7 Ways to Be “Trans Competent” on Trail

In the hiking community, we need to be proactive in making hiking and backpacking accessible and inclusive to all people. One way YOU can make a difference is by being “trans competent” on trail. To me, being “trans competent” means knowing how to refer to people respectfully and accurately; learning how to be respectful of people’s truths; and listening to the experience of trans people on trail if they offer. As a trans woman, I don’t speak for all trans people. These tips reflect what I want to pass along from my experience of being “trans on the trail”. With my thru-hike of the AT starting in March, I’m sharing my thoughts to hopefully head some of these issues off at the pass. Without further ado:

Tip #1 Use gender neutral greetings

Use gender neutral greetings – For those passing interactions on trail with people that you won’t be spending time with.

  • If you don’t know what someone’s gender is, and it’s not important information for you to know, just use gender neutral language! This is a great practice to get into off trail as well.
  • A few simple examples: “Howdy y’all!”, “How’s everyone doing?”, “Hello!”, “Hiya!”, “Hey folks!” … you get the picture.

Tip #2 Don’t make assumptions

Don’t take it upon yourself to assume or guess what pronouns someone uses based on characteristics like body type, voice, clothing, or anything else associated with stereotypical gender expectations.

  • Remember that especially with hiking clothing and accessories, besides slight variations, items “for men” and “for women” often look similar. 
  • Gender presentation is diverse. Just because someone is wearing a “Men’s” jacket, does that mean you should assume they are a man? People of all genders wear “Men’s” clothing for a variety of reasons like sizing, style and comfort.

Tip #3 Share your pronouns

In newly formed groups of hikers, encourage everyone to go around and do a brief introduction that includes their name and pronouns. By normalizing everyone sharing their pronouns, you encourage people to learn about a couple things:

  • Basic grammar – Unfortunately many people I’ve run into on trail aren’t aware of pronouns in general.
  • Encourages brief, non-confrontational discussions about the meaning behind pronouns and why it’s important for everyone to work towards using them correctly and accurately.

Tip #4 Believe people

When someone shares their gender with you, believe them. Simple as that. Relevant factors at play:

  • Gender transition – Since you don’t know someone’s gender background and transition status, no matter how someone presents, listen to what they tell you and internalize that. Try to deconstruct your assumptions and see the person as who they are, not who you think they should be.
  • Non-binary genders – You may want to assume that someone fits into the gender binary because that’s our society’s default setting, but the reality is humanity is infinitely more diverse than two types.
  • Gender is not black and white – Even as a trans woman, I will intentionally incorporate masculine attributes and gender markers at times, purely because I like them and they feel authentic to me! That doesn’t make me less of a woman. Think of all the cisgender* men and women in your life. People embody a patchwork of gendered aspects of their presentation, so just like you wouldn’t question their gender, don’t question a transgender person’s either!

Tip #5 Use context clues

Look for intentional markers that people may use to indicate their pronouns, and/or to let you know they are transgender on trail. Importantly, this is something that I’ve done, but I know many transgender people who would not be comfortable with using markers like these, it’s strictly personal preference, and a transgender/gender non-conforming person has every right to choose whether or not they disclose their gender to you. Personally, I’ve worn items on my pack etc. to give people a heads up in an effort to reduce incidences of being misgendered on trail:

  • Transgender flag pins (blue, pink and white stripes)
  • Gender pronoun pins – might say things like “she/her”, “they/them”, “he/him”, “xe/xem” etc. to denote how you should refer to them in the third person.

Tip #6 Do your own research

Relieve trans hikers of the “burden of education”.

  • Most hikers come from a well-intentioned place, and when they meet a transgender person in their travels, they may want to ask questions to to gain understanding. Please see that it’s not our responsibility to do the emotional labor of teaching anyone about transgender people. I urge you to take it upon yourself to get answers rather than putting your baggage onto trans people you meet on trail.
  • Truthfully, I’m writing this article so hopefully people will read it and won’t need the 101 from some unsuspecting trans hiker who’s just trying to enjoy their backpacking trip!

Tip #7 Acknowledge your own transphobia

Understand and acknowledge your own transphobic feelings, thoughts and biases.

  • Just as we acknowledge our implicit bias towards different races, we need to do the same for transgender people. 
  • Without our knowledge, we have all grown up in a world that is deeply transphobic, and that’s not your fault. 
  • Don’t ignore the impact that growing up surrounded by transphobia has had on all of us. Transphobia takes many forms, and here’s a couple that exist in the hiking world and beyond:
    • The sharing of dehumanizing jokes
    • The use of transphobic slurs
    • The implication and expectation that everybody falls into a neatly packaged gender binary

Final Thoughts

Hopefully these tips helped you gain a new or expanded understanding of how to be trans competent on trail. If you have hiking friends or outdoorsy family members, please pass along this info to them as a handy starting point for a discussion. Again, this list reflects my personal preferences and biases. I’ve likely left out tons of components to trans competence on trail, so take this as a call to action, not a “one-and-done” topic.

