Whilst researching an upcoming trip to Sumatra I discovered that there is a distinct lack of LGBT adventurer role models. And of those that are out there, details of their endeavours are not immediately apparent.
Unlike when you google ‘famous explorers’ or ‘famous modern adventurers’, you don’t get a handy google generated list of ‘famous LGBT explorers’. Instead, as if to reinforce common stereotypes, Google gives you a suggested list of ‘famous queer poets.’
Historically speaking, adventure and exploration have been the pursuits of straight, white men but there are some notable exceptions. Whilst writing this piece I actually came across more LGBT adventurers than I initially thought there were. The problem is that their incredible accomplishments are nowhere near as visible as those of their straight, cisgendered counterparts.
The naturalist, geographer and explorer Alexander von Humbolt (1769-1859) was known to have infatuations with other men but outside of scientific circles you may only recognise his name from the squid that was named after him. His works were the foundation of the field of biogeography.
Then there was Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890), an explorer who once disguised himself as a Muslim and undertook the pilgrimage to Mecca. Due to the laws and societal pressures of their time however, neither of the men openly admitted that they were anything other than heterosexual.
Count Eigil Knuth (1903-1996), described as ‘The last great Arctic explorer in the classic mould’ was an accomplished explorer, especially noted for his exploration of Greenland and as the co-founder of the Arctic Institute. Despite not being shy about his sexuality, he later regretted that he didn’t publicly declare his homosexuality earlier on in his career.
Sir Wilfred Thesiger (1910-2003), often dubbed the latter day Lawrence of Arabia spent five decades as a writer and explorer. He travelled extensively throughout the Middle East and lived with indigenous Arab tribes. Thesiger maintained the opinion that his private life was his own and always refused to discuss the matter. He did however provide evidence of his homosexual urges in his writings and when in his 30’s he met a 16 year old Arab boy who became the love of his life. Like Count Eigil Knuth, Thesiger was one of the last great explorers of the 20th Century.
I was able to find fewer examples of lesbian and bisexual women but their achievements are non the less impressive.
Sally Ride (1951-2012) was the first American woman to go to space and after her death it was revealed that her partner of 27 years was Tam O’Shaughnessy, making her the first known LGBT astronaut.
Amelia Earhart (1897-1937) was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic in 15 hours. Although married, it is generally considered that she had an affair with Eleanor Roosevelt.
Margaret Mead (1901-1978) was the foremost cultural anthropologist of her time, exploring remote regions of South America and the South Seas. Mead never publicly admitted her sexuality but after her death, correspondence between her and fellow anthropologist Rhoda Metraux revealed their intimate relationship and confirmed her bisexuality.
Skip forward to today and there is still only a handful of modern gay adventurers and the field is still dominated by straight, white men; although there are thankfully many inspiring women adventurers these days too. I could only find a few examples of openly lesbian and gay modern adventurers:
Ann Bancroft was the first woman to trek to the North Pole, the first woman to cross both polar ice caps, the first woman to ski across Greenland and alongside Norwegian adventurer Liv Arnesen was the first woman to ski across Antarctica.
Sarah Outen undertook a trip entitled London2London: Via the World – 25,000 miles and 4.5 years looping the planet on a rowing boat, bike and kayak. She also Solo rowed across the Indian Ocean from Australia to Mauritius.
Mikah Meyer became the youngest person to visit all 400+ US national parks and the only person to do it in one continuous trip. Whilst looking for sponsorship for his trip he initially thought it necessary to hide his sexuality from prospective sponsors. After all, how many gay people can you name that are outdoor brand ambassadors? It was only later that he realised his sexuality gave him a unique selling point.
Cason Crane summited Kilimanjaro aged just 15 and by age 20 he become the first openly gay man to complete the seven summits (the highest mountains on each of the seven continents). In doing so he raised $135,000 for the LGBT youth suicide prevention charity The Trevor Project.
Gavan Hennigan is an adventurer and extreme endurance athlete from Ireland. His adventurous exploits include the fastest solo time for the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, polar mountaineering, Arctic ultra marathons, high altitude climbing and becoming one of very few people to cross lake Baikal in winter – pulling a 60kg sled 700km in 17 days (that’s a marathon a day!).
Also to row the Atlantic as part of the fastest 3 man team was David Alviar, who proposed to his boyfriend as soon as he arrived back on land.
As far as Trans adventurers go, I had to do some serious digging. In 1934 Maurice Wilson (1898-1934) made an attempt to reach the summit of Everest and despite dying, it is still uncertain as to whether he died on the way up to the summit or on the way down. If the latter, he would be the first European to reach the summit – 19 years before Hillary and Norgay. When his body was recovered the following year he was found to be wearing women’s underwear and in 1960 a Chinese expedition found a woman’s dress shoe. I don’t know for certain if Wilson was a trasvestite or if it was just another quirk of his eccentric personality; he attempted Everest having never climbed a mountain before, bought an aeroplane to fly to India having never flown before, crashed, flew again and then had his plane impounded by the British Government of India.
In 1953, transgender woman Jan Morris, at the time known as James was the sole reporter embedded in the team that saw Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reach the summit of Everest. Jan went on to lead a remarkable life, travelling the world as a journalist interviewing people like Che Guevara and becoming an accomplished author. In 1972 she had gender reassignment surgery which she talks about in her book ‘Conundrum.’ Like me, Jan lives in North West Wales which I was both pleased and surprised at, as until writing this piece I had never heard of her before.
In 2014 Manoj Shahi Monika, a Nepalese transgender woman said she wanted to be the first trans woman to summit Everest. Other than that, I cant find any further information on her proposed expedition or whether she was even serious. So, it looks as though there is still an opening for the first trans person to summit Everest.
Researching this piece has certainly made me aware of more LGBT adventurers but has highlighted the need for us to more visibly celebrate their accomplishments. LGBT people, particularly those who may be struggling with their sexuality need more role models to show them that being LGB or T wont stop them from achieving great things. According to Stonewall, up to 76% of LGB school children in the UK have contemplated suicide and living in a world where the word ‘gay’ is often used to mean something rubbish or inferior, it’s long overdue that LGBT children were shown that this isn’t the case.
If I have missed any people out of this article that you think I should have mentioned then please let me know in the comments section.