On a bluebird June afternoon, blue, pink and white flags waved as thousands of people pressed forward into Dolores Park for this year’s San Francisco Trans March, which took place the Friday before the city’s LGBTQ Pride Parade. Among those marching were seven teenagers, aged 15 to 18, and three trip leaders who were taking part in the first-ever teen LGBTQ Outward Bound California trip.
“I’ve never thought about being proud about my trans identity because I’ve spent so long trying to hide it,” said a trip participant from Ohio, while marching. That pride is exactly what the new LGBTQ Backpacking to Urban Service course seeks to inspire.
Since its founding in 1961, Outward Bound’s mission has been to change lives through outdoor challenge and discovery. But this year was the first time the nonprofit hosted a trip specifically for LGBTQ youth. To create this new trip, Outward Bound California teamed up with OUT There Adventures, an organization built to empower queer young people through their connection with the natural world. The idea came out of the Women in the Outdoors Summit, where members of both organizations met and came up with a unique course, merging a successful course model with the deep LGBTQ history of San Francisco.
The two-week course combined a wilderness experience in Yosemite National Park with San Francisco Pride events. The teenagers, who identified as members of the LGBTQ community, came from across the country, most without backpacking experience, and all without a Pride experience.
It began with a trek through the Ansel Adams Wilderness, adjacent to the national park. Over the course of eight days in the backcountry, the teens and their leaders covered 35 to 40 miles and thousands of feet of elevation. They started at 5,000 feet and worked their way over Fernandez Pass, climbing to more than 10,000 feet.
The students discovered how to travel as a group through varied terrain, which included snow, and with some off-trail navigation. They enjoyed day after day of clear, perfect weather, and there weren’t even too many bugs.
“It was beautiful. We got see all the wonder that the Sierra has to offer—alpine lakes with granite all around them,” said Elyse Rylander, trip instructor and executive director of OUT There Adventures, who has been leading outdoor trips for 12 years.
“Putting on a heavy pack and going up a mountain, quite literally, is one of the hardest things, but to persevere through that and get to the top of the mountain is so relieving,” a trip participant said. “I did this course, and I think I can do anything else that comes at me in life, both mentally and physically.”
Part of the magic of the trip: It brought together 10 people—nine who identify as members of the LGBTQ community and one ally—in the outdoors. “I find that in the outdoor industry, people who are LGBTQ are few and far between,” said Liz Sequeira, one of the three trip leaders. “The ability to share space with people who are all in that community is special, because that doesn’t really ever happen.”
Most of the teenagers came from smaller communities across the United States, where they might not have LGBTQ role models, let alone a community that’s interested in the outdoors. Through this course, Outward Bound California aims to bring teens together to enjoy a wilderness and urban experience with people who understand the same struggles they go through on a day-to-day basis.
“When I think about the impact we have, and just how much change and meaning can come out of an Outward Bound California experience, I get overwhelmed and emotional,” said Holly Lehr, resident course director for Outward Bound California, who felt honored to be part of the first team to run this course.
Following the wilderness experience, the group traveled from Yosemite to San Francisco for five days of volunteer work at various Pride-month events. In addition to the Trans March, they participated in the San Francisco Dyke March, and collected donations during the San Francisco Pride Parade and Celebration, held each year on the last weekend of June, for the Pride nonprofit that puts on the Pride celebration as well as the LGBTQ Outdoor Summit.
“They were overwhelmed—in a good away. All of them were very stuck by that level of pride,” Rylander said. “They were all there because their parents were supportive enough to send them on the trip, but they hadn’t been around that many people who were proud of their queer identity.”
After the two-week trip, the teens noted the transformative impact it had on them. “I have definitely become a better leader throughout this course,” said Lucy, aged 16, from Wisconsin. “I came in really, really nervous. I wasn’t really talking to anyone throughout the first day. But I’ve been more authentically myself throughout this course than I have been in years.”
Leadership and authenticity are qualities that all Outward Bound trips focus on—and this was no different. What is different about this course is that it didn’t end when the trip was over. Through a follow-up program, the group meets once a month during online chats. The seven young people are also putting together their own programming, which could be social media campaigns about being queer and being outside, or fundraising efforts. And Rylander will be partnering with each teen to help them bring their trip experience back to their local community. They’ll work to guide others this time, instead of being the ones guided. Through this work, they hope to show their community that LGBTQ people do get outdoors, and they can come along too.
“This course definitely made me feel more at home with my LGBT+ identity,” a trip participant said. “I have people around me just like me, and I feel part of the Pride movement as a whole.”
Inspired by the trip participants’ stories, other Outward Bound schools hope to expand the LGBTQ Backpacking to Urban Service course to more states next summer.