Sunday, December 6, 2015

High School Reunion

WARNING: This essay contains information about a suicide attempt which may be triggering to some.
Out-of-blue a few weeks ago I received a message on Facebook from a high school classmate from thirty years ago.  She was on the reunion committee and had a question about nametags for our upcoming 30th reunion. She asked if it would be okay if they used my high school graduation picture from the yearbook, like they do for most reunion attendees, or would I prefer something more recent that reflects who I am now. I was touched by her kindness and sensitivity.  It may not seem like a big deal to many, but to me, a transgender person, it meant the world.  I thanked her for inquiring, and asked, “Can I think about it?”
So last Friday I went to my 30th high school reunion. This wasn’t the first reunion I had been to; in fact I think I’ve attended all the others leading up to last week’s, but it was the first time attending openly as a woman. 

Football Captains Then
Thirty-one years ago, during the fall of my senior year, I played my last football game.  It was the Thanksgiving Day meeting between Brookline and Newton North, a tradition that dates back to 1894, one of the oldest rivalries in Massachusetts.  I was the starting running back and captain of the home team, the Newton North Tigers. I finished the game with more than a hundred yards rushing, receiving, and returning kicks and punts. In the end, we won 14-7; it was only our third victory of the season.

Seven months later I made a short speech as Senior Class President at our gradation before a downpour forced the ceremony to be cut short. I was tossed my diploma by my headmaster in the auditorium and ran home through the rain to my waiting family. The celebration included family friends, our large extended family, and my maternal grandparents who had traveled from Canada for the occasion.  Two months later I started college in upstate New York. 

I found returning home after my first year away at school to be difficult.  At college, I began to find myself.  Secretly, I continued to be the girl I knew I was on the inside, and continued to dress like a woman alone in my room and on occasion walk around neighborhood late at night, like I had been doing for years back home. I also began to experiment romantically and sexually with men for the first time, and while that was liberating, it was also confusing, because I did so under the guise of being a man. Home for the summer, I got a job at Filene’s in Downtown Boston. It helped to be in a more urban setting, with a few gay co-workers and the ability to shop at stores where I could buy women’s clothes without being hassled, but it wasn’t enough.

The tension between my home life, family, and Catholicism and the internal struggle to be me, a woman, only increased. One night, after driving around the city dressed up as Gia and listening to Madonna on the cassette player in my parents’ Toyota, I found myself in the woods no more than a half-mile from my house. My sadness and confusion had reached the breaking point. I believed then that there was no hope of ever becoming a woman full time, and that doing so would only bring shame and embarrassment to my family.  So, wearing a red dress and black high heel boots, I walked through the dark woods confused and slightly blinded by my tears. I took the belt off from my around my waist and made a noose, then tied the other end to a branch.  I slipped my head through the loop and stepped off the stump below, believing this was my way out.  I awoke lying on the ground sometime later with the belt still tight around my neck. Did the branch break?  Did the knot come loose? I don’t know.  But I was still breathing. 

Five years ago, at my 25th reunion, I was still living outwardly as man. But just a few weeks later I began my transition and my life my changed forever.  In the years between reunions, my marriage dissolved into divorce, my career as a high school teacher and coach ended abruptly, and I became unemployed for two of those five years. On the flip side, I am finally living authentically as a proud bisexual, transgender woman. I consider myself very fortunate. My family, who I had doubted years ago, has stood by me, and I feel loved as their sister, daughter, aunt, and niece. I have a great new job, many new friends, especially in the trans community, and I’ve even become best friends with my ex. 

In the lead-up to last week’s reunion, I’ve started getting anxious.  I was both excited to see many friends from my past and reconnect, but worried about how people may respond to their transgender classmate, who was once football and track and field captain, class president, and yes, Captain Fun on Halloween.

Also last week, a close friend from high school, reached out to ask if I’d like to join her and a group of girls and attend the reunion together. YES! was my immediate reply. So, there were six of us, three of whom were close friends as athletes and/or party buddies back in the day, and the other two, I had been connected with in more “romantic” ways at some point in junior high or high school.

