My journey to become the first trans person to achieve the toughest mountaineering challenge in the world
For me, as a trans person, the narrative my whole life has been negative.
You hear about drug abuse, you hear about suicide, you hear about violence against the trans community. There's not a lot of positive narratives. I think when somebody's coming out, they're looking at a lot of shadows.
The Seven Summits is the highest peak in every continent. It's been done 400 times now. But for me, [my mission to become the first trans person to climb the Seven Summits] is not about prestige at all. It allows me the opportunity to rise up as high as I can, to a place there really isn't any shadows any more.
My whole life, I always embraced sports. Early on I think I embraced it as a way to deny that I was anything but "one of the guys." And as time went on, I used it as therapy and a kind of getaway. I made a lot of friends doing it.
I did Kilimanjaro twice. Once before and once after I came out. To do it under the Olympic guidelines for a trans athlete to compete in that field...it's definitely important for me to do it as my full, true self. I am doing all seven summits under the Olympics guidelines for testosterone suppression. There are no qualifications for mountaineering, but I thought it was important to show people that sports are a positive avenue of growth.
I grew up in a very suburban family, kind of an upscale suburb outside of Buffalo, NY, with four brothers, and we filled our time with sports. I had lots of friends, a great school system, and I played on the high school American football team. I tried pretty hard to fit in. But it was very clear to me that I was [a girl]. When I was young, I always had the sense that nature was going to somehow fix it. When I got to be 8 or 9, I didn't have the same naivety. Then by the time I was 12 or 13, I very much realised that I didn't understand it. I spent most of the next 10 years just trying to understand.
I tried to transition when I was 22. I went to my university's health office and asked them to provide the healthcare, and they said, "no, we don't provide that coverage." I got laughed out of there. The medical community just wasn't ready for me twenty years ago. Now, healthcare access is a little bit better in the United States.
In my 20s and early 30s, I tried a lot of therapy. I moved to Denver from Buffalo in order to isolate myself from my family. I picked up mountain biking - actually in the mountains - skiing, and mountaineering. I did get married briefly, at 36, and it was done by the time I was 38. That's when I started to transition. I came out to my wife, and she didn't approve.
When I came out as a woman, I very much considered just giving up sports. I [wondered], "Would I be able to travel into rural places? Would I be able to retain my climbing friends?" Luckily, I didn't lose very many friends when I came out. I did lose a few. It was easy to be angry and blame those people.
But ultimately, I don't think we're going to understand this unless you can see it from other people's angles. Even the people that failed to even respect me, I can't be angry at them for doing that. I have to move on and live my life.
In 2004, the Olympics lifted the trans [athlete] ban. In 2015, they lifted the surgery requirement. But the problem is, no trans athletes are really coming forward and filling these gaps. I agree very much with the Olympic Committee that sports is a universal right. And I like the fact that they've moved away from the surgical guidelines. I don't think that you have to have surgery in order to prove that you're a woman.
I started a non-profit, TranSending7, last year. My mission at this point is about trans visibility, trans awareness, and getting out to the allies as well. It's about allowing the stakeholders in sports to see positive examples of inclusion in sports, and giving them the ability to embrace a trans athlete. It's not just about sports: it's about my growth as a human, it's about sharing my story, and it's about the fact that I'm not just a trans person. I have hopes and dreams. It's not a mental illness.
Sports can be very macho. But I constantly saw women that were amazing at sports, like outdoor athletes that were phenomenal. Females are great athletes. Some of the best rock climbers in the world are women. I see women doing amazing things. Part of my mission is to validate women in sports as much as trying to gain access for trans people.
When people ask me what my hardest mountain was, I say: "My hardest mountain was coming out."
The hardest step was the first - letting people know who I was. Once I did that, and found the love of my family and my friends, saying I was going to take on the highest mountain in each continent seemed so possible.
We're looking to climb North America's highest peak on the 50th anniversary of Pride, this coming June. It's going to be a big climb, and another trans athlete is very interested in doing that with me. Fifty years ago, you couldn't hang out in a bar without getting harassed by the police. We're intending to go to the top of the highest point in the land, fifty years later, and say: "It's been a hard struggle, but we are here."
Photo credit, Charissa Pilster, Pilster Photography
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