Lastly, you don’t have to do all of these perfectly to work towards trans-competence. All I ask is that you give your best good faith effort to consider the impact of your words and actions… and if you’re reading this post, it’s likely because you want to do just that, so thank you for your continued effort to make the outdoors welcoming to all.

Feedback? Follow my trek!

Please hop in the comments and give me your thoughts! I hope you’ll stick with me through my entire thru-hike by subscribing to my posts here. And be sure to add me on Instagram @seltzerskelter for trail updates, pics and other bits of my life!

*Cisgender people are anyone who is not transgender. Generally speaking, they are people whose gender is the same as what the doctor ascribed to them when they were born.

PS. Want the “she/her” pin pictured in the feature image? Click here. I’ll be wearing mine on my pack during my thru-hike!

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Comments 17

  • Avatar
    Tina : Feb 3rd

    Thanks for sharing these tips Lyla! Just like you said, this is a great starting point and an invitation to all people who want to be allies to learn more. In my experience, I’ve found the best way to be an ally is to educate yourself, use what you learned when you can, and don’t let your fear of messing up keep you from doing anything at all. Like you said, keeping in mind a positive intent but also acknowledging impact. Forgive yourself if you mess up, and do better when you know better. Good luck on trail!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Lyla Harrod : Feb 3rd

      Yes! The fear of messing up is real. I think the work of improving your trans competence is like jumping into chilly water, it’s scary at first but once you get in there and start doing the real work of recognizing your bias and learning more affirming ways of interacting, you find that most people are so willing to be helpful, and you won’t regret doing it! xoxox

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Felix (Nomad) : Feb 3rd

    My stepson is transgender using male, he/him pronouns. He has taught me so much. I have had my eyes and heart opened and, after reading this, they are open wider. Thank you, Lyla!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Lyla Harrod : Feb 3rd

      Hey Nomad, that’s so great! I’m sure he’s glad to have your support, I know I am! <3

      Reply
  • Avatar
    pearwood : Feb 3rd

    Thanks, Lyla!

    I had it pointed out to me, a cisgender male, that specifying pronouns on websites and such was a good thing for cisgender people to do, too. It says I recognize the importance of pronouns and don’t mind being told what yours are.

    Speaking of which, methinks I need to check and probably update my profiles here and on IG.

    See how helpful you are?

    Blessings,
    Steve

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Allison : Feb 3rd

    Thank you for sharing this perspective, Lyla! I feel like this is good advice when meeting anyone for the first time or when addressing a group of people. I appreciate the examples you gave so we can see better ways to frame our language when speaking to others 🙂

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Lyla Harrod : Feb 3rd

      Thanks, Ali! 🙂 Yeah, I feel like most of these are just advice you could give to someone in any context. I love all the fun gender neutral greetings, I’ve actually had some people ask if I’m from the South because I say “y’all” all the time!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Austin Hays : Feb 3rd

    Lyla, thank you so much for all you’ve done with this platform for trans people. Hope to see y’all on the trail this summer.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Lyla Harrod : Feb 3rd

      Hey Austin! Yes, hope we can meet up at some point! And thanks to YOU for all of your work on getting all of us trans/GNC AT thru-hikers connected! <3

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Hot Wing : Feb 4th

    Eh, that’s too many instructions to worry about when hiking. A simple head nod, hello, and smile when passing another hiker will suffice. I could care less about your gender or who you’re attracted too. Happy trails ya’ll.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Lyla Harrod : Feb 4th

      Haha! Yes, you’re right. As long as you’re being kind and respectful to folks on the trail, that’s all anyone could ask of someone else. These “instructions” are suggestions/best practices for when you’re hiking around folks that you’ll be talking to on a personal level, at which point I’d assume you’d want to know how to be respectful to the people you’re hiking with 🙂

      Best wishes!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Aly : Feb 4th

    Hey Lyla,
    Another super helpful article. The “Share your pronouns” really sunk in with me. That tip could be applied to a wide array of social interactions. I also really liked the ‘pronoun’ pin idea as another way of normalizing the discussion of gender pronouns- I just ordered one for my packs! Hopefully this info is being shared far and wide across the community. Thanks for Sharing!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Dandelion : Feb 5th

    Thank you for sharing your perspective! I have several trans and non-binary people in my immediate circles, and Im always learning. I feel like Im always asking questions. So here’s one for you. Say the AT takes you 6 months, that’s roughly 180 days, and possibly 180 evenings at camp with new or different people. Do you want to have a gender/pronoun/trans 101 conversation with people every single night? Or would you want to have nights where the talk more revolves around mileage or ramen recipes, etc. Im generalizing here, of course. Im the first one to be nosey, but Im also the first one who worries about being too nosey, lol. From my perspective, if we’ve all just finished a brutal day of hiking, the last thing I would want to do is ‘bother’ someone with pronoun questions. What’s your thoughts on that? I so look forward to following your journey!

