An angler of privileged identity reexamines assumptions of how welcoming the outdoors is to people of marginalized identities
On a sunny weekday afternoon, seated outside at a restaurant near my hometown (to maintain social distancing), an event occurred which has caused me to reexamine my assumptions about how welcoming outdoor recreation really is. Demographically, I’ve simply never had occasion to experience discrimination in the outdoors. And while I believed accounts I had read of it, I had never experienced it. Until that day in July.
Discrimination simply doesn’t happen often to people who check the same demographic boxes of privilege that I do: white, male, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, middle age. These are not identifiers that I often think about, because I rarely have to. I’m not reminded of them when I walk into a room by the reactions of others, I simply walk into a room. In the outdoors, or travelling to a location to participate in outdoor recreation, I’ve never really had to account for how anyone else would perceive me based on any of those demographic qualifiers. I just went and enjoyed myself. And maybe that’s why I assumed, like many do, that the outdoors is a place equally welcoming to all; my privilege has afforded me that assumption.
It came as a shock, then, when I experienced discrimination directed at me, especially near my hometown in northern Michigan. About two miles from the house I was raised in, someone tried to intimidate me, tried to make me feel unwelcome, because of what they (drunkenly) assumed was my sexual identity. As to how this relates to the outdoors, you have to understand that I come from an outdoor paradise, a little town in northern Michigan in the midst of a chain of freshwater lakes and near Lake Michigan, both of which draw anglers and other outdoor watersport enthusiasts to paddle, swim, boat, tube, and especially to cast lines.
I was up in the area filming for an upcoming documentary we’re producing about Asian carp and the resources at risk if they invade the Great Lakes. With me was freelance filmmaker Jordan Browne, a producer for Michigan Out-of-Doors TV, who I had also worked with in producing Northwoods Unleaded. We had filmed an interview that morning on Little Traverse Bay and decided to grab lunch before an afternoon shoot. I chose the restaurant near the north end of Torch Lake because, in addition to great food and service, it had outdoor seating where we could maintain social distance. I’ll leave it unnamed because no one at the restaurant had any negative role in the incident and this incident shouldn’t define it or its staff.
We sat down at the table across and diagonal from each other. Not long after, I heard a drunken and aggressive voice yell, “What, are you two ‘fa_s’ or something?” Jordan and I looked at each other with shock, not just because we were two straight men, but because we couldn’t believe someone would say this to another human being in 2020. Maybe it would have been easier to explain to the guy that we were, in fact, straight men working on a film project together. But that would have conveyed the message that it was somehow okay for him to yell that to us if we were a couple. And it wasn’t.
I turned behind me to look at the guy for the first time: Upper middle age – maybe late 40’s or 50’s. White, mustache, heavyset, wearing a blue t-shirt that read, “If guns kill people, then I guess pencils misspell words, cars make you drive drunk, and spoons make you fat.” So possibly armed. Two half-full Coronas in front of him. His mortified wife sat across from him at the only other occupied table on the patio.
“No, but so what if we were?” I replied, admittedly with perhaps some challenge in my voice.
I turned back to Jordan. We talked about it, acknowledging that it was the first time anything like that had happened to us. We expressed our surprise and disappointment that someone would say that. In 2020.
“Actually,” I said, “on the other hand maybe that’s a very 2020 thing to happen.”
We could hear the man mumbling to his wife the whole time, catching things like, “They are, I know they are. I’m going to take care of them.”
Then I saw Jordan lift his gaze. I turned and the man had stood up and was walking toward us. He stopped maybe five or six feet away, but I wasn’t thinking about social distancing. He just glared at us. I glared at him. I didn’t want to fight, especially on work time. At lunch. On a weekday. But my mind was thinking through which way I would duck if he swung and if I’d have to counter in self-defense. No clue what I would have done if he had a gun as his t-shirt advertised, and he decided to “take care of us,” as he had mumbled to his wife. I imagine Jordan was thinking the same.
“Leave them alone, please,” the man’s wife pleaded. “They haven’t done anything to you.”
After a few seconds that felt like minutes, he returned to his seat. I took a sip of water with my left hand and it trembled. Whether from anger or the release from the tension of the preceding moment, I don’t know. The man’s wife requested their bill when their waitress returned (who I knew from high school) and they left, him still carrying his beers to the car. He attempted a drunken apology and Jordan and I dismissed it, just hoping he’d leave before he started something again.
While I’ve believed what I’ve read about discrimination participating in or travelling to places for outdoor recreation, it’s completely different when you experience it, even though it wasn't my own actual identity being targeted. For anyone who’s experienced something like this, possibly multiple times, especially if you’re of any different demographic intersection of identities, I don’t have to tell you this. But if you’re like me, and you assumed that things like this didn’t happen, or didn’t happen anymore in this day and age, I write this to tell you that it does. Hate exists. And it expresses itself even where people come for outdoor recreation.
I was more aware, then, when we traveled to Indiana to film a scene for the Asian carp film on the Tippecanoe River and the trailer across the dirt road from the boat launch flew a Confederate flag. And I was more aware when trying to book my campground reservation for a scene we filmed on Kentucky Lake in Tennessee and seeing that the nearest state park was named the Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park, after the former Confederate general and early leader of the Ku Klux Klan (I stayed elsewhere). I might have noticed these things before and passed silent judgment, but that was before someone had tried to intimidate me for what he thought I was and make me feel unwelcome in my own hometown. How would someone of traditionally marginalized identities feel if they were going to fish that river and saw that flag – would they feel welcome? Or safe leaving their truck and trailer after launching their boat? Or staying at that state park, built in the Depression in the midst of Jim Crow and designated a state park with that name in 1963 at the apex of the Civil Rights era?
I relayed my experience to LGBTQ and Black colleagues (who were open to talking about it, not to add burden). Their response was that it happens much more often than we hear about in the news, that it can be one more thing which needs to be taken into account during outdoor recreation. Which direction is the wind blowing, what’s the temperature, are there any bigots around I need to watch out for?
These are things which none of us as hunters and anglers can be blind to, anymore. The outdoors is where we go for relaxation, to escape daily pressures, to interact fully with nature. When bigotry is an omnipresent threat, that cannot be done, and enjoying it fully becomes one more privilege some of us can enjoy which others cannot. That’s not right.
Honestly, if I wasn’t from that town, if the discrimination directed at me was my first experience up there having traveled there to do some fishing - as I used to on that lake with my grandpa – I probably wouldn’t return. If I wasn’t a responsible gun owner, I might attribute that man’s actions to be typical of gun owners. If I wasn’t friends from high school with his waitress, I wouldn’t have learned later that he wasn’t even from the area, he was vacationing from suburban Detroit. I might have attributed his actions to the people I grew up with.
Hopefully, more importantly, if we hadn’t challenged his bigotry, he might have felt more comfortable directing that at a real LGBTQ couple. If at least he doesn’t do that again, then something good came of the incident. Or at least if those of you of similarly privileged identity, having never experienced it, are more aware of how the outdoors can be unwelcoming to people of marginalized identities, then we can make the outdoors more welcoming. Most of all, for those of you who have experienced discrimination in the outdoors, know this: I believe you.
The Great American Outdoors Act will fully and permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund while investing in a backlog of public land maintenance, providing current and future generations the outdoor recreation opportunities like boat launches to access fishable waters, shooting ranges, and public lands to hunt as well as the economic stimulus we need right now.