“It’s a weird life being a publicly naked guy,” Quince Mountain tells me.
Mountain is a recently victorious contestant on Naked and Afraid, in which he was left to survive in the rainforest of Atlántida, Honduras, with no clothes or tools, along with a female partner he’d just met. He’s among the rare competitors to actually complete the 21-day challenge, spending 17 of those nights alone after his police-officer partner left after day four. But more importantly: He’s the first openly transgender person to appear on the show.
Mountain is also an Army National Guard veteran, volunteer ambulance driver and accomplished sled dog musher, who completed a 440-mile expedition north of the Arctic Circle this spring and hopes to run the Iditarod with the 25 husky dogs he’s raised with his wife at their kennel in Wisconsin. Below, he recounts how he found solace in nature amidst a torturous childhood, how life as an outdoor adventurer has transformed him every bit as much as his medical transition and how he fended off jaguars and feasted on snake vertebrae while completely naked (and somewhat afraid) in the Honduran jungle.
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There’s been some online hate and vitriol about how Discovery Channel was promoting an agenda by casting me, but the reality is the production company didn’t even know I was trans when I was selected to be on the show. They were initially interested in my wife and me. So to say that I got on the show because I’m trans, it’s like, “Fuck you! I also have the survival skills and experience.” Even when the executive producers found out, they were like, “You don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want to.” But I told them, “No, I think I would like to talk about it.”
It’s not something I usually share the second I meet somebody, but in this case, it would’ve been weird not to. Because I didn’t want it to be artificial. Plus, when you’re meeting someone on the show for the first time, you’re meeting them naked. It’s an intimate situation. You’re going to be partnered together for 21 days. So I wanted to have the balls to come out to my partner, but also to hopefully demonstrate to people that self-disclosing doesn’t always have to be such a big deal.
Honestly, no matter your gender identity, meeting someone for the first time while naked on the first day of a survivalist challenge in the middle of a new place is a highly pressurized situation. In the scene where we finally meet, I tell my partner Theresa about my surgery and my scars. I’m self-conscious about how that makes me appear trans. I didn’t notice it at the time, but she refers to her own surgical scars in response. We were both thinking about ourselves and what everyone else thinks of us. By being completely honest, we established an even playing field and ended up in the same boat. Overall, I think we both handled the situation very well.
It’s not like we had the perfect language though. It was awkward. I thanked her for accepting me, which in retrospect, it’s like, “Did I really need to do that?” She also mentioned how I wasn’t burly in a reflection interview. She was like, “Quince isn’t a big, burly man.” She was saying she wanted a partner who is giant and ripped, and that’s not what she got — I’m not giant or ripped. But I’m not tiny either. I’m definitely strong, but she didn’t know that upon meeting me. That became clearer in time.
Growing up, my body and nature were all I really had. Sure, there were insults, but there was also violence and torment. When I was young, someone came to my house, ransacked everything, broke the stereo and all of our glasses and plates. They left a note in the mailbox full of hateful gender shit. In fourth grade, kids grabbed me, stole my bicycle and sprayed shaving cream in my eyes. I feared going to school because I feared being attacked. When I was in high school, somebody rolled my car down the street and set it on fire. These horrendous experiences were all based on how people felt threatened by me.
I was going to Baptist church, wearing ankle dresses and really trying to follow all the rules of being a girl. But I always thought I’d grow up to be a man or a basketball player. All my role models were men, too. Eventually, I identified as a butch lesbian. Still, that identity never really felt right either, even though I love women and existed in a lesbian community in college.
I later joined the military, and someone I served with asked me, “What would you wear if you could wear anything you wanted?”
I was like, “I don’t know. I just don’t care about clothes.”
But they responded, “No, anything — men clothes, women clothes, whatever.”
I immediately said, “Oh, I’d wear men’s clothes.” I mean it was just so obvious to me. Of course, I’d wear men’s clothes.
I was serving in the Army National Guard as a medic and also worked on a local rescue squad, where I still work as a volunteer. After six years in the Guard and two years in active reserve, I began my hormonal transition. In fact, I began to do so the day after I finished my initial enlistment contract. More recently, I’ve thought about re-joining the military, but obviously, President Trump has made that impossible. Also, for the record, it doesn’t cost taxpayers any more medically for me to be a female-to-male transgender person. I’m a person who can’t get testicular or breast cancer, and I take a hormone that probably costs about $10 a month. None of this is a big deal; it’s just being blown out of proportion artificially because of politics.
In terms of my transition more generally, gender is relational. It’s social. I can be out in the wilderness, and the wilderness doesn’t care what my body looks like or what my experience has been. I can meet nature on my own terms, even when it’s not easy. I never asked for an easy ride anyway.
This is definitely how I felt entering Naked and Afraid. Being independent really prepared me for the show, too. After all, you’re going to be dealing with difficult situations for a long time and face problems no one else is going to solve for you. It’s also boring, but at the same time, you have to really pay attention because you can’t afford to make mistakes. Again, this is where my past really helped. Throughout my life, I’ve learned to deal with physical pain and suffering, so I was able to sit there in the rain and just be in the moment. For example, I wouldn’t think about how it might rain for 10 days. Instead, I’d think, Oh, here are some raindrops.
Even though I might have been in better shape at 20, I don’t think I could have survived the challenge back then without that increased mental maturity. A lot of people go on the show and say things like, “I’m gonna make Mother Nature my bitch,” only to leave the show disappointed when they don’t. I just reminded myself that I’ll never be in control of nature and that my job is to adapt, fit in, observe and respond. You can’t get cocky. You’re always one snake bite or one bout of diarrhea away from not being able to make it.
It’s definitely no joke across the board. My feet got really soft from being wet for weeks, and the skin started to break down. All the sharp rocks ripped them into ribbons. I also had a broken toe, an infection and a thorn in my foot. I stepped on a hot coal as well. It’s all humbling. I went running on hot pavement for five miles almost every day leading up to the challenge, and still wasn’t fully prepared. Sometimes the environment is so daunting, it can be scary to walk 20 yards.
The animals — fire ants, bugs, jaguars and lizards, among others — got braver and braver the longer I was there, too. I wasn’t hungry enough to eat lizards, but I did chew on some snake vertebrae as a source of calcium. The best was when I found some bananas and tree nuts to eat. If you watch the episode, you’ll see me suffering from insomnia because I’d eaten cacao fruit seeds. I knew it was cacao, but I didn’t put together how strong of a stimulant it was.
All of it brought a lot of psychological insight because I couldn’t get away from myself. I couldn’t blame anything on anyone else. It was just me out there. I learned to take more responsibility for my own attitude, and I think that’s come into place since returning home with my wife. I don’t think I project as much onto the people around me since the challenge. I still have bad days, but in general, it’s made me a lot tougher and more willing to own my shit.
I know so many middle-aged guys who are insecure about their masculinity. But being trans forced me to deal with a lot of that insecurity at a young age, because I wasn’t getting outside validation from anyone else. Nobody was telling me that I was a man or that I was strong; it was just a persistent conviction inside of me. I was the only person to keep that little candle of masculine self-confidence burning. I don’t think a lot of other guys have that. They’ve only had the outside validation, and when that’s removed, they begin to doubt their own confidence and competency.
For me, though, at first I wasn’t a good enough girl, and then, I wasn’t a good enough man. At some point, you just run out of fucks to give.