Why we need to talk about queer communities when we talk about the outdoors.
Friday morning I walked into a big event space in the REI Seattle flagship store for the first-ever, and long-awaited, LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Transgender, Queer) Outdoor Summit. Locally-brewed coffee in hand, I sipped as the room filled with the largest number of queer outdoorsy people I’ve ever seen in one space. An ever-loudening roar of chatter replaced the ambient city noise. Bursts of excitement and hugs broke out from time to time as friends from across the country greeted one another.
As a nonbinary trans queer who is obsessed with the outdoors, I’ve found myself in the minority time and time again—whether wandering the aisles of Outdoor Retailer, the largest outdoor recreation expo in the country, or the trails of Tennessee. But for two days I was surrounded by my peers, filled with that magical feeling of being understood immediately, without explanation.
The summit brought together attendees from near and far: REI, The North Face, Patagonia, the Sierra Club, the National Park Service and The Wilderness Society, to name a few. It was organized to provide a chance for representatives of the outdoor industry, conservation community, environmental education nonprofits and others to discuss the state of the LGBTQ community and the outdoors and look for opportunities to work together to support equity and social justice outside.
The summit kicked off with Kris Hermanns, CEO of Pride Foundation, a Seattle-based organization working toward full equality for LGBTQ people across the Northwest. She set the tone for the entire conference with two thoughts:
“Simultaneously, our community and our environment are under attack. The existence of the outdoors is being threatened [and historically marginalized] communities are being pushed to the margins in new ways. At the same time we are living with hope,” she said. “We all should have the right to experience the outdoors. We all should do everything to protect these spaces and who can access them.”
Queerer Than Ever
Over the course of two days, 131 people from across the country gathered to talk about the LGBTQ community in the outdoors. But, as many point out, Mother Nature does not discriminate against anyone and, in many ways, today it is more acceptable than ever to be out as a queer person. So why does it matter?
Summit organizer and founder of OUT There Adventures, Elyse Rylander, believes there are a few good reasons to organize and talk about LGBTQ people in the outdoors:
- Community: “It’s profound for folx to connect. I have that warm fuzzy when I see it’s not just me.”
- Support: “I’m struck by how isolated queer folx in the [outdoor] industry are in trying to do this work. We are siloed—so how can we break down those barriers to support each other?”
- Growth: “I’m also hoping this will put the larger [outdoor] industry on notice. We are here, and it’s not just one or two people. It will continue to grow—the next generation will be the queerest yet. The [outdoor industry’s] customer base is changing. How can we can show them that, cultivate data and give them the numbers?”
By the Numbers:
- 20% of people ages 18-24 identify as LGBTQ
- 12% of millennials identify as transgender or gender nonconforming
- 1 out of 3 Americans remain uncomfortable with their LGBTQ family members, coworkers and neighbors
When we don’t see physical gates, it’s hard to understand what LGBTQ people mean when they say there are barriers preventing them from going outside. One goal of this summit: accurately represent some of this community’s unique barriers, needs and desires around getting outside.
“For the queer community, the barriers are similar to women and people of color—we are unsafe,” Elyse said.
In 2016 alone, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs recorded 77 total hate violence-related homicides of LGBTQ and HIV-affected people. And those are just the reported homicides. Accurate statistics for violence against queer people are hard to find. We do know that as marginalized identities overlap, like for transwomen of color, violence is more pronounced.
Roz Posley, field scout for Hipcamp, is a polyamorous queer person of color. When asked if they hide their identity when outdoors, they responded: “I should want to hide because I'm afraid. But I can't because I am already a target: I'm a person of color. I think about whether I should hide my intimacy with my partners. Maybe I shouldn't be here or maybe I should hide who I am.”
Additionally, economics play a huge role in preventing some populations from accessing the outdoors. Fifteen percent of trans people report earning under $10,000 a year compared to just four percent of the general population, according to a 2015 analysis by the Center for American Progress and Movement Advancement Project.
“I've never been able to buy backpacking gear. I'm a waitress and high school dropout. I've been trying to survive my adult life,” said Jenny Bruso of Unlikely Hikers, a self-described fat, queer femme.