The day of the reunion arrived and my anxiety got the best of me. It was Friday morning, and I still hadn’t figured out what was going to wear or know what picture was going to be on my nametag. But I did know, there was no turning back; I had made a commitment to others and myself to be there.  I spent most of the day expending a lot of nervous energy cleaning my house, vacuuming, folding laundry, and doing the dishes.  Late in the afternoon I realized I actually needed get ready and on the road so I could be in town by six. It was about two-hour drive from Maine to Newton.

I made it by 5:30 and dropped my bags off at my friends’ house where I would be staying for the weekend.  We had quick drink together before I left to go meet the girls at a local bar, which coincidentally was my neighborhood pharmacy and candy store growing up. It was also where I got in trouble for stealing a Three Musketeers bar in third grade.  My parents weren’t happy with me.

As I arrived at the bar, two of the girls were already there and we immediately got caught up with one another.  Within a few minutes all six of us were gathered around the table having drinks, reminiscing and figuring out our game plan. We decided we would be each other’s “wingwoman” for the night. I think you know what I mean. We also talked about who we really wanted to see and not see, but also who we had crushes on and if they were still cute or hot after thirty years.

We paired up and drove to the reunion at the Marriott on the other end of town. While we each went our own ways, we arrived
The Newton Marriott c. 1970
together at the hotel. We entered the building, and found our event on the lower level. Just as I was about to walk down the stairs I could see 100 or so classmates below, and it suddenly hit me.  Nervous and scared, I hesitated. I hadn’t felt this way in years.  Nearly five years ago, as I was starting my transition, I took similar frightening steps when I went to school as one of first “out” transgender public school teacher in Maine. This felt very close to that experience.

But deep inside I knew I could go though with it, I had done so before on many other occasions, so down the stairs I went. At the check-in table I told the young woman my name. She crossed me off the list, handed me a black and orange rubber bracelet (our school colors, and my name nametag. Next to, “Gia Drew”, was a black and white picture of a Tiger, our mascot, not my high school picture.  Perfect. 

Within moments of entering the crowd, I was separated from my friends, and felt lost. There were some familiar faces, and some I didn’t recognize.  I wondered what people thought, would anyone say hello? A few did, and that helped.  I tried to make my way towards the crowded bar and I noticed one of my girl friends was upfront. She saw me and asked what I wanted. I tried to reply over the noise and I think she was able to read my lips. As I waited, I smiled at familiar face, and said “hi, I’m Gia.” My last name was hidden as my paper nametag was curling shut. Her response was unexpected. She asked if I came with someone, like I was a spouse of a classmate. I was suddenly at a loss for words. I hadn’t prepared for that scenario, and my anxiety quickly returned. Fortunately, my friend handed me my drink, and we walked away quickly away before I had to answer any more questions.

As we entered the ballroom, I passed by some of the guys, my former friends and football buddies. They were the ones I was most nervous of seeing.  They were bigger, balder; a strange shadowy version of themselves removed thirty years from the locker rooms and parties, but who was I to judge, I had changed dramatically too. So I walked by, smiled, waved, and said hi, in my new, more feminine voice, not knowing if they knew who I was. 

In the ballroom, I was forced to confront other classmates.  Like earlier, I recognized them, but they didn’t recognize me.  I said hi to two more,  “I’m Gia”.  They look a little confused; they didn’t remember a Gia from high school. So, I said who I was and told them I used be so-and-so, mentioning my former name, and that I was their class president. It was if their heads exploded.  I could see confusion and fear spinning out of control behind their eyes.  I wished them well and walked away, thinking to myself, this is going to be a long night.

Group Selfie from @Matt_Leblanc
I stopped to look around. People were talking with one another and getting reacquainted. As I nursed my drink, I saw a crowd hovering around a classmate.  TV star, and former junior high friend, Matt LeBlanc had showed up.  I had heard rumors ahead of time he was in town, but I’ve heard that gossip many times before.  It was his first appearance at a reunion since we graduated together more than thirty years earlier. I hadn’t seen him in person since high school; he looked good, even better than on TV.  I actually felt relived knowing he was there. Maybe him being there, he would take some of the pressure off me.

