Camouflage and Fame

I want to be the first enby hunter.


want to be the first enby hunter. Not the first one ever; I cannot go back in time. I just want to be the first one famous for it. More for the non-binary part than the hunting prowess. Famous for my hunting apparel and my respect for animals and my inclusive politics. Famous online and in magazines and on TV. I want my own YouTube channel and my own cookbook and my own cooking show on the channel. My own gear and my own seasoning spices and my own hunting retreat for other queers like me. I want to be the first enby hunter.

But I am not a good hunter. That’s why I’m out here alone in the rain on the last day of the hunting season, praying to every god who has ever loved the moose to send a bull my way. I need a bull to wallow out into my family’s lucky spot, this secret swamp. And I need to stop regretting my choice to hunt more days late in the season and fewer days earlier in the season. Because killing a moose this year is essential—my family needs the meat—and regret won’t steady a rifle. Plus, I need the kill for my Instagram page.

There have always been queer hunters because there have always been queer people everywhere. But sitting here in my makeshift hunting blind, one eye on the wilderness and the other on Instagram, I can’t find the queer hunters. We have no presence online—even less in the surrounding bush. And if I can’t find us online, then nobody else can. And if nobody else can find us, then there’s still a hole in our queer community. Still a gap in hunting’s social tapestry. A gap that, if I can fill it, can make me famous.

And if I can’t find us online, then nobody else can. And if nobody else can find us, then there’s still a hole in our queer community.

I am not a good hunter. A good hunter would be someone like my father. Is someone like my father. He is my benchmark. He can shoot a goose on the wing with a .22. I’ve seen it. Every spring I try to do the same, and I always miss. I’ve never been close. But it doesn’t matter. It’s not my goal, to be a good shot.

It’s not my goal because there are bigger issues in the world than marksmanship. Bigger fish to fry, as my father says. It’s not my goal because I see the larger picture—I’ll never learn to shoot as well as my father; if I want to become famous, to be seen, I must produce something with more impact. Something more valuable than a good shot. As I said, I want to be the first enby hunter. More for the non-binary part. Less for the hunting prowess.

I figured today’s cool and damp autumn weather would get the warm-blooded bovines out and about, their bulk too cumbersome to maneuver in the hot sun that had lazed over the forest for the previous few days. And while moose do like the water and they do love a marsh, I forgot that rain falling on antlers sounds like a drum. It makes it difficult for bulls to hear. And their ears are their principal protection. Without hearing, they become apprehensive and, consequently, inactive. I’m out here in the rain on the last day of the bull season hoping for a miracle. For a dumb moose or a horny moose or really any moose willing to roam. What I need is the moose willing to risk it.

I can only watch nature from my pine-needle blind for so many hours before boredom steers me back to the internet. Today I’m searching again for queer hunting hashtags and queer hunting websites and queer hunting forums. And I can’t find any. I never can. Is it the guns that scare queer people away from socially organizing? Is it the predominantly cis straight conservative white men who command the hunting space? Probably both. But none of that’s something I’m scared of. I want to be the first enby hunter because of this gap in hunting’s social tapestry. I want to fill this gap. And I want to become famous.

To hunt big game alone, you must be courageous and you must be smart and you must possess moxie. And if I possess all these qualities, how hard can it be to demand space for queer hunter identity? Both tasks can be isolating. Both tasks can threaten your life. I tell myself that isolation and predatory threats are not things I am scared of. I know that when I become famous, courage will be what the success is built on. Courage and fortitude and repetition.

My father is a good hunter. He’s the one who tried to teach me to make a convincing cow call. I am not a good hunter for many reasons. One of which is my inability to convince a bull that I am a cow. My father once told me, You’ll never kill a bull if you can’t moan like a cow—like there was no other way to be successful, nothing in between. But so far, this season, he’s been right.

Because I so often hunt with my father, I rarely get to look at my phone while out in the bush. My father thinks technology is the devil. I’m paraphrasing; my father is not religious. But if someone happened to speak something anti-tech while in his presence, he’d be sure to agree and begin listing the reasons.

