In 2017, Elise Rylander, founder of Out There Adventures, and Hannah Malvin of Pride Outside launched the inaugural LGBTQ Outdoor Summit. Their mission was to build new connections and a community inside a queer space. Now in its fourth year, the Summit brings together outdoor leaders from across the country to focus on forming accessible ways for the LGBTQ community to get OUTside. As the only queer paddler on Team NRS, I was given the opportunity to participate in this year’s Summit to represent and expand my leadership in the paddling community.
The Summit was an eye-opening experience for me in more ways than one. Coming from the South, I rarely, if ever, find myself surrounded by a lot of out queer people. In the outdoors, it’s even less so. But for one weekend, I was not only surrounded by queer folks but ones who enjoyed the outdoor spaces as much as me.
While I was there, I got the chance to meet and speak with queer outdoor leaders. I learned their stories, how the outdoors has impacted their stories, and how the Summit has affected their lives.
I was nervous about going to this event as I didn’t know anyone. On top of that, I was in a part of the country I had never visited: West Virginia. So, on the first night, feeling the nervous nostalgia of choosing a lunch spot in high school, I sat next to Matthew Daugherty (He/Him/His). Matthew turned out to be—like everyone at the Summit, honestly—kind and very open to conversation. He made me feel welcomed. Hailing from Nashville, Tennessee, Matthew loves the outdoors and enjoys going camping, which was the only previous outdoor experience he had before attending the Summit.
For him, coming out and being openly gay in the outdoors was a good experience but he lacked the opportunities to do more. The Summit allowed him to meet other queer adventurists and realize that there are more outdoor queer people like him. “Knowing there are other people out there who enjoy, camping, hiking, mountain biking, fly fishing, all the things that I might not have considered before, now is a possibility.”
He heard of the LGTBQ Summit through his inclusions network at REI, where he works. What he saw in the Summit was a lot of outdoor enthusiasts learning to create safe spaces. He wanted to learn how he can reciprocate that back home. I asked Matthew how non-queer outdoor enthusiasts can make the outdoor community feel more welcoming for queer enthusiasts. He told me how working at REI is about selling the dream of the outdoors and how to keep people wanting more. As a gay man, he wants to make sure that no one has a negative experience when they’re shopping for outdoor gear.
As a person outdoors, he wants to be shown respect. “We’re human beings. The earth really doesn’t discriminate. It’s there for everyone. You know, a campsite is a campsite. Anyone can go camping and can have that love. And I think it’s important that we just remember that, you know, the Earth is not just for certain people.”
The post-dinner activity that night was salsa dancing, where I met Patrick Wojhan, (He/Him/His). I’ve never salsa’ed before but Patrick, who happens to be the mayor of College Park, Maryland, was one of my partners and we had a blast. Aside from running a city, Patrick is an advocate for Rails-to-Trails, an outdoor initiative that creates safe ways for bicycles and pedestrians to commute and recreate around the D.C. area.
Patrick came out when he was 18, and since then he has never refrained from speaking out. He didn’t experience many barriers to being openly gay in the outdoor community. “I would just be open about it upfront,” he says. As an openly gay mayor, everyone knows, though he says he hasn’t experienced much trouble, besides the few people who say they would never vote for him because he’s gay.
“There was a woman who ran against me as mayor specifically because she didn’t want to have a gay mayor in College Park. And she spoke pretty openly about how it was against her religion and her religious beliefs for anybody to be gay and ran against me on that basis,” he said. She lost only having received about 5% percent of the votes.
Patrick learned about the Summit through Rails-to-Trails, a co-sponsor of the event. For Patrick, it seemed like a great way to get outdoors with other queer enthusiasts. “I think it’s important to have safe spaces for LGBTQ people to be able to gather and to meet others,” he said. Some people won’t always have a safe space and this Summit was able to give these people a place they can be themselves.
Even outside of this weekend, it’s important for others to give the queer community the respect they deserve. Some of the best ways for others to make the queer community feel safe and welcome is to educate themselves. Patrick suggests that others should, “be supportive of them and their sexual orientation and gender identity. I would say, first and foremost, learn and educate.” Patrick follows many outdoor queer supporting organizations such as Victory Fund and The Human Rights Campaign, which was a huge help for him being an openly gay mayor. As well as Free State Justice which is an advocate for LGBTQ+ equality on a state level.
