I’m From Kotzebue, AK.

by tirrell thomas

The rocks flew alongside forced laughter.

“You can’t hit me.” It was a declaration and prayer.

What began as a daily “game” during recess sometimes got scary. I would stand on one side of the haphazard concrete area that was also known as the basketball court and a group of my “friends” would stand on the other side holding rocks, but only for a little bit. It was imperative for me to dodge flung rocks and hurtful slurs with laughter and jeering. If I slipped up and was hit it was my fault. What other choice was there but to brush it off? It builds character, builds a thick skin—builds that wall that you need to survive in a rural town in the Arctic. It wasn’t like I could run away either, unless my goal was the other side of town. There are no roads in or out of Kotzebue. The only ways in or out are jets and planes, which sometimes couldn’t land due to weather and boats in the summer or snow machines in the winter. Isolation at it’s finest.

But it was fun. I had fun. I had a lot of fun. I played a lot of… games… growing up. When I wasn’t dodging rocks, I was racing friends home. The objective: not to get caught. It was turned into an adult version of tag, with more extreme consequences. So you might see me running on dusty roads, laughing, hanging on to the only element I had control over, my delusions. Outrunning my pursuers, I was hyped up on adrenaline, the sugar from the soda I just drank and a dash of fear. Those were the spurs and I had foam in my mouth, which was smiling.

And when it wasn’t a physical battle there were verbal matches of slurs and insults. That’s where my book smarts rescued me. I made it hard for those calling me “fag” or “nigger” to continue insulting me when I was throwing words they hadn’t even heard of into their ears. Because on top of hanging out with too many girls, not wanting to hunt and fish with the guys, and the plain fact that I liked guys, I was not full Inupiaq Eskimo. Or even half, so most people felt the need to remind me that I didn’t look like them. I wasn’t physically strong enough to stand up against them, so I used my words, and not my best ones to fight back. It wasn’t noble, it wasn’t brave, but it was all I had at the time. So I used the looks of confusion I received as leeway to scurry home while they scratched their stone heads. My verbal prowess reached the point to where my cousin was like a boxing manager for me, a really bad one. He would bring me over to a group of people who had been talking bad about me, he’d then tell me what they said and then just step back to watch and laugh while I raged. I was just that good.

After, I’d trudge home from school, down the one paved road to the three-story, egg yolk-yellow apartment building I lived in, spent. Mentally exhausted. I’d then continue trudging down the hallway, go into my room, pick up a book and reenter the comforting world of my delusions.

Everything will be better tomorrow. It was promised.


  1. I hope you’re out of there now. It’s hard when all you have is your mouth and superior vocabulary to defend yourself, eventually they hold that against you too.

  2. I used to live in Kotz and only wish I had known you and been able to help you somehow. I knew a couple of closeted guys there who turned to alcohol to soothe their pain and I often wonder if they are OK. Everytime I hear of another suicide in the region I worry about them. Just know that there are many people, even in Kotz, who would stand by your side and could care less whether you’re gay, straight, trans, etc. People are people.

  3. It takes a lot of courage to come out Tirrell. I am sorry you had to deal with such bullying. Have things gotten better for you now? I remember you from MEHS- I was in the closet too at the time (only as a teacher). There were many students struggling with their sexuality~ and I longed to reach out and tell them that I too understood. I believe they now have a support group for lgbt kids and I am grateful for that.

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