Out, Proud, and in the Outdoors
Here are five organizations that help members of the queer community experience nature
In an ideal world, the outdoors would be a safe space for everyone and outdoor recreation groups would cater to all kinds of people. In the real world, people who are part of marginalized communities and who are just now getting interested in outdoor recreation often have unique needs that are best served by those within or adjacent to their own community. For instance, a Black, transgender person might mostly be eager to experience a safe space to relax in nature, rather than, say, attend a workshop for learning outdoor survival skills. For other individuals, a guided experience in nature could be about creating a sense of community in a world where they are constantly othered.
In recent years, the number of outdoor organizations for queer and gender-nonconforming individuals has only grown to reflect a growing interest in being in outdoor queer spaces. To mark World Pride Month, we're celebrating five outfitters that aim to ensure that LGBTQIA members feel embraced by and are encouraged to use outdoor spaces. This list is by no means exhaustive. It’s just a small slice of the many groups, organizations, and entities that serve the outdoor queer community across the United States.
Venture Out Project. Perry Cohen launched this passion project in 2014 with one premise in mind: Create a safe space for queer people to enjoy the outdoors. The group hosts adventures for all skill levels and interests, ranging from rafting to backpacking. Born and raised in New England, Cohen started with trips in the Northeast but has since led trips around the country. His organization is now staffed with a full suite of specialists, some of them volunteers, who help lead day hikes throughout the United States. This summer, the group is hosting hikes and events across the country, from New England to the Southwest to the PNW. "Whenever I'm in nature, I feel all the pressure just kind of fall away," a Venture Out Project participant said in an REI film about the organization while backpacking in Colorado. "I don't have to be someone specific or be anything. I can just exist and not have to think about it."
Wild Diversity. Based in Portland, Oregon, this organization is all about building community while being in nature. In addition to leading hikes and camping trips, the group also puts on various programs to empower members of the BIPOC and LGBTQIA community. Among its offering are an Adventure Guide Development program, which cultivates new leaders in the outdoor recreation space; week-long youth summer camps; swimming and conservation programs; and community workshops that teach everything from swimming to how to build a fire. Mercy M'fon, who now serves on the group’s board, founded the organization in 2017 to create a safe place for members of marginalized communities to learn and grow. "As a queer Black woman, I don't need my outdoor experience to be another daily challenge," said M'fon during a TED Talk in 2019. "A lot of people don't want to go in spaces where they have to always think about working out or going faster. Sometimes, they just want to enjoy nature as it is."
OUT There Adventures. Founder Elyse Rylander has been an outdoor guide since 2006, leaving her home in Wisconsin to lead kayaking and backpacking trips in Alaska. In 2013, she used her experience to launch OUT There Adventures, an outdoor recreation nonprofit focused on supporting queer and trans teens in a gender-affirming way, which allows them to live their truth authentically. The group has two main programs in Washington and Oregon, each running a queer conservation corps. It also co-organizes courses through Outward Bound, an international outdoor recreation education nonprofit. As conservation corps members, participants support various projects with the US Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service. "My first job ... was teaching paddling, canoeing, and kayaking to youths during the summer," Rylander told Sierra. "I think I've just been trying to replicate, both for myself, but more importantly for others and especially queer young folks, that experience of inclusiveness and belonging that I was able to have at that young age."
QPOC Hikers. The brainchild of Jas Maisonet, a New Yorker who envisioned a platform to increase the visibility of queer people of color, QPOC Hikers is about more than just hiking. Since its inception in 2019 and Maisonet's move to Seattle, the group has grown into a full-service outdoor recreation community, offering guided hikes, bird outings, gear swaps, and snowshoeing. For Pride Month, the group is hosting an event in Seattle called We're Coming Out, featuring a drag brunch, hike, and neighborhood cleanup. "If you're hiking by yourself, you're probably not as safe as you are if you're hiking in a group," said Maisonet on the PBS show Out & Back with Alison Mariella Désir. "Also, if you have one brown person by themselves, it's probably not as safe as if you have a whole collective of people who can watch each other's backs."
Gay Outdoors. With over 3,500 members, Gay Outdoors is one of the largest queer-focused outdoor groups. It is also one of the longest running; its founder, Mike Boisvert, started the organization in 1999. From his home in New Hampshire, Boisvert leads all sorts of hikes throughout New England, with occasional trips to Europe. But the Northeast remains his home base, where he and a cohort of volunteer leaders host hikes from New York to Maine and down to Massachusetts. While anyone is welcome to become a member for free, those who pay an annual $25 Sustaining Membership fee get special recognition on the website, can contact other members, and receive a GO logo tag for their pack. "We are now no longer afraid of letting people know who we are as a gay or lesbian or bisexual," Boisvert told Sierra. "And I'm happy with that. I'm happy that that's where we are."