Finding Safety in Presenting Masculine as a Female On and Off the Trail

Trail TalkMandy Esch
Safety on Trail Presenting Masculine as Female


It started so much younger than it should have. At eleven years old, with a sister just two years my senior, walking through our neighborhood sometimes meant catcalls and whistles from grown men in passing cars. At such a tender age I wasn't sure exactly what it meant but I knew it felt nefarious and that I didn’t like it. It didn’t take me long to realize that if I tucked my very long blonde hair up into a baseball cap, the uncomfortable looks and whistling stopped. 

Long before I ever realized I’d grow up to be a super gay lady, it was intensely obvious that I did not appreciate the sexual attention of men. So, I adapted. My clothes got baggier, my hair got shorter, and even my body language grew to be more masculine.

Safety on Trail Presenting Masculine as Female


By the time I got to college, and partially thanks to my severe lack of curves, I was often “warned” by strangers that I was entering the wrong restroom. It was usually polite and easily remedied by the use of my still very feminine voice. 
It wasn’t until the politicization of transphobia in the US, which blasted bathroom bills all over social media and the 24-hour news cycles, that those “warnings” became more aggressive. More than once they escalated into assault.

Regardless, the attention from men has almost completely waned and I've found an incredible sense of safety hiding securely off the entire gender’s sexual radar. My whiteness and CIS-gendered-ness comes with the privilege of simply using my voice in public restrooms to deescalate gender-based harassment. My whiteness and ability to be mistaken as male when desired grants me the privilege of walking alone after dark and hiking solo. It creates a cushion that has led me to feel very safe alone in the backcountry for weeks at a time.

Safety on Trail Presenting Masculine as Female


I've been called everything from "bud," and "son," to "sir" when passing other hikers. I find great relief from anxiety knowing that I appear male at a distance. All the ways and techniques women use for self-preservation when we are made to feel uncomfortable are still at my disposal; but, through some magic masc loophole, I avoid needing them 90% of the time. 

I have spent the last 5 years backpacking regularly, most often going solo with the exception of a tiny dog. People in the front country are usually shocked. They ask me if I carry a gun. They ask me if I want to be introduced to a male friend they know who hikes. They ask me how I could be so foolish. Some even tell me to stop. I don’t usually have the time or desire to explain to them that by presenting masculine I can hide in plain sight and have rarely been made to feel unsafe in the wilderness. Yet, perhaps I should.  

Safety on Trail Presenting Masculine as Female


Perhaps through having those exact kinds of conversations I can parlay my privilege into advocacy for those who cannot simply change their appearance or body language to protect themselves. My transgender brothers and sisters still face discrimination for simply trying to pee in a public toilet. BIPOC individuals, female identifying individuals, and humans all across the LGBTQIA+ spectrum who love the outdoors can more often than not fear for their safety while camping, hiking, backpacking, fishing or simply existing in remote areas.

That needs to change and it needs to change now. While I don’t possess the perfect solution, I do possess a voice and acknowledge the privileges society grants me that are not granted to others. I am happy to lend my privilege to others who feel unsafe and walk with them wherever they feel they may need it. I would also love to learn how I can do more. 

Safety on Trail Presenting Masculine as Female


Please comment below or direct suggestions, ideas, educational materials, and recommended organizations to support to instagram.com/backcountrydirtbag

Trail talk

10 comments

Kate

Kate

I have always wished I could present as male. Sadly by the time I was 15 my substantial curves made that impossible.
The reason that so many women are wary when traveling alone is that in everyday life we encounter sexism and harassment far too frequently. Even on the trail we encounter a few guys who are too pushy and that confirms our wariness. To those guys who have thought about it and are pleasant but not pushy, thank you, it’s appreciated.

Not a YT Person

Not a YT Person

It’s also sad you all cannot validate Mandy’s experience, every excuse in the book is being made, when in reality, none of you walk in their shoes.

You should continue to be nice, but that doesn’t give you permission to invalidate another person’s fears and lived experience.

If you preach kindness, then have some empathy

And to the person stating “conservancy statistics”, assaults are underreported and many go unreported, just because it hasn’t happened to you does not mean it is not happening.

As a BIPOC hiker, we have similar fears, the history of the outdoors has not been kind to us in this country and others so before you are so quick to criticize, listen, and try to understand where someone else is coming from who did not have your upbringing, resources or luck of not having to live with extra fears when traveling solo.

