By: Erin Parisi, Mountaineer and Athlete Ally Pro Ambassador
Running. Hiding. Fearing myself. This defined three decades of my life. Hiding in my safety and privilege, I witnessed transgender people forced to live in secrecy for their own safety. I hopelessly resigned myself to believing I lacked the strength to find inner peace in my life.
I grew up in the suburbs of upstate New York. As a teenager, I worked to save up money to buy feminine clothes and make-up. To avoid being outed as trans before I was ready, I used to bike to neighboring towns to go shopping. I lived in a constant cycle of shame and suppression.
After I graduated college, I moved to Colorado where I found a great job, took up outdoor sports, and found solace in the wilderness. This gave me cherished friendships and growth, but I still felt the emptiness of hiding my true self from the world. Eventually, the hiding became too much. After committing my entire life to the flawed notion that I could somehow change who I am, I realized there was nothing wrong with me. I was deeply afraid that committing to survival and my authentic identity could cost me everything I loved, but I also knew I had no other choice.
After exhaustive deliberation, I started hormone therapy. I was isolated, living in secret, and roiled by divorce. One day, I reached out to a lifelong friend and asked if we could talk. I was terrified she would judge and abandon me. Anxiously and awkwardly, I painstakingly bared my soul to her. She offered something completely different than what I expected; in a moment of complete vulnerability, my friend returned acceptance, love, comfort and reassurance.
Occasional loss marred my transition; my marriage fell apart, some family and friends silently vanished, and I felt an uncertainty like learning to walk again. Largely, my fears proved worse than my reality. My confidence slowly grew, and I felt relief I’d never known. I also found an amazing surprise; life unexpectedly became easier, not harder.
No longer consumed by running, hiding from and fearing myself, I pondered what to do with this newly felt freedom and empowerment. The answer was obvious: live again. I now had a renewed strength from accomplishing something I never thought possible. My passion for sports and the wilderness reignited, I reapplied for a passport in my changed name and set sights on proudly climbing the highest mountain in every continent as my true self – a goal known as the “Seven Summits.” Just over 400 climbers have seen the peaks of the Seven Summits, hailing from dozens of countries and spanning over 60 years of age difference. In all of those climbers who have stood on these seven highest peaks, none are known to have been transgender.
From the start, I’ve been committed to following the International Olympic Committee’s competition guidelines for transgender female athletes. The first mountain I climbed after my transition was Australia’s highest peak, Mt Kosciuszko, before next attempting Africa’s Mt. Kilimanjaro. I had hiked it once before, prior to my transition, and was surprised to see the same ground crew this time around. But in order to protect my personal safety, I never disclosed my past to them or let them know I had met them before. Hiking as a woman was a profoundly different experience. On International Women’s Day 2018, I cried in the redeeming morning sun of Kilimanjaro’s peak knowing I’d accomplished this in an honest iteration of my soul.
Shortly after Kilimanjaro, TranSending7.org was founded as a 501c3 dedicated to improving transgender lives and life outcomes through visibility projects designed to promote inclusion in sports. My Seven Summits bid was selected as the inaugural project, and TranSending is providing fundraising and logistical support. Our inaugural Seven Summits mission backs my attempt to become the first known trans person to stand on the peak of Mt. Everest, and also to stand atop the other six of the Seven Summits.
Through visibility, awareness and education, we hope to expand athletic opportunities for trans people and create safe places in the outdoors and sports where trans people can gain vital life skills. The world has often celebrated the successes of, and mourned the loss of, those who aspired to lift their communities through mountaineering. In many ways, I hope to do the same. Trans people often face grave social implications from suicide, drug abuse, violence and poverty. In sports, we look to forge a positive narrative in the hopes that nobody will ever have to face the isolation I faced.
I’m excited to be an Ambassador for Athlete Ally because it’s important to ensure the benefits of sport are guaranteed to every athlete, from indoor sporting courts to the highest mountain tops. Having spent my life relegated to shadows, I now see these summits as the only places where no shadows exist. They represent the highest points where I can stand unashamed, strong and confident in who I am, and announce to the world, “I will not hide!”
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Learn more about Erin and TranSending at TranSending7.org.