. And when I get depressed, I isolate myself, not wanting to bother other people. I didn’t feel like I could talk to my new coworkers, because I don’t know them that well and didn’t have the energy to get to know them. I didn’t reach out to anyone in Nunap or in the Lower 48, because I didn’t want to bother them or add to their worry. I knew I was making bad choices, that I would feel better if I just talked to someone, but I couldn’t bring myself to care enough to change the behavior. Realizing I was not in a good state, I reached out to a local therapist to see if I could get added to her patient list. She has no openings until January. I made the appointment, but then promptly reached out to Dr. A, the therapist I worked with last spring, to see if she could work me in to her schedule on a temporary basis. Thankfully, she said yes.

The day of my first appointment marked a new low for me: I overslept. By two hours. I barely made it to work on time. (On the bright side, I didn’t have time to give in to the by-then-normal morning depression.) I spent the day glancing at the clock, mentally counting down the time until I’d be talking to Dr. A. Finally, four o’ clock rolled around, and we got started. For the next two hours, I spoke while she listened, she spoke while I listened. She talked me through some possible steps to make it through the week until our next appointment. And while I was nowhere near my old self, by the end of the session for the first time in weeks I felt I could see a little bit of light through the gloom.

The very next day, I learned that Granny has decided she’s ready to die. She’d apparently begun refusing her medications over the weekend, and ate and drank only sporadically. After numerous phone calls home over the ensuing four days, including one with Granny herself, I began to make peace with the news. This is clearly what she wants, and I support her just as she’s always supported me.

The day I learned about Granny, I started talking to my coworkers. Not about everything, but I did say that my grandmother wasn’t doing well. I also talked to my students, explaining why I might seem a little disconnected from what was going on in the room or why my temper might flare unexpectedly. Got to love kids: Over the course of the day, most of them told me that they were sorry and offered hugs.

For the past two weeks, I’ve woken up every morning wondering if there will be a text or voicemail saying Granny is gone. (So far, she’s still with us.) I’ve checked in more frequently with the family. Thanks to Dr. A, I’ve been able to set small, achievable goals that have helped pull me back out of the pit. In the last few days, I’ve finally begun to feel like I have energy again, energy that I can use to interact with new people. And so I could finally walk through the door and make a haircut appointment.

 

Advertisements

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.

Some other me asserted his male identity as soon as he could speak.

Some other me still hasn’t publicly said, “I’m a guy.”

Some other me identifies as female.

Some other me has a body that aligns with their gender identity.

Some other me hid how smart he was in school, so he could fit in better.

Some other me came out in high school.

Some other me had multiple girl- and/or boyfriends before he turned twenty.

Some other me went to Homecoming and/or Prom, at least once.

Some other me never went to college.

Some other me went to a different college.

Some other me made it to Australia for that semester abroad.

Some other me actually had a relationship with Her.

Some other me made a career in musical theatre.

Some other me plays in a symphony.

Some other me works as a zookeeper.

Some other me got the job running the Teen Docent program at the museum.

Some other me never even worked there.

Some other me turned that long-term substitute teaching job into a full-time career.

Some other me got a job in Baltimore or Denver.

Some other me worked in a bookstore rather than go back to substitute teaching.

Some other me still works in the labs at the university.

Some other me got a part in a Star Wars movie.

Some other me makes his living as a novelist.

Some other me actually managed to tell a person that I loved them, and had them reciprocate.

Some other me already has a significant other and kids.

Some other me never had surgery.

Some other me never met my best friends.

Some other me never got over his social anxiety.

Some other me makes friends with everyone he ever meets.

Some other me cut off all ties with his pre-Transition past.

Some other me never left my hometown.

Some other me always has a plan, for everything.

Some other me randomly jumps on a plane or drives with no destination in mind.

Some other me has the privilege of moving wherever he wishes.

Some other mes have it better than I do.

Some other mes aren’t nearly so lucky.

“If I met [him] I would ask [him] that one question we both fear: Some other me, how’d we end up here?”


This summer has brought a lot of changes with it, and it got me thinking about many “what if?” scenarios. The title of this post and the quote at the end come from the song, “Some Other Me” by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey for their musical “If/Then”.