Today I’m alone in the bush, so I’m flipping between Instagram and an app I just downloaded that makes animal noises. When I play the recording titled Cow-In-Heat, my phone’s protective case muffles and distorts the noise. It sounds exactly like a robot cow. Only a robot bull would come running toward me. Which I’d gladly shoot. Then I’d surely be famous.

Hours ago, before daybreak, I sat in my blind, huddled beneath my camouflage rain jacket, and built, on my phone, a basic website for queer hunters. Then I made an Instagram account. Then I designed a logo and created a basic gear store. There is so much time to kill when big game hunting. More time than animals. At least that’s how it feels on the last day of the hunting season.

My website has only five hits. Probably just from me visiting the page every half hour to hunt for typos. And, unsurprisingly, nobody has purchased any of my gear. I know a gear sale on my first day is a long shot, but a sale would give me confidence and offer me financial proof that my project is worthy.

The Instagram page is rolling, though. It’s got over a dozen followers so far. Clicking on profiles, I scroll through pictures. Hunting trips and fishing holes and recent animal harvests. Hard to know if these are queer people like me. Hard to guess an identity from a picture. Best practice not to guess.

Most of the followers are strangers. Except for one. One person has a face I’ve seen before. I’ve seen their truck at our town’s only grocery store. The person’s Instagram account shows a photo of the person holding a muskie in a boat on a nearby lake. There’s a photo of them tipping beers on a patio at a restaurant an hour south of here. The only name on their account is Cal. They/them pronouns sit below.

And then, in the real world, from my peripheries I see my father’s orange cap, just the top, bobbing up the hill in front of me. I slip my phone away.

My father is a good hunter. He killed his own moose on the first day of the season. But we have a big family, so by the end of the butchering, most of the meat had been packed and picked up by relatives. Our freezer remains nearly empty. And I was told by my father that it is up to me to fill it. I was told that the pressure, the need to feed our family, might be what finally gets me to focus, to spend more time in the bush, to practice my cow call.

I am not a good hunter. But while my father’s guilt-based parenting is borderline unbearable, there is little I wouldn’t do for my family. And I want to be famous. Killing a moose would be good for both.

Today is a weekday, and so my father works at his job in town. He usually returns home for lunch, and it is now just past noon. Our secret hunting spot is halfway between our house and town, maybe a five-minute drive from each. And I’m just a two-minute hike from the gravel road.

He marches up to the blind through the mud of the clear-cut, rifle over his shoulder, along the same trail I took when I hiked in before dawn. Two weeks ago, I tied little bows of neon trail tape onto a dozen trailside saplings so that, in the dark, I could connect the neon dots and find this little pine-needle blind. And now, today, every time my father passes one of my neon bows, he takes a second to tighten it into a double knot. I am not a good hunter because I only single-knot my trail tape.

“Hey kid,” he says, a playful greeting layered with an undertone of paternalism and a jab at my immaturity. “I’s certain I’d find a moose all gutted and good to quarter. I’s gonna take the afternoon off and give ya a hand.” His tone is amiable, but I know my father’s words are supposed to stab. I can read the subtext. This is parenting through subtle mockery. My failure as a hunter is supposed to hurt. And I know he doesn’t believe what he says. If he did, he wouldn’t have brought his rifle.

He steps under the makeshift shelter and sits back against the rock beside me. This guy never wears any modern rain gear. Never any camouflage. Yet somehow, he’s sitting beside me looking dry. Like he didn’t just hike out to me in the deluge. It’s as if his old blue denim can magically roll away water droplets. Or maybe he just gets wet and never shivers and keeps tight-lipped about his chill, changing behind a closed door when he gets home. And somehow the moose never see him in his blue. Even though research says bovines see that colour better than any other. I am not a good hunter because, unlike my father, I am not more powerful than science. I often think my father could be famous.

