During the first four months of 2015, I biked across the continent of Africa. I was with a group of 30 other cyclists on the 7,600-mile trek from Cairo to Cape Town, but my individual mission was unique—to find and connect LGBT activists along the route. With the help of colleagues in South Africa and the United States, I raised enough money to pay the legal fees for more than a dozen new LGBT-focused nonprofits in Uganda, contribute to an outreach center in a township in South Africa and offer financial support to activists in Ethiopia and Zambia.
The journey was one of extremes, from the mountains of Ethiopia to the lion-filled flatlands of Botswana, but the athletic component of the project was essential to its overall success. In many countries through which I cycled, the activists were undercover. In Ethiopia, for instance, I connected with a group that is attempting to offer anonymous public health services to the LGBT community of Addis Ababa. These activists were understandably concerned about revealing their identity to any outsiders, especially to a random white American. But even if they could not see into my heart, they could see my sweat; they could see the scars and bruises I had accumulated on the dirt roads of Sudan. The physical challenge of the journey allowed me to meet people in a more intimate and emotional way than would have been possible otherwise.
I also learned two important lessons. The first was a personal journey of self-discovery. During an interview before the trip began, a reporter asked me: “For how long have you been an athlete?” My response was knee-jerk and instinctual: “Oh, I’m not really an athlete.” This answer was ridiculous—I dance ballet and do triathlons; I ran my first marathon last year in Soweto. Nevertheless, I grew up in a football-crazy town in the Midwest where I internalized a stigma that gay men weren’t really athletes. I had never defined myself as such, and I wasn’t quite sure about my prospects of making it all the way to Cape Town.
Some of the other cyclists were a little skeptical too. Who was this guy who packed a pink feather boa next to his spare cleats? I learned, however, that athleticism is not just about strength, and it is definitely not the same thing as masculinity and testosterone. It’s a mental and psychological struggle as much as a physical one, and true athleticism requires a depth of character that goes beyond the ability to simply power through. At the end of the trip, only five cyclists had managed to complete the entire ride without once needing to get on a support vehicle. One of them was wearing pink.
The second lesson was how relatable and inspiring athletic feats are for people around the globe—and how my external odyssey had much in common with people’s internal journeys toward acceptance of their sexuality. I was surprised by the number of people who came out to me during the trip, both former classmates and LGBT Africans who had stumbled across my website. I realized that the way in which I was pushing my physical and emotional limits, and redefining my identity in the process, was similar to the way many people eventually redefine their sexuality according to their own lived experiences, instead of within the boundaries of what they believe society thinks is morally right.
We put such unnecessary limits on our lives; our view of what is possible is often far more restricted and less beautiful than what reality allows. The struggle to push past these limits isn’t easy, and it is filled with metaphorical lions and dirt roads and mountains. But my advice to people involved in that kind of internal journey is the same advice that I repeated to myself every day on the road: Just keep pedaling.
Nate Freeman is director of Out in Africa Ride, outinafricaride.org. He is a graduate of Whitman College and Yale Law School.