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OUTDOOR LIFE

Venturing Out: How Queer Folks Are Finding Community in the Outdoors

From backpacking trips to skiing adventures, The Venture Out Project is bringing LGBTQ+ people together outside
Perry Cohen was sitting beneath the fluorescent lights at his corporate desk job one afternoon in 2014, contemplating some major life decisions, when he suddenly felt inspired.

Staring out the window at New Hampshire’s Mt. Monadnock, he decided to go for a hike. The climb up the mountainside was challenging and by the time he’d reached the top, he’d had a revelation: it was his body that got him there.

The same body that, as a transgender man, he’d struggled to accept over the years.

“I was on the summit looking out at this gorgeous view and really appreciating the fact that my body enabled me to be there,” Cohen said. “For the first time in a long time, I felt connected to it, and grateful in a way that I hadn't been before.”

Cohen decided then and there to quit his desk job to go work in the outdoor industry. Soon after, he founded The Venture Out Project (TVOP), a nonprofit organization that leads outdoor adventures for queer and transgender people to help them feel the same way he did standing on that summit.

“To be in a place where you can appreciate your body, that’s rare in our culture—it’s something I wanted to help others experience,” he said.

He had recently come out as trans to his family and decided to begin transitioning. The revelation made it easier for him to walk away from everything, he said.

“Once you transition your gender, something like quitting your job is actually not that big of a deal anymore,” he recalled. “I remember thinking, well, I’ve already defied every expectation that anyone—including myself—had for me. It made sense that I could finally get to do what I wanted with my career too.

“It was an incredibly emancipating experience—feeling like right now I can just do what I love.”
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The Venture Out Project (TVOP) hosts day hikes, as well as overnight and multi-day excursions in which participants get to spend time with other LGBTQ+ people and exchange stories about their lives. Photo Credit: The Venture Out Project

Sharing experiences outdoors

In addition to wilderness hikes and overnight backpacking trips, TVOP hosts single-day adventures such as skiing, snowshoeing, rafting, and kayaking trips. The group also facilitates educational workshops to teach non-queer folks how to be better allies.

For some of the people who attend the wilderness trips, it’s their first in-person experience with people who identify like them. This can be extremely powerful, Cohen explained.

He recalled one youth participant, for example, who returned from a weeklong backpacking trip and kept talking about how they “got to meet trans people for the first time.” Cohen said he was confused because they’d been talking about their trans friends all week.

When he asked them to clarify, they explained that those friends are all online. “There’s such a robust online community for trans kids, but for so many of them, they’re very isolated in real life,” Cohen said. “Some of them aren’t out at school or at home.

“This may be the first time they get to actually meet another trans person in real life. See a person. Connect with someone who shares their identity.

“These trips are opportunities for them to get to experience themselves in real life, too—try on pronouns, try on different names. And do it in a place where they know that it’s safe.”
“To be in a place where you can appreciate your body, that’s rare in our culture—it's something I wanted to help others experience.”
~ Perry Cohen, Executive Director of TVOP
Most importantly, he added, they can share their everyday stories. Triumphs like being called “brother” by a sibling or having strangers point to their beards, as well as challenges like being harassed in bathrooms or stared at in public spaces.

A big part of it is simply helping them to see that they’re not alone, he said.

“For so long in our culture, it hasn’t been okay to talk about your gender identity,” he said. “Especially when it doesn't align with what others think it is. That has left many of us feeling like nobody else has experienced the things that we have experienced.

“So to have those moments where you realize that it is actually super common, that’s huge.”
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For some participants, TVOP’s wilderness trips mark the first time they’ve been able to hang out with people who identify like them in person which can be a powerful experience, according to Executive Director Perry Cohen. Photo Credit: The Venture Out Project
In addition to wilderness hikes and overnight backpacking trips, TVOP hosts single-day adventures such as skiing, snowshoeing, rafting, and kayaking trips. The group also facilitates educational workshops to teach non-queer folks how to be better allies.

Intergenerational exchanges

Another meaningful aspect of TVOP’s wilderness trips is the exchange that occurs between the younger and older participants, particularly on the trips aimed at youth. The younger folks get to hear stories about how things used to be for LGBTQ+ people, and the instructors learn new perspectives from the incoming generations.

Not only that, the youth get to see healthy, content queer role models. “They see these adults that are happy and employed and leading these trips,” he said. “It’s just this magical opportunity for young people to see what their future could be. And for the older folks, they get to view themselves as mentors—that’s a really empowering feeling.”

It’s one of the big reasons that Cohen keeps himself visible, he said, even at times when he may not feel like it.

