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A Coming Out Story: “Out In Alaska”

The Everyday Gay proudly share’s Aaron Stielstra’s tale of coming out in Alaska.

Answering the question of where I grew up used to be a simple and succinct matter.  I would always reply with the same sixteen words:

“I grew up in Wasilla, Alaska.  It’s small town about forty-five miles north of Anchorage.”

At this point in the conversation I would form the shape of the 49th state with my right hand and indicate where Wasilla could be found.

Wow.  That must have been cold,” was most often the reply.  Indeed.

I began to dread questions about my upbringing approximately ten seconds after the GOP announced its candidate for the vice presidency in 2008.  I declined offers to discuss the Palins then, and I won’t be beating a dead horse (or moose) now.  The relevant point is that the nomination announcement put my tiny hometown on the global map and revealing where I spent my formative years became an exercise in interrogative torture.

I grew up in a Wasilla that was more than a decade prior to pit bulls wearing lipstick and I can say, with unwavering certainty, that I was never able to spot Russia from my house.  The reality of the last frontier is that you can’t spot anything from it—except more Alaska.  Allow me to save you a Google search: The state is vast (well over twice the size of Texas) with a modest population (less than 700,000 residents) and a coastline that exceeds that of every other state combined. It’s just Alaska as far as the eye can see, and if you don’t want to, you won’t run into a single other soul.  Wildlife, however, you’ll run into plenty.

In my family, there was no shortage of exposure to the Alaskan wild or the life contained in it.  My father was, and forever will be, a talented frontiersman and subsistence hunter. From a young age I was taught how to hunt; I was six when I shot my first snowshoe hare. Harvesting the Alaskan land is what provided meat for our family table: moose, caribou, black tail deer, buffalo, mountain goat, ptarmigan, and snowshoe hare. Learning gun safety, respect for the land, and outdoor survival were just part of growing up in Alaska. These skills and this lifestyle were so intrinsic to my childhood that it never occurred to me other families might be different.

Of course, we Alaskans don’t stop with just hunting; fishing was also an activity that involved the whole family. (I highly recommend river fishing for salmon, but I cannot recommend ice fishing. Ice fishing goes a little something like this: auger hole through ice, drop line through hole in ice, watch hole in ice for something to happen, go home when all appendages are numb and nothing has happened.)

Occasionally, I encounter skepticism, even opposition, when I mention growing up in a family that hunts and fishes.  I always counter the poor-defenseless-tortured-animals speech with a curt, “Do you eat meat?”  I have yet to encounter a single vegetarian and/or animal rights activist when confronted with the bleeding heart sentiment that hunting should be prohibited. There are some that cling to a sadly misguided notion that if it’s wrapped up in cellophane, or frozen in a box, and purchased at Jewel that it didn’t involve an animal.

I am compelled to point out that any animal sacrificed for the benefit of my family was done so legally, respectfully, and humanely.  I challenge anyone to honestly say the same about the cow that is now sitting in a case at Dominick’s in the form of ground beef.

One moment, please, while I stash my soapbox.

Hunting was an enormous part of my childhood, but when I began to enter my teens I showed a distinct preference for community theater as a way to occupy my time.  So, while my brothers continued to provide us with food, I began to provide us with art.  (Don’t criticize. It was the closest thing to “art” that I had ready access to and, I’ll have you know, my performance as Towns-Boy-Number-Two-With-Trombone in the local production of “The Music Man” received acclaim and accolades from all of my friends that were also in the show.)

There were always signs, from an extremely young age I’ve been told, that I had leanings toward same-sex orientation. In the third grade, for instance, I waited until my mother’s back was turned and poached all of the Estee Lauder cosmetics she had just discarded in the trash. I brought these items to school the next day and provided glamorous makeovers for the young ladies of Cottonwood Creek Elementary. This was not solely a deed done for the greater good. I was more than happy to provide my unrivaled creative services as soon as my miniature client had relinquished her lunch money. Strangely, I was surprised when this entrepreneurship landed me in the principal’s office.

I am very fortunate that all of my interests were encouraged and even more fortunate that my mother’s aim for a smokin’ deal at Nordstrom was just as accurate as her aim for a kill shot at a buffalo. Shopping was something mom helped me cultivate into an art form.

