Sunday, April 19, 2020

Reflections on Thirty-Two

On April 10 I turned thirty-two years old, entering the third year of a decade that has so far been defined by professional success, personal growth, and lengthening tendrils of discovery splaying around me like the petals of some miraculous flower. The contrast with my besieged twenties couldn't be starker, and as the distance from that time grows the narrative of my life has had to shift with it. When you met me I defined myself, understandably, in terms of opposition. I wouldn't be like my parents. Wouldn't be like my bullies. I wouldn't be like all those toxic actors who had power over me.

They don't have power anymore.

These days I'm calling my own shots, and as I've gotten more used to that--as I've come to realize that independence is not a parlor trick ready to vanish with the pulling of a curtain--I've begun to gradually shift from a mindset of survival to one of growth. Saying, "I'm so different from the people who hurt me" is not enough anymore. More and more, the question is, "Who am I?" Me on my own. Me not in juxtaposition to somebody else, but as a freestanding entity.

Thirty-two has been lovely, but the memory of turning thirty is something I'll savor for the rest of my life. When I was in my middle twenties, fresh off a suicide attempt, pudgy from my depression-induced binge-eating, ashamed and undermined by my depression-induced binge-drinking, living on other people's dime and at their whim, thirty was a mantra. By thirty, I'd have a career. By thirty I'd have money. By thirty I'd be on my own. By thirty I'd be, I swore, under 150 pounds again.

My thirtieth birthday dawned in sun-soaked Alaska springtime, a blazing-bright morning that greeted me with confetti and celebratory phone calls. On my front door was a colorful constellation of birthday cards made by students and staff, under the supervision of Wise Woman, a good friend who lived next door to my beautiful apartment. I was surrounded by love and validation. Right after I woke up, I stood on the scale on my living room and the number that flashed back at me read 149.4 pounds. I stood in my foyer that morning, surveying my life, and I wept tears of disbelief and joy.

"It all happened. It all actually happened." Somewhere deep down, I never really believed I'd get to have it. But I did. And I do.

In the two years since the bright sunrise of thirty, I've worked to discover the grown-up BB, and that effort has taken me to some surprising places. To several corners of Alaska. To Russia. To my first relationship (with Gavril, who was nothing short of saintly in the face of my unrelenting tide of craziness and damage). To the acknowledgement, at long last, that whatever I am, I am not quite a regular boy.

"You know, it doesn't need to be one thing or another," said Raven, a mother of one of my students and someone with whom I grew close enough to confide my struggles with identity. Raven is an Athabascan Native steeped in the culture of her people, and her conception of gender doesn't exactly align with the Western binary. "We have a word for people like you: two-spirit."

I considered that. That maybe all this wasn't quite as simple as a pink baby popping out in blue wrapping.

"Did you know at all?" I asked. "You don't seem surprised."

"Well..." she paused and gave me an apologetic smile. "Little things. Your body language. Not everyone would pick up on it, but if you're intuitive...there's subtle cues."

I don't have all the answers, which is fine provided I'm looking for them in an honest way. If there is any resolution I carry forward with me into the third year of my thirties, it is to walk and to think and to choose without fear. That has entailed some really uncomfortable moments, as when last week I spoke with my therapist about how my stepmother Marie treated me in childhood.

"She's been texting me," I told the doctor. "And I don't know how to respond. I haven't spoken with her in months, intentionally, and I know this is her way of trying but I have so much pain around her..."

"Why is that?"

The familiar red flags raised. That same old dread in my stomach, screaming at me to RUN AWAY FROM THIS THOUGHT. I fought through the fight-or-flight response and at last said what I've been dancing around with this therapist for literally months (and with myself for literally years): "Marie didn't have appropriate boundaries around us. She used to talk about our sexuality in these really explicit and degrading terms."

I still have a vivid memory of being eighteen and my stepmother counseling, in the cutting way she had, all the things I needed to do lest I "never get laid."

"It wasn't the only instance," I told Gender Therapist. "That particular time we had company over who heard the whole thing and...I was eighteen. To be sexualized at that age, by a parent no less, and then to be turned into a sexual object for appraisal. For strangers' amusement. It's like..." I started crying. "It was so dehumanizing. And it makes me really upset to remember."

