A Queer Hunter Reflects on Coming Out
As a newcomer to Vermont, Joshua Morse found himself welcomed by the hunting community. But there was one thing he wasn't sure he could share.
“Have you ever had to come out as a hunter?” I asked.
More than 100 outdoorspeople fell silent. Then hands began to raise. Soon, about one-third of the staff at the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department’s annual retreat had acknowledged something powerful: the unsettling experience of owning an uncommon identity—in this case, that we are hunters. Although hunting remains prominent in the American imagination, the number of U.S. adults with a hunting license has steadily declined.
I have navigated coming out as both a queer man and as a hunter. Seeking to recognize some of the diversity that exists among hunters, the department had invited me to speak about my experiences. It, like many wildlife-management agencies across the country, is trying to welcome underrepresented identities into a tradition that’s slowly vanishing due to waning interest and stigma. I hoped that my story could help blaze a new path forward.
I took up hunting in earnest after moving to Vermont for graduate school in 2017, at the age of 27. I had been fascinated by the activity since early childhood, when my uncle served venison at a family gathering. Although I later joined him in the woods a handful of times during my early twenties, I never witnessed a deer being shot and harvested. Freshly arrived in northern New England and hoping to connect with the new landscape, my curiosity awoke again. Many of Vermont’s deep forests and remote river valleys are open to hunters. From my home in Burlington, the woods were just 30 minutes away.
However, learning to hunt requires more than access to a sit spot. Like any other outdoor obsession, hunting has its own etiquette, language, and culture. Becoming a hunter would involve immersing myself in gun shops and firing ranges, acquiring and learning to use the gear needed to sit still for hours in below-freezing temperatures, and arranging for space to butcher a deer if I was lucky enough to harvest one. It would also require me to make a weighty personal decision: determining when, or whether, to broach the topic of my sexuality in what is generally a socially conservative group. The risk of encountering overt homophobia felt much more likely in the hunting community than in my day-to-day experience as a graduate student in Burlington, a progressive college town.
But Vermont eased my apprehensions. Here, subcultures often regarded as disparate coexist side by side. Three hunting outfitters lie within a 20-minute drive of Burlington’s cosmopolitan downtown. Rural and urban cultures blend together, more so than around the suburb of Boston where I grew up. As I began learning about hunting, support crept out of the woodwork. A colleague offered to let me hunt his land. A stranger helped me through my first shots with a new black-powder gun at the shooting range: we were both zeroing in our guns at adjacent benches, when he saw that I was having trouble. We didn’t talk much beyond exchanging names before he got right into helping me figure out what I was doing wrong. I felt welcomed as I interacted with hunters, but the simmering fear of coming out remained.
Early in my hunting career, I took pains to conceal my sexuality. I identify as queer, because I am attracted to people of all genders. Whenever I date women, I blend into our predominantly heteronormative society. But leading into my second deer season, I was dating a man. I didn’t know how that would be received by the hunting community that I was becoming a part of. Hunting is very social, especially when you are learning. During deer season, there are only a few weeks when you can actually be alone in the woods in pursuit of game; in the off-season, much of what makes hunting a joy are the skill-building and socializing that happen in support of the actual hunt. A number of hunting organizations around Vermont host events, from informal get-togethers to visiting speakers. I became acquainted with mentors, landowners, and other hunters at the shooting range. Sooner or later, I would want to open up about my romantic life. But would it ever feel safe to do so?
On my first pheasant hunt, in October 2018, I stayed silent when the conversation turned to romantic partners. Troubleshooting my temperamental muzzleloader at the local gun shop later that fall, I said nothing while others talked about family life. I maintained a sense of personal safety through these omissions. But each time I kept my heart to myself in a community where I was otherwise starting to feel at home, a little bit of me seemed to flicker into nothing.
With my second season coming to a close, my internal tension reached a fever pitch. I had just harvested my first deer, and I felt more welcome in this hunting circle than ever before. It was time to come out, I decided. But I didn’t know how or when.
The opportunity presented itself just after deer season finished. In a small bar outside Montpelier, the smallest state capital in the country, I was helping host a visiting speaker at a “pint night” sponsored by Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. I would be introducing Jess Johnson, an advocate for women in hunting and a cofounder of the nonprofit Artemis, who was going to talk about her experience as a female hunter. (The event was part of the organization’s effort to seed conversations about diversity in hunting, a topic that’s gaining traction across the U.S.) Small-town old-timers with bright plaid coats brushed shoulders with Burlington twentysomethings in sharply cut jeans—people from two very different versions of Vermont, brought together by a shared love for the sport. As Jess and I talked through the details of her speech over the hum of a happy crowd, I realized my introductory remarks would be a good time to put my money where my mouth was, too.