My father looks around as if scanning not just the land, but all that has happened today. Like he can see both nature and history. “Any action out here?” He has not seen all I did online, and I am not about to tell him. He doesn’t own a cellphone.

“Well, it’s been raining. So no, not really.” I hope he’ll find the humour, so I laugh as a signal. I think he gets it, because he chuckles with me, understanding all that is signified by the word raining. How it shrinks my chances at hunting success and strengthens my label as a bad hunter.

But he also looks around because he can tell something is off. The noises nearby no longer align. Too many soft thumps in a row to be only falling branches. I hear it too. The plodding rhythm of footsteps. And then we both see it together: the conservation officer trudging up toward the blind. Following the same trail my father marched just minutes before.

I am not a good hunter for many reasons. But making procedural mistakes is not one of them. Many people are bad hunters because of negligence or purposeful law-breaking. I detest these people. I am ambitious, and legal carelessness could put a significant wrench in my plans. I want to be the first enby hunter, and preparedness is what it takes. And because of my preparedness, I have no objection to C.O.s. Yet I do resent the disruption they put in an otherwise quiet day. Legal vernacular rarely mixes well with the melody of nature.

“Mind if I join you in there, get out of the rain and all?” asks the C.O.

I nod my invitation. I have no reason to fear the C.O. And I don’t want to scare away any potential moose by leaving a human standing out in the open clearing.

“Jeebers, it’s sure comin’ down. It’s like splash mountain out there. Felt like I was walkin’ through a water park.” The C.O. shakes like a dog, trying to shed some of the water from their green work jacket. “You two been out here long?

“I’ve never seen a C.O. this far from their truck,” says my father, half as a hyperbolic joke, the other half as an insult. My father is a good hunter. But my father is also a forgetful person, and the law has penalized him in the past for this forgetfulness, so he believes in treating it roughly in return whenever it shows its face.

The C.O. kneels and plucks the wet cap from their head. “Well, you know, I saw your old Fords there on the highway when I cornered the hairpin. Figured you two were on the prowl. And to find hunters once they’re out and at it, well, that’s always the struggle; this neck of the woods is awfully thick.” The C.O. wrings the water from the cap like it’s a waterlogged towel. “But then, sure as daylight in the rain, I spotted your orange noggin-cover as you pushed up the cut. Figured I’d take a stroll out after ya, pop in and say hi.”

Say hi is law-enforcement lingo for checking your papers and gear, making sure you’re legal. I am not a good hunter, but I can read subtext.

“Mighty kind,” says my father, backhandedly. “But you know, we don’t have much of a chance out here with all this foot traffic comin’ ’round, an extra man like you stompin’ through, scaring away every critter.” This time my father laughs, clearly trying to lighten his criticism. It’s likely he hasn’t yet finished his judgments of the C.O. It’s likely he’s still unsure of how malicious he wants to be.

The C.O. stares at their boots. And I can tell they are ruminating on how to best address my father’s critique while trying to assert their legal superiority. I can tell because I often have the same look, one of uncertainty about whether to defend myself or let the comments slide.

I notice the C.O. is not much older than me. They have long hair and a handlebar mustache, a look that befits the profession’s visual stereotype—a look that’s one-part police one-part tree planter. But they also wear earrings, little beaded mushrooms dangling from their lobes.

Before the C.O. can respond, my father offers a round of introductions, proficiently bypassing the impending altercation.

There are few things more awkward than offering your pronouns when out in the bush. I think it’s the political insinuation of the sentence. The assumption that people who live beyond the binary are inherently liberal, while hunters are known to be conservative. So when I speak “they/them” aloud after my father tells the C.O. my name, there is a noticeable gap as the other two brains grapple with the new version of our conversation. My father’s classical method of introductions, his list of our family name and hometown and careers, has been performed with the same script for so long it feels like a tradition, and traditions can feel like identity, and people become defensive when their identity is modified. And in rural spaces, the script feels even more inflexible. Nearly sacred.