The spectre of Marie has loomed like a boogeyman of shame in the back of my mind. Now I know she's there. Now I can work on banishing her. Confronting her presence, and the way it's tied up in my issues around intimacy and unhealthy coping mechanisms, is one of those things I found too frightening to do in my twenties. But fear-based decisions are wrong decisions.

The solutions are seldom easy, but they are sometimes funny.

"I think I need to be more of a ho," I mentioned.

"From a clinical perspective, I'd have to agree," confirmed Gender Therapist.

I've never really experienced male sexuality, you see; other than a few abortive and unpleasant encounters spread over about a decade, I'd never had a sexual partner until Gavril in 2018, and Gender Therapist and I both feel that I would be remiss to undertake something as huge as transition without knowing exactly what I'd be walking away from. There's always going to be a girl living in this head of mine. But is she splitting the rent with a boy? And might I be able to find happiness in gay manhood? I'm doing my level best to get to the bottom of it (giggity), trawling dating and kink sites and, again, casting fear (though not caution) aside.

"I love it," Black Dress Girl said. "Let the freak flag fly. This is exactly what you need."

This new online presence has resulted, to my surprise, in a consistent stream of messages from college-aged gay men who tell me I'm beautiful and generally express a desire to see me unclothed. This is something I feel I should be bothered by but I can't quite get myself across the line of caring.

"I felt really bad about it at first," I confided to Black Dress Girl by phone. "A lot of these guys are like ten years younger than me. I mean, it's not like I'm lying about my age; I have my photo online and people just make assumptions. I always correct them. But then I'm like, 'I can't do this. I'm too old. It's wrong.' And finally I just snapped. I was like, 'Why can't I do this? Why is my entire life me telling myself all the things I'm not allowed to do?' He wants it and I want it, too, but I'm in denial about wanting it because I feel like I shouldn't want it. And at some point it's like, 'For fuck's sake.' If he thinks I'm hot and I think he's hot and everyone is going in eyes wide open...I just want to get laid."

"Well, when you actually were that age you didn't get to have those carefree experiences," she reasoned. "Because you just had so much going on. And they're talking to you because they find you attractive. So as long as you're not leading them into thinking you're going to have a relationship or, everyone is a consenting adult. If they know it's just sex, what's the issue?"

All of which could wind up being hypothetical, by the way. But giving myself permission to bang a twenty-one-year-old for the sheer joy of a good shagging, and, what's more, being open to that joy absent the need for a relationship, is a step I never thought I'd take. The idea of sex as a fun and pleasurable experience? Something that isn't terrifying? Who knew?

First do no harm. Always. But I'm tired of apologizing and of self-denial. I want to live.

I'm leaving Point Goldlace next month and not coming back, because I know that I deserve better than the opportunities and the treatment I'm getting here. I'm interviewing, at some point when quarantine restrictions are lifted, for a job with an international organization that would require me to live on a semi-permanent basis outside of the U.S. And I'm moving in August to a different part of Alaska  where I'll once again be the new person in town. All of these are scary things and in each case it would have been easier and less anxiety-provoking to just maintain the status quo. But fear-based decisions are wrong decisions.

I'm making plans and backup plans, as I always do. This summer, if the service that provides it isn't shuttered due to contagion concerns, I'll be taking classical voice lessons through a university in Southern State. I've wanted to for years and...why not? Singing is pure joy. I've taken to posting audio in online voice forums where I've learned, among other things, that I am in fact considered not a baritone but a lyric tenor. Go figure.

At thirty-two I want to push further from fear and pull closer to my happy place, wherever that is. And whoever I am as I arrive there.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Twelve Years

Has twelve years ever been so vast? The world in which this blog started, on April 7, 2008, by and large no longer exists. That spring, we were in the midst of a conventional presidential primary process ahead of an election that, the 2008 financial crisis still being months away, seemed competitive. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were holding substantive debates to determine which of them would carry the Democratic standard. Schools and businesses and government offices were open. People walked the streets. The stock market hummed along. I was all of nineteen.

That boy vanished, alongside the rest. Though maybe he's still around in spirit. And twelve years later we're living in a reality that has, across many dimensions, defied expectations of what seemed plausible. At moments it feels like the plot of a science-fiction movie, doesn't it? Or maybe an especially exhausting political thriller.

