Seasons are marked by change. Hot, humid summer days give way to crisp fall evenings. Crisp fall evenings give way to bitter cold winter nights. Bitter cold winter nights give way to mild spring mornings. Here at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I’ve stood in awe of the wildflowers and the butterflies they attract at the height of summer only to watch them recede with the onset of fall. I’ve witnessed the vibrant green leaves of the deciduous trees burst into a myriad of colors then dwindle with the onset of winter. I’ve watched Broad-winged Hawks soaring high in the sky during their southerly migration and observed the increased activity of the elk during their rut. But the seasons aren’t the only thing that have changed during my tenure here. I’ve changed as well.
Two years ago in December, I sat huddled on the floor of a professor’s office full of anxiety and fear as I drafted a Facebook post revealing to the world that I identified as transgender. I was terrified about how people would react and if they would still accept me for who I am, but coming out had literally become a matter of life and death as I struggled with thoughts of suicide to the point of hospitalization. As I finally hit the “Post” button, there was an unexpected surge of relief. A huge burden, one that I had carried in secret my whole life, was finally lifted. To ease the tension of waiting for responses, my professor, an ornithologist, took me on a stroll around campus to do some birding.
We all know very well though that the pace of social media is lightning fast! Within minutes, there was an immense outpouring of love and support from family and friends. With a great sigh, I was able to breathe again. Things didn’t get instantly easier, though. In some ways, my life got more complicated. When you’re in the closet about being transgender, you don’t have to worry about “simple” things like using the men’s or women’s restroom, what name people call you by, and the pronouns they use. Also, coming out isn’t just a “one and done” kind of deal. It’s an ongoing process, and, for a shy introvert, an extremely hard one. I was bombarded with the same prying questions over and over – How did you know you were trans? When did you know? What exactly does it mean? For someone that finds chitchat about things as innocuous as the weather difficult, it was exhausting! The thought that it would have been easier to stay in the closet passed through my mind.
Acting on that very thought a few weeks later, when I interviewed, accepted, and began the paperwork process for a summer SCA position in Yellowstone National Park, I made no mention of my transgender identity. It wasn’t hard to do. I hadn’t legally changed my name or anything that would show up in any documentation. Just days before I was scheduled to embark on this new adventure, my parents were still very unsure about letting me go. They had good reason to be. I was still very insecure and dealing with intense feelings of body dysphoria that had led to another bout of hospitalization for continued suicidal ideations. My therapist at the time also expressed extreme concern to them about the risks involved, and so did my professor. This left my parents in an unbelievably difficult situation. On one hand, there were professionals telling them it was a bad idea to let me go, on the other, there was me begging them for their permission. In the end, at a loss, they decided that they didn’t want to stand in the way of what they knew was my greatest dream and an opportunity of a lifetime – to land a job at America’s first National Park.
Getting to Mammoth Hot Springs, where I was going to be stationed as an interpretation intern for three months, was a daunting challenge in itself! I had never driven more than 10 hours away from home by myself. It took me three days, 34 hours of driving, and learning how to rent a hotel room to get to the park! Once I crossed into park boundaries, my excitement was tangible. Yellowstone is a magical place full of a wide diversity of wondrous things, from geothermic features to mountain ranges, roaring rivers and waterfalls to peaceful forests, majestic bison and moose to the tiniest ground squirrel. After all, it was a two-week trip out West to Yellowstone and other National Parks a decade before that planted the seed of wanting to become a park ranger in my mind.
When I reached the Albright Visitor Center to check in with my site supervisor, the act of once again hiding my trans identity began. But as I would shortly find out, no one was more deceived than I was. I only made it a week and a half into my position before I broke down and ended up in another hospital. Not only was I far from home this time, but I was also plagued with feelings of guilt and fear. I had let down the National Park Service, the Student Conservation Association, and myself. While my parents, my professor, my therapist, and even my SCA advisor called and texted me to provide consolation and support, I was consumed by the thought that if I made it out of there, whatever future I had was shot. I would be black listed from ever working in the NPS again and the SCA would want nothing to do with me.
Yet here I am! Working in the most visited National Park of the country during the Centennial year! Many days it still seems surreal. Is this actually, truly, possibly, maybe happening?!? How did I go from someone that spent the majority of their life steeped in insecurity and darkness wishing they were dead to someone full of confidence and bursting with passion that has never been happier?