My maternal grandmother also fixed largely into my early-acquired penchant for fashion and the finer things. From the age of four, Grandma would load me into her Monte Carlo on a Saturday morning and drive the two of us into Anchorage. We would have a leisurely breakfast at the Sheraton hotel and then spend the rest of our day browsing and purchasing. She still loves to tell anyone who will listen how I would rush up to a particular outfit and declare, “Oh, Grandma! It’s just my size!” Sure, it’s funny.  I was the only seven-year-old on a first name basis with half of the sales staff at the Anchorage Nordstrom, but that store continued to be a very important place of gay refuge for me until I eventually left Alaska behind.

Nordstrom even figures into how I came out to my mother when I was eighteen. It was a gorgeous, snowy, sleepy morning in Wasilla, and we left our home to go Christmas shopping.  Everything felt just it should be.  I pulled the car over to the side of the road and, after many tears and much stalling, blurted out, “I’M GAY.”

Mom’s response was, “Okaaay.  Are we still going shopping?”

I completely understood. If we didn’t get to Nordstrom upon opening, all of the good sale items would be picked over by the time we arrived.

Wasilla has its charms. (It is the official start of the Iditarod, for crying out loud!) However, it would be hypocritical of me to engage in a to-the-death defense of sweet, innocent Wasilla, Alaska. The truth of the matter is that I couldn’t wait to get out. I needed to get out. Out of town, out of the state, but most importantly, out of the closet.

In my early teens I knew of three gay people: Pedro Zamora and Sean Sasser, and that scary lady that owned that one gas station on Tudor Road.

Alaska has an extremely low population, is extremely isolated, and is a land of harsh extremes regarding anything from the weather to the amount of daylight it gets at any point in the year. These factors aren’t welcoming to a diverse group of people and, because I began realizing I was the diversity, I was chomping at the bit to get out.  When I did, I swore that I would never go back.

I escaped at nineteen. After seven years of working as a model turned model scout turned makeup artist (at times, all three) I had been to every state in the union at least twice. I had lived in Utah, Hawaii, California, and Illinois. I had seen parts of Canada, Puerto Rico, and Mexico.  I finally began to see – no, I began to appreciate – what an amazing place Alaska really is.

Since that proverbial light bulb came on I have continued to travel all over the world and I have yet to find a place like Alaska. I don’t say that to diminish how spectacular other places are and I certainly don’t say it to suggest that one place is better than another.  I say it only to stress that Alaska is different.

Suspend what you know about Alaska’s politics and think purely on a social level for a moment: In September of 2008, when asked about growing up in Wasilla, I told The Advocate that, “I have never, ever had a problem being openly gay in that town.” While that statement is unequivocally true, it also extends to the state of Alaska as a whole. I have experienced blatant homophobia here, in Chicago, in Lakeview. I have experienced homophobia in Los Angeles, in West Hollywood.  I have yet to experience the cold shoulder of a fellow Alaskan that dared judge me for my sexual orientation.

I return to Alaska at least once a year. I do Alaskan things like snowmachining (never “snowmobiling” to an Alaskan, that’s how they spot you outsiders) or salmon fishing, depending upon the time of year. It’s always stunning. Each trip back reminds me how much I love it up there, how Alaskan I am and always will be, but also how much I love living in Chicago. I have found that here, at least, I’ve never been sent to the principal’s office for the alleged crime of makeup artistry.

Last year, I walked into my buddy Klay’s garage where he and his friend Ray were butchering a caribou. They declined my offer to help, saying that they had it all under control, and I perched on the step to watch in the event they reconsidered.

Klay and Ray (both ex-military and both a zero on the Kinsey scale) began having a friendly chat about me as though I had stepped out of the room.  It concluded with Klay saying, “He’s the only guy I know that can butcher a moose and paint a bride’s makeup in the same day, and I’ve seen him do a kick-ass job at both.”

Ray pointed his knife, instead of his index finger, at Klay, jerked his head my direction, and gravely replied, “That’s an Alaskan GAY, right there.”


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