Hunting Between Genders
November 16th: it’s opening day of rifle season here in Vermont. An hour before dawn, I park my car at the end of a rutted dirt road, beside several rusty pickup trucks: other hunters are already in the woods here. I’m in a remote mountain valley, far beyond cell service. My pre-season scouting indicates that there are many deer living in these woods, and it seems I’m not the only one who figured that out.
I load my rifle, shoulder my pack, and turn on my headlamp. The brown leaves crunch under my boots as I take an old snowmobile trail into the dark pre-dawn woods. Rounding a bend, I see another headlamp up ahead. Instinctively, I take a sharp right and head to a different spot than I had planned on. I hike far enough away from the stranger that I put a few ridges of land between his stray bullets and my blaze orange vest. Hunting is very safe when you do it right, but you never know what another hunter’s standards are going to be.
I watch a glowing sunrise that morning, find fresh deer tracks around some raspberry bushes, take a warm noontime nap, and see the sky blaze pink as the sun sets and the full moon rises. No deer come into my sights, but the meditative time on the land has fed my spirit. A half an hour after sunset is the end of legal shooting hours, so I shoulder my rifle and head back towards the snowmobile trail.
Suddenly I see him: a tall form dressed in camo, also carrying his rifle, headed towards the same trail I am. Having been socialized a woman I’ve absorbed a big dose of Amazon rage against gender-based violence in our society, which overlays my deep fear and paranoia about becoming a victim of these statistics. Suddenly I no longer feel like a trained hunter with every right to be here, but like a scared young woman alone in the woods with a man who has a loaded gun. True, I have a gun too… but that would be an awful choice to make.
He’s already seen me, so it’s too late to duck behind a boulder and let him pass. Instead, I square my shoulders and stride over to him. I’m tall for a female person, wrapped up in bulky layers of warm clothing, with a camo face mask partially obscuring just how hairless my chin and cheeks are. I get Sir’d a lot around town, and its time to call upon that masculinity: a glamour and a cloaking to protect me from whatever baser instincts might arise within this stranger. I pitch my voice lower than usual and greet him with a gruff and firm “Hello.”
His name is Rob, he’s from Montpelier, and he hunts here every year. I tell him my name is Murphy. We walk back to the cars, chatting briefly about the spots we hunted and the deer we never saw, and then part ways. Part of me feels ashamed of being so suspicious of him, since he seems harmless enough once we’re introduced. Any yet another part of me still fears what he might become if he knew I was female – and I’m pretty sure he hasn’t figured it out.
Next summer, my friend Colleen is hiking in those woods and meets Rob for the first time. When he meets her he immediately says, “Oh, you live near here? Do you know Murphy?”
“Murphy? Do you mean Mary Murphy? Yeah, she’s my friend.”
Confusion wrinkles Rob’s brow. “Mary Murphy? Umm… yeah, maybe that’s the same person.”
Rob is not the first to make that mistake, even when I’m not trying to encourage it. As a butch hunter, I almost always get Sir’d at gun stores and hunting stores. Context is a strong gender marker in our society, and the context of hunting is always Male Until Proven Otherwise.
A year after I met Rob, Colleen and I head to a Bowhunting Safety Course in deeply rural Vermont. We live in the “Rainbow Zone” near the capital city, where it’s perfectly safe to be gay, trans, have tattoos all over your face, or chant radical reform slogans in front of the statehouse all day. This training takes us into the Northeast Kingdom, where many barns are still painted with large letters proclaiming their owners’ desire to “Take Back Vermont” – a slogan popular with conservative voters after Vermont became the first state to legalize same sex marriage by popular vote. It seems likely that the residents’ opinions on the matter haven’t changed much in the decade since those letters were drawn, even if the paint is fading now.
I always admire Colleen’s fearlessness and unstoppable assumption of goodwill among the rednecks. Nothing seems to intimidate her. She’s a rugged and beautiful cisgender woman who is partnered with a man, and she seems to be able to charm everybody into liking her and helping her. When travelling into the heart of the Northeast Kingdom, I psyche myself out before we even arrive. Among the gun-toting rough and tumble good-old-boys, I feel very vulnerable. As a butch lesbian who hunts out of a quest for a deeply pagan spiritual intercourse with nature, I’m pretty sure they don’t want me in their gentleman’s club. As a female person among those men, I always feel like I’m under a very thin shield of protection, shielded by violent lust only by a sense of chivalry that is upheld by some of those men and not others. Should the balance veer toward the crude at a moment when I am far from a friendly eye, I know how it could go for me. I stride defiantly into these situations anyway sometimes, internally angry at my own fear and the statistics on which it is based, and not wanting to let it control me. The fear exhausts me, as does the vigilance I keep up, ever watchful and read to run.
Colleen approaches the table in the front of the hunting classroom, and cheerfully gives the man her name. He’s tall and muscled with buzzed blonde hair. He turns to me and asks, “And your name Sir?”
“Murphy,” I reply once again. He scans the list and checks me off, showing only a moment’s hesitation when he reads “Mary” in the first name column.