Even though I now live three-thousand miles away in the middle of nowhere, I’m still active in the trans community of my hometown. (Actually, it’s likely because I live in the middle of nowhere that I’m active in the community….) I maintain the Facebook page for the Initiative for Transgender Leadership, and communicate with several members of other trans and LGBTQ groups. When I’m home, I try to get to at least one event or get together. In between times, I keep updated on various goings-on via Facebook and online news sources. Back in April, an article ran about the local school district’s plans to unveil a district-wide transgender non-discrimination policy (NDP). Based on the policy that’s been in place at one high school since 2014, the district-wide version merely sets things out in a such a way that every school in the district can also be accommodating of students who don’t fit into the gender binary. Prior to voting on the policy, the school board announced a series of three public hearings where anyone could speak their opinions on this and other policies or issues before the board. The first two of these hearings took place while I was still in Alaska, so I had no chance of taking part. The last, however, took place just this past Monday.

Preparing for the hearing actually began the week before, when I called the office of the board to state that I wished to speak at the upcoming hearing. I had to give my name, where I lived, and the issue about which I’d be speaking. In return, the person I spoke with gave me my number (I’d be the 21st speaker of the night), told me I would have three minutes, and requested that I bring 15 copies of my remarks for the board members.

I spent most of Monday morning writing, crossing out, re-writing, and editing what I planned to say. (Three minutes doesn’t seem like a long time until you actually try talking for that long.) I then spent time that afternoon worrying about what to wear. Polo or button down? Short sleeves or long? Tie or no tie? I eventually settled on an outfit I frequently wore while substitute teaching.

The school board’s offices are in the same neighborhood as my grandparents’ apartment, the natural history museum where I once worked, and the main branch of the local library. Even though I speak in front of groups a lot, I still get nervous about it, so my original plan was to park the car and then hang out at the library for a bit before going to the meeting. On my way from the garage to the library, I passed a van that bore the name of a local Baptist church, which didn’t seem like a good sign. Turning the corner, I noticed a sizable crowd gathered outside the main entrance of the board building, and my heart sped up. Could all of these people be here to protest or speak in support of the NDP? Would I have to talk in front of them? Would there even be room for everyone at the meeting? Mostly concerned about this last question, and curious to hear what (I thought) the opposition had to say, I decided to forego the library and approached the group.

Within a couple of minutes, I discovered that the group gathered at the door, which included the church group, were actually there about a completely different matter: the recent hiring of a new superintendent. My nerves calmed a little at that point, but I still felt jumpy at the thought of speaking in front of all of these people, especially as the crowd continued to grow as the time of the meeting drew nearer. Fortunately, I did spot some friendly faces in the mass: The leaders of the local LGBTQ youth theatre group and several of their actors. When the doors finally opened, they and I positioned ourselves as close to the front of the line as we could. This turned out to be a good move: The security guard who opened the door said that due to the amount of people speaking (85!) and the fact that the building had no power, they would not be able to let everyone attend the hearing. Fortunately, the theatre group folks and I made it inside.

Public hearings are held in one of the conference rooms on the second floor of the building. According to family who have been to these things before, normally the public sits at one end of the room, the board members at the other, and anyone who is speaking stands on the floor in front of the board and uses a microphone. Due to the power outage, this set up was changed slightly: Members of the public sat at either end of the room, and the board members sat in the middle, facing the entrance along that wall. Said entrance had been blocked off to create a sort of podium so that any speaker could be heard by everyone in the room. After making sure everyone was ready, the Speaker of the Board explained the procedure for the night: People would be called on to speak in the order in which they had phoned in in the week leading up to the meeting. Copies of the complete list were available for the public. The Speaker would call people in groups of 6. Those called would head out into the hallway to wait their turn at the podium. In a speaker’s turn came, a board employee would take the copies of their statement for distribution to the board members. Once you started speaking, you had three minutes. A bell signaled you had about a minute left; a second bell meant your time was up. Due to the amount of speakers, there would be a short break after number 40. “Are there any questions? Then let’s begin.”