But thirteen years will come, and then fourteen, and then fifteen, and at some point we'll go back to "normal," hopefully a version of normal informed by the shortcomings this crisis exposed (though increasingly I have little hope my countrymen operate in a learning-from-mistakes kind of way).

In the meantime, I'm still BB, a thirty-one-year-old teacher living in Alaska and plotting his next move. I didn't do one of these last year--life, as it will, got in the way--so it would seem some updates are required.

My father David and stepmother Marie live on the East Coast and have both remarried since their divorce in 2014. My birth-mother, Anne, is there as well, as are all my siblings: twenty-four-year-old Thomas, a college student who's earned straight As every semester while pursuing a certificate in the medical field; sixteen-year-old Pie, a high school junior who's not so little anymore and now has a license; and thirty-year-old Powell, who's recently moved into a larger home with his girlfriend of several years. 

Whether I'll see them this summer, whether that's safe, is still up in the air. This year has already thrown many unexpected twists my way, and like everyone else I'm waiting to see what happens. Here's how it's been so far:

April 2019: Shortly after a signing a contract to remain one more year in Point Goldlace, I turn 31 years old.

May 2019: I depart Point Goldlace for the East Coast, where happy reunions with my grandmother and friends occur.

June 2019: Off to Russia, where new friends and experiences abound during my three weeks living in a Moscow flat and attending Russian-language classes at a university in the city.

July 2019: Back to the U.S. at month's end, where some precious weeks of summer yet remain.

August 2019: I return to Point Goldlace for a second consecutive school year (the first time I've ever been a returning teacher anywhere).

September 2019: Considerations of gender weigh heavily, and I confront the fact that I am very likely transgender.

October 2019: I begin seeing a gender therapist to help me sort through feelings on identity, sexuality, and gender, all of which proves a great deal more nuanced than expected. The nuance is tough, but confronting it is helpful. In Aurora City, I begin the application process for a non-education job I've wanted a very long time.

November 2019: As a second Thanksgiving in Point Goldlace rolls around, I am forced into honest reflection on my ability to remain in this community.

December 2019: A bid to save money results in my spending Christmas in Iceport, but what could have been a gloomy holiday is brightened up by the presence of Wise Woman and Miss Violet, both of whom travel from within Alaska to spend time with me at an Airbnb in the city.

January 2020: The Twenties begin, and with them come the first vague reports of a mysterious pneumonia-like illness in China. Three days after the New Year, I receive an e-mail telling me I've been invited to an in-person job interview on the East Coast.

February 2020: I make the difficult decision that I will not return to Point Goldlace after the end of the current school year. I begin an active search for employment.

March 2020: I sign a contract with a new school district despite an offer of renewal for a third year from Point Goldlace. The world shuts down, and my East Coast interview is postponed for the time being.

A year from now, I hope we're safer. Healthier. Wiser. And I wish you all a renewing spring.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

On Hold

I was supposed to be on a plane headed to the East Coast when it happened. First it was a few deaths at a nursing home in Seattle. Then the emergence of some cases in New York. Then local hospitals filled to capacity. New clusters emerging every day. One state after another, including Alaska, shuttering its schools and directing teachers to work from home. The shelter-in-place order, which seemed radical in the moment, coming in California, then in New York, then in Illinois. Over the weekend we got our own such mandate up here in the Arctic.

The preceding several weeks had seen me managing job applications and interviews, some within education and some without, and I was preparing for easily the most important meeting of my life when an e-mail from the employer appeared on my smartphone screen. For the safety of the applicants, interviews had been postponed indefinitely, but everyone who had earned a slot would still retain it for when things returned to normal. Whenever that was.

I'd already taken leave from work for a trip that wasn't going to happen, so I called my boss, cancelled the time off, and enjoyed an unscheduled spring break in Aurora City, eating sushi and ordering coffee and watching free cable TV as the news from the outside world grew ever more ominous. More than once, I looked out from my top-floor hotel suite and wondered if the virus was already moving in the streets below me. Each day delivered a news item that managed to make me cry.