The next day I met Abby Crisostomo (She/Her/Hers), when she sat down at a table with me. Abby is a backcountry split boarder who resides on occupied Abenaki Land, which is now known as Vermont. She loves sharing the backcountry with LGBTQ+ and BIPOC folks. She had always been open about being bisexual, but back in 2020, Abby came out as transgender. Before then, Abby recalled a moment when she was split boarding with two cis-het (Cisgendered Heterosexual) guys, and one was defending a right-wing radio host’s transphobic comment. That interaction made her uncomfortable while at the same time opening her eyes to the attitudes of some in the outdoor community toward transgender folks. Experiences like these hinder queer and transgender people from being open with themselves in the outdoors or otherwise.
It didn’t help that the online community was just as unsupportive and unwelcoming. Just look at any outdoor brand, the moment they share about an athlete who isn’t a cis-het person, that athlete and/or brand are criticized, threatened, and harassed. Despite all of the negativity, Abby couldn’t wait any longer and in 2020 it was time to share her truth. “When I finally did come out, I found a wonderful community of LGBTQ folks in the outdoors.” Now she is open with her sexuality and gender in the outdoor community.
For Abby, the affinity spaces at the Summit are vital for the queer and BIPOC community. “The majority of enthusiasts of outdoor sports like skiing, snowboarding, mountain biking, hiking, etc. are cis-het white men, and their experience in the outdoors is centered and celebrated. These affinity spaces really center and celebrate our experiences and create a space for us to exist authentically and experience joy in the outdoors while being our full selves.”
People who are not a part of these communities must work to make the outdoor spaces more accepting. Abby wants others in the outdoor community to take action and speak out when transphobic and homophobic comments and laws are made because many people’s lives depend on it. “Speak out and take action like your life depends on it, because ours does. And learn about our experiences in the outdoors, support us and have our backs when we are attacked, harassed, and discriminated against.”
The emcee of the Summit may have stood out to me the most. It wouldn’t even be 8 AM, yet, and Cimmaron Craig (He/Him/They/Theirs), who came all the way from the Big Island of Hawaii, was wide awake and ready for the day. They were bursting with joy to be at the Summit. While Cimmaron may live in Hawaii, he grew up in the vastly different environment of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Cimmaron started their outdoor life when he first went to summer camp and learned that the outdoors was for them. As he continued pursuing an outdoor career, they began working in wilderness therapy.
When Cimmaron came out, the experiences between his family and profession were very different. With his family, their mom kept dropping hints, whether it was vocal or by giving him books. “I came out officially when I was 16. And made that just a big part of my life back then.” By the time Cimmaron had a career, emphasizing their sexuality wasn’t as intentional. “For work, I don’t necessarily feel like I had to come out. I feel like my expression of myself did the speaking for me.”
However, Cimmaron found it funny when people asked if they were gay. He would respond with who is asking or why do we have to label it. “I really, really, really love that we use the word queer now. But yeah, it’s like the label itself, just with all the stigma that’s around it. I think was the most determining factor in whether or not I would just say like, yeah, I’m gay.” Cimmaron doesn’t want to hide it, but it is not something they want to broadcast.
When he came out, he felt accepted by his workplace, but the outdoors was different. When he would climb, people assumed, based on his look and mannerisms, that he couldn’t do much and knew nothing. “You know, the tall, burly man with the beard comes up to me and tries to fit me for my harness, which I can do. He’s telling me where to grab on the wall or like trying to give me unsolicited assistance.” Sure, the man could have had good intentions, but he didn’t go over to the other guy and offer help.
Cimmaron met Elyse Rylander last year at Outdoors for All, an outdoor event geared towards DEI. Elyse was doing affinity spaces for people, which intrigued Cimmaron, so he asked her about it. That interaction prompted Elyse to invite him to be the emcee for the LGBTQ Summit. As the emcee, the ability to network and build relationships with people like