*This blog is intended to outline my own travel experiences and perspectives as an outsider visiting other communities, and learning about the experiences of other individuals. My goal is to refrain from speaking FOR the huge range of other queer experiences and communities, while still sharing my own experience learning from them.
**For the purpose of these blogs, I am using the term “queer” as an all-encompassing term for LGBTQIA+ (2SLGBTQIA+ in Canada) communities and people, while NOT intending to use it as the more derogatory meaning that it has carried for many LGBTQ+ people in the recent past.
On a north/westward bound stretch of my springtime journey through the Yukon, I got to meet two rugged individuals on the road who are visibly queer in one of our world’s oldest professions – dog mushing, and in a profession that has only emerged within the last century – long haul trucking with heavy equipment movement. My southbound Yukon journey a few months later also brought a lot of amazing interactions that allowed me to learn more about the communities here, but thought it worth while to talk about this northbound journey as its own experience. Each time I’ve journeyed north along this route, I feel myself falling in love with this vast region, and feel my heart sink as I leave it to drive south. While the elements and wildlife still dominate this land in a rare way, human beings still find ways to thrive here too. This includes queer folks finding ways to be visible on the fringes of North America, while still passionately working in the hearts of careers not often associated with queer stereotypes.
My Journey North: Vancouver, BC to Haines Junction, Yukon
While on the road, I followed & friended a smorgasburg of random social media accounts (some of who were more visibly queer), then waited for people who were enthused about the project to start reaching out. During this process, I made a mental note of an Instagram account I found using the hashtag queer trucker. Troy’s posts were an eclectic mix of gourmet looking vegan dishes on the road and massive trucks slogging their way through the most dangerous, snowy highways of the north. I assumed he would be in Alaska for awhile, so decided to wait on contacting him while I focused on meeting the folks who were reaching out to me further south. He shot me a message before I left Vancouver though, inquiring as to when I would be heading north on the ALCAN. It turned out he was on one of his last driving assignments in Alaska before flying back to the Lower 48. That last assignment might possibly overlap with my travel time on the same stretch of highway by a day or two, or even just a few hours.
So, the timing for this journey north partly revolved around corresponding with Troy every time I had a rare spot of cell reception, and getting updates on frequent changes in his tightly run work schedule with long days that he had little control over. We determined that there was one tiny and remote town in the SouthWest Yukon where our paths might possibly cross to meet-up for photos and exchange our queer stories, but that fluctuating window of viable time in this small town was so slim. Keeping this in mind, I started north on a route that happened to be getting pummeled by climate change related issues.
My original route through British Columbia involved a road with massive frost heaves high enough to send a low speed car flying (known from experience!) and long stretches of unpaved road, but I initially felt comfortable with the route having driven it last spring. That is until I realized that record flooding from rapidly melting snow in the mountains was indiscriminately washing out huge chunks of this precariously maintained highway, closing the only northbound highway in western BC for days at a time.
My Plan B from Vancouver didn’t look much better; it involved adding 200 more kilometers driving further inland again, and the route was literally being torched by our warming climates. Huge chunks of British Columbia were on FIRE and would continue burning for much of the summer. Not far out of Vancouver, I found myself sitting on a closed highway for three hours with no detours around the fire compromised road. Further up the road, yet another section of the main highway was closed for fire danger, adding another 2 hours to my route driving around it.
As I counted my increasing hours on the road past Google Map’s estimated 30 hour drive, that meet-up with #queertrucker in the Yukon was looking a lot less likely, as his trucking schedule fluctuated wildly, and I wrapped my mind around not having a late spring snowstorm blocking the way north, but instead catastrophic floods and wildfires. In north-central BC, the road finally opened up and lighter plumes of wildfire ash drifted north over crystalline, slushy, blue lakes and patches of snow.
The wildfire smoke didn’t take away from the experience of being on a wildlife safari driving this highway. I’ve never taken a wildlife safari in a place like Africa, but I’m convinced the Alaska-Canada highway is North America’s extended, and perhaps cheaper version of a safari drive. You might need $500-600 one way for fuel, the ability to sleep in your vehicle due to lack of lodging options, time, and the willpower to drive it. Each time I’ve driven this 1400 mile long highway that starts in central BC and ends in Alaska’s interior, there’s been no shortage of wildlife sightings. Birds range from tiny colorful songbirds to swooping eagles and elegant swans. Mammals range from ground squirrels to marmots, foxes, coyotes, Dahl sheep, black bears, brown bears, and moose.
A Black Bear Greeting on the Yukon Border
This particular journey brought dozens of black bears to the grassy roadside as they emerged from hibernation hungry and gravitated towards easy snacks. For the first time in my life, I started getting bear sighting fatigue as I drove, only taking the time to pull off twice to attempt a roadside bear photograph.
