A Needful Thing

by Elizabeth Bradfield

When I moved to Anchorage in 2001 to start graduate school, I was excited. I had only applied to programs in Alaska. Both my partner and I had worked on seasonal boats in Southeast Alaska and loved it, from muskeg to brown bears to glaciers to nudibranchs to purse seiners, and we wanted to see what living year-round in Alaska might be like.  

We were also ready for a change from our lives in Provincetown, on Cape Cod. We had reached the moment that many people in small communities do:  we wanted to do things that town didn’t seem to have a place for. We had grown frustrated, cramped. So: Alaska.

I clearly remember the headline of the Anchorage Press the day we arrived:  “Queer on the Last Frontier.” Pink lettering. Bold. Queer in the headlines! We were so glad to see it! But, upon reading, the gist was, “That’s fine, but be quiet about it.” I’ll admit, we were dismayed.  

Living in Anchorage, we found community and friends. We volunteered for Identity, which still provides a safe space for LGBTIQ+ people and their allies. We also met a lot of people who were afraid to be out at work or in their neighborhoods.  

In our cul-de-sac, local kids would walk by the house coughing “lesbians” into their hands. Friendly folks on walks would look at us with very puzzled expressions, trying to figure out what we were…. to each other, in the world. Sisters? Cousins? We would laugh, but I have to admit, it also got a little tiring. And there are darker stories. Nothing that resulted in physical harm, but darker stories.

There was so much that we loved about living in Alaska. The Chugach’s wilds just beckoning, aspen yellowing down the slopes, black spruce, grouse, beaver dams. We saw Peggy Shaw at Out North Theater and Margaret Cho downtown. And we met people we loved, too. People, gay and straight, who are still dear friends.  

But in moving to Anchorage from Provincetown we went, socially, back to a more conservative and repressive atmosphere, and that wasn’t easy. We got tired. (Side note: while the homophobia was worse, in many ways the sexism was better—gender roles were not as traditionally defined.) When jobs and opportunities out of state came along, we left. I’m not saying that we wouldn’t have if the queer politics been different – we missed friends and the community we’d built – but the homophobia made it easier to leave.

Now, when I return each summer to teach in the UAA Creative Writing MFA Program, the tenor of downtown has changed. It feels queerer than it did when I moved away in 2007. And there’s this anthology, Building Fires in the Snow. This “beautiful, needful thing” as Robert Hayden said.  

I read the names in the table of contents with such hope: such a range of voices out and visible and tied to this state that has such a complicated history and relationship to independence and freedom. I’m honored to be included. I wish it had existed when I first came. I hope it welcomes those who have felt othered, silenced, estranged.