By now, I knew that not everyone was there to talk about the NDP. Several people spoke on behalf of a local charter school whose charter is up for renewal. Others spoke in favor of proposed renovations for another school. The majority spoke for or against the new superintendent. And several other people spoke about the NDP. As I listened to each speaker, I scanned the crowd to see their reactions on each topic. School renovations and charter renewals mostly garnered polite applause. Pro-new superintendent speakers got huge rounds of applause from their faction (which seemed to be the largest in the room), while those who want the board to re-open the search garnered less applause and the occasional “boooo!” Speakers on the NDP also earned a fair amount of applause, and no catcalls that I could hear. Soon enough, the Speaker announce my name, and I moved into the hall to get ready.

After handing the copies of my statements to the staff member, I paced a little as I waited my turn. I’d recognized some of my former coworkers in the crowd; what would they think when they heard me speaking? There were cameras from a couple of local news networks there; would my face be on the 11 o’ clock news?

Soon enough, it was my turn. I walked to the makeshift podium as the copies of my statement were passed to the board members. With a last look around the room, I looked down at my own copy of the speech, tucked my hands in my pockets so no one could see them shaking, took a deep breath, and began speaking:

Good evening. My name is Cee Jay L. I have a story to share with you. In February of 2012, I was hired by this district as a long-term substitute for a middle school science classroom. In March, as the [standardized tests] approached, I led a discussion on basic genetics with my 8th graders. One of the students asked about what makes a person a boy or girl. My initial answer focused on X and Y chromosomes, but several students quickly jumped in with questions about terms like, “hermaphrodite”, “transsexual”, and “he-she”. So I took a deep breath, tried to calm my racing heart, and walked the students through the differences between sex and gender, and what exactly makes a transgender person. One student vocally struggled with the thought of making such drastic changes to her body, so I asked her to think about it like this: “Imagine that you were born in the body of a boy. In your heart and mind, you know you’re a girl, but because of how your body looks society tells you that you are boy and you can only do certain things.” All of the students got thoughtful looks on their faces, and then the student who had asked the question stated, “That would suck!”

I admit, I breathed easier at that point. For you see, I am transgender. As an adolescent, I fell squarely in the middle of your definition for “gender expansive” students: a perceived girl, complete with an “F” on all the paperwork, who neither looked nor acted like the other girls. Fortunately, I had friends and teachers and administrators who worked with me to make my time in school an overall success. As an adult, I’ve worked with organizations like the Initiative for Transgender Leadership and THRIVE to ensure that more students like me have equally supportive experiences. So tonight I am here to show my support for the proposed Transgender Nondiscrimination Policy. As you can see, your students already get it. I encourage you to follow their lead. Thank you for your time.

Applause followed me as I returned to the hallway. Other speakers waiting there offered me smiles and congratulations. I thanked them and stepped off to the side to take a few deep breaths and calm my racing heart before rejoining the audience to listen to more speakers.

I woke up this morning to another text message from Mom: “Please call when you can.” Even though I’d just woken up, I knew immediately what she would say. Sure enough: “Yiayia passed away yesterday.”

Y’assou Yiayia!

I’m struggling with getting my thoughts in order to write this letter. Can it really be the last one?

I don’t remember the first time we met, because I was barely 6 months old. But Mom sent a picture the other day from that meeting: You’re holding me, and we both are smiling.

Remember some of our later meetings, when you and Grandpa would come to Boston? I think those were some of your favorite stories: How I’d hide behind Dad’s legs at first before gradually coming out to say hi. I remember feeling very shy towards you. You were this person I called “Grandma”, but you weren’t like my other Grandma, who took me to the library and swimming lessons and spent weekends with us at the Lake. You spoke with an accent and lived far away and I talked on the phone with you maybe once a year and saw you even less.

I remember our first trip to Athens to visit you and Grandpa, and how you met us at the airport even though Mom told you not to. I got shy all over again, because it had been two years since I’d last seen you and now I was ten and meeting you again in a brand new place. But you and Grandpa both smiled, gave L and I the presents you’d brought for us and took our hands, and I realized that this could be fun.