A few miles shy of the Yukon border, I did stop to photograph one black bear who looked blissfully absorbed in tearing chunks of grass out of the ground on the opposite side of the road. Maybe not as blissfully absorbed as I thought though; as soon as I rolled down the driver’s side window to settle a long lens on the door, hungry bear bounded down into the ditch between us on the opposite side of the road. They reappeared a moment later, lumbering up out of the ditch, and making a beeline towards my open driver’s side window. I could picture it saying, “oh hey! I’m glad you stopped … I could really use a burger if you have one …” I scrambled to glide the window up and precariously settle my camera in my lap before rolling further up the breakdown lane.
I paused on the empty highway to put my camera beast away, and when I looked up realized hungry bear was still trailing my car. I locked the car doors, and waited a moment to see just how curious hungry bear was. Hungry bear was pretty optimistic, sniffing out the car’s perimeter, then standing up to take a peak inside while showing me its drooling, hungry mouth. Then I gave hungry bear a honk to scare them back into the grass, and continued the drive north, while grinning at this appropriately amusing “welcome back to the Yukon” from a black bear.
Being Queer in Trucking on the Fringes of North America
After a 10 hour driving stretch (900 km/600 mi) with no reception on my phone, my phone finally reconnected to the cellular world when I hit a tiny town on the BC/Yukon border around 5PM. I checked on Troy’s updated driving schedule, and shoot – it was going to be a lot to make a photo session work. He had to start heading north from this small Yukon town by late morning, which was still seven driving hours from my location. I was on my third day in a row traveling from sunrise to sunset with picnic breaks and bear viewing breaks, but I was still feeling energized – I was just stoked to be back in this crazy region of the world! The sun was not setting until 10:30 that night, so why not keep driving until dark? If the timing with Troy happened to work out in the morning with a couple more hours of driving, then we would both have another life story to tell.
Troy’s messages ranged from very succinct and to the point, to more proliferate, documentary style writing that shared small slices of his experience as a queer person in heavy, specialized trucking. He gave me a detailed description of the truck he was driving, at the only gas station in this small, remote town with enough room to park a large truck. As a female bodied traveler, my mother’s fearful approach to life rang in my head for a moment – maybe it wasn’t a good idea to meet up with a new internet friend in the remote reaches of the Yukon? … but really, everything in life has some level of risk. It was a public place in case the vibes weren’t good, my fretting partner on the East coast had my live GPS coordinates, and most noateably – I thought it unlikely that someone could make up the detailed life experiences of a queer truck driver that easily.
Troy greeted me with a relaxed smile, a washed out red mohawk, and clothes coated with the grease of yesterday’s heavy work day setting up equipment for gold mining camps. His initial conversational tone was somewhat flat and monotone, matching his more succinct messages. As he got comfortable with meeting this awkward photographer in the middle of his route, his more stifled conversational style gave way to slightly more animated discussion of his passionate support for other queer folks being as visible as possible in all professions. This passion was also necessarily tempered by the knowledge that he and many other queer folks in similar industries need to protect their own safety while on the job.
Troy does an incredible job articulating these issues and experiences both in conversation, and in writing, so asked his permission to reshare what he wrote about his experiences for All the Genders Photo Project:
Identifies: Male/ Genderqueer
Pronouns: He/ Him
Lives: Colorado, works in Alaska
I was six or seven years old when I first realized I fell outside of the “norm”. At that age I lacked the vocabulary to describe, or even properly understand, my experience and who I was. I remember my parents watching Billy Elliot and found I deeply identified with both Billy and his friend Michael.
When I was ten or eleven, I was playing with my younger cousin. She loved barbies and wanted a playmate, I was happy to oblige. Later, amongst some of the older members of the family, it was considered a humorous instance of a young boy playing with his cousin and her dolls. I recall this as my first instance of seeing the arbitrary application of gender tropes. I didn’t see playing with barbies as a gendered activity, simply something I was doing with my cousin. Societal norms were gendering the event.
Naturally, as a fifth grader, I didn’t understand it at that level of complexity. What I did know, however, was that I did not see the activity as “girly”, it simply was, and, further, I didn’t understand the humor that was found in it.
I could go bounding down a rabbit hole of all those moments where the eggshell began to crack as I aged. Sexual and gender confusion were an immersive quality of my adolescence.
