In the spring of this year I spent two
weeks in the nearly-high arctic, just south of the northern underbelly of
Baffin Island. Hall Beach (Sanirajak in Innuktituk) is some 600 total
inhabitants and, in the frozen flat tundra zillions of miles from any tree, you
can survey the full extent of civilization by looking from one end of town to
While the community is friendly and
welcoming, especially to a stranger, the frozen climate doesn't lend itself to
accidental socializing. Most people spend most of their time inside, and I was
no stranger to that.
But after one too many evenings of solitary
TV, I venture out of the hotel at 11pm and find some kids thick in the middle
of make-do hockey, right there in the midnight afternoon. Their unfreezable
energy and open invitation is exactly what I need, so with broken sticks and a
plastic red puck, we charge and shoot, hoot, holler and score.
One solid adolescent tells me she's Debbie.
She doesn't feel or look much like a girl and I'm uncertain. They all speak Innuktituk and I speak
English, which makes me keenly aware that they could say or do anything and I
might not have a clue. But there's no reason to think they would, just because
I reassure myself by deciding she's a
budding little dyke, playing hockey like a boy. Then, too warm from all the
running, I push my hood off exposing my short hair. Debbie immediately plucks
her toque off and says, "Look!"
I'm confused. All the girls in Sanirajak
have hair at least to their shoulders but Debbie's is cropped just around her
ears. Unsure of what she's trying to tell me, I resort to my first uncertainty,
doubt my smug little dyke fantasy and accept that I've been fooled.
So I call her "him" a couple of
times. But I quickly realize from the reactions of the other kids that I'm wrong. I
even say, playfully, "Okay, what's really your name?"
"Debbie," she answers.
And so it sinks in that Debbie is Debbie
and gender-bending happens also in Sanirajak. Of course everybody knows boys
have hair like that and girls don't. That's exactly Debbie's point – she's a
girl with short hair, just like me.
As I stand in goal, a teenager walks up and
asks, "Are you a he or she?" I don't hear exactly and he repeats his
question, matter-of-factly, "Are you miss or mister?"
"Miss" I respond. Once we get that clear the conversation proceeds, without
judgment: he likes the Montreal Canadiens better than the Toronto Maple Leafs,
and he's visited Toronto but he wouldn't like to live there.
Then we all go to the community hall dance,
and I get to dance with Debbie. As someone new in town, a minority white person
and even as a minority queer, I'm a spectacle, out of place, an oddball. I have
no choice but to be stared at, and once again I'm uneasy. Am I crossing a line?
Is my presence invading, presuming, insulting?
Apparently not. And having learned my
lesson once that night, I decide I can trust that the kids brought me here
because like me, not because it's a trick to see what would happen if they take
me where I'm not welcome.
I find a sense of belonging in the obvious
enjoyment everybody has in dancing, so I let go and move like I love to. We're
just having fun and getting into the groove when bingo! 12 o'clock arrives – lights
on, time to go.
Back to the hotel, and back down south with
me when I leave, I take many valuable things. Not only the pleasure of new
friends, but also a new appreciation of the need to avoid the easy suspicions
that rise out of insecurity, and of the importance of trust, even where trust
lacks a language.
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