Geo Neptune did not realize they had become the first openly transgender person elected to public office in Maine until well after they’d won a seat on the Indian Township school board in early September.
Neptune, 32, a non-binary, two-spirit artist and educator and member of the Passamaquoddy tribe, was quite surprised. That distinction wasn’t the reason they ran for public office, despite the fact that such achievements run in the family. Their grandmother, Molly Neptune Parker, a nationally celebrated Passamaquoddy artist who died in July at the age of 81, also made history when she became the first female lieutenant governor of Indian Township.
“I ran for public office because I wanted to serve my community,” Neptune said. “Becoming the first trans person elected to public office in the state was just a really wonderful extra. I think my response when they told me was, like, ‘Wait, really?’ It’s 2020. You’d think it would have happened already. It was a big surprise.”
Quinn Gormley, executive director of MaineTransNet, a support and advocacy organization for transgender people in Maine, was the one to call up Neptune and tell them the news shortly after the election. MaineTransNet’s Facebook post about Neptune’s win has received more than 1.75 million views, and the story found its way to People Magazine.
“Someone always has to be first, and I can’t think of someone more deserving than Geo to hold that honor,” Gormley said. “Since sharing the news with our community we’ve been inundated with people who are inspired by Geo, their ability to bring and insist on their whole self in this work, and who have found hope in this good news during otherwise scary times to be trans in this state and this country.”
Though they can now add the title of elected official to their resume, Neptune’s life story includes many other identifiers: basketmaker, activist, drag queen, model, educator, storyteller, tattoo artist, homesteader.
As a child growing up in Indian Township, one of two Passamaquoddy communities in Washington County, Neptune made their first sweetgrass basket at age 5, under the tutelage of Parker, and made their first sale at age 7. (“I made 40 bucks, and it was gone almost as soon as I got it,” Neptune said.) They would travel around the country with Parker and their extended family, and Neptune recalls working the tables at various gatherings and markets around the country, selling Parker’s baskets.
As a kid, Neptune knew early on that they were different from most people. They were drawn to the decorative fancy baskets made by their grandmother, and could not resist the call of neon pinks, luscious purples and ocean blues when it came to choosing the rainbow of colors to use for their work.
In addition to the artistic and cultural traditions learned from their grandmother and the wider Passamaquoddy community, Neptune would get lost in the pop culture of the day, from the constantly changing aesthetics of both Janet and Michael Jackson, to the colorful personalities of the Spice Girls, to the aquatic fantasy of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.”
“I was a shy, quiet kid. I was queer and weird,” Neptune said. “It took me a while to embrace that in my art. I had to stop editing and release my creativity into it.”
Their work is often festooned with spiritually and culturally significant birds and flowers, as well as the berries and acorns beloved by their grandmother. A basket called “Ceremony of the Singing Stars,” rainbow-patterned and adorned with a chickadee, was created to honor the victims of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando and won an award at the Santa Fe Indian Market. “Apikcilu Binds the Sun,” another award-winning basket, tells the story of Apikcilu, an animal who was punished for imprisoning the sun, a tale that is part of the Wabanaki oral tradition.
It wasn’t until Neptune was in high school that they understood that they were two-spirit. Two-spirit is a gender identity present in Indigenous cultures all over the world — not just those in North America, but in Asian and Pacific Indigenous cultures as well — though each culture’s understanding of what it means is a little different. As Neptune explains, the phrase “two-spirit” is an umbrella term for several intersectional roles and identities.
“It’s both male and female, and it is neither,” said Neptune. “It’s a specific Indigenous intersectional role, and that intersectionality encompasses gender identity, sexual orientation, our spiritual roles within the community, and greater gender roles within society. At the intersection of all four of those areas, that’s where two-spirit resides.”
Neptune embraces multiple ways of expressing themselves — through their basketmaking and through drag. Neptune has performed as a drag queen since their first year at Dartmouth College, and in addition to performing at live shows pre-pandemic, they have been doing a number of online performances since the pandemic began.
“I’m moderately TikTok famous,” Neptune said.
They also walk the runway at Indigenous fashion shows around the country. At the haute couture fashion show at the 2019 Santa Fe Indian Market, the largest Native American art show in the world, Neptune modeled for Penobscot Nation designers Decontie & Brown. Photos from the show ended up in Vogue Magazine.
Today, Neptune lives in a cabin on a lake in Indian Township, tending a garden and raising ducks and chickens, and working for Wabanaki Public Health as a youth engagement and prevention coordinator. They have also been working on mastering another art form: traditional stick and poke tattooing. Neptune recently received a tattoo kit from a Maori artist who had traveled from New Zealand to visit the Wabanaki retreat Nibezun in Passadumkeag, and has been tattooing members of the tribe for the past year or so.
As a school board member, Neptune plans to work to ensure that Passamaquoddy language and culture are integral parts of the school curriculum. Their four-year term begins on Oct. 1.
“Our culture should be front and center, rather than something supplementary,” they said.
“It’s not something that should be considered extra, or a reward for doing well in the rest of the school system. It should be treated with the same respect and equal to the rest of the curriculum.”
After winning the election, in which they received the most votes out of all those running, Neptune received mostly positive comments as word of their election spread through the state and the country. But Neptune did receive a number of negative, hateful comments from outside the Indian Township community, demeaning their trans, two-spirit identity. Neptune said that members of their community were shocked to hear such cruel language, and they had to explain to people that comments like those are par for the course for most trans people.
“Trans people have to live with this kind of language and behavior every day. My community was just seeing it now,” Neptune said. “I feel very lucky that I live in a place where my community accepts me, because a lot of trans people don’t have that. It definitely put things in perspective for people. I had no idea running for school board was going to cause such a ruckus.”