Dre Avila, the Seattle Parks Foundation program coordinator, agreed with Jenny, citing similar reasons: “A huge barrier to access is free time. I didn't access the outdoors until I could get paid for it. The socioeconomic and time impact is a huge thing. We do not lead single-issue lives.”
Finally, the lack of diversity in the outdoor community—especially as marginalized identities coincide in the same person, like gay indigenous men—creates a huge challenge to access as well. Daisy Purdy, president of Inclusive Community Consulting and Northern Arizona University ethnic studies instructor, pointed out that native people have been forcibly removed from their land—and their connection to the outdoors is not often included in the outdoor industry’s definition of what it is to be “outdoorsy.” Many were quick to point out that people of color have been outdoors for a very long time—but the outdoor industry simply doesn’t recognize the ways they get outside today, from picnics to park barbecues.
Queering Outdoor Media
In the afternoon, after a breakout session to look deeper into the pervasive systems of racism in the outdoor industry, we picked from four topics for our discussion groups: queering outdoor media and increasing industry representation; connecting the next generation; LGBTQ-inclusive policy and advocacy; and LGBTQ-inclusive organizational structure and culture.
As a writer in the outdoor industry, my choice was easy: queering outdoor media. The aim of the discussion group was to find ways to more accurately represent the queer community in outdoor media and branded content. To begin, we asked ourselves why our queer identities matter in the outdoors.
It turns out, at least to the attendees at this summit, a queer identity is integral to outdoor spaces. Why? A participant summed it up: “When you don't see yourself represented, it's easy to think you're not welcome, either subconsciously or consciously.”
David Trahan, digital brand marketing manager for The North Face, explained why it means so much to represent LGBTQ populations in the outdoor industry: “Brands, at their best, are truth tellers. And we need to be telling stories that people connect with. Queerness matters to the outdoors, because queer people are outside. If we don’t tell their stories too, we aren’t being honest.”
It also comes down to ethics. Outdoor brands and nonprofits don’t always see themselves as the gatekeepers of the outdoors, but in many ways they are. If you’re looking to climb a rock or traverse a glacier, you’re going to need gear such as a rope, harness, crampons, etc.—and the few brands that sell these types of technical gear are between you and the thing you love to do (safely). With gatekeeper status, one participant said, “comes an inherent responsibility to promote the outdoors for all.”
Last, but certainly not least, a writer from Portland reminded us all of what we are really trying to do in the outdoor industry: break through the noise of the same-old outside story with tales that authentically represent queer communities and inspire people to get outside. “Content is really boring right now. I see the same image all the time. We want to see these other stories; [queer people] deserve their stories being told.”
The truth is, the outdoor industry and community aren’t going to change unless we all work together to make the outdoors more accessible for all. Here are a few concrete steps and takeaways from attendees:
- Talk: There's the URL and the IRL (In Real Life): Figure out a way to get the word out in both spaces.
- Hire queer: The more queer people who work at a company, the more likely queer issues are going to be supported. Bring this up with your HR department. There is a huge focus on women right now, and that conversation can become a vehicle to represent other minorities.
- Be visible: Show your support visibly—like wearing a pride flag on your backpack.
- Educate: When developing any outdoor curriculum, consider the LGBTQ community. Ask for pronouns during introductions and reconsider breaking groups out into “boys” and “girls.”
- Get over fear: Fear of doing it wrong as an ally holds a lot of people back. Consider that your discomfort is minor in comparison to the day in and day out discomfort of the people you’re wanting to help.
- Make mistakes: Build up a tolerance for risk. Build up a culture of listening to each other. And when people tell you that you did something wrong, take that criticism in stride and learn. No one is perfect.
- Take even small steps: Representation doesn't have to be a queer extravaganza. Years ago Outside magazine did a small feature of a two-person tent and they chose an image of two men cuddled up in the tent. That made a huge statement.
- Advocate for queer history in national parks: Go to Historypin and nominate historical spaces. Apply for a National Park Service Underrepresented Community Grant. Contribute to oral histories.
- Be loud: If we raise our voices, the Capitol has to hear us. Please feel empowered with your voice.