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Top FAQs about Experiencing the Outdoors in the LGBTQIA+ Community

Outdoor Curious™ with Perry Cohen
03 May 2022

Eddie Bauer One Outside Guide, Perry Cohen is an athlete and Wilderness First Responder. He is an avid trail runner, biker, backpacker, and surfer, as well as a backcountry skier and snowboarder with avalanche L1 certification. His experience outside lead him to found the Venture Out Project, an NPO that brings together LGBTQIA+ youth and adults to share experiences in the outdoors. Today he’s going to answer your most asked questions about experiencing the outdoors in the LGBTQIA+ community.

00:31 – “Where should I look for LGBTQ outdoor groups in my area?”

I would say the first place to look is on social media. So if you look up queer outdoors or LGBTQ outdoors, you’ll find lots and lots of options on either Meetup, or through other queer outdoor organizations like LGBTQ Outdoors, the Venture Out Project, which is my organization, Unlikely Hikers, Wild Diversity. There are lots and lots of groups that offer hikes, and events, and picnics, and stuff like that in the outdoors.

01:07 – “What is something everyone can do “to advocate for LGBTQ+ folks in the outdoors?”

Invite us to go hiking. Invite us to go climbing. Invite us to go skiing. You know, our identity is just a part of who we are. And I think considering that we have lots of interests in the outdoors and in activities is a really great step. So invite people along. I think other things to do would be if you have an organization or you wanna be more inclusive, you know, let’s say you run a rock climbing night, well, reach out to the local LGBTQ meetup or center in your area and ask if they’d like to partner or collaborate with you on an outing or event. That also goes for folks who live near colleges. That’s a great way. Find out their LGBTQ student groups, and invite them to come to your rock gym, or to come to your ski area. That outreach really goes a long, long way toward people feeling like they’re actually wanted in a space.

02:00 – “How did you get it into the outdoors?”

I grew up in Southern New Hampshire. My neighbors were tried-and-true New Englanders, and they took one look at me, and kind of put their arm out and brought me in. And they took me skiing and taught me to hike. I remember my neighbor, Jim, lured me up Mount Monadnock with Peanut M&M’s, which is a trick I use to this day with my own children when hiking and skiing. So it was really through mentorship and friendship with other people, which I think is a really critical way that many folks get into the outdoors, ’cause it can be really intimidating if you don’t have the skills or don’t have the equipment. And so to go back to the previous question, I think that’s another really important thing folks can offer is mentorship, lend people gear, make them feel supported and included in your outdoor excursions.

02:51 – “Are there resources for recreating outdoors “for LGBTQ folks?”

Absolutely, one of them would be the Venture Out Project, which I run. So we lead both multi-day trips, as well as day events, in things like backpacking, skiing, cross country skiing, biking, hiking. We do paddling, we do snowshoeing. So you can look us up, try to find that. Also, there are lots of organizations that are summer camps. There are meetups, those are great. Also often, like your local outdoor kind of meetup places will offer like a queer night or a BIPOC, Black, Indigenous, People of Color night. So there’s lots of affinity groups popping up in outdoor spaces. And I think those are really great events to seek out.

03:37 – “What are some of your favorite stories “from Venture Out trips and participants?”

