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The Juxtaposition of Pride in Hunting

The Juxtaposition of Pride in Hunting

The author on a pheasant hunting trip with his family as a kid.

A story of trying to balance self identity as a gay hunter

By most standards, I was a spoiled kid. I was blessed with upland and waterfowl opportunities from the onset. My first memory in the field was in the duck blind beside my dad – he let me (illegally) carry a BB gun into the marsh so I could feel like more of a man. In my defense, I didn’t fire a shot and the statute of limitations has passed.

I still have a picture of my first hunt – a day chasing pheasant in the fields of eastern Oregon with three generations of men from my family. You couldn’t have wiped the smile off my face after I took my first pheasant with a little youth model Remington 870, and I couldn’t help but boast to anyone that would hold still.

Growing up in a family where hunting was a tradition passed down for generations, my pride as a hunter was holistic. I was proud of the skills I had polished over the course of many years in the outdoors with my dad, uncles and grandfathers, of each ounce of meat I brought home to share, and of being a part of the greater community of sportsmen.

Finding that same, or any, pride in another part of my life, something that unequivocally makes me, “me” was an impossibility – being gay. The characterization of the gay community by those with whom I went out hunting warranted nothing but feelings of disgust. The adults and personalities I looked up to and respected only spoke of the negative stereotypes of homosexuality and associated the same with weakness or worse. This rhetoric shaped my thoughts around the subject and instilled feelings of inferiority from the start. I went to extreme lengths to conceal my true self and lived in a state of fear of being outed and labeled an outcast.

Pride was the furthest from what I felt. I felt shame in a part of myself I could not change, but could do my best to hide for the time being.

The day I finally came “out of the closet” wasn’t magic. I expected to feel liberated, but my reality was quite the opposite. After coming out, I felt a heavier weight on my shoulders. Now that I publicly identified as a member of the gay community, I put extreme pressure on myself to avoid being cast into any stereotype, whether good or bad, and I feared any shortcomings in my abilities, as an outdoorsman or otherwise, would be chalked up to me being queer.

I took pride in what I perceived as a lack of outwardly gay characteristics. Instead of serving as a positive example of the gay community and a conduit for change, I furthered the stereotypes by saying, “I’m not like ‘them’.” I may not have outwardly exhibited the stereotypes of the community, but I was perpetuating them nonetheless.

As I continued to hunt, I did so largely by myself – mostly out of fear of rejection in my outreach to new friends who also regulared the field and water, and the burden of having to “come out” again and again. I went out quail hunting and backpacking alone presuming no right-minded straight man would want to share a tent with someone like me or be willing to face the potential ridicule from buddies making analogies to Brokeback Mountain.

The one person I continued to hunt with was my dad. Each Christmas, I still fly back home to spend at least a few mornings in the blind at his duck club. The hunting is typically phenomenal so the small talk is kept to a minimum as someone usually has their mouth on a call or is busy helping the dog with a retrieve. Despite the fortunate conditions, the bigotry of the other hunters and old-timers still comes through. I’ve steered my way awkwardly around the subject of my love-life when topics of girlfriends or the suitability of women came up – and ignored the random “fag” usage. It’s a sore spot, but I still haven’t had the courage to speak up at the duck club. Admittedly, I don’t think it has anything to do with losing those “friends” so much as losing the annual invite to join my dad for a hunt while I’m home – likely not an acceptable excuse to be complicit in outright bigotry and feeding the last bit of self-hate that remains.

A decade in and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t still experience a moment of fear and hesitation for how the next person will react to learning I’m gay – knowing people will outright hate me as a whole for what amounts to only a small piece of the puzzle, sucks. Regardless, I’ve finally had the guts to be more forthcoming with those other outdoors-people I’ve surrounded myself with and meet, and my fears of rejection were hugely off-base. Though it’s hard to quantify, once I gained enough confidence to invite my buddies back out into the woods and on the water, I was met with nothing but acceptance, enthusiasm, and, at worse, indifference.

The same can’t be said with “coming out” as a hunter within the gay community (or society at large). Broadening my exposure and friend group, I heard the ugly side of the hunting stereotypes. More times than I care to count, I have faced ridicule and been cold-shouldered for my identity as a hunter or gun owner. I have been characterized by the acts of a few poachers and trophy hunters, just the same as my earlier influencers characterized gays only by those seen in pop culture or in the news.

I often try to talk (and write Instagram diatribes) about the values of hunting for conservation, sustainability and the enjoyment of the pursuit above any blood-thirst, but it’s hard for non-hunters to overlook the picture evidence or act of killing.

Unfortunately, it feels like I’m forced to pick between the two communities. How can I be a proud member of one, when I still hear the echoes of ‘shame’ in the other? It’s my hope, as more people stand and identify proudly in either, it will broaden the acceptance of each.

