Let Us Transcend
I’d love to write today about the transcendence to be found hiking the wooded path, but I can’t. Recent events in Orlando cast a shadow over my thoughts. After the slaughter of so many innocent human lives, and now as what passes for American public discourse atomizes the subject into the static slugfest of contemporary media, perhaps it is appropriate to pause and consider the safety of GLBTQ on the Appalachian Trail. For older, more conservative folks who are not hip to the nomenclature, GLBTQ is shorthand for a spectrum of sexualities: Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Trans, and “Queer” (a term that sustains an ongoing academic discussion beyond our scope). As queer as I am, my wife of ten years insists I am not Gay. That’s right: I’m a straight, white male. I’d love to live in a world where public discussion about such distinctions were neither so urgently necessary nor so uncomfortable for so many to talk about, but seriously, there are lives at stake.
I have traveled to public land with my lawfully wedded wife and slept in a tent with her. We did it New Jersey, we did it in Missouri, Indiana and Georgia too. It was cold and it was hot. There was rain and there was sun. We worried about bears in Jersey, had our campground site raided by racoons in Missouri, but not even for a second in any of those places did we feel self consciousness, let alone fear, about being perceived as an intimate couple in public and targeted for it. In 1988 Stephen Carr shot Claudia Brenner and Rebecca Wight multiple times because, he claimed, their lesbianism provoked him. Wight died from her wounds. Brenner survived and wrote a book, Eight Bullets: One Woman’s Story of Surviving Anti-Gay Violence. No one survived to tell the story of the still unsolved execution-style double murders of Julianne Williams and Lollie Winans along the AT in Shenandoah National Park– widely recognized as a hate crime. GLBTQ people, demonstrably, do not enjoy the same expectation of safety I do on the Appalachian Trail.
The wooded path is Transcendent. I believe that. The Appalachian Trail has demanded so much of me and given me so many gifts: transcendent visions seen from high summits, big calves, and many queer friends, most of them being straight white males. There are not just more people hiking on the Appalachian Trail, there are more kinds of people hiking on the Appalachian Trail. This is good news, but exposes certain hypocrisies. While the culture (on and off trail) has come to celebrate women hiking, it has not necessarily addressed what some social critics call “rape culture.” All I know is that there is no thread on the internet where straight white men are discussing protecting themselves from a rapist. (Straight white men are certainly overrepresented among rapists and hate crime killers.) How transcendent is my beloved trail when only people like me feel welcome on it?
I think the trail organizers, volunteers, hikers, donors, angels, local residents and entrepreneurs who make up what many call casually “the trail community,” are largely people of good conscience. People go to the woods to escape the madness of modern life. Escape, transcendence, or however you describe that feeling of being at high altitude and feeling free and good: that is an experience that should be available to everyone willing and able to ambulate far enough to experience it– no matter who they are, without barrier, bullying, harassment, and most especially terror. I ask here only that the reader search themselves and think long and hard about how they can make the Appalachian Trail, and public lands in general, a safer place for everyone.
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