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What It’s Like Being Non-Binary on Trails

You see two people walking towards you. They’re both pretty short, maybe five feet tall or so. The first one has short brown hair, faded on the sides, with a flat chest, muscular build, and brownish/blonde facial hair. They have some visible tattoos on their white forearms, and are dressed in neutral colors. Next to them is a second person with dark-brown hair, which is shaved on the sides into a mohawk with a pony tail on top. They have gauges and a nose piercing, and dress in bright, flashy colors.

Did you assume the gender of either of these two people? Would you be blown away if both of the above people are non-binary? 

Gender and gender expression come in many different forms. So many people claim the title “non-binary,” yet somehow, none of these people look alike. As a non-binary couple, my partner and I stand out in a crowd. We’re often presented with the uncomfortable—yet reoccurring—question of, “are you a boy or are you a girl?” We’re met with this question when we venture out into the world, particularly when we visit small mountain towns on our way to trails. Our presence makes people uncomfortable. But why? 

We have plenty of theories. Maybe they’re intimidated by the unknown. Maybe they’re afraid of someone living their best, and most authentic, life. Maybe their views and ideologies are holding them back from trying to understand that non-binary people exist in this world, and not everything is black or white.

My wife Jaye (right) and I often wear controversial shirts on our hikes and runs to make people think!

What’s it like being non-binary on trails?

For the most part, my experiences on trails are not different than anyone else’s. Just because society sees my gender as “outside the box” doesn’t mean my trail life is unusual compared to the next person. Nature doesn’t care where I use the restroom, as long as its away from a water source and off-trail, of course. The animals I come across do not ask where I fit on the gender binary scale. Sure, other people I come across might be confused at first and require some reassurance, but hiking and backpacking have become my escape from the binary—a place where I can exist without question; a safe-haven for my transgendered body.

Exploring state and national parks, old mountain towns, and nature museums can be a little different. There are plenty of anxieties that arise when we take a trip to the Santa Cruz Mountains, for example, where we frequently backpack the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail. That trip looks something like this: My partner and I pack up the car and drive a couple hours north. Generally, we plan ahead and get gas, use the restroom, and buy food before we leave town, that way we know the layout of the local stores. This allows us to purchase food or gas in a timely manner and encounter less people, which means less of a chance of discussing gender. Using the bathroom before we depart means we won’t be forced to choose a bathroom at a public place, where the options are most likely “Men’s” or “Women’s.” If we do have to stop, we often try to find a Starbucks or gas station with single stalls so we can avoid other people in the bathroom. In small mountain towns, our chances of getting weird looks and passive aggressive gestures is a lot higher. We already stand out with our bright clothes, tattoos, and piercings. Once people get past the initial shock of our free-spirited bodies taking up space in their (usually) conservative small town, their frustration of not knowing our gender if often much higher. This presents a higher risk for us. 

After our drive, we land at a parking lot that leads to the trail head. Waiting at the edge of the lot is a park ranger who wants to see our hiking permit, parking permit, itinerary and ID. After we say “Hello Ranger!” we hand over the required paperwork and wait. The ranger looks over the paperwork, sees the reservations match the car’s make and model, and license plate number. Then he looks at the ID. In his hand, he’s holding a California license with a name that does not match the driver (it’s way too feminine and the driver, me, has facial hair and a deep voice). Also in the license is a gender marker of “F.” which is clearly confusing the ranger. 

I can feel my face getting warm. My hands start to sweat and begin shaking ever so slightly. The ranger and I continue to stare at each other. He’s thinking the ID belongs to someone else. I’m kicking myself for not changing my dead-name and gender marker yet. He smiles, then hands the paperwork back and waves us along. We park the car and decompress. Maybe the ranger realized our genders don’t make a difference, or it doesn’t really matter in the bigger picture. Who knows?

This kind of reaction is pretty common when I hand over my ID. 

We unpack the car, strap on our packs, and begin hiking. We usually try to hike fast at the beginning so we can get to the less populated trails and enjoy some privacy with nature. Once the sun begins to set, we do our best to find a campsite off-trail, away from people. We find comfort in having a site where we can see people come in and out of our space. We look for a site with privacy for bathroom times, so no one judges me while I’m walking with a Kula Cloth to go number one. Not sure what a Kula Cloth is? Check out this video my partner Jaye made.

Max and Jaye outside the entrance to Jay Camp. This redwood-enclosed campsite is their favorite on the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail!

After a couple days of hiking, we come to Big Basin State Park. We hike into the headquarters area and check in to get a tent site at one of our favorite redwood-enclosed campgrounds, Jay Camp. We march up to the ranger station, and this time we hand over Jaye’s ID instead of mine. The ranger comes back saying, “sorry, we don’t have this name in our file for reservations. Is it under someone else’s name?” I pull out my ID and again get frustrated with myself for not changing my dead-name and gender marker. Unfortunately, I don’t have $400 laying around to officially file for this tedious paperwork change. And honestly, if I were to change my gender marker, most people will still question me when the letter says “X” for non-binary instead of the traditional “M” or “F.” The ranger and I go through the same process: prolonged eye contact, sweaty hands, and the general questioning of my existence, except instead of waving us along like the last ranger, she starts asking questions. “Are you sure this is the right ID? Do you have a second form of ID?” I take a deep breath, “Yeah, that’s me. I’m transgender and haven’t had the money to get a new ID quite yet.” Her face goes red as she responds, “Oh my gosh, okay! Yeah this is fine! Do you two know how to get to Jay Camp?” She pulls out a map and begins pointing out directions with a more familiar speech she’s probably given thousands of times. We let her stutter over her words, instead of interrupting, even though we’ve stayed at Jay Camp a dozen times.

The rest of the trip goes well. No more awkward interactions with people, and we make it to the exit trail head without any issues. In fact, most of our trips go smoothly, without any issues or confrontations. We haven’t had anyone be physically aggressive with us, and most of the underhanded comments we receive are harmless in the grand scheme of things. The majority of people we encounter on trails require a smile or nod, and then we all go on our way hiking. 

I go out of my way to plan trips for our anxiety, not because it’s what every non-binary person does. A lot of us exist in society without any issues, and not everyone has the same experiences as me. I’ve come to terms with that, but it also helps me enjoy a trip more if it’s planned as much as possible. Non-binary people exist in this world, and in nature. We belong there just as much as anyone else. In the great words of Anthony Douglas Williams, “Earth was created for all of us, not some of us.” Nature does not care about my gender, and that’s why I cherish my time outside more than anything else!

Max and Jaye are a non-binary couple living on the West Coast. They’re avid backpackers, hikers, and animal lovers who are currently section hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and Tahoe Rim Trail. They take one trip a month exploring the country, and are saving up for an RV to travel in full-time starting in 2021.

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