It was our first season, and we ran a ski trip out in Colorado. It just so happened that it was 10 trans men who came on this trip. They were from all across the country, all walks of life. And I would say all different levels of gender expression. So some people were very binary and kind of fit a traditional role of masculinity. And other people were non-binary and were much more gender fluid and expressive. And so there was kind of like this whole plethora of different ways in which people express their gender and gender identity. And at the end of the trip, this one guy came up to me and he said, “You know, Perry, before this, “I was out to four people in the world, “and I was really ashamed to be trans “because I thought that I couldn’t be happy, “and I couldn’t hold down a job, “and I couldn’t have relationships, and friendships, “and a close family if I was trans. “And so I felt like it was something “I had to shove down and just kind of deny.” And he said, “But on this trip, “I saw nine other trans men, “and nine other ways of being trans, “and nine really happy people.” And he said, “It gave me this awareness “that my identity and who I am “wasn’t something I had to be ashamed of. “And it wasn’t gonna dictate if I could be happy, “if I could have a job, if I could have a relationship, “if I could have a family.” And he said, “So I’m gonna go home “and have a gender reveal party for myself.” And so he called me, I think it was probably six weeks later, and he said, “I did it. “I had all my friends over and I had a party,” and he said, “midway through the party, I ripped off my flannel shirt.” And he said, “I had a T-shirt on that said, “‘This is what trans looks like.'” And he said, “I came out to all my friends.” And I said, “What’d they do?” And he said, “They all hugged me. “And they all told me they loved me, and they embraced me.” And he said, “I can’t believe how little faith I had in them “or in myself and I feel so much better now.” And he said, “And that wouldn’t have happened “if I hadn’t seen all those ways that I could be myself.”

05:43 – “What if I don’t feel safe in the outdoors?”

Yeah, that’s, that’s real, right? So there’s a couple ways in which we might not feel safe. One of ’em is the outdoor environment, whether it’s icy and cold, or we’re afraid of bears, or it’s steep and treacherous. But I think what this person is most likely talking about is, “What if I don’t feel safe “because of the other people in the outdoors?” And that’s what I often come back to is, the outdoors is very inclusive and welcoming. It can be other people in the outdoors who aren’t always so inclusive and welcoming. And I think there’s a few things you can do. One, I think when you don’t feel safe, it always feels better to be with a friend, or an ally, or a buddy. If it’s one person that’s scary and you’re two people, there is something about safety in numbers. I think you can also try to choose to go to places that maybe have more protective LGBTQ laws. It does require a little bit more research before you go out to say, you know, “I know that Massachusetts and Vermont “have really wonderful anti-harassment laws. “And so I’m gonna be, “I’m more likely to be protected in those states. “I also know that those areas have “a higher percentage of LGBTQ people. “So chances are I’m gonna run into some folks on the trail “who also share my identity.”

06:58 – “I like to be in nature alone, “but is it okay to hike by myself?”

It’s absolutely okay to hike by yourself. In fact, it’s one of the most wonderful things, I think. The thing that you wanna think about in that is does someone know, it’s your safety, right? “Does someone know where I am? “Does someone know when I’m expected to be back?” Let them know that if you don’t call by a certain time, maybe you want them to come look for you or something. So it’s a lot of pre-planning, I would say, is important to that.

07:23 – “How do I find gear that fits me?”

Right? We have this conversation all the time, because often folks who are trans, or non-binary, or gender non-conforming, we don’t necessarily fit traditional model sizes of what clothes are cut for. This is often a thing for trans people. They will force themselves into shoes that are either too small or too big because they just want to wear a shoe that’s cut in the gender that they are. And so they’ll wind up getting blisters, or broken toes even, or other problems that wind up being a safety issue for them, but also for the whole group that they’re in. And so what that winds up doing is that people are like, “Forget it, the jackets don’t fit me. “I’m not gonna have a jacket. “And therefore, you know what? “I wanted to ski, “but I’m not gonna go skiing ’cause I can’t find gear “that makes me feel welcome in this sport.” And so I think certainly crowdsourcing from other folks is really a wonderful way to find stuff. I also think that a lot of brands are starting to recognize that people are wanting different cuts, different styles, and they’re not wanting ’em to be so gendered. Eddie Bauer has a wonderful line of gender-neutral clothing that’s been really awesome.

08:35 – “What are some ways you’ve seen the outdoor industry evolve “to be more LGBTQ inclusive and affirming?”

