Sunday, April 13, 2014

Chasing Rainbows

Last night, the warm spring light of the evening mixed with milky clouds towards the horizon in the southwest as I drove from one end of Maine to other.  Pale pinks and yellow grays combined in swirls and the late April sky resembled the surface of Jupiter.  Twelve hours earlier I was racing East from Bangor to Machias along Route 9, known to locals as the Airline, which connects the Queen City to the Canadian boarder and Calais.  Maine Driver’s
Rt. 9 Washington County Maine
Licenses, used to have the phrase, “Where America’s Day Begins” printed along the top edge with the image of a sunrise and a lobster boat.  Now, my license has a Moose standing above a heart indicating I’m an organ honor and the image of Mt Katandin along the top. 
My day began an hour earlier at the Vacationland Motel, in a room where the lock didn’t seem to work all that well.  The night before I told myself that nothing bad would happen, but took precautions anyways, stuffing a towel at the base of the door and wedging the desk chair under the loose handle, hoping these meager steps would allow me a few hours sleep.  Earlier in the day I was presenting at a conference at the University of New Hampshire.  It was the first time this year that I felt the warmth of spring, and my armpits became wet with nervous sweat as I thought about my talk.   I noticed it was 73 degrees on the bank sign as I turned onto a different section of route 9 in Wells, 160 miles away.   Not surprising, I saw a shirtless man raking leaves in his front yard. His dark hair covered his round torso like a black bear and contrasted greatly to his bleached white skin that had been hibernating for the six months of winter that had just ended.

My talk was part of an academic symposium called Transecting Society.  I noticed on the schedule many of speakers were students and academics presenting arguments and papers, which I assumed was part of either the tenure process for some or dissertations for others.  I was doing neither. My talk was titled “When I Grow Up”, it was supposed to be about how I got the job of my dreams and then lost it. And how I became one of the first out transgender public school teachers in Maine and one of first transgender high school coaches in the country.  And while I talked about those issues and forgot about the dark peach patches of sweat in the armpits of my dress shirt, I focused on the reality of what’s at stake for the trans community as a whole.

You see, the night before I had attended a monthly regional GSTA (Gay Straight Transgender Alliance) meeting at Mt. Ararat High School as a board member for GLSEN Southern Maine (Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network).  And as the presenter was talking with the high school students about the many important victories over the past thirty years for LGBT rights in Maine, I was struck by the contrast or chasm between the advances for the LGB community versus the transgender community.  And while the victories have been sweet, like visiting rights in hospitals, adoptions, civil unions, nondiscrimination laws, and same sex marriage, the only exclusive transgender victory was the defeat of a bill that would have kept trans folks from using the bathroom. 

But that’s where we are.  We’re arguing and fighting for our basic human rights. The right to go to the bathroom, the right to walk down the street without the threat of violence, the right to go to school, the right to have a family, the right to have a place to live, the right to have access to health care, and the right to have a job.  So while I lost my dream job as a high school teacher and track and field coach, I’d like to believe my work, now as a social activist, will help others embrace and celebrate their identity and become who they want to be.

So what’s in Machias?  After beginning the day in Bangor and crossing the blueberry plains of Washington County, I attended the Rainbow Ball, at the University of Maine Machias.    It’s an annual event, where hundreds of young LGBT and allies from across the
DownEast Maine
state gather for the weekend each spring. For many, it’s the first time they’ve ever met other people like themselves.  It’s a celebration of diversity and community, but also a call to action, not only to learn how to take care of one another, but how to make progress and create change.  I was there for work and as a guest, meeting people, listening to stories, and asking how I can help, as well as how my organization can make a difference.

On the stage for the morning’s keynote address were Wayne Maines and his daughter Nicole, a transgender student who was denied access to use the girl’s bathroom at her public elementary school.  Because of the school district’s interpretation of the law,
Nicole and Wayne Maines at Rainbow Ball
the family was forced to move hours away to find a community and school that would accept and respect her.  Wayne kept his job in Northern Maine and visited his family on the weekends.  It wasn’t until this January, seven years later, that the Maine Supreme Court finally ruled against the school district’s decision, upholding the rights of Nicole and all transgender students. During the question and answer portion of the talk, a student in the audience asked Nicole what they could do when faced with school officials, teachers and unsupportive parents.  The teenager confidently answered, and I paraphrase, tell them its their job and responsibility, and then hold them accountable for their actions. It  was an inspiring way to start my day. I felt like I was in the presence of real life super heroes.