“You got Sir’d!” Colleen exclaims cheerfully as we return to her seats. She knows how much I enjoy the masculine form of address, especially when it is given spontaneously and not by request. Our friend with the registration list introduces himself as Kevin, ex-military, so no funny business today please and you’d better respect the teachers!
That afternoon Kevin takes me and a small group of archers out to the 3D target range, where we practice shooting animal-shaped foam targets. It’s me, a bunch of local guys, and a woman with a pink compound bow. Kevin tells us about a women’s firearm safety course he’s teaching in a few weeks, in case we know anyone who wants to come… “Well, I guess there’s only one woman here, but let your friends know!” Emboldened by his apparently classifying me as a man despite my first name, I ask for more details and mention that my girlfriend might want to go. He responds with enthusiasm and helps me learn to shoot down a steep ravine at a bear-shaped target at the next stop on our circuit. Am I being fully accepted as a man here? It’s hard to read.
As I’m putting my bow into my Subaru at the end of the day, Kevin comes over looking sheepish. “I wanted to apologize… at the beginning of the day, I called you Sir. I really didn’t mean to, I’m the kind of person who looks at clothes more than faces, I know I need to be more careful. I hope I didn’t insult you!”
I laugh to see him so braced for indignant feminine wrath. “Don’t worry about Kevin. It happens to me all the time and I think it’s kind of funny.” I don’t think he’s ready to hear that I find it deeply affirming of my masculinity, but that should assuage his guilt. He looks relieved to be forgiven.
A month later I show up at a Hunters’ Firearms Safety Course with my petite femme girlfriend in tow, eager to get her hunter’s safety card so she can hunt deer with me during rifle season later in the fall. We make a striking pair, me tall and broad shouldered with a handsome short haircut, her long dark hair falling over a bright red coat, dusky grey nail polish on her slender fingers, and nimble dancer’s legs. I’m not so sure this crowd will appreciate the pairing, however, and her hand on my thigh during the lecture makes it hard not to read us as a couple. During the first break in the class, Kevin comes over to say hello. I introduce Leonore as my girlfriend, bracing myself for an awkward moment, but he greets her with enthusiasm.
“You know, the guys started teasing me as soon as you walked in. They said, ‘Look, that’s Mary, she’s probably still mad at you for calling her Sir!’ I told them you thought it was funny.”
“You can call me ‘Sir’ any time, Kevin!” I respond cheerfully, relieved at his friendly acceptance. We chat about hunting classes, and he proceeds to tell me about a student he had named Dani. “Dani was going through a change… medically. You know, like she had been Daniel and now she was Danielle. I could tell something was up because she had really strong, muscular arms. But we wanted her to feel comfortable in the class and we helped her shoot a rifle for the first time.” The anecdote is apropos of nothing, but I accept it as the olive branch it is intended to be. This straight ex-military guy wants me to know I am welcome there. Emboldened, I ask him about the hunter’s safety instructor classes. “Oh, you should totally come to one! They’ll be next June, it’s really fun. You can come help teach classes with me any time. There’s lots of women in the hunter’s safety classes these days and we don’t have any women instructors. I think that’d be great!”
As he returns to the teaching team Leonore comments, “Wow, you’re one of the bros now. These hunting guys love you.”
“They love me? What do you mean?”
“Yeah! Kevin came all the way over here to talk directly to you and no one else during the break. Clearly they like you. You’ve even got an invitation to teach with them.”
She’s got a point. Here I am, in the middle of conservative rural Vermont, standing on stained carpet in a metal barn with a crucifix mounted to its front, surrounded by guys wearing Budweiser shirts… and it doesn’t seem to be a problem. My fears here are internal, they are the shadows of our larger cultural dysfunction around gender and sexuality that impede my ability to be curious about these people and their beliefs. It seems that in this case I am judging them much more extensively than they are judging me. I’ve got my reasons: memories of hiking the Appalachian Trail alone and having a strange man grope my legs in the middle of the night at shelter, tales of the lesbian couple who were shot seven times by an unseen gunman while kissing in on a mountain trail, the painful judgment of the Fundamentalist Christian protesters who countered the gay marriage marches I took part in when I lived in San Francisco. My fear is an attempt to keep myself safe, not let down my watchfulness when I am out of my home territory. There is power and resilience in my fear… but there is limitation too. Maybe I can let down my guard enough to connect across political lines. Maybe I’ll go to that hunting instructor training next June and feel safe enough to have some conversations around the campfire that will give us all some things to ponder as we go back to our lives in our homogenous communities where all our neighbors think like we do.
Murphy is a butch wilderness guide from Central Vermont who runs Mountainsong Expeditions, a wilderness skills company that offers trips and trainings that are welcoming and empowering to women, queer folks, trans folks, and their allies. She teaches classes in the Sacred Hunt each fall. Murphy’s strongly masculine gender presentation gives her ample opportunity to observe gendered reactions on a daily basis in the small town where lives. She accepts a variety of pronouns and loves to get Sir’d!