It was time to come out, I decided. But I didn’t know how or when.
I remember the actual moment of coming out to those Vermont hunters just as well as I remember pulling the trigger on my first deer: clicking the safety off, exhaling, and releasing something that could never be taken back. “The hunting community can seem homogenous,” I said. “But there’s more diversity here than meets the eye. As a queer man and a hunter…”
After I handed off the microphone, I saw a handful of downcast eyes and furrowed brows but many more smiles.
I live in a place that is perhaps uniquely open to the idea of a queer hunter. Vermont was the first state to grant same-sex couples the same benefits as straight ones, and it boasts a hunting tradition that predates its statehood. However, the safety I felt coming out in the hunting world was surely conditioned by the privilege I carry as a white, cisgendered man. American hunters are overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male. For LGBTQ+ hunters at the intersections of multiple marginalized identities, or in states that are less welcoming to the queer community, I doubt that such friendly coming-out moments are common—but I hope they will become so. In the meantime, each of us who assesses their situation and feels safe enough to come out in the hunting community paves the way for others.
In the following weeks, I eased into being out in a new space. I was becoming more comfortable while owning two seemingly contradictory identities, at least when I was among my hunting friends.
In LGBTQ+ circles, it is common to say that people never stop coming out. Every new situation requires the same calculus. How much of myself do I want to reveal? What are the costs of voicing my experiences?
After my first successful deer hunt, that wisdom took on an unexpected new meaning: I was navigating the surprisingly treacherous path of “coming out” as a full-fledged hunter to friends who do not hunt. The stakes were lower, but the patterns were unmistakable. I weighed individual encounters and social settings carefully, even fearfully. Sometimes I avoided talking about hunting entirely, even as it became a bigger part of my life.
I felt this new anxiety most keenly in a warm taproom in New Orleans at a New Year’s gathering with college friends. As we took turns sharing the highlights of 2018, I knew I wanted to tell the story of my successful hunt and immediately faced a stinging realization: I was certainly the only hunter in our group, and not everyone would approve that I had taken it up. Some might even be offended.
I was sitting near the end of the table and had time to consider my options. Relative to the danger of coming out as queer, the risk of being open about hunting was vanishingly small. Still, I worried that I would alienate close friends who had strong feelings against hunting. For many people, the sport provokes reactions that range from disagreement to feeling abjectly threatened. It is infused with the ethics of eating meat; the injustices of race, gender, and class that shape access to public lands and wildlife; and gun control, among other serious issues. But how else could I share the nuance of a hunter’s sadness, gratitude, and sense of obligation to a place other than by talking about it?
My turn arrived. “This year I had my first successful deer hunt,” I said.
Silence. Then a bark of uneasy laughter from my friend Claudia. Anxiety boiled into my throat as I glanced down the table. Claudia would not look me in the eye.
There have been times when owning my identity as a queer man has clearly made others uncomfortable or made me unwelcome in certain company. I didn’t want to repeat that experience, and I was scared to widen the gulf I had just created by saying more. But I had to voice to my experiences or risk more of myself flickering into nothingness.
As the moments passed, I realized that Claudia’s uncomfortable laughter had stopped. Other friends were leaning forward, smiling and curious. The acid in my throat receded, and I began to speak again.
“I shot my deer on the last day of doe season, in a hornbeam stand between the Champlain Valley and the Green Mountains…”
I did not register the shot so much as the smoke that followed it. One minute, five deer had been nosing under oak leaves for acorns; the next, I had chosen one to transform into venison, to kill and to harvest. A swirling gray cloud filled my vision. The crash of wild bodies in the bracken thundered in my ears.
The smoke faded and the woods became still. With shaking fingers, I texted Jess Johnson—it was a day before the pint night, and she had joined me in the field as a mentor. Jess replied immediately: “Wait 30 minutes. Give your deer time to lay down and die. Give yourself time to make peace with what you’ve done.”
For half an hour, the woods thrummed with a kind of sharpness that my senses seemed only half able to absorb.
Then I searched for my deer’s blood trail, and my heart leaped at the sight of frothy-pink lung matter among the drops of red. My shot had been a good one. I set out in pursuit.
When I found my deer, I crouched beside her and felt the weight of the task ahead. Humility and delight, surprise and gravity all twisted together in the prospect of turning her body into food. I knew I would be changed by the act. And with that knowledge came gratitude.