One, I think that the outdoor industry, folks in the outdoor industry and brands are actually talking about LGBTQ issues. So it started where people would have a Pride line in June, and they’d celebrate Pride, and they’d slap a rainbow on a T-shirt, and give some funds to someone. And then, brands started to realize, “Oh, if we’re gonna support the LGBTQ community, “it actually happens 12 months a year, “not just one month a year.” And so they started expanding their funding, by doing that by saying, “Okay, let’s do LGBTQ shopping night after hours. “Let’s consult with LGBTQ people “about what kind of styles do they want. “Let’s make visible in front of the camera, LGBTQ folks. “Oh, you know what we should do now? “Let’s have LGBTQ folks behind the camera as well.” One organization, I know they trained all of their customer service staff so that when somebody called on the phone and wanted to change their name, or the tone of their voice was different from the gender, so maybe it was their name was Amy, and their voice was very deep, customer service wasn’t shocked, didn’t have a bad response. It was just like, “Yep, you can have any octave of voice and be named Amy. “And really, the issue I wanna help you with is “what was the problem you had “with our product or in our stores?” And then, also in support of films and filmmakers, and who is out there actually participating in these outdoor sports, and who’s outfitting ’em, and what are they wearing? And how is their input being taken in so that it’s not just about functional clothing, but what does it look like? And who’s communities and identities feel supported by the styles that are coming out?

10:20 – “How can I find a safe public bathroom?”

Isn’t this the question? In the outdoors, many, many state parks, national parks will have single stall privies or outhouses. Many of those are not gendered. So that’s a great place to go. If they are gendered, which often they are, and you’re by yourself, take a look around, feel what feels safe, and go in the bathroom that feels the safest to you. Ideally, you’ll have someone with you. And we always have a buddy system where you kind of watch out for each other and maybe don’t let someone go into the bathroom alone if they’re feeling scared or like they might get harassed. So taking care of one another. Places that are great because you know they have a single stall bathroom in every single one are Starbucks and Target. And so kind of mapping some of that out and knowing, hey, we can always stop at one of those two places and there’s always gonna be a single stall bathroom that someone can go in. And then, the other one, the beauty of being in the outdoors is you have the facilitrees, as we like to call them. And there’s no gender marker or specified bathroom behind any tree, so often, that’s a great place. And I would say, for some that can be really, really scary. What if somebody comes up upon me and they see that I’m standing to pee, or they see that I’m squatting to pee and they don’t expect to see that, go further out. You can go in, as long as you remember where you went, but you can go a little bit further out and kind of tuck yourself behind some foliage. That’s another really helpful option.

11:48 – “Is it okay to hold my partner’s hand while hiking?”

If you can hike while holding someone’s hand, I totally applaud you. That is a hard thing to do. I’m always swinging my arms, or often, the trail is very narrow. So, but all joking aside, you know, I think this is one where you have to trust your gut. And you have to look around, and if it feels safe, and you feel like you’re in an environment where you’re not gonna be harassed or targeted for holding your partner’s hand, absolutely. And if you feel like you are, I think it’s really important to trust that gut feeling.

12:21 – “What national parks are LGBTQ friendly?”

In general, the parks are LGBTQ friendly. I mean, there’s lots of non-discrimination laws in place to support that. Also, there’s some great work being done at the Park Service around diversity, equity, and inclusion. There’s lots of LGBTQ park rangers. But again, depending on what state you’re in, things are gonna feel, or frankly be safer or less safe. Stonewall in New York City is a national monument. So that is part of the Park Service. So I would say that one 100%. In 1969, there was a riot at Stonewall, which was a bar. It was a gay bar with lots and lots of trans women, and particularly trans women of color. And the police were raiding the bar. The patrons were finally like, “We’ve had enough of this,” and they fought back against the cops. And this is why you may see signs that say, “The first Pride was a riot.” And that’s what they’re referring to, that it was a riot and a fight back against the police who were unfairly targeting the people who were in this bar because of their identity. It’s become, it’s still a bar, but it is also a national monument to commemorate the lives that were lost, and the people who fought so hard for LGBTQ rights at Stonewall. And that was under Obama, that that became a national monument.

