Out in the wilderness you can be your truest self, right? Actually, it’s not that simple, but as Andy explains, it couldn’t be more important.
Feeling Like an Outsider
As a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, heading into rural areas has always carried a personal level of anxiety. Whether it’s heads turning when holding hands with your boyfriend, or the presumption that you and a female friend are a couple, heading away from urban areas has often left me face-to-face with heteronormativity.
I’m someone who was raised to believe everyone is entitled to the countryside. As a kid growing up in the rural part of the UK, weekends were spent exploring local hills and mountains. The gift of a love for nature passed down by my parents has been carried into my adult life.
I’ve enjoyed several hiking holidays, from the mountains of the Lake District back home, to following the stunning Copland Trail beneath the skyline of the Southern Alps in Aotearoa, where I currently live.
Learning To Embrace My Visibility as a Gay Man
Displaying your queerness in these environments can be intimidating. A lifetime of marginalisation had led me to think that you can’t move through rural landscapes as a visible member of the LGBTQIA+ community. However, I’ve grown emboldened by forging close friendships and relationships with my queer peers. In an environment where to be gay is to be invisible, it’s important to become visible. Be the change you want to see in the world.
It was walking through the rural town of Martinborough in New Zealand that those familiar feelings of anxiety began to take hold once again. Holding hands with my boyfriend, I couldn’t help but glance around to see if anyone was watching us. Most of the time these feelings are internal, there’s nothing to fear but fear itself. But it only takes someone looking at you twice, the odd passer-by giving a quizzical look, to remind you that you’re different, out of the ordinary.
In these moments it’s important to remember that it’s this uniqueness that makes you special, perhaps there’s someone watching on who’s too afraid to welcome their queerness. The sight of a gay couple walking down their street might give them the courage they need to embrace that part of themselves.
Increasing Diversity in the Adventuring Community
I’ve had the pleasure of seeing increasing visibility of LGBTQIA+ folks entering the world of outdoor pursuits. From seeing a member of the trans community sporting a t-shirt emblazoned with the trans pride flag in a remote hut in New Zealand, to a queer friend back home running the Cape Wrath Trail in Scotland. These might all seem like small actions, but they’re contributing to the creation of a space for the LGBTQIA+ community within the sphere of adventuring.
Read more: 5 Ways to be an Ally in The Outdoors
The Problem With Heteronormative Assumptions
I’ve never faced any overt discrimination for being gay within these environments. This doesn’t mean however that there’s no issue present. I spent a lot of time in New Zealand walking trails with my close friend Laila, this resulted in common assumptions that we were a couple.
A result of this is an internal struggle, there’s still a voice inside my head that tells me ‘Just lie and say she is, you don’t know this person, you don’t know how they may react to your queerness.’ But I’ve spent my whole life fighting that voice in pursuit of living as my authentic self. We’re at a point in society now where the majority of people would agree that if someone has an issue with your sexuality, then they are very much in the wrong.
The Difficulty of Coming Out
I’m a widely-read travel writer in New Zealand and my pieces tend to focus on my experience travelling the country as a queer man. I hear many stories from fellow members of the LGBTQIA+ community and have been told stories about uncomfortable conversations when hiking with same-sex partners as incorrect assumptions were made that they were just friends.
Most of these conversations are a result of miscommunication and rarely end in negative reactions from fellow hikers. But the point is that members of the LGBTQIA+ community in these situations are made to feel different, they’re reminded that they don’t fit the traditional mould of the environment they journey through.
A further risk is ‘coming out’ can make you feel extremely vulnerable, especially with strangers. As a queer man I often felt different and like an outsider, and it’s very easy for these feelings to come rushing back when you’re forced to repeatedly reveal your sexuality due to people’s incorrect assumptions.
Despite these difficulties however, I take great pride in being a visibly queer man in the world of hiking and having these conversations, as it creates more of a space for the LGBTQIA+ community within this sphere.
Why Change to the World of Adventuring Is Important
The world of adventuring is growing more diverse, and this is becoming more and more apparent. One example of this is the numbers of women pursuing extreme expeditions, just as frequently as men. For my thesis I wrote about Antarctic exploration and I fondly remember speaking with Felicity Aston. Aston was the first person to cross the Antarctic land-mass using only personal muscle power, having skied the entirety of the expedition. This also made her the first woman to cross the Antarctic land-mass alone. Closer to home, heading out on multi-day hikes you’ll see multitudes of women, from groups to solo hikers.
Changes like this are so vital. Not long ago the archetypal image of an explorer would typically be a white, straight man. Whilst there are exceptions, the most famous explorers tend to fit this mould from James Cook to Ranulph Fiennes, Edmund Hillary to Shackleton and many more. Disrupting this image of exploration and adventuring is vital. Access to the mountains, to nature, carries immeasurable physical and mental health benefits. Everyone should feel like they belong in the world of explorers.
The world is moving in the right direction, and it’s small, seemingly insignificant acts of queer visibility that help to keep moving that way. Whether it’s holding your partner’s hand walking down high street in a rural town, or sporting a pride flag as you make your way into the great outdoors, it all counts.
Wear your pride into the countryside!