My dad flew out to that hospital in Wyoming to pick me up and drive me back home where I was immediately admitted to another hospital. My life for the remainder of the year, if you can call it a life, consisted of being in and out of the hospital, put on this drug and that, and being shuffled from therapist to therapist for intensive treatment. Even with the unwavering love, support, and encouragement of those close to me, I let myself wallow in despair. You can imagine my utter surprise then when my SCA advisor, who regularly checked up on me, told me about the Centennial Volunteer Ambassador positions and expressed he thought I was a good fit for them and should apply.
With hope renewed, that’s exactly what I did! Of course, I had to convince a lot of people – most importantly myself – that I was up to the challenge of returning to the “real world.” I still hadn’t demonstrated any marked improvement in my condition or even the want to improve up to that point. But little by little, I began my re-immersion into society. Instead of being inactive, I became proactive. In conjunction with his fellow SCA colleagues, my adivsor and I came up with a plan to help ensure that I would be successful if elected to a CVA position. On their part, they would only forward my application to parks they felt would be supportive and provide a safe environment . On my part, once parks received my application for review, I would reach out to them to discuss being transgender.
All the parks I contacted were very receptive, and ultimately, I was offered and accepted the CVA position in the Smokies! What I am truly astounded by, and grateful for, is the amount of effort the staff of the park put into making me feel welcome and comfortable before I even got there! Half of the park lies in North Carolina, and when the controversial bathroom law was passed, my future supervisor immediately called to let me know it did not affect the park since it’s federal land. Then I was asked to participate in a conference call with the park superintendent (Yeah, the freaking superintendent!!!!!!!) to discuss what he could do to make sure I was respected. Love at first phone calls? Definitely!
Since the first day of our CVA positions, to sitting here typing this 7 months later, I have continuously fallen further in love with the Student Conservation Association, the National Park Service, and their people. Our people. Our family. No matter how far apart we are, how different our parks may seem, and what role we play in them, we are all linked and driven by the same mission. Preserve and protect. Conserve and connect. Sharing that mission with you all has helped me develop tremendously on both the professional and personal fronts.
Before this year, I had little understanding or appreciation for the administrative work that happens behind the scenes of National Parks. I was ignorant. Like most visitors to the parks, I had only really witnessed employees in the field – interpreters, maintenance, law enforcement, biology technicians, fee collectors, gift shop clerks. That narrow field of vision was maintained during my previous NPS internships as well. And as they say, what’s out of sight is out of mind! I was absolutely amazed during my first day working at Park Headquarters when I was introduced to people like the Concessions Specialist, Safety Officer, and Fire Management Officer. I had never thought of such positions existing! And I had certainly not thought I would become a part of administration myself!
It was a little terrifying actually, as trying new things often can be. My preconceived notion of “administrative work” was lots and lots of phone calls and email correspondences. To give you a hint on how I feel about answering phone calls, during my first NPS internship at Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, I would suddenly have to go to the bathroom, check the stock room, rove the museum, or do any number of other tasks when the phone rang! Needless to say, my coworkers caught on to the ploy and flipped it back on me to where I was the only one available to answer the phone! And emails? Ahhh! I’m also diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and anything that involves writing, especially typing, takes an exorbitant amount of time and energy.
Thankfully, answering phones and emails have become second nature now. So has public speaking, community outreach events, organizing volunteer service projects and enrichment activities, and backing vehicles into parking spaces. I’ve also become adept at taking on leadership roles, from leading volunteers in service to coordinating the park’s social media team, to serving as the park representative on the Knoxville Health Advisory Board and joining the leadership committee of the National Park Service Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender/Queer+ Employee Resource Group.
There have still been hiccups along the way of course, but as always, people are there for me when I stumble. I had a rough patch early on with body dysphoria that had me falling back on negative coping skills like self-harm. My coworkers swiftly helped me find a local therapist and got me involved in a new, much more positive coping skill – Tai Chi! Our Backcountry Specialist (Yes, that’s another position I didn’t know about!) teaches the class once a week in the neighboring town of Galtinburg. It has been incredibly helpful, both mentally and physically. It’s relaxing to the point I’ve almost fallen asleep during class, it helps me focus solely on the moment and nothing else, and it has improved my balance and grace – two qualities that are rarely associated with me. Yes, I’m the kind of person that can trip over air. The sessions can also provide much needed bouts of laughter to those involved as we struggle to master new forms. When I say improved balance and grace, it’s still sorely lacking.