Hiker33

Hiker33

As an older, solo male hiker I usually smile and say hello to others I meet on the trail. Many solo women don’t acknowledge me, and that’s fine. But do women find a man smiling and saying hello to be creepier than one who just ignores them? I’ve always assumed that if I didn’t appear to be friendly then the women might wonder what I was thinking.

J

J

I don’t understand the whole issue with “feeling safe” while backpacking. There is an article titled " Why Women Shouldn’t Worry About Hiking Alone" from Backpacker.com from 2015, while I know it’s dated info, but the article does a good job of explaining the statistics. I get that women feel more vulnerable being alone, especially out on the trail, but the stats just don’t support the fear. Something like 11 or 12 people have been murdered on the AT since 1974. I would guess that more people have been murdered going to the grocery store than on the AT since 1974. There is about one assault a year and one rape every three years, on average, according to conservancy figures (outdoors.com). Again probably more risky to walk around any major city than to be out on the trail. In the US it’s estimated at around 22%. of violent assaults against women are carried out by a total stranger. All that said, I’m not saying that it can’t happen. If doing this (presenting yourself to be something your not) makes your feel safe, I would venture to say it’s more about personal insecurity than a legitimate fear. Now, I am a Christian male, (shouldn’t make a difference but thought I need to say it) and I usually hike with a male friend (who is a pastor) and we have met dozens of men, women and kids on the trail. All have been friendly and said hi as we pass. Usually we stop and talk about gear or the trail ahead. Have even made a few friends on the trail like that. As Melissa said above, 40+ years on the trail with no issues. Those of you that are male, such as Pat P. I encourage you all to be friendly to the others you meet on the trail, regardless of their appearance. Share your experiences and knowledge with others. Make being outdoors a positive experience everyone, but also use your best judgment when engaging with others. If a woman doesn’t want to talk to you, don’t take offense and let her be… Outdoors isn’t political, it’s not racial, it’s just nature. A place for everyone to be. Treat others as you want to be treated, and use common sense… Love GOD, Love People, Change the World
Grant H.

Grant H.

Like Pat P. I find it sad that women need to be cautious of men on the trail. I often will just smile, wave and walk on quickly so as not to appear threatening by simply stopping to chat, as I might to a male or a group.

Melissa

Melissa

As a 60yo female who has hiked and backpacked solo for 40+ years I find it unfortunate that some women feel so unsafe on the trail. Like Pat, I greet every hiker I pass and get a response from nearly all. I’m no more or less cautious on the trail than I am in other environs and try to always maintain situational awareness. If I’m uncomfortable with someone on the trail I move on. I too have friends who seem overly concerned about my solo travels, but try to reassure them I am no less safe than if I was walking alone anywhere else.

Marianne

Marianne

I too present “masculine” and have since my late teens (tomboy as a kid, gay gal as an adult) and I also soon learned that it gave me a lot more security and autonomy to be in the world in the ways I wanted to be, without getting unsolicited/unwanted male attention. The guy that posted about being able to “tell” someone’s gender has totally missed the point, and it doesn’t at all signal understanding of, or even an attempt to understand, this person’s experience. Women learn really early how to read signals and vibes from even seemingly friendly men out of absolute necessity for survival, and yeah, it’s more than “sad” that we have to do this, it’s indicative of a society that tolerates male aggression toward women as the norm. Just imagine how exhausting it is to have to constantly adjust your actions and responses toward men seeking contact, even the most seemingly benign contact, because it can too often happen that if you don’t wish for that contact and let that be known, the man gets angry, sometimes violently so.

Tim

Tim

You can tell immediately by how they walk. In my mid 70s I have a few years of experience and have never been wrong on the trails.

Pat P

Pat P

Thanks for sharing this. I’m a friendly guy, who says “Hi” or even just a “Sup” to every hiker I pass. A while ago, I tended to notice that female hikers (either alone or in groups), rarely said hi back. After thinking about it, and talking to others, I realized that it was out of fear or caution. It is really sad that they can’t even give a friendly hello back, for fear of send the wrong “signal” to a male hiker.

Nick S

Nick S

I can relate to the feeling of safety while solo backpacking. I’ve had top surgery, been on T for almost 10 years, and present strongly as male even with my skinny, 5’6" physique. Got one of my best complements from a couple of young, burly guys camping downstream from me: “Dude, you’re a beast!” LOL
Hike-On!

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