Yet I can’t help but speak up. I change the script because I know doing so rattles people. And rattled people are often the only ones who see me. I want to be the first enby hunter. I want to be famous. And often, changing the script and rattling norms is what it takes. Even if it feels blasphemous. Even if, at this moment, with the way my father looks at me, I somewhat regret speaking up.

And in rural spaces, the script feels even more inflexible. Nearly sacred.

“Well,” says the C.O. after a pause, “I’m Cal.”

And now I get it. I’ve seen this same person earlier today. Same name as the Instagram account. Same green work jacket. But now they speak no pronouns.

“You oughta drape some orange over this chicken coop when you’re up here,” continues Cal. “The moose can’t tell the difference. Can’t see the colour. Can’t see much of nothing, believe me—those chunky behemoths are half-blind, it’s ridiculous. But anyhow, the orange’ll let other hunters know you’re set up for the day. Tells ’em to clear off. Keeps the whole of us a bit safer, is what I’d say.”

“Well, I been coming out here since you been shittin’ in diapers,” says my father, wiping a smear of mud from the bolt of his rifle, “and I ain’t never seen a bootprint that wasn’t left behind by me or my kid.” And now there’s no more camouflage over my father’s irritation. No denying the chip on his shoulder.

“Until today,” says Cal with the bluntness of authority finally ringing through, Cal’s entire body steady except for their earrings. “Look, I’ll be straight honest with ya: it’s not you two I’m concerned about, it’s the other nut jobs, the ones takin’ potshots at anything with legs, the kind with beer cans on the dash, the kind from out-country. So, for next time then, you’ll stick a vest over the door for me, capeesh? Like I said, it’ll keep ya safe. Well … safer than you are right now.”

My father responds with a half-hearted agreement mixed with amendments, but Cal appears to no longer be listening. Instead, Cal’s eyes are turned toward me. Their forehead is crumpled. They squint. And I know Cal is now wondering—like I had already done with them—why I look familiar. And so I stare back. I smile. I am open to their inquiry. I want to be famous. I want those eyes to place me, to see our commonality, to find me in the social tapestry. I want Cal to realize that, finally, we are the gender majority out here, and there are two of us enbies in this blind and on this hunt. And it is my father who is out of place.

But Cal’s inquiring eyes tire. “Well, I don’t wanna dawdle,” they say, ignoring my father and looking outside, “last day of the season and all. It’s a pristine spot out here. Quite the lookout. It’d be a great day for a hunt too, with the cool temp and low pressure. If the dang rain wasn’t drowning you out.” Cal turns their head back towards me and my father. “Anyway, if I can see your papers real quick, make sure everything’s hunky-dory, I can get up and outta your hair, let you two back at it.”

I hand over a plastic bag filled with licences and game tags. My father is forgetful, and I know without asking that he doesn’t have his papers. He never has his papers. “Mine’s back in the cab,” says my father. “Figured I didn’t need ’em, up here for only a minute to check on my daughter. Like I said, never seen a second soul up on this hill. But if you needa put eyes on ’em, I’ll pull the papers for ya back at the cab.”

Cal nods, an answer that I know means my father’s possession of a gun without a licence is about to be overlooked.

But then, walking the same trail up the hill my father and Cal had walked just minutes before, a moose appears. And I think, isn’t that how hunting goes, the animal of your dreams appearing a few minutes too early or too late for your liking. Having to shoot when you’re less than prepared.

So I don’t say anything.

Cal, with haste that implies they’d rather have not hiked out here, is silently pencilling my name and licence numbers and tag numbers into a notebook.

My father’s stare is impatiently stuck on Cal.

And I don’t say anything. I want to be famous. And often, silence is what it takes. I reach my arm out across both Cal and my father, my pointer finger upturned, a warning to stay quiet, that I see something they do not. I raise my rifle to the gun rest, a horizontal log at the blind’s window. Cal and my father, as experienced hunters, remain motionless, fixed in the positions they were in when they realized what was happening. Only their eyes are turned toward me, and I slowly mouth the word moose without any voice.