    Dandelion

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Lyla Harrod : Feb 5th

      Hi Dandelion, thanks for the thoughtful question! Would I want to have a gender/trans 101 conversation (however brief) every night? Absolutely not! But that’s not what I’m suggesting with these tips.

      I want people to know my pronouns if I’m going to be spending time with them and talking with them on a personal level… not every person I pass by/camp near needs that info (see tip#1!).

      To put it in perspective, would you want someone you’re spending time with to consistently call you the wrong name, or would you correct them? For me, being misgendered is like a more painful/uncomfortable version of that. I’m encouraging you to consider introducing yourself with your pronouns in addition to your name when it makes sense for you and the individual/group you’re with as a way of helping normalize the practice to support trans and gender non-conforming folks. Thanks again <3

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Wes Laudeman : Feb 5th

    Great post and thanks for sharing! I really appreciate the learning opportunity. I have a bad habit of using ‘dude’ with everyone (even my mom gets called ‘dude’ sometimes!) but I know not everyone appreciates that so I’ll need to be more mindful in the future. Thanks!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    JFootman : Feb 11th

    Although I’m sure I will be condemned & chastised (banned?) for my perspective I have to share. I’m sorry, but this prolific “woke” mentality has become too over the top when I can’t even visit a backpacking site without being “taught” human decency. Why is there the OVER emphasis for treating individual groups of people with extreme delicacy instead of just treating EVERYONE with respect? I would challenge that anyone who “doesn’t care” about a cis/trans person’s feelings is NOT going to be convinced by yet another “guidebook” on how to engage them in conversation. On the contrary, anyone who DOES care about others DOESN’T refer to someone with the incorrect pronoun out of spite or with the intent of denigrating the other person. Why isn’t there more discussion on how cis or trans people should understand that our incorrect use of a pronoun isn’t a condemnation of a person’s life decisions but a potential opportunity to engage in conversation and simply get to know the other person (I acknowledge that this point was made in the article… I DID read it!). I backpack to be FREE of all of our societal craziness but now I’m instructed to “worry” that I’m going to accidentally offend someone else when we’re all out just trying to enjoy life and the creation we live in. Sadly what the woke mentality is doing is just forcing us to pull away from others & wall ourselves off for fear of accidentally offending and being condemned resulting in potentially far-reaching repurcussions. The desire for “inclusion” has resulted in exclusion by choice.

    Please read this for how it was intended… NOT a condemnation of a lifestyle but the expression of frustration that EVERYONE has to be treated as a delicate flower and ANY unintentional offense is taken as the ultimate humiliation and insult and that person should be treated as an anathema.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Lyla Harrod : Feb 11th

      Hey JFootman,

      Thanks a ton for taking the time to write out your thoughts. I’ll give my perspective on a couple of them, I hope you find them helpful.

      “Why is there the OVER emphasis for treating individual groups of people with extreme delicacy instead of just treating EVERYONE with respect?”

      These suggestions are actually explaining how you can treat everyone with respect. Just like you would make an effort to learn how to pronounce someone’s name that you’re going to be spending time with, using someone’s correct pronouns is how you can be respectful to them. If you had a friend who is a man, and you constantly referred to him as a woman even after he corrected you, would that be respectful of you?

      “I would challenge that anyone who “doesn’t care” about a cis/trans person’s feelings is NOT going to be convinced by yet another “guidebook” on how to engage them in conversation.”

      I 100% agree. I didn’t write this post for people who don’t care about other people’s feelings though. This post is written for people who are looking to deepen their understanding of other people’s experience, and who are interested in reframing certain interactions with people in the outdoors.

      “On the contrary, anyone who DOES care about others DOESN’T refer to someone with the incorrect pronoun out of spite or with the intent of denigrating the other person.”

      Hell yeah!!

      “I backpack to be FREE of all of our societal craziness but now I’m instructed to “worry” that I’m going to accidentally offend someone else when we’re all out just trying to enjoy life and the creation we live in.”

      No need to worry. As long as you’re making a good faith effort, 99% of people will be understanding. It seems like you’re making a good faith effort to me, and I appreciate that 🙂

      “Sadly what the woke mentality is doing is just forcing us to pull away from others & wall ourselves off for fear of accidentally offending and being condemned resulting in potentially far-reaching repercussions. The desire for “inclusion” has resulted in exclusion by choice.”

      I understand how people could feel like that. My intent is to bring people together by deepening our shared understanding, not to divide or exclude. The only people I would exclude are people who repeatedly and intentionally refuse to treat people with respect… and it seems like we both agree on that point.

      Again, I really appreciate your perspective, and thank you for taking what might have seemed like a risk to be honest about where you’re at on this topic. I don’t take that lightly. <3

      Best wishes,

      Lyla

      Reply

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