And when I returned to Point Goldlace, it wasn't to a regular work environment after all; it was to a two-week quarantine, under the terms of which I'm still housebound. I expected to resume my regular schedule on April 6, but today came word that we'd be permitted to perform our duties remotely, reporting to school perhaps once a week to print necessary items.

As to what the next couple of months of my life looks like, I honestly don't know. The dirty secret of education right now is that the actual amount of things we can do without students is limited, and all of us are essentially just putting together substitute plans. The work of an entire week takes me an hour or two, and after that "working from home" means a lot of Internet and a lot of reading. Is this supposed to be how we exist until the end of May? And what comes then? Do I fly home to a diseased East Coast? Do I visit family? Is that even safe? What does a summer look like without freedom?

I'm leaving Point Goldlace at the end of this school year, but haven't yet informed our district administration. It's another one of those things that's fallen by the wayside in light of everything falling by the wayside.

I hope you're all healthy and safe. And I hope it all comes out right.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

In Brightness and Shadow

Wishing you all a happy dawn to the decade. May we each find our best selves in the Twenties now begun.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

An Ending at a Crossroads

So much gone before. So much yet coming.

I hope each of you had more joys than regrets in the decade that will pass tonight, and that each of you has fruitful paths down which to walk in the decade soon to begin.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

The Wild's Twisted Mirror

Someone with a past like mine should not spend so much time alone.

When I'm with people, occupied, swept along in the hustle and bustle that is work, social engagements, shopping, dinners, errands, exercise, reading, family, then I'm good. When I get to live life the way a normal person lives life, I am in general a happy and pleasant individual. Which is remarkable, all things considered. Scroll through the archives of this blog and try not to weep at what you find there. Domestic violence. Suicide. Vicious and unrelenting abuse. It was a miracle that I got through all of that more or less intact, got to the point that I could be an agreeable link in a chain of friendship and kin, a typical member of a typically functioning social circle. More or less, a regular dude (or girl, but the point stands).

About a decade ago, I did my first blogger meetup as a college student in the Washington, DC region, and the writer with whom I met expressed a surprised assessment of my character.

"From your writing, I expected you to be really serious and reserved," he quipped at the time. "But you're actually like, a normal person."

Genuinely one of my greatest achievements in life has been to become "actually like, a normal person." It's why I revel in my Starbucks and my Taylor Swift records and my completely indefensible love for Twilight. By all rights I should be a raving lunatic, or barring that a fashionably tortured Gothic misanthrope. Instead I'm a comically typical white girl, cheerful and good natured, like, as one co-worker playfully noted "a little ball of sunshine." Except when I'm alone.

Then old wounds open up. Old shames breathe. And pervasive insecurities whisper in my ear, of all the things I'll never have and never be able to do. There's so much to worry about these days. Whether or not to transition, then how to bear the cost of it if I go that route. Which direction to take to further my career, and whether I'll be equal to the task. How, how in the name of the sweet Lord above, to get out of this village, where I feel trapped: the robust salary and low-pressure working conditions I command here come at the price of social isolation, but to reclaim a more typical life would be to surrender a hard-won economic position that very, very few teachers enjoy.

Alaska teacher pay, even in a city, would allow me to live at least a middle-class existence, but those city jobs are difficult to come by. Everyone wants to work in Iceport or Aurora City. So what's a boy to do? The prospective options--teaching job here, teaching job in another village, teaching job in a city, non-teaching job in a city--for next year are manifold with conflicting and interlocking time-frames, all of which is to say nothing of my long-term ambitions to enter a very specific career path within the federal government. It's all just so much. Through the maelstrom of deadlines and pressure and logistics I can see a glimmer of a happy future worth living in, but it seems so far off sometimes.

I'm going to be spending two weeks in Iceport during Christmas break (something I've elected to do en lieu of a very expensive Yuletide trip to the East Coast) and at least a few things will be acted on then. I have a job interview with a group home for troubled kids sometime around the New Year, and I'll also be meeting with a psychiatrist to get a clinical evaluation that could be my foot in the door with the federal government. Granted, I have yet to find that psychiatrist, but still.

"I can see you've applied for an overseas position," said the federal coordinator to whom I'd been assigned. "But there are domestic positions that are subject to non-competitive hiring processes for individuals with disabilities, and that could be a quicker and smoother path for you. Why don't we get that started? Then we have two irons on the fire and they can proceed simultaneously."