The moose has maneuvered to a location where I can only see its antlers. It is now nothing more than giant paddles above lichen. Like a basket in a puppet show bobbing atop the edge of a stage.

And then the bull lumbers up, mounts the ridge, and ambles closer, skirting the tree line. The most beautiful monster, right in front of me. I flick off the safety and trace my aim south of the scapula. And then I pull.

The moose stands still.

The bullet slams into a red pine behind.

There is no blood. No thud of lead flowering through flesh.

I am not a good hunter.

And then there’s another blast. My father, beside me, repositioning so slowly I hadn’t noticed, had also taken aim. And I feel the weight of this backup plan rattle through me with the bullet’s explosion. I absorb all his doubt.

His shot hits.

It is not my goal, to be a good shot.

But it’s every child’s goal to impress their father. To be seen.

The bull looks at us. Sees us now. Falters. Falls to its knees. Steals a breath. And sinks into the underbrush.

And I think, maybe I can’t be famous. Instead, maybe I can be angry, or I can reprimand my father for not trusting me with the shot, or I can scold him for disregarding my full identity. For misgendering me and for leaving me invisible, camouflaged. Maybe Cal would support me through my protest. Maybe Cal could arrest him for hunting without his papers. Maybe Cal could put my father in his place.

Or maybe not. Likely not.

We wait in the blind for ten minutes to let the moose die uninterrupted. I am silent. But Cal and my father spend the time in whispered excitement. The tension that previously permeated the blind has dissolved. The kill has made them childish. Almost giddy. Like they’re toddlers who just won a contest.

Cal and my father replay the lead-up to the shots, putting to words all that was silently witnessed. My father fortifies his decision to shoot. He calls it “backing me up.” Cal believes they had felt the animal’s presence beforehand. They say, “There was something different about the wind. Something spiritual. Like we were being warned. Like we were being told to get ready.” Then Cal and my father list all that could have gone wrong. Their talk dances around the obvious, that I am not a good hunter.

When I stand up and exit the blind, the conversation halts, and the three of us walk, single file, with me on point, towards the downed moose. It feels like I’m being trailed by my entourage because I’m famous. Or like I’m leading a funeral procession.

My father doesn’t have to tell me why he took the shot. I know we couldn’t lose this animal. Our family can’t afford to have gone without it. And the hunting tag doesn’t ask who in your party pulled the trigger.

I know that, in the coming days, we will circumvent the truth of who shot the animal. If asked by friends or family, we will deflect the question. Shift the focus to the holiday meals, to the rain, to the animal’s sacrifice, and to the toils and rewards of hunting. And inside ourselves, we will swallow the truth. Tuck it away in our guts with the meat. Because I am not a good hunter, and even my father is embarrassed to admit it. And sometimes, to avoid something that hurts us, a version of silence is what it takes.

Looking down at the bull on its deathbed of moss, I wonder if this is the moose I prayed for and I wonder what god sent it toward me. I wonder if this is the dumb moose or the horny moose. In any case, there is no doubt this is the moose willing to risk it.

I am not a good hunter, and even my father is embarrassed to admit it. And sometimes, to avoid something that hurts us, a version of silence is what it takes.

My father tells me to “go ahead.” I poke the eyeball of the moose with the barrel of my rifle to make sure it’s lifeless and not just resting. My father taught me to do it that way. Because, he once told me, if the animal isn’t yet dead, and it reacts to the poke, you’ll be all set to dispatch it. I wonder why I still do it this disrespectful way. I think if I inspected the moose in a way I preferred, in a way that offered the animal more dignity—such as talking to the moose as an equal, asking it where it is on the road to the afterlife, offering to help it along—it is likely my father would be upset. He’d think I mistrusted the way he raised me, think I questioned the things he taught me. He’d read the action as an affront or an insult. It’s fascinating all he categorizes as disrespect. And it’s infuriating that I still follow his every unspoken rule.

