It is no secret that the topic of queer inclusivity in the outdoor industry is a personal one for me. Long before I co-founded OUT There Adventures, I took my first canoe trip down the Wisconsin River at the age of four weeks. Adventures in nature cultivated relationships with my family, connected me to some of the most influential people in my life, were the catalyst for my world travels and most importantly has been the foundation for the development of my self-esteem.
I started work in the outdoor industry at age of 16 at Rutabaga Paddlesports where I taught paddling classes and sold boats. Over the years I’ve worked with college students on challenge courses, guided wealthy tourists through Arctic bays packed with icebergs and taken young people experiencing homelessness whitewater rafting. I am also a gay woman. When I came out to my parents, their reaction was less about shock and more about the concern for my safety. And as is almost always true, Mom had good reason to worry.
Even though visibility of the queer community in this country has taken a massive step closer to being fully out of the proverbial closet, it has never been a more dangerous time for queer youth. Hate crimes and anti-queer legislation are on the rise, and Mother Jones called 2015 the deadliest year in history for the trans community.
We are reminded constantly, especially this week, that there is so much work that still needs to be done. The tragedy in Orlando on Sunday, all the hate crimes the queer community faces, and so much more support this notion. Between a quarter and a half of homeless American youth identify as queer. The solution to combating this fear of the queer community that permeates our culture is complex and multifaceted, but the outdoor industry can absolutely aid in the efforts.
I am fired up about the immense amount of work that needs to be done to combat this "fear of the queer" that runs rampant through the country but also through our industry's programs, tradeshows and campsites. We need more showings of support of our queer athletes, executives and staff. We need to invest more resources in to programs that are providing the queer community with a more direct and safer way to access the outdoors. We all need to acknowledge that we are still a far cry from reaching true diversity and inclusion.
Our industry exists because of the acute awareness of the importance of our relationship with nature, but how are we investing in cultivating this for all? In 2014 my partner and I started OUT There Adventures, a Seattle-based non-profit that is rooted in the idea that every young person deserves a safe(r) and supportive opportunity to connect with nature, and this includes the often forgotten demographic of queer young people. We don't ask participants to reduce their gender identity down to a one-time check of a box. We don't separate out tent groups based only on the sex assigned them at birth. We don't think it's just a phase. Through creating a safer space for this under-resourced population, our programs expose participants to the idea that the courage it takes them to sometimes simply exist can help them climb (and move) mountains. In return, these young people constantly teach us that they have so much to offer the world; they just need the opportunity to do so.
Through the sheer lack of queer visibility (not to mention the continued utilization of sexist ads, articles and gear development) it's clear we still have a ways to go before we reach the pinnacle of inclusivity as an industry, and the climb will take a lot of grit, determination and investments of all kinds. Though the task may seem daunting, there are some simple ways we can all begin this process now. First, educate yourself. If my usage of the word queer has made you uncomfortable or confused then here is your first small step. When you're done reading this article, Google it. While you're at it, familiarize yourself with the terms cisgender, microagression, intersectionality and heteronormativity too.
Second, become a really great ally. This means more than putting a rainbow sticker on a water bottle or saying you support gay marriage. It means being open to being challenged and humbled over and over and over. It means listening more than you speak. It means cultivating your empathy.
Third, it is time the industry supports these efforts now, and in a big way. It takes immense resources to grow the programs that close the gaps. Even though money is flowing towards good work, what is the rate and what are the terms? Is your company doing part of the work involved in reaching out to new programs and organizations and lowering their barriers to access of your funding? Or is your support contingent upon jumping through hoop after hoop, and ultimately the highest probability of future customers? We need to take a step back and think about how our industry can allocate more and more compassionately.
Like any industry, I understand that ours is driven by profits. So, since the story always comes back to the bottom line I will offer one to you: there are costs, financial and otherwise, associated to accessing nature, and some can be too high for too many Americans. By growing accessibility to the wilderness we’re helping to create a more compassionate, confident and connected generation. We’re helping increase not only the physical health, but also the mental well being of our young people. We’re creating more future stewards of our planet. For the sake of our communities, our industry and our planet it is time we make a serious investment.
*Queer is an all-inclusive term for the LGBTQ population.
Elyse Rylander is the co-founder and Executive Director of OUT There Adventures. OTA is a Seattle based non-profit whose mission is to cultivate leadership and build community for LGBTQ young people through adventures outside.