This could potentially be a godsend; I've harbored dreams to embark upon this very specific job track within the federal government for about a decade now, but the barrier to entry is high and the selection process rigorous. A workaround exists in the form of what is called Schedule-A hiring, a non-competitive hiring process in which qualified persons with disabilities are considered in a pool by themselves, apart from the population of general applicants. I am absolutely eligible to do this, but require a letter from a physician to verify the legitimacy of my status.

Hence why I am now searching Iceport for a doctor to confirm the ailment with which I was first diagnosed at three years old and which has altered, in profound and almost universally negative ways, every aspect of my life. It's stressful and aggravating, but if it helps me climb this particular wall then it will be worth it.

Otherwise, I'm going to just enjoy being normal for a fortnight. I've rented an apartment in Iceport for the greater part of the break, and I'm very much looking forward to such exciting adventures as grabbing coffee, going to the movies, and grocery shopping. With a car! Wise Woman, my neighbor from Gori who now lives in a village on Alaska's west coast, is flying to the city to spend four nights and days with me, among them Christmas itself; and Miss Violet, a teacher who lived in Point Goldlace last year but has since relocated to Iceport, is hosting us for Christmas dinner. My father will be up for a few days as well, somewhere between Christmas and New Year's.

Other than that, the time is mine. Hopefully somewhere in the twinkle of Christmas lights and the flash of New Year's Eve fireworks, a little ball of sunshine can emerge again.

Thursday, October 31, 2019


It's been a weird few months.

I guess, in honesty, it's been a weird few years, and what's more the first years of my life that have ever truly been mine. My twenties were a vortex in which all I could do was survive, and even on that count I fell terribly, tragically short on a dark day six Octobers ago. There was no time for self-examination. Instead I plodded on, dutifully doing absolutely whatever I had to do to stand on my own two feet and thinking of little else until, after more than a decade of whirlwind conflict, achievement, and despair, I found myself, all of a sudden, alone in Alaska. I really couldn't even process it.

For so long there'd been nothing but struggle. I was, to use an educator's parlance, seeing only to my physiological and safety needs. And then when the offer to come here arrived, it was so unexpected that the journey began seemingly without my initiating it. A job prospect in Southern State had fallen through in February and with three months left in the spring semester I found that a teaching position in Alaska, for which I'd interviewed basically on a lark, looked a lot more attractive than it had a few days earlier. I switched my bank accounts, packed up my life, and landed in Iceport three weeks later. My government housing on the tundra was the first home I'd ever lived in that was mine.

I did weirdly well in rural Alaska, better frankly than most other people, and I'm not entirely sure why. Maybe it was the dysfunction of my own childhood, or awareness of my own shortcomings, but the deeply strange and often difficult dynamic in the villages was something I didn't have much trouble dealing with, even if the social isolation got me down.

That first assignment, in White Venice, didn't last long. The lack of running water was a bridge too far for me, and White Venice was in several ways just not my cup of tea. Instead I wound up spending an eventful--and at times heartbreaking--year in Gori, where I lived in a beautiful little apartment next to a big-hearted woman with deep compassion and open ears. And I had time to sit still.

That's a remarkable thing when you've never had it, and it leads your mind to places it wouldn't--or wouldn't dare--otherwise go. I was twenty-nine and working late at the school one night the first time I logged onto a trans chat room under an assumed name. Which is not to say I'd never acknowledged the thoughts before. Once, years earlier, I confessed to a therapist that I always felt I should have been born a girl but that one had to be pragmatic and that I'd make my best go of it as a gay man. Said that blithely. Like living an entire lifetime in disguise would be as mundane as going for a walk through the park. I was twenty-four then. By twenty-nine a lot of things felt different.

I found myself poring over memories, reliving and dissecting all of the forbidden thoughts and elements of myself that I'd worked so hard to hide during my adolescence. The female role-playing in games of make-believe with my brother. The cheerleading routines in the front yard. The daydreams about marrying a boy from my third-grade class, which must have been wrong because they featured me in a dress up on a sunny hill with him smiling at my side. I felt so perverse when I indulged that fantasy, but couldn't help returning to the thought. And then there was the time I was nine, when I realized that the voice and the face in my head were both female, and the shock of shame and alarm that sent through me. I had to fix it. I had to make it right.

