Naked, Afraid and Transgender: ‘The Wilderness Couldn’t Care Less’
Editor’s note: Quince Mountain is the first openly transgender person to be on “Naked and Afraid,” Discovery’s reality TV show in which participants try to survive 21 days in the wilderness. His episode debuted this month.
I’m lying under an uneven canopy of foliage, sharp gravel digging into my back. I try not to think of the jungle rain as unceasing. I try to feel it, drop by drop. Sometimes a drop hits a spot where my skin is cut or burned away, and I feel a little thrill.
I am camped along the bank of the Corinto River, in a rain forest in Atlántida, Honduras, and have been for nine days. I’m alone: the partner I started this 21-day challenge with went home five days ago.
This is miserable, but I feel fortunate. Growing up knowing I was a boy when everyone around me considered me a girl — and not a very good one — already taught me how to survive alone. Being naked in this remote jungle is a relief. The wilderness couldn’t care less who I am.
I’ve always been a physical person, but team sports were fraught with gender problems since grade school. Over the years, I’ve discovered the joys of outdoor adventure, spending almost as much time with animals as with humans. First, I rode horses, traveling alongside a team and wagon and rounding up cows on ranches in western South Dakota. These days my wife and I spend our time living and camping with a team of dogs in Alaska, Canada and the upper Midwest.
It’s a big deal to be a trans person out in the public square who is able to act rather than simply being acted upon. In appearing on “Naked and Afraid,” I want to show what I can accomplish, without having to deal with people questioning my credentials. I want to show what trans people can accomplish. With new laws restricting access to bathrooms, locker rooms and shelters, physical attacks on trans people on the rise, according to advocacy groups, and federal legislation threatening safeguards for the transgender rights that do exist, I want to shout: “Just leave us alone!”
But first, I have to survive.
My possessions include a heavy survival knife; a magnesium bar and fire starter rod; a wedding band; some cord I made from twisted strings of plant fiber; a mosquito net with a few holes burned in it; several underripe tree nuts; and a hollowed out drinking gourd that’s rotting, but still usable.
I don’t have a compass, or clothes, or shoes, or anything to entertain myself with in the dark. If I had a smartphone I would probably be using it to play the puzzle game Two Dots, as I would if I were in line at Target.
When I told friends I was going on “Naked and Afraid,” they worried I’d be rendered a caricature. Isn’t reality television all about confining formulas? I told them it’s here, stripped down for this naked TV show, that I can be real. That my experience growing up as a trans person was the fictional performance.
I was raised to act as a person I was not. When I said I was a boy, or presented myself as one, I was told I was lying, that I was a girl. One of my deepest truths, my sense of self, is something I had to lie about.
It’s a tough bind. We are either betraying the truth by not being ourselves, or we dress and move through the world in ways that feel right, and then are told that we’re lying. The real truth, people insist, is hidden underneath our clothes.
Out here, there are no clothes, nor lies I have to live, and I’m as exposed as I can be.
A cameraman named Derek arrives at my shelter.
“Is this a bit like Chinese water torture, then?” he asks in his Scottish accent.
“Would you describe this as torture — feeling cold rain fall through the roof of your shelter and knowing it could last all night?”
I like Derek. I tell him this is nothing like torture. Every second that I’m here, I’m choosing to be here.
“Good,” he says.
I fall asleep on my mosquito net atop my prickly gravel bed. An hour later I’m suddenly awake — biting ants!
The ants are coming from the chunk of wood I just put on the fire. When the wood got too hot, the ants made a break for the floor of my shelter. They were under attack and they began to bite me. I can’t blame them.
I have to get off the mosquito net, shake it out, and flick any ants off my body, all in the dark. This is annoying, but I’ve already developed a routine for it.
I’m getting used to the simplicity of suffering here. There is none of the nonsense I endured growing up at odds with gender norms.
No one here has knocked me to the pavement. No one is kneeling over me spraying shaving cream in my eyes. No one is riding away on my bicycle, off to dump it in the creek.
I am not in fourth grade, opening the door to a house that has been ransacked by a playmate who lives down the street. There’s no broken glass, no shattered record albums, no vomit left in my bedroom. There’s no mailbox and no note in that mailbox explaining why my family deserved to have our home trashed, explaining that I’m a “rotten boy-girl,” a “he-she,” an “it.”
For all the jungle’s indifference to my well-being, I am free from many quotidian worries. No one is telling me I’m too aggressive, bad for team cohesion. No one is asking for an ID card. No one is asking about my name. I’m naked, but no one cares about my junk. I am not thinking about bathroom stalls, and I’m not thinking about how to explain myself to employers, or distant family or anyone else.
Here, there is a knife. There is a fire, and there is a river. No one is in my way.