The best and worst part of growing up in a small town is running into people you know.
Those who have stayed connected via social media over the years can see past my changed outward appearance and others squint, trying to figure out why I seem familiar. I am normally filled with anxious anticipation of these run-ins, but yesterday I walked through the streets of Carbondale amid the Covid season, my first time back home in more than three years. As I strolled past colorful pride flags along the sidewalk I felt peace. I knew I still belonged to this beautiful town, nestled in the protective shadow of Sopris, in spite of how I have changed.
My love affair with Carbondale started 30 years ago, when I was brought home from the hospital. I can’t imagine a more picturesque childhood. I have fond memories of riding my bike to get around town, relishing weekend breakfasts at the Smithy, dressed in a ‘70s marching band uniform in the Potato Days Parade, listening to live music while noshing on a juicy turkey leg at Mountain Fair and so much more.
This beautiful little town has always been filled with good people who watched out for one another. I knew to stay out of trouble (or at least not get caught) because someone was sure to report back to my parents. This healthy balance of fear and accountability helped me to become a person of integrity.
I was labeled female at birth and accepted as a “tomboy” without backlash. I thrived on sports and outdoor adventures. It never felt right when people tried to push me into traditionally female activities, dress, or mannerisms, but I also didn’t realize why it didn’t fit for me.
I was raised in a gender binary world, determined by biological sex and didn’t know any different or have the words to explain what I was going through. Maybe I did, but there was an unconscious stigma or fear if I said it out loud.
My adventurous spirit drove me to explore more of the world. Carbondale was such a wonderful place and I wanted to find other places like that. I followed my education and heart to Oregon for college and starting over in a new place allowed me a fresh start to discover myself without the social pressure of who I was raised to be.
Greatly inspired by my teachers at Carbondale Elementary, Crystal River Elementary, Carbondale Middle School and Roaring Fork High School, I decided to pursue a career in education. College introduced me to a wider variety of people and ideas than I had experienced before.
While I had a couple of high school boyfriends, wore a dress when I was crowned prom queen and tried the heteronormative relationships that were expected of me, I found that I didn’t have to continue that pattern in my new home. I came out as a lesbian to my family and friends towards the end of my freshman year. Coming home that summer, I was met with love and acceptance throughout my family and community, with few exceptions. While I personally was greeted positively, the traditional gender and sexuality binary norms of the community had not seemed to change much.
College years passed quickly with lacrosse, classes, internships and social functions. My trips back home became less frequent and I continued to explore my identity. My style became more masculine and my haircuts were short and androgynous. This was acceptable in the lesbian community, but something still didn’t feel quite right.
I was a teacher by then, and every time I heard Ms. or Ma’am I cringed. It wasn’t until May of 2017 that I figured out the missing piece. I was filled with worry and self-doubt when I picked up the phone to call home and reveal my true self. I am a man.
My middle school students call me Mr. Jewkes. I stand tall in front of my classroom teaching social studies and Spanish. I advocate for the queer community and the right for everyone to live as their authentic selves without fear.
Although I knew my family would continue to be there for me, I also prepared to face the onslaught of unfriending on social media and general rejection from my communities, both in Oregon and back home. I learned quickly what it means to be unconditionally loved and accepted and while I lost a few people, I gained so much more in my strength and confidence.
There has always been a part of me that feels guilty for all that I have put my family through. I know they have fielded well-intentioned questions and angry ignorance and hate on my behalf.
As the world is constantly shifting and changing, it is so important that the dialogue continues. We must foster this sense of community that lifts one another up, for everyone. Even in small towns, people can feel alone, afraid and rejected for who they are. Carbondale can lead the way. Continue big and little demonstrations of learning together and acceptance for all. This has been a slow shift, but being home this time is different. I have changed for the better, and Carbondale is changing too.
I am proud to be me and I am proud to call Carbondale home.