So I tried. I practiced walking like a boy. I drilled myself into talking without my hands, lowering my voice, reconfiguring my mindset, adjusting my daydreams to make their star male--young and elegant and vulnerable, feminine in every way that counted, but somehow male. I worked to make myself less of what I was. And to a really awful degree I succeeded, because here I am, thirty-one, unsure of who I am or where I belong or what's authentic.

"I've always felt female inside," I said during a recent conversation with my therapist, whom I'm able to chat with by phone in light of my unusual living circumstances. "But when I think of actually acting on it, the next thought is, 'You're insane.' I mean, I've been in this male body for thirty-one years. It just seems so out there. Like, 'Are you seriously thinking this? This can't be real.' I just don't know who I am. And I feel like a fraud."

"You know," she said. "That's really common."

My therapists, my friends, my confidants, my rivals, my peers--everyone, it seems, save my lovers--have been women or girls. I never really thought about why; it just seemed natural. Which is not to say I don't have male friends, but they've been a lot fewer and farther between. Women just seemed to understand me better, and I them.

"You're like a girl," one of them sneered at me in second grade. "A prissy one."

You're telling me, honey. You're telling me.

The fact that I've long been a natural caretaker has not made any of this easier, and has caused me anxiety in adulthood as my behavior and my sex seem increasingly out of alignment. As a teacher I'm nurturing, compassionate, funny, fair, firm when needed. Some of the kids make me melt. More than once, I've looked at a few of those in deepest pain and wished I could take them home with me, even though there's no way that's possible. One day last school year an eighth-grade girl slipped up and called me "Mom" in front of the entire World Geography class. We all laughed at it, none louder than me--"Honey, you're so confused," I quipped, to more gales of giggles--but that child was on to something.

And I've always been like this. As a little kid I enjoyed taking care of kids younger than me. When Pie was born, sixteen years ago, my non-existent ovaries practically exploded. I was the babysitter who never needed to be asked. I was endless kisses on a forehead and endless bedtime stories and a face that was always happy to see her. All those hundreds of back massages, never repaid (the rapscallion). I carried her around on my hip, me a boy of sixteen, as I did chores around the house. And only later did I realize how deeply, deeply weird all of that was. Weird, anyway, for a boy of sixteen. But maybe not weird for an older sister.

My obviously maternal disposition has served me well as an educator--and allowed me to cheat, as I'm basically a female undercover in a heavily female field that looks to hire men--but made me feel out of place, too.

Why are you like this? I've wondered. What kind of man are you? What must everyone think?

And I wished I was a woman standing up there, soft curves wrapped in a cashmere sweater, makeup helping my hazel eyes pop, silver earrings dangling against easy blonde waves, because so much of who I am would just make a lot more sense if that were the case. My manner with men, too, is an odd thing: always respectful, always professional, but light and with a hint of flirtation. It's the kind of thing that would be catching in a pretty young woman. It doesn't quite have the same effect when I do it.

"Can you describe Morningstar to me?" my therapist asked. "What is she like?"

I thought about it.

"She's strong," I answered. "She's sure of herself. She's funny. She's intelligent. She has kind of a black humor because she's been through some shit, but she's come out on the other side. She's flirtatious. She knows how to have a good time." I paused. "She can take anything that gets thrown at her. She knows who she is."

"Well, BB," Gender Therapist responded. "Have you not just described yourself?"

Have I? This must be why she gets paid the big bucks, because that is an absolutely fantastic question. Has there been another BB in here all along? Has Badass Bitch just been waiting to escape?

"Maybe Morningstar wants to step out," Gender Therapist suggested. "Maybe BB has been protecting her. Or maybe this is all a fantasy that you need to put away so you can be a wonderful, kind gay man. But I think that if you let Morningstar out, she may not want to go back in."

Somewhere in my heart that feels true. The idea of Morningstar being out here, where the whole world can see her, where colleagues and friends and strangers and children and men can see her, is almost intoxicating. If I'm being honest about it, part of the reason I've had so much trouble finding a husband is because I've always wanted to be a wife.

But there's a lot of complexity between here and there, you know? I'm not sure how to take that first step.