As hunters, we have to put our best foot forward in the image we’re portraying to society in order to ensure our community’s longevity. Your words and images have a lasting impact and will be extrapolated upon hunters at-large – whether it’s a trophy shot or unintended bigotry. Few of us find “pride” in killing an animal, or even being labeled a “hunter” – we find pride in connecting with nature, spending a day with friends and, if lucky, putting some food on the table. Not to mention, most of the hunters I know are some of the most upstanding conservationists around and go out of their way to welcome all people with open arms – but this is not the norm or public perception.

It took an army for me to garner the strength to come out, but the visibility of similar, ever-growing groups created by a new generation of hunter, not in age but in mindset, is increasing. These hunters are reshaping society’s image of the hunting community at large by giving people like me the strength and support to feel pride in their own “fringe” group or “identity” and working to expand the voices (and votes) we have on our side for the conservation of our wildlife, public lands and hunting heritage.

View Comments (13)
  • Justin, thanks so much for sharing your story. As much as we bond over our similarities in our love for upland hunting and bird dogs, it’s so important that we recognize, appreciate, and enjoy our differences in the wide variety of folks that are drawn together in these pursuits. The more we have courage to bring our own full humanity to these pursuits just makes them more interesting and a great platform for engaging across all lines of difference. Thanks for bringing your full humanity to this piece and for sharing your story as a bird hunter. If you ever find yourself in central VA, please reach out – would love to meet up to run dogs or a hunt. Kudos!

  • Justin, You are always welcome to come to AZ and hunt with us. I also have a couple of Small Munsterlanders.

  • Justin, You are also very welcome in our home in San Diego. Frankly, we have family and many friends who are in long established loving relationships, all hunt or fish and all of whom accept you for YOU.

    If you are ever in San Diego we quail hunt in the local hills and the Epanguel Breton will surprise you and keep you laughing at her antics.

  • Justin. Wow. I’m a long time hunter and gun dog owner, upland and waterfowl. I sent this text to my trans gender kid who loves being out waiting for pigeons, ducks and geese and is planning for his hunting license in a few years time. I think these examples are crucial. Cudos to you as well as to Project Upland for writing and publishing.

  • I am so sick of this idea of tribalism, people endlessly dividing themselves into groups and sub-groups, trying to outdo one another. Our generations obsession, idolisation and glorification of this idea of victimhood is creating mass division, not “awareness” which virtue signallers so desperately claim to achieve. Religion, race, sexual orientation, blah blah blah; who hell cares? Why can’t a hunter just be a hunter? Why does it have to be a homosexual, mixed-race, non-binary, gender fluid, coarse blonde haired hunting individual? There is a member of my hunting community who happens to be gay, but nobody thinks of him as “The Gay Guy.” He’s one of us, another hunter and to be frank that’s all we care about. Project Upland is obviously a millennial publication but as a millennial myself I can easily say it’s becoming far too millennial for my taste. The PC direction your have taken is quite off putting and irrelevant for why most of us follow(ed) you in the first place.

    • That’s an interesting take and not what I walked away with from the piece. It’s almost like we read two different things. I thought it celebrated what brings us together in upland hunting despite the ways we’re different. As a straight white male, I can honestly say I’ve never once felt those particular parts of myself and my identity made me feel unwelcome among literally any of my fellow hunters. And yet, I can imagine someone who is female, gay, or trans, or Black, or Latinx, etc. might have experienced a time or two at least not feeling welcomed among our upland “tribe” – or worse, encountered open hostility or felt unsafe because of that. That’s not beyond our ability to imagine is it? What if articles and perspectives like this, which make up probably no more than 1/1000 of the content of this platform were not lib “virtue-signaling” but instead just an effort to make sure everyone feels valued and welcomed in our sport so everyone hears or sees or experiences at least one or two standard-bearers in our world openly express that welcome? Would that really be so bad? Because that’s what I see here in Justin’s excellent and thoughtful piece, which, by the way, credits his fellow upland hunters with more open-mindedness and acceptance than he has experienced among his other circles of friends about his being a hunter. What if your buddy that you mention wrote a piece like this about his experience? Would you be as offended, or would you ask him more about it? I both suspect and hope the latter. Peace!

  • Sounds like most of your hunting buddies have shown some acceptance for you and those that don’t …….the hell with them. As for your other peer group………..I find bacon wrapped game appetizers and wild boar sausage quell the peanut gallery quite a bit in most settings, but I’m in NOLA so hunting and especially fishing are part of the culture. Hope you don’t let cretins on either side of this country’s lamentable culture wars rain on your parade!

  • The North American model of wildlife conservation is the most successful in the world. It depends on funds from hunting and fishing licenses as well as Pittman Robertson taxes from the sale of firearms and ammunition to pay for state wildlife management. A few states have seen hunter numbers decline to the point that general state funds are required to maintain the department. When this happens state legislatures start making wildlife decisions via the political process vs using science based decisions from wildlife commissions and departments.

    We can not afford to lose any hunters or fishermen and should welcome anyone that wants to participate as a brother or sister. Unless we want to look like Europe where only the rich can hunt, we need to recruit as many participants as we can.

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