It took years to learn more of who I was, and I still don’t believe I know entirely who I am. I’m unsure I ever will. As I stand today, I see gender as, frankly, a fluidic mess, epistemologically limited by linguistic shortcomings. I’m unsure we, as a species, will ever completely understand gender and sex, after all, in our current society, there is often a blatant bent towards some Aristotlean “female” and “femaleness” or “male” and “maleness”. Insofar as our species clings to these notions, I think we will always be incomplete in our ability to know and understand identity.
I still wrestle with that categorization. Though I endeavor to live my daily life with the perspective that gender and identity are largely informed by historical stereotypes, three decades of that is a difficult habit to overcome.
In simplest terms, I try to live who I am. I enjoy trucks, heavy, specialized work. But, I also enjoy hair. I enjoy tattoos. I enjoy fashion, makeup and other sartorial and cosmetological expression. That has led me to all sorts of places, people and experiences.
Alaska is remote. It is sparsely inhabited.
When I come driving over a vista with 1,000 square miles of nature on my horizon, a sole strip of asphalt or dirt, at times, ice and snow, winding the single stake of humanity in front of me, I’m reminded how insignificant I am. That is a most brilliant form of solitude. In nature, I have no more importance than the black bear or the prickly pear. The wind will blow against me, the rain and snow will fall against me with the same intensity and force as it does the trees, the rocks, the rivers and glaciers.
Nature is egalitarian, I am equal to it all, yet miniscule and powerless, no more and no less than all the biology, geology, chemistry and physics toiling on around me.
And, I experience that more in Alaska… in any rural locale, than I do in cities and municipalities.
In the forsaken and solitary endlessness of frontiers, I experience an equality I experience nowhere else.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE GAY, TO BE GENDERQUEER, TO BE “ABERRANT”, IN HEAVY INDUSTRY?
I’ve engaged in this work for nearly a decade-and-a-half. It was only in the last few years I’ve been more “out” than the preceding two-thirds of my career.
Over the years, as my skillset and experience increased, I have found myself more so in position of teaching and training. It often leads to working closely with other drivers where I have seen pronounced prejudice.
After all, Westboro-ism is an amorphous and general slur when it’s a group of bigots you pass on a roadway. But, hearing anger towards drag queens and the trans-community, hearing sophomoric, platitudinous gay jokes when working individually with people, the bigotry is coalesced to a concrete, identifiable notion in the individual.
And, yet, I am often working with these people around heavy equipment and tools that, if used improperly, could maim or kill them.
Safety, whether it be from homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, racism, et cetera, or from a wire rope splitting and whipping an operator with thousands of pounds of force, is something I see as a fundamental right. No one deserves to be unduly put in the path of danger. And, so, you teach them the same principles and rules of safety as you would anyone else.
Throughout my career, I’ve had to make decisions about how “out” I am in given situations. Sometimes more, sometimes less. It can be a matter of numbers and personal safety. I’m unsure if the industry will ever be prepared to see me as completely “out”, but, luckily, I have found those who do see me as who I am, who respect not only my knowledge and skill within the industry, but, also respect who I am as an individual.
I hope my inclusion on this project can show young lesbian, trans, gay, bi, and other queer folks that they can engage in industries and work that are notoriously heteronormative.
There are still sectors of society we must invade and demonstrate we are as capable as anyone. And, although I may not always be capable of wearing the Pride on my sleeve as a matter of my own safety, I hope that I can make some small impact on those endeavors.
While we stood on a cold, empty highway admiring one of North America’s highest mountain ranges and formidable ice fields, I asked Troy what dating on the road was like. He let out a belly laugh at my absurd question, and politely said “I don’t!” He described other encounters with queer folks in these remote, dangerous and often socially hostile working climates; they may each pick up on the signs that the other is queer, then subtly acknowledge each other with a sense of relief knowing that other marginalized people are quietly working on the same vast stretch of tundra.
Being Queer in Dog Mushing on the Fringes of North America
A few days after meeting #queertrucker, I took a hearty detour south to put my car on a ferry and spent another week car camping while getting to know the colorful, urban queer communities of Alaska’s capital. On the 6 hour ferry ride north, back to the main road system thru the Yukon, my phone lit up with a message from another person in Juneau who really wanted to be part of the photo project. Still eager to be a part of the project in some way, they gave me the number of their friend in Whitehorse. That friend had an aversion to being photographed, but enthusiastically gave the contact of another person in Whitehorse.
That fun chain of interactions led me to meeting Nate, a dog musher living outside of Whitehorse ( Northern Sharks Working Dogs ). We met at the home where Nate was renting a humble space for himself and had access to a much larger space for his team of dogs, which was almost more important. My interactions with Nate, and a few other dog mushers later on, gave me the sense that their lives were truly devoted to their dogs; the dog’s needs always came first, while the musher’s needs are secondary, but also inextricable from their canine connections. Nate tried to minimize time spent hustling just enough to earn money for living a simple lifestyle that supported the basic needs of a human being and multiple dogs, then maximizes time spent training, promoting his team, and being one with his team in the wilderness of the Yukon’s rolling hills and mountains.