13:41 – “You do a lot of LGBTQ education work “in the outdoor industry. “What kinds of things do corporations wanna learn about?”

I love this question. So they wanna understand, what is all this talk about pronouns? Why are we asking pronouns? Then, they wanna know, “Okay, now I understand that I’m asking pronouns “’cause I wanna give people a chance “to tell me how to refer to them. “And I don’t wanna make an assumption about them, “but I wanna get it right, I wanna affirm them.” And so then, they wanna know, “Okay, so now that I know why, “how do I ask for someone’s pronouns?” Or, “How do I correct mistakes?” And so we run a workshop to kind of go over a lot of those issues. And then, other things that they wanna know about is, “What are kind of the needs and desires of the LGBTQ “community specifically in the outdoors? “Does clothing fit? “Do people feel included? “Are you seeing role models like yourselves “in the outdoor industry?” And I think one of my favorite parts about our workshops is the whole beginning is, you know, understanding vocabulary, understanding language, understanding pronouns, understanding what is sex, what is gender, what is sexuality? How do all these things interplay with each other? And then, the whole second half is, “Okay, so we’ve got all that knowledge. “Now I’m running a camp. “I wanna split people into tent groups. “How do I do that?” And we work through scenarios on that.

15:05 – “What is the best way to handle a homophobic situation?”

Okay, so I’m gonna answer this in a couple ways. One is, you witness a homophobic situation. So you see someone get called a slur. Foremost, the most important is to go talk to the people who were the target of the homophobic slur and make them feel like they have someone else out there who saw it, who cares about them, and is gonna help them. If it’s happening to you, that’s a lot harder. I think when we are the target of something, it becomes really hard to respond in a way that is not with pain, and anger, and fear. When I have been the target of kind of anti-trans stuff, sometimes I’ll just walk away. It’s not worth my time is what I feel. I certainly have a lot of privilege to feel safe in doing that. Not everyone does, for sure. And for other people, it can feel like a real life and death situation, and very, very scary. But I think getting out of the situation is the number one thing to do. You don’t owe anyone anything to respond to that, to argue with them, to combat it. Again, I don’t think you’re gonna change their mind by doing that. And so looking for help, making sure that you are safe by getting out of there is a really, I think, important step, and is the way to take care of yourself.

16:24 – “Who are my heroes?”

Oh, wow, that’s a great question. I think, you know, I’m really lucky in that I have 11-year-old twins, and I would say, and this is gonna sound cheesy and trite, I get it, like, “Oh, your kids are your heroes,” but they are. I think my kids have modeled for me what it means to be your true self. And I will say that my kids were my inspiration for deciding that I was gonna actually come out as trans and transition because I watched them be so authentic, be so themselves, and be so unafraid to speak their truth. And huge part of that was ’cause they were young, and they hadn’t yet experienced kind of the beat down that many of us get when we try to be our true selves. They didn’t know any different. And it was incredibly inspiring to me to see how free they were. They were totally my inspiration to kind of change my entire life. I went from a corporate job to running a nonprofit. I went from hiding my identity to being out and proud, and visible in my transness. And yeah, I think my kids inspired that tremendously.

17:35 – “What if I feel being outdoorsy conflicts with my identity?”

Yeah, I think this is a huge thing for LGBTQ folks because we are socialized and grown up to think that queer people are city people, and it’s about being out, and being in the clubs, or being musicians, or being artsy, and how possibly could being outdoorsy kind of reconcile with that? I hope, and believe, and think that one of the beautiful things that’s happening in the outdoor industry is we are seeing so many more models of how to be outdoorsy. And so yes, for a long time, it was being up in the mountains in particular clothes, and being very hardcore, and I think now, there’s so many more ways to be outdoorsy. You can have all different kinds of bodies and be outdoorsy. Being outdoorsy doesn’t just mean hiking. It could mean sitting in a park. It could mean having a family picnic. It could mean playing music outside. Maybe you wanna go birding. Or maybe it’s like, “You know what, screw this. “I want to wear super bright colors in the outdoors, “and be very flamboyant, and have painted nails.” And just because long nails in the outdoors hasn’t been a thing I’ve seen doesn’t mean it’s not gonna be a thing. So if there are ways that you can reimagine what outdoors is, and I actually think that there’s so many great examples of this on Instagram. Know that you’re not the only one who is trying to reconcile this, this identity with your outdoorsy side.

