Hiking and Trans Visibility

Planning an Appalachian Trail thru-hike is incredibly complicated for anyone. Throughout the course of my planning, I discovered that my transness makes it much more complicated, and I haven’t even started yet. Today is Transgender Day of Visibility, which feels like the right time to discuss it.

Visibility can be a double-edged sword for transgender people. On the one hand, visibility helps us find community and fight for rights, recognition, and fair treatment. But on the other hand visibility can also lead to violence and discrimination, especially for trans people who don’t always “pass” as cisgender (which basically means not transgender). Visibility is different for each trans person, and we all have different relationships to it. Most of the time I prefer to be as open as possible, but sometimes, like at my old job, I choose to keep it to myself.

I don’t identify as a man or a woman, and I use they/them/theirs pronouns instead of the more typical he/him/his or she/her/hers. I also identify as “butch”, which is a term that has a lot of meanings but is most widely associated with people who aren’t men but present in a very masculine way. My appearance can make things tricky in everyday life because I don’t have any way to mask my queerness when I’m in an unsafe or uncomfortable situation. Being nonbinary, I also have to choose in every situation whether to disclose my transness and ask that people use the right pronouns for me, or put up with being called the wrong pronouns and having people refer to me as a woman (or sometimes a man) – which doesn’t feel good.

One big question I haven’t answered for myself yet is about whether or not I’ll be out as trans on the trail. I know that if I’m not out I’ll probably avoid talking to other hikers because of how uncomfortable being referred to as a woman makes me feel. This is always complicated when meeting new people, and I usually don’t want to be friends with someone unless I can trust that they’ll respect who I am and treat me accordingly. Therefore, by not being out I would lose a lot of possible connections as well as opportunities for teaching moments with people who don’t know about transness but are open to learning.

On the other hand, if I’m out I open myself up to a barrage of uncomfortable questions and no guarantee that anyone will actually be respectful of my identity even if they know. I know that the trail will be mostly straight people and almost entirely cisgender people, so my hopes aren’t high. By outing myself I could also open myself up to even more homophobic and transphobic violence than my appearance already invites. I know that the trail isn’t particularly dangerous for queers any more, but I am very conscious that there is a history of issues for queer hikers and I’d rather that not be me.

Right now I’m leaning towards waiting until I get a better feel for the trail environment to make that call. Most likely I’ll wind up feeling out each person on the trail to see how safe and considerate they seem and then decide whether or not to disclose and how based on that. Honestly, I’m feeling exhausted already just thinking about it but I’m not going to let that deter me.

Being trans has also made picking out gear a lot more complicated. I have what most gear companies would call a “woman’s” body, but I rarely wear women’s anything. The colors, cuts, and styles make me feel uncomfortable and dysphoric, which basically means intense discomfort specifically with how my gender relates to my body. I was concerned about finding gear that fit my body in a functional way while also not causing me intense gender discomfort. I was was very afraid of trying to figure out how to communicate all of this to some unsuspecting soul at a gear shop trying to outfit me for my hike.

I was able to buy most things online thus saving myself from judgement for picking primarily menswear. I chose menswear even though some of the fits might be slightly off because I know that that’s what I need to be comfortable. The internet saved me a lot of trouble, but some things I needed to buy in store. Thankfully, I have a friend who’s trans and works at the REI store in Long Island. I let her know the fears that I had, and she graciously offered to take me to her store with her to help me pick out my pack and boots. I wound up having to get a women’s pack, but the most comfortable one happened to come in an unassuming gray that I’m happy with. When it came to boots I got extremely lucky because my feet are too big for women’s boots and I had to get men’s boots, which was what I wanted, without even having to ask for it.

My most recent meltdown was over bras. I have a lot of dysphoria around my chest, and I deal with it by strapping my chest down as tightly as possible and trying to pretend that it’s not there. Since using a full on binder can be really rough on your back, I often use a beautiful binder-sports bra combination by Underworks that gives me good compression but hurts my back way less. My initial plan was to hike in one of those because they seemed like they would give me the gender comfort that I needed without too much pain.

The meltdown came when I realized that my combination binder-bra was mostly cotton, which is a big no-no for hiking because it dries slowly and doesn’t insulate when it’s wet. I needed to buy a new sports bra. But instead of just picking out one that looks okay, uses the right material, and provides enough support like cis women would be able to, I had to also look at compression and colors and  and style to consider how each bra would make me feel from a gender standpoint and then balance that with the comfort and utility of the actual bra. Basically I had to figure out how to balance gender dysphoria with athletic discomfort, and hopefully I wound up making the right choice.

To be honest, I’m really nervous about being trans on the Trail. But at the same time, I don’t want to let being trans keep me from accomplishing something that I’ve been dreaming about for so long, and I’m tired of letting being trans keep me out of the woods and mountains that I love. So I’m going to continue figuring it out as I go, and I’ll deal with any issues as they come up. On this Trans Visibility Day, I encourage everyone reading this to consider the variety of struggles that trans people face, particularly with intersections like race and class, and how that complicates everything we want to do.

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