With a reactionless poke of the moose’s eye, the hunt is officially over. My father shakes Cal’s hand and hugs me in congratulation. The hug is a gendered action. A power play. Even if my father doesn’t recognize it. Even if it’s just his second nature.

I’ve been a hunter for many years. And yet, every time we kill a moose, my father reminds me “the real work begins only when the moose is down.” I pretend the unnecessary reminders are just his forgetfulness, and I nod along like it’s the first time I’ve heard his warning. If I believe he repeats it because he thinks I am forgetful, that I can’t remember all it takes to process a thousand pound animal, I will be wounded and confrontational. And I don’t want to be upset. Don’t want to be angry. The harvest of a moose is meant to be pleasurable. Meant to be spiritual. And I can’t be one with the spirits when I’m ruminating on all the ways to tell my father he’s a belittling, absent-minded prick.

Cal offers to help dress the moose. My father speaks for me, agreeing, before I can respond, then announces he will swing home for the ATV and to tell his work he needs the afternoon off. My father doesn’t own a cellphone, and he doesn’t think to borrow mine.

After my father leaves, I ask Cal to take a picture of me with the bull, a photo for my new social media, before we gut.

I hand them my phone with the Instagram app open instead of the camera.

I kneel beside the moose’s head. One hand on an antler. The other on the bloody shoulder. The rain is still falling, but less oppressively.

I’m hoping for Cal to connect the dots. To read my account name and recognize our digital acquaintanceship. To find me in hunting’s social tapestry. I want to be famous. And sometimes, being recognized by just one person is all it takes.

“You know,” chuckles Cal, snapping the photo as I fake a smile, “I already had you figured, even before this little game here with the Insta page. I got your name off the licence there and put two and two together.” They toss me my phone. “The Enby Hunter. That’s a good gig you got going. A sharp name. Crafty little website and logo. Probably have a good little following after a bit, I’d say. Nothing out there online quite like it; not from my digging around. So being the first and all, that’s gotta be good for the metrics.”

“Why didn’t you say something to him,” I reply, “to my father, when he misgendered you?” Cal is silent for a minute, the way people are when they’ve never spoken about their identity out loud—even though they’ve put it into text online, and they’ve started dressing the way they prefer, and they’ve embraced dangly earrings. That next step—using a voice—is a coming out like all the rest, and it can be just as difficult.

“Sometimes,” they eventually say, quietly, as if to themself, “just to get through the day, I’ve gotta double-down on silence; I’ve gotta bite the ol’ tongue. Otherwise, some folks’ll grumble ’til the cows come home. And I don’t need that. I don’t need to listen to some honky piss and moan about the good ol’ days.” Cal opens a small folding knife and offers it to me, handle first. “Why do you let your old man speak for you all the time?”

“Look,” I say, after a pause to consider how honest I’d like to be, “there’s little I wouldn’t do for my family. And I know I’m not a good hunter. I know I’m a poor shot. But I have other goals. Bigger fish to fry. I don’t have time to pry my father free of his prehistoric beliefs.”

“But you have the time to smile in a photo with the bull he killed,” replies Cal, gesturing to my phone with an unsteady grin. “Time enough to claim it as your own. Time enough for deceit.” I am not a good hunter, but I can read subtext. I’ve witnessed plenty of people act rude as a form of defence. Seen plenty of people point out the faults in others when they’re frightened of their own faults showing. I know that, if I want to fill the gap in hunting’s social tapestry, I need to change the script. I need to rattle the norms. And so I smile. I want to be the first enby hunter. I want to be famous. And often, silence is what it takes.

About the author

Evan J (he/they) is the author of Ripping down half the trees (McGill-Queens University Press, 2021). Currently, Evan works for the Winnipeg International Writers Festival and Vallum, is a hunting guide, an endurance runner, and the manager of a tech literacy non-profit program working in remote fly-in First Nations communities.