The good fight: Outdoors for all
@Pattie Gonia, Tomi Ceppi
Pattie Gonia, Tomi Ceppi
“You know, there's a certain amount of sacrifice and vulnerability that come with being as visible as I am,” says Erin Parisi. “But that message needs to get out: we need to create the bridges for trans people to see that they can find their way to adventure.” Parisi still baulks at the title of advocate. But in overcoming more than her fair share of the inherent fears, self-doubt and apprehension any of us face in speaking out, Parisi has risen above it all in the mission to make the outdoors a space for all.
The Colorado local was little known in 2018 when she announced she was aiming to become the first transgender athlete to climb the Seven Summits and fly the trans flag on the highest peak of every continent.
The experienced mountaineer has climbed for most of her life. But after her transition in 2016, Parisi’s personal goals shifted to a mission to change the narrative for the trans community in the outdoors.
“I felt ultimately shoved into the shadows and that I lost my voice through my transition,” says Parisi. “I wanted to stand above it, where I couldn’t be pushed into the shadows. There are no shadows here. That’s the place I wanted to say, ‘This is me. I’m proud.’”
Over the last four years Parisihas summited Mount Kosciuszko in Australia, Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Mount Elbrus in Russia, Aconcagua in Argentina and most recently, Mount Vinson in Antarctica. Now, she is setting out for the penultimate climb in her Seven Summits quest: Denali.
Over three arduous weeks this month, Parisi will attempt to summit the 6,190 m Alaskan giant.
Sharing her story through her nonprofit, TranSending 7 ↗, Parisi has dedicated her efforts to advancing transgender rights, with a particular focus on access to sports.
The topic of transgender people participating in competitive sports has been thrust into the spotlight in recent years, with moves from some high-profile organizations and government leaders restricting access to sport competition and athletic programs.
Guidelines for participation between sports vary significantly and research to steer decision making at the highest level is limited. This is largely because there are so few transgender athletes in the competitive sphere, and even fewer competing at an elite level.
Parisi’s efforts to stand on the highest summit on every continent highlight the barriers the trans community continue to face in the sporting arena, even in individual pursuits.
"I wanted to stand above it, where I couldn’t be pushed into the shadows."
“I used to be able to go anywhere and do anything I wanted, you know,” she says. “My existence was not seen as a crime. And now in a lot of places I go, my existence is a crime."
“But of course, I marched back into Tanzania and Russia to climb those mountains despite the laws that are designed in those countries to suppress me. I don't take it for granted, because for a long time I felt I had very much lost that opportunity, and I very much did lose it in a lot of ways.”
The hurdles Parisi has faced have become the inspiration for her focus on the accessibility of athletic programs for transgender youth.
At present in the United States, 18 states have enacted laws to ban or limit transgender youth from participating in school sports.
“A lot of opportunity comes from practicing sports. It's an avenue of growth from an early age, and that's getting taken from trans people."
“A huge amount of political energy is going into suppressing a very small minority. We're turning kids off the outdoors and we're missing out on developing allyship with people that are going to protect and take care of these lands going forward.”
Parisi says it’s the responsibility of others in the outdoor community to help engage the younger generation and create a safe space for inclusion.
“I hope that I can provide a small conduit for people to connect to that space, for the benefit of their health and for the benefit of the space.
“I really do believe that, ultimately, when the college sports, the Olympics, the winning and podiums are done, what athletics leaves us with is the right and the ability to go out on your public land, take a deep breath and enjoy the health benefits of being in nature and engaging in these activities.”
This is a sentiment many sporting organizations at the highest level agree with, including the International Olympic Committee, which has written into is charter that the ‘practice of sport is a human right.’
Parisi hopes sharing her narrative will help other people in the LGBTQ community take control of their own narrative, making the outdoorsa space for all.
“I didn't have a visible role model when I was 12, 13, 14,” she says.“I just felt isolated and stigmatized. I didn't think that there was a possibility of coming out.
“The reason that I want to share my narrative is because I know that at two o'clock in the morning, someone who feels stigmatized, alone and generally not embraced by society is going to find my story and say, ‘this is a trans narrative, and it's okay to talk about it, and I'm not different, and I don't need to suppress who I am.’”