I have also been involved in my first car accident, unfortunately in a government vehicle, but thankfully no injuries were sustained by any involved. Ironically, it happened the day after I had taken another government vehicle to the body shop for damage repairs. The event triggered a full blown panic attack, and instead of sending more than willing volunteers to come pick me up, my supervisor came herself. Once we got back to Headquarters, another supervisor took me to her house for the rest of the day to make crafts and bake cookies. Over the following days, coworkers came to my office to regale me with stories of their own government vehicle mishaps to make me feel in good company.
Most recently, all of us at the Smokies and in the surrounding communities have had to live through the devastating and tragic wildfire that ravaged the park and spread into the cities destroying homes, businesses, and causing 14 fatalities shortly after Thanksgiving. All of our stories during that extremely stressful, chaotic, and uncertain situation differ. The fire, under investigation as arson, originated at an area called Chimney Tops in the park. It remained small until hurricane force winds spread the embers, sometimes up to a mile away, and started successive spot fires.
Personally, I was working in Headquarters on Monday, the 28th keeping all our social media platforms updated on the most current fire information until we were forced to flee the park. As we were driving out, we encountered flames and branches right on the roadways. I’m not known for swearing, but I swore. A lot. A lot a lot. We made it to our egress point, a hotel in Pigeon Forge, but were forced to evacuate there shortly after as a spot fire had erupted right behind it. We retreated to the next city, Sevierville, and found a hotel. I spent two nights there with a bunch of other interns evacuated out of housing. If there’s one positive thing about emergency situations, they bring out a greater sense of community. Many of these interns and I had discussed having get-togethers outside of work that had never materialized. Now forced to remain in each other’s company, we went to the movies and ate out.
After learning that the park would be closed for a few more days at least, I drove home to spend time with my dad who had been planning to stay with me in the Smokies that week until the fire changed everyone’s plans. Coming full circle, I once again found myself sitting in my professor’s office, in December, with feelings of apprehension. I had just found out that I was allowed to move back into park housing at the beginning of the following week and was unsure if I was mentally prepared to at the time or if I wanted to remain home a little longer. My professor then said something so simple, yet something that hit me so profoundly – “You belong in a park.”
Feeling a sense of belonging was something that I had struggled with my whole life. Something that I had desperately craved. Am I a girl? Or am I a boy? Neither? Both? An alien from outer space? A shiny unicorn? With that statement, though, my professor blew it all out of the water. When it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter. Where I truly belong is a park. You guessed it, I returned to the Smokies as soon as I could and I felt instantly more like myself. The reception at my return also solidified what my professor thought. Among the many hugs and tearful smiles, one coworker who had returned to work before me stated that the park hadn’t felt right until I returned – that the Smokies wasn’t the Smokies without me.
This whole Centennial Year, we have been the front-line representatives of the “Find Your Park” campaign connecting people across the country, and across the world, with our cherished public lands. During that time, we have certainly been connected ourselves on a much deeper level. Truly, I have not only found my park in the Great Smoky Mountains, but also found my home, my family, and myself. So you see, the Student Conservation Association and the National Park Service haven’t just changed my life over the seasons, they’ve saved it.
I used to be so focused on the misery of my past, and the struggles of my present, that I was blind to any future. I thought I wouldn’t make it out of high school. In fact, I was planning on not making it out of high school. I was planning on not making it past the age of 18. While my friends were excitedly applying for college and wistfully thinking of careers, I was plotting my demise. When that failed, I reluctantly applied as well. Not because I had given up my visions of death, but because my parents demanded it. Now, after being out of school for over a year and a half, I am beyond thrilled to be taking my final college class this upcoming Spring semester and graduating in May with my Bachelors of Science in Biology!
With the help of my supervisor, I also took on the daunting task of writing my federal resume and creating an account on USAJobs. I find myself on the site at least once a day now browsing the listings and gleefully applying to parks that spark my curiosity and imagination. While I hope to remain in the Smokies for at least another year, one can always dream! It’s such a wonderful thing, to be excited about what your future may hold. Even if it’s just the next day! It’s a concept that’s quite new to me, but I think I’m getting the hang of it! Especially if you take joy in the little things, like knowing there’s always sweet treats to be found if you sneak over to the Visitor Center break room!
If there’s anything I want people to take away from my experiences, it’s to find the things you are truly passionate about and never let them go. Those passions, like mine for the National Park Service and its mission, can help you overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Also, life doesn’t have to be a solo journey; it can be a team effort. Especially if you are struggling, let others in to help relieve the burden. I would not be here today without the love and support of those around me. So thank you, to each and every one of you. My success is your success. And for those who have seen me at my very worst, I am so glad you can see me at my best.