Even on future visits, it always took the two of us a couple of days to find our footing, both of us working against the lack of interaction during the rest of the year. Thanks to Mom’s weekly letters, you always seemed to know what was going on in my life, while I felt like I didn’t really know what was happening with you. The only comparison I could make was to my other Grandma, but since none of your grandkids lived near you how did you spend your time? And yet every time we visited you took the time to get to know me all over again, to ask questions about school and friends and music. By the fourth or fifth trip, we no longer had to re-introduce ourselves; we’d just pick up where we left off.

You and Grandpa both were such good sports on those trips. You’d ooh and ahh over report cards and drawings and books and toys. When you’d insist on going out for coffee or dinner or to Yannis’s shop, you or Grandpa always walked with a grandkid and pointed out anything you thought we’d find interesting. As L and I got older, you’d look through yearbooks and listen to endless stories of marching band, musical, and, in my case, work at the zoo or the museum.

Prior to college, I only wrote letters when prodded by Mom, usually to accompany the latest report card. But when I left for college I started writing on a weekly basis. I wanted you to hear about how my life was going from me, rather than second-hand through Mom. I’d also gotten a bit of a wake up call to the fact that you wouldn’t be around forever; Grandpa was already in hospital when I started my freshman year and left us not long thereafter.

Several times over the years, you apologized for not writing back to me, explaining that holding a pen was too difficult. As I said many times, I didn’t need replies. Just knowing you got the letters and were part of my life was enough.

After Grandpa passed, I made a point of getting to know you better. I loved listening to your stories of growing up in Alexandria, hearing about your mother and sister. Your stories of working in Libya, where you met Mom and her sisters and their mother and Grandpa, have always held a special place in my heart. I’ve always known that you are technically my step-grandmother, but that distinction never meant much, especially when you, too, had stories of Mom and her sisters as children.

It seems so strange to say this now, but coming out to you scared me. I didn’t know how you viewed the LGBT community, because it was something we never really talked about. I also hoped to initially talk to you in person. But then I started hormones, and knew that I’d look and sound different the next time you saw me. So I wrote you a special letter, one solely dedicated to my coming out. You took the time and effort to write me back, saying that what mattered most to you was that I was happy, and that you couldn’t wait to see me that summer. The hug I received when I arrived still means so much to me.

Every month since 2009, I’ve made sure to write. Sometimes I’d get so busy I’d miss a month, but the next letter would always cover the lost time. Any time we talked on the phone, you’d remind me how proud you were of me. While it was never the same after Grandpa left, I still looked forward to my visits because I got to spend time with you. I loved hearing more of your stories, like how you felt about living in England when you and Grandpa first got married.You loved hearing about my life, even if I talked about things I’d previously covered in my letters. I think one of my favorite memories is from the trip in 2014, when I got to tell you immediately and in person that I’d had a job offer.

I remember during visits when I’d call you from the hotel to let you know I was on my way over. In the early years, I spoke only English during those calls. I remember how excited you were when I started speaking Greek.

I remember last year’s visit, when you asked so many questions about living in Alaska. And I remember you happily looking at the hundreds of photos on my computer, even the ones of the seal I helped skin.

When we talked this past Christmas, I assured you that I would be coming to visit you this summer. Even after Mom called in January to say you were in hospital, I kept telling myself you’d get better and that I’d see you in a few short months. Mom’s phone call this morning, however, proved me wrong.

I’m still going to Athens this summer. Mom, Dad, and I have already bought the tickets. Just thinking about being in the city and not seeing you feels strange. Knowing that we won’t call you to visit after breakfast, or to see about joining you for dinner, leaves a hole in my thoughts, because I’ve literally never gone to Athens without seeing you.

Do you remember my first or second trip to Athens, when you and Grandpa gave me my coin? It’s a replica Athenian drachma from 300 BCE, showing Athena’s face on one side and an owl and olive branch on the other, with a loop so it can be put on a necklace. I started wearing it in junior high, and have worn it daily since then. It’s always been my way of keeping you close, and it will continue to be so.

It feels odd to know that you’ll never see this letter. I won’t be printing it out, nor will I need to address an envelope. For that matter, I guess I’ll have to find another use for my leftover airmail stamps.

Please know that, no matter where you are, you will continue to be in my thoughts. Thank you for being such an amazing yiayia.

Love always,

CJ