Debbie's Haircut
ⓒ christina starr
Xtra! November 1, 2001
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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 the other.
          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 they can.
          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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Of course everybody knows that boys have hair like that and girls don't.