Before I ramble on too much on how awesome it was to meet Nate, let me reshare his story and a few of the photos we took:
Pronouns: he/him, they/them
Gender identity: transman
Current home: Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada
From: Born and raised in Germany
Cultural background/identity: Colombian/German
Interests: dogs (mushing, training, kennel life), hockey, snowboarding, video editing/creation of short clips, board games
I distinctly remember feeling being born in the wrong body since I can remember watching my younger brother growing up, so around the age of 3-4. Although we shared the same interests and passions and often played together, his clothing, gifts and manners were always different from mine, and it was all the reflection of society and their idea of boy and girl. It was impossible for me to understand why I was treated so differently.
I was also raised catholic, and how damaging that can be is a story for itself, but I remember always wishing God had made me a boy, even from before elementary school. I am realizing that the inner little boy inside me died at some point around the age of 5-8 when humans in my life stopped treating me as a child, but started treating me as a girl and future woman of society, which is a very destructive concept for trans youth. For most of my teenage years I was bullied; I was just not one of the girls. I always felt like I was one of guys back then.
February 2017 was a turning point for me. I was in Australia attending university when I randomly found someone’s FTM (female-to-male) journey on YouTube, and I was stunned. I immediately wanted top surgery and I was mind blown what HRT (hormone replacement therapy) can do to a human. So, I started learning and reading, then I realized surgery was a pretty unrealistic dream – too expensive and not accessible, so I focused on finishing my degree and starting to save money for it.
During my high school years, I felt happiest with my dog; he gave me a reason to exist. I started training him, more and more professionally, and later started competing with him. The bond between a dog and a human is something that would later change my entire life.
After university, I decided to learn about dog mushing. I left Germany in September 2018 and began helping mushers. After learning how to raise, train, race and live with an average of 40 dogs over two consecutive winters, I knew this was my path. Fast forward about 5 years, and I now own a sled dog kennel myself. I built my kennel since my first dog and legend Tony became my first sled dog in 2018. Once I became a Permanent Resident of Canada, I went all in.
They are healing for me, the symbiosis between two species is very special. When I come back from work the entire kennel starts freaking out to see me. When we train, they are amped and so stoked to do something. Racing in the winter and travelling is their absolute highlight.
Humans nowadays have lost their connection to their inner animal. We are mammals, I am an animal, and my dogs help me reconnect not only to the animal in me, but to nature. When I am out on the trail with my team, it does not matter what my body is shaped like, society does not matter, because it is just me and my team. Adrenaline is being triggered, instincts sharpened, my senses are getting stronger, and I am using my body and its physical limits. I am learning what a human is capable of, which is way more than sitting in an office all day and watching a screen. We are so numb as humans, but I believe if we all reconnect more to our inner animal, use our bodies, go into nature and learn from other animals, we can heal.
Only a 2-3 hour drive from where I had photographed Troy in the snow 9-10 days earlier, Nate treated me to a four wheeler adventure a few miles through the bright green blooming trees blanketing the hills where his dogs ran free. We paused at a few places where Nate finds peace; Nate had an energetic conversational style as he passionately talked about his gender journey, and what it is like being visible as a transgender man in the northern dog mushing world.
In moments when his trusted companions sought Nate’s attention, his vibe subtly shifted to something mellower. I could only imagine this mellow calm carried him through hours of training that led up to placing in the Yukon Quest 100 this past year, a historically grueling route that still challenges dog mushers today. The photos I saw of Nate’s beaming (and cold looking!) face as he came up on the finish line with his grinning dogs and a large transgender flag proudly tucked over his sled are such a monumental way to be visible in his community, and in his profession that stretches back several thousands of years.
Last Reflections on Queer Visibility
As I reflected on what I learned from the rainbow of experiences of more than 20 people I met in the preceding few weeks traveling north, I marveled over how much courage it takes for so many of these individuals to be “out” in their communities and sometimes even to be queer allies in those communities. For some, visibility can be momentarily flashing a rainbow tattoo at a safe time to indicate that they are a safe space to another queer human, before resuming their isolated navigation of the most dangerously remote roads of the Arctic world. For others, visibility can be crossing the finish line of one of the country’s toughest sled dog races with a flag that shouts and celebrates their gender to the world. Both these forms of visibility are valid, both take courage, and both are so important to slowly chisel out room for other marginalized people to safely be themselves in all professions, in all corners of the world.