These proud LGBTQ adventurers are putting the ‘out’ in outdoors

“The mountains are calling,” says a post by Pattie Gonia, an Instagram personality and — according to her bio — the world’s first backpacking drag queen. “They want their femininity back.”

Despite monumental steps toward LGBTQ equality over the past 20 years, many in the outdoor community — including Wyn Wiley, the outdoor enthusiast behind Pattie Gonia’s Instagram account — say they still don’t see themselves reflected in outdoor culture. “Gay things” felt relegated to the city, Wiley explained in an Instagram post. Out on the trail or on the mountain, there was little room for rainbow flags, Ariana Grande, or the patent leather boots with 6-inch heels that have become one of his alter ego’s signature fashion statements.

But Wiley and others are claiming space for themselves in the outdoors — with pride. “When you live unapologetically, the world is on your terms!” Wiley wrote in the caption for Pattie Gonia’s first Instagram post in October 2018. Twirling hiking poles and dancing to Fergie’s “London Bridge,” Pattie entreated her fans to embrace their authentic selves. “Go for that thing and fall the f down,” she said. “Get back up. Climb a mountain. Hell, maybe even wear heels on top of it. Who cares, hunni, do you!!!”

That’s an ethos that the broader outdoor community is beginning to embrace. Over the past five years, new groups like the Venture Out Project and Out There Adventures have helped show LGTBQ youth and adults that there is enough space in the great outdoors for everyone. In 2017, REI hosted the first-ever LGBTQ Outdoor Summit. Even the climbing community — notoriously perceived as overwhelmingly heterosexual — has an annual HomoClimbtastic rock climbing festival.

“Queer people have always been doing these things,” said Lance Garland, a journalist and firefighter in the Pacific Northwest who identifies as gay. Hikers, backpackers, climbers — LGBTQ adventurers have been out there forever. What’s new, he said, is that people are now eager to tell, seek, and celebrate stories that go beyond the stereotype of the straight, white, male nature lover.

Lance Garland summits Tower Mountain
Journalist and firefighter Lance Garland poses at the summit of Tower Mountain in the North Cascades. Courtesy of Lance Garland

Social media has helped, he added, amplifying the voices of people who don’t typically get as much press attention. Take Jenny Bruso, for example, an activist who was featured on the Grist 50 list in 2019. Her Unlikely Hikers Instagram account has garnered almost 100,000 followers and features “people of size, Black, Indigenous, People of Color, queer, trans, and nonbinary” folks on the trail. Pattie Gonia, for her part, has attracted a whopping quarter million followers in just under two years.

Not long ago, many outdoor enthusiasts said they didn’t know of any openly LGBTQ role models who were out hiking, biking, and rock-scrambling. For Mikah Meyer, a native Nebraskan who in 2019 became the first person to visit all 417 National Parks Service parks, something as simple as representation can make a huge difference in creating a welcoming environment for non-heterosexual adventurers.

“You can’t be what you can’t see,” he told Grist, quoting the civil rights leader Marian Wright Edelman. And what you do see most frequently in advertisements, he added, is a very specific image of what an “outdoorsman” should be: He’s male. He’s wearing a flannel. He has a beer in hand. “And he’s always straight,” Meyer said.

As a gay man growing up in the Midwest, Meyer said it was difficult to find LGBTQ role models that he could identify with. He didn’t meet an openly gay man until he left Nebraska for college. Even in 2017, as Meyer searched for a corporate sponsor for his three-year quest to visit all 417 parks, he couldn’t find any vocal LGBTQ people representing a major outdoor brand.

“The implicit message that I got was that outdoor culture does not want gay people involved,” he said. That was true for one of his early sponsors: As soon as Meyer began using his trip to advocate for LGBTQ issues, they told him it was too much and dropped their sponsorship. He was later picked up by REI as an ambassador for their #OptOutside program, and would go on to consult for the company’s LGBTQ programming.

Mikah Meyer visits 417 national parks
Mikah Meyer visited all 417 National Parks Service parks on a 3-year-long road trip. Courtesy of Mikah Meyer

However, Meyer says that his outward appearance has made it relatively easy to be gay in the outdoors. “I have the privilege of being able to pass as a straight white man,” he said.

That isn’t the case for many in the queer community, including Appalachian Trail thru-hiker Lucy Parks, who is nonbinary and transgender and uses they/them pronouns. Parks calls themselves a “100-footer,” meaning their LGBTQ status can be spotted from 100 feet away.

“I’m a very visibly queer person,” Parks said. “For a long time, I didn’t really see thru-hiking as an option.” Growing up in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, Parks had always loved the outdoors, and ever since they read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, they had wanted to hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail. But hearing about the 1996 murder of a lesbian couple in Shenandoah National Park — not far from where Parks grew up — gave them pause. “If I go out in the woods looking the way I look, what are people going to do?” they wondered.

Parks completed the AT last year. Although some people were dismissive of their pronouns and gender identity, others were eager to welcome Parks into the trail community. Mostly, Parks said, the trail was a therapeutic and restorative space, free from many of the societal constraints that plague nonbinary folks. “Many of us can’t enter a gender-divided bathroom without trepidation,” they wrote in Outside Online. “In the woods, of course, you can pee wherever you want.”

Still, there are enduring problems. “The outdoor community somehow believes that it is not political,” said Aer Parris, an outdoor writer* and and nature enthusiast who identifies as queer. In a way, that’s understandable, they added — people go into the outdoors to get away from things, to rest and rejuvenate. That’s partially what drew Parris into a cross-country bike trip a few years ago, and later into the Seattle mountaineering community. But that doesn’t mean LGBTQ equality should be off-limits for trail talk. “When an entire community is pretending that politics are not part of the outdoors,” Parris said, “you’re unable to have conversations that could create change.”

The Venture Out Project
Travis Clough (far left) helps coordinate trips for the Venture Out Project. Here, he leads a group of adventurers up Maine’s Mount Katahdin. Courtesy of Travis Clough

Travis Clough, director of trail operations for the Venture Out Project, says he often hears people say, “Nature doesn’t care if you’re gay.” But Mother Nature isn’t the problem. “We’re talking about all the assholes on the trail,” he said. “I can’t do anything if I don’t feel safe.”

The only way to combat these issues, Clough says, is to continue working on LGBTQ visibility, creating safe spaces for hikers of all genders and sexualities through programming and education. Parris also points to the need for a holistic, intersectional approach to outdoor equity. “We need everyone together,” Parris said. “If you’re not seeing BLM in your outdoor spaces, trans lives matter, immigrant lives matter — you’re not seeing a whole swath of people who are not able to access the outdoors in the same way.”

There is still work to do, and the outdoor community is nowhere near as diverse or inclusive as it should be. But Meyer, Garland, and their fellow LGBTQ outdoorspeople are hopeful that the recent upswing in visibly queer role models in the outdoors will start to turn the tide, letting others know that they are welcome in the wildest wildernesses.

“Even if you don’t see exactly who you are represented in your social media or in books or in pop culture,” Garland said, “just go be that person. Right now in the outdoors industry, we’re having the opportunity to be trailblazers.”

*Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly described Aer Parris’ job. They are an outdoor writer.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline These proud LGBTQ adventurers are putting the ‘out’ in outdoors on Jul 13, 2020.