When I was ten years old, I read A Walk in the Woodsand decided I would thru-hike the entire Appalachian Trailone day. I put that dream on holdas a teenagerwhen I learned about the 1996 murder of a lesbian couple in Shenandoah National Park, an hour from where I grew up in Virginia. It made me feel that being LGBTQ in the outdoors put me at riskespecially as a very visible LGBTQ person.
After a while, I returned to my dream.I didnt want to let my fear win.On September 12, 2019, I completed a northbound thru-hike ofthe AT.Im infinitely grateful I didnt let myself give up. But being LGBTQmade my time on the trail harder.
I am nonbinary and transgender, which for me means Im not a man or a woman, and prefer that others use the pronouns they, them, and theirs when referring to me.I am also queer, which in my casemeans being attracted towomen and other nonbinary peoplebut not men. I present as butch and am usually perceived as a lesbian. My specific identity has very much shaped mylife.
My thru-hiking experience was different from that of cisgenderhikers,even before I hit the trail. It started with selecting my gear: I wear mens clothing, but I dont have whats generallyassumed to bemans body. While prepping for my hike,I had to choose between gear that made me feel comfortable and gear that fit my body best.I was terrified about heaping my concerns on some unsuspecting REI employee who wouldnt necessarily know how to respond. Ultimately, I bought mostly mens gear and clothing online and asked a friend who works at REI to help me pick out everything else.
I have genderdysphoria, so my body doesnt match mygender identity and that gives me intense discomfort. Usually I wear a binder, which straps my chest down and helpstoease those feelings, but I couldnt do that while hiking because binders canhurt your back. My hair can also be a source of dysphoria for me, so I usually keep it very short; several times on the AT, I found myself stressed about where I might next find a barber (particularly one that wouldnt turn me away for not being a man) so my outward presentation would match my identity as much as possible. I had to accept that there would be days on the trail when mydysphoria would ariseand make me miserableand to keep hiking through them.
There were still other challenges: throughout my hike, I sensed discomfort from others, although no one said anything outright homophobic to me.The most common way that it manifestedwasa shocked, terrified, or uneasy look that many people hadwhen I talked about anything LGBTQ related, or when I referenced myself as being LGBTQ.As all thru-hikers know, the trail can get very lonely. We rely on other hikers to be supportive and welcoming to relieve our isolation.When youre out in the woods with no cell service, it really helps to have people around to ground you and make you feel less alone. But when you can tell that other hikers are uncomfortable with you, the trail feels even lonelier.
Having a nonnormative gender identity and preferring the use of nonstandard pronounsmeans that I am often misgendered by people who have just met me. This posed a special on-trail challenge: the AT is a very social environment, yet people fade in and out of your bubble frequently. With each new person I met, I needed to decide whether or not to tell them who I was.
I usually based my decision on whether I thought they would be supportiveand whether I thought I would see them again. Unfortunately, many of the people I decided to tell didnt make an effort to respect my identity: around half of thoseI came out to initially seemed supportive, but then they didnt follow up by usingcorrect pronouns or language. (Its easy to tell the difference between someone who is doing their bestand messes up sometimesand someone whos not making an effort.)But other people did try. One wonderful buddy I hiked with from Georgia through Pennsylvania had never heard ofnonbinary identity before she met me, but she worked harder than anyone Id ever met to get it right. She was proof that anyone can understand if they care to.
The trail also brought me a lot of joy, especially when I had the opportunity to bond with other queer hikers. A few times, I reached a campsiteor a lunch spotwith only other LGBTQ people, and it felt like everyonerelaxed a little bit. Those rare instances gave us the chance to talk about our lives and our thru-hiking experience without fear of making anyone uncomfortable or having to explain ourselves. It reminded me that although getting to simply exist outdoors is beneficial for everyone, it can be especially important for LGBTQ people. It can be healing for us to just be in the woods,away from painful societal constraints. The wildlife doesnt care what your gender isor who you love. In daily life, we experience constant stress about how were perceived and how well be treated. Many of us cant enter a gender-divided bathroom withouttrepidation. In the woods, of course, you can pee wherever you want.
The Appalachian Trailand all trailsshould ideally feelsupportiveand social for everyone.To that end, I hope that the outdoors community engages in education and difficult conversations about how to better include LGBTQ people on trails. Thats true for individuals as well as bigger outdoor organizations.If you want to be a better ally in the outdoors, I encourage you to take some time to research LGBTQ identities as well as issues faced by other marginalized groups. Dont make assumptions about your fellow outdoorspeople. Ask them about themselves, and be willing to listen. Be sensitive to challenges others might face that you dont. If we can teach ourselves to be welcoming and accepting on the trail, thats a step toward being better to each other in everyday life.