“There are some days when I am certainly like, ‘I don’t feel like being out right now. I don’t want to put myself in the spotlight for all of this.’ But then I look at the kids and I think, ‘If I’d had somebody like myself to look up to at their age, that would have been a game changer.’ Those are the kinds of things that make it worth it.”
“Once you transition your gender, something like quitting your job is actually not that big of a deal anymore. I remember thinking, well, I've already defied every expectation that anyone—including myself—had for me. It made sense that I could finally get to do what I wanted with my career too.”
~ Perry Cohen, Executive Director of TVOP
TVOP events can be challenging for the participants too, he said. On top of the sheer physical challenges, they’re confronted with identities that they may not have to think about all the time back home.

What’s more, unlike in their everyday lives, they’re cut off from many of their coping mechanisms.

“Part of the beauty and the challenge of the outdoors is that your normal coping devices aren’t there,” Cohen said. “When we take away phones and iPads, these kids can’t retreat into them. They might actually have to think or feel their feelings, which can be hard.

“That’s where our instructors come in to make sure they’re still in a safe place.”
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All of TVOP’s instructors have also been participants on the program, a unique fact that Cohen said provides them with extra empathy. “Everyone teaching has had the experience and remembers going on their first trip and being so nervous,” he explained. Photo Credit: The Venture Out Project

Opening up the outdoors

For a lot of queer and trans people, the outdoors have never felt particularly welcoming. Breaking into the outdoor community can be intimidating for anyone—and when you’re part of a marginalized community, it’s that much harder.

Cohen said that he struggled to fit in at times when he was younger, even though he’d been raised as an avid outdoor enthusiast in New Hampshire.

“Certain sports felt really bro-y,” he said. “I grew up as a skier, but when I moved out to Wyoming for a winter, I was like, ‘How am I going to find any friends here?’ I knew I could ski with them and hang with them on the slopes, but once we got in the bar, I wasn’t sure that I was going to feel welcome.”

To make things even more difficult, queer people don’t often see themselves represented in advertisements or on social media.

“You have to see it to be it,” he said. “If you don't see anyone that looks like you doing something, you think, ‘That's not for me,’ or ‘I'm not going to be welcomed.’ You feel like you don't belong in those spaces.

“To me, that's part of why I choose to be so visible in my queerness and my transness. I think people need to be able to see folks like themselves out there doing things.”

Creating safe spaces

When LGBTQ+ people do venture into outdoor spaces, the payoff can be huge. In fact, Cohen said, nature oftentimes has added meaning for queer and transgender folks.

In addition to the smaller things like not having to deal with mirrors or gendered bathrooms, there are the emotionally significant components, like how nature tends to be viewed with less judgment, he said.

“In nature, when we're looking at a tree or a plant or a leaf or something, we’re thinking about that structure as it exists, not how it’s supposed to be or how we believe it should be,” Cohen said. “We’re not saying, ‘This thing is too fat or too skinny or too short or too tall.’ We accept it as it is.

“And we’re not attaching gender to it.

“That is a really powerful thing for anyone, and especially for queer and trans people. To just be in a place where everything is beautiful as it is.”
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“In nature, when we're looking at a tree or a plant or a leaf or something, we’re thinking about that structure as it exists, not how it’s supposed to be or how we believe it should be. ... We accept it as it is,” Cohen said. Photo Credit: Palmer Morse, Sprucetone Films
For Cohen personally, the outdoors have always been a place where he feels the most himself.

“It’s a place where there are no other distractions, so I can actually be aware of being in my body,” he said. “How everything feels. My senses are more alive out there. I smell things better. I hear things better. Everything tastes better on the trail.

“It’s the place where I can go fast and go big, but also go slow. Where I can I see how small I am in comparison to everything else. It puts everything into perspective.

“I think there’s something very humbling and it makes everything slow down—I'm so present outside. I'm really ‘there’ when I'm there.”
“That is a really powerful thing for anyone, and especially for queer and trans people. To just be in a place where everything is beautiful as it is.”
~ Perry Cohen, Executive Director of TVOP

Being allies

When it comes to working with allies, Cohen said that his goal is to meet people where they are and not make judgments. In exchange, he asks that people be willing to make mistakes and not be so afraid of saying the wrong thing that they end up not saying anything at all.

“I think if there was a message I would give to folks reading this, it would be that it’s OK to be a beginner with this stuff,” he said. “Just because you’re new to this and it’s hard or maybe it’s embarrassing, it’s really important to not shy away from it.

“If somebody comes out to you, it’s OK to say, ‘I don’t really know how to talk about this, but I support you and I love you.’”
To learn more about TVOP and ways to get involved, check out ventureoutproject.com.
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