I glanced back to the door and noticed one of the “guys” heading my way. He was the epitome of a high school jock. In fact I think he was awarded outstanding athlete at our rainy graduation.  We had much in common back then, and still do. We both came from large Irish Catholic families, we were both very athletic and competitive, had a sense of humor about life, and expect for the fact he's a half foot taller and weighs nearly 100 pounds more than me, it seemed we were both still somewhat in shape compared to many others.  Anyway, he greeted me and said hi.  He said something about recognizing my bravery and wanted to congratulate me on finding happiness.  At first he reached out his hand to shake mine. I said, “how about a hug?”  And he did.  For the next few minutes, we got caught up on our families and all the other small talk. I thanked him for reaching out. Inside, I realized what he just did was really special and took a lot of courage.

Football Captains Now
It was funny, soon after that brief encounter, others began
approaching and saying hi, and voicing their support, as if everyone was waiting for someone to break the ice.

Halfway, through the event we gathered for a group picture, and I made sure to be seen, wanting proof that I was actually there.  As the night pressed on, I became more relaxed, and a few guys even bought me a drink. That was new, affirming, and I will say, one or two were still really cute. I talked with many more classmates, and heck, I even danced a little, why not.  At one point, a spouse of a classmate approached me. Apparently she had been reading my blog, Girl Afraid, and wanted to say hi and take a picture with me.  While it was a little awkward at first, but I kind of felt like a celebrity for a brief moment.  So this is what’s it like.

Around midnight, the music stopped and the lights became brighter. The girls I had arrived with gathered to talk about leaving. Some
Girl Friends
wanted to continue on, head to a bar or something. I was exhausted and wanted to go to bed. A found a ride with one of the girls who wanted to leave as well.  We rode back across town, getting caught up away from fray. It had been a while since the two of us had been alone together. At one point in junior high we dated, and had stayed friends through high school.  She dropped me off at my car and we hugged and said goodnight.  I think we’ve always quietly trusted one another.  I wonder now, what she would have said had I come out to her back then. I bet she would have been really cool about it all. That’s kind of person she is.

I found my way to my friend’s place and collapsed in their guestroom bed. I’ve stayed with them on many occasions for the past few years, as they live just two blocks from my parents’ house, the home I grew up in.

I slept in the next morning and after a few cups of coffee I went for a walk. It was raining lightly and cool out, but not cold like it can be in late November.  My walk took me through my childhood neighborhood, past friend’s homes and memories of Halloween and trick-or-treating, down streets where I used to deliver the newspapers, across busy Walnut Street where I would spend my merger earnings at Newtonville Pizza, then by the location of my former high school. It had been demolished a few years ago to make way for a new, state of the art building.  I walked by the track and there were a few high school athletes doing a weekend workout in the rain, just like we did so many years before.

I spent much of the rest of the day at my parents’ house, surrounded by family.  My dad was turning 82 and one of my brothers had just turned 50, it was another celebration. One of the most difficult things I’ve had to reconcile since transitioning was my assumption as a teenager that my family and friends wouldn’t have accepted or loved me as a trans person.  And it was those thoughts nearly 30 years ago that played a part in an attempt to kill myselfWas I wrong about them? Would they have been supportive like they are now?  I don’t know, and don’t think I’ll ever know the answer to those questions.  

What I did learn from attending my high school reunion is I don’t need to worry about what people may be thinking about me, it’s how I feel about myself that matters most. Also, I don’t think I’m brave. That’s a difficult word to live up to. I'm just trying to be me.  But I do know, that thirty years ago there were a few classmates and a teacher or two who were true to themselves decades before I decided to embrace my identity, and they faced a far different world than it is today. That's bravery. 

No matter what you're dealing with, The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is there for you. They help everyone.  
1-800-273-TALK (8255)