19:04 – “What are some classes or lessons I can take “to be safer outdoors?”

So there’s a few things, I don’t think there’s one, you can come on a Venture Out trip. That’s part of what we do is teach folks how to get outdoors safely. We teach you how to cook, how to set up camp, where to set up camp, how to read maps. All kinds of local community colleges will offer classes. Lots of outdoor recreation stores will offer things like wilderness first aid, which is really helpful. I think also, just local hiking groups, or local birding groups, or fishing groups often will offer introductory classes. And those are a great place to start, because A, you learn skills, but B, you start to meet other people who are doing what you’re doing. And often, that can feel really nice to be able to find a buddy to get outdoors with.

19:50 – “How do outdoor programs benefit LGBTQ youth?”

They bring LGBTQ folks together. So if you’re in an LGBTQ group, perhaps for the first time in your life, you’re meeting someone who shares your identity. And what that does to people’s mental health is unbelievable. I think also what outdoor programs do for LGBTQ youth, or what they do for everybody, right? They help you build confidence. They help you discover skills that you never thought you had. They help you figure out how to connect with others. They help build resilience. You know, when you’re outdoors, it’s raining and cold, it’s miserable. And then, when you discover that you can survive that, it’s a really powerful feeling. And you’re gonna call on that next time you’re in a hard situation. “Oh yeah, I didn’t think that I’d make it “through that night, but I did.”

20:32 – “What’s the benefit of hiking/recreating “with an LGBTQ group?”

A huge benefit is that you get to just be yourself. We had a person come on a trip who had just completed thru-hiking an Appalachian trail. So tried-and-true backpacker. And this person said, “You know, “the whole time I was on the Appalachian trail “for five and a half months, I was the trans thru-hiker. “And it was when I came on a Venture Out trip “and was with all these other LGBTQ people “that I finally became just a backpacker.” So it kind of takes that modifier out of it. I’m no longer the queer backpacker, or the trans backpacker, or the LGBTQ backpacker. I get to be just me backpacking, doing something I love. I think another big benefit is, you know, your defenses go down when you’re in the outdoors. And the conversations that come up on the trail when you’re backpacking are really powerful. And the connections I have seen people build on our trips are kind of mind-blowing to me.

21:36 – “What is something allies should know “about your experience outdoors “that maybe they didn’t realize?”

I think that I’ll use myself as an example. I think most people who don’t know me, but just look at me, don’t know I’m trans. And so it’s kind of my decision if I wanna come out, if I wanna make that known about myself. But I think what people don’t realize is that whether I make that known or not, I’m always thinking about it in the back of my head, like, “Oh, okay, where am I gonna pee? “Oh, if somebody sees me, what are they gonna think of me? “Am I safe? “Am I gonna have to code-switch, “and not say certain things that I wanna say, “like not talk about past experiences that would out me “as having had experiences being identified as a woman?” Knowing that you can’t know someone’s identity necessarily, just by looking at them.

PERRY COHEN

Eddie Bauer One Outside Guide

Perry is an avid runner, biker, and backcountry skier who is Avalanche L1 certified. He’s also a lifeguard, a Wilderness First Responder, and the founder of The Venture Out Project, a non-profit organization that brings together queer, trans, and LGBTQ+ youth and adults to create community, develop leadership skills, and gain confidence through the shared experience of outdoor adventure.

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