There have always been mountains in my life. The Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina were the first I laid eyes on in the small mountain town where I was born and raised. A circle of soft forested mountains greeted me every waking day of my life back there; the ridges seemed like arms that were always ready to hold you close. They are ancient, those mountains. The folks who know will tell you that they are over one billion years old and they sure felt that way.
Every day I felt those mountains and it wasn’t long before I felt a mountain inside of me. I was around five years old when I realized that contrary to the little boy that everyone saw when they looked at me, I deeply knew that I was a little girl inside. And good lord, I hated that I knew.
That mountain felt insurmountable to me as I grew up. What do you do with that knowledge in the rural mountain South in the 1960’s? The loneliness I felt was unbearable. Holding that knowledge in brought such crippling anxiety to my fragile soul. I had no words to share with my family to express what I was going through. There was a word but I would not find it until much later. That word is transgender.
As I grew older, there were times I couldn’t stand myself and my secret any longer. Those mountains offered sanctuary. There I could get lost with the billion-year-old rocks that laid silent underneath the soft forested floor. I touched the trees, sat under the laurel bushes, and held those ancient rocks in the palms of my hands trying to hear a whisper of explanation that would somehow make sense out of my life. Sadly, the answers eluded me. Finding one and holding onto it was like trying to hold onto the fog as it floated through forest canopy.
I tried climbing that internal mountain so many times over the years but I kept being turned back. It was overwhelming to think about what I needed to do to become my true self, my female self. But I kept going and finally I was able to summit that mountain over twenty years ago. It was the hardest thing I had ever done climbing to the top of that mountain. But from that beautiful spot at the top I could see forever it seemed, or maybe it was just that I could finally see myself.
When I was chosen to be in the cast for “Who’s on Top”, I started thinking about all the challenges that were ahead of me. Surely climbing Mt. Hood would not be any harder than transitioning genders. I wasn’t sure there was anything that could be as difficult.
One thing I did know was that it was going to be a physical challenge. So, my 61-year-old-first-time-mountaineering self became close personal friends with the Stairmaster in the neighborhood gym. I became addicted to the altitude room where you could train on a treadmill and Stairmaster with a full pack simulating 11,000 and 12,000 feet of elevation. The rush of breathing the almost sea level air when I came back out of the room was intoxicating.
However, little did I know that there was one challenge I wasn’t prepared for. On the night we trained on Mt. Hood to replicate an alpine start and to get a feel for what it would be like on our summit attempt, it hit me hard. I thought I knew how steep Mt. Hood was from all the times I had looked up at it while hiking around its base, but as we started out on our two-mile training climb, I felt trapped. The slope was unrelenting, more so than I thought I could handle. With each step my mind was flooded with how in the world am I going to do this for the six miles and 5000+ foot elevation gain it was going to take to make the summit?
I am not sure where it came from, but that whisper of explanation that I had looked for so many years before found me. As I struggled up the mountain it dawned on me that my climb up Mt. Hood was going to be just as hard if not harder than the coming out climb I had made so many years ago. How did I do it back then? Baby steps. That’s what my therapist told me as I started my climb many years ago. Just keep taking baby steps and eventually you will arrive.
So, I took one step after another up that steep slope. I kept saying to myself, baby steps, just baby steps. With each step, my connection to Mt. Hood deepened in intimacy. My relationship with the mountain echoed familiar and it occurred to me that many people may never experience it on that level. Topping out, I was taken back to the intimate climb I had made all those years ago, and what an incredible gift that was.
“Who’s on Top?” (narrated by George Takei) is the emotional story of members of the LGBTQ community who challenge stereotypes about gender and sexuality and demonstrate their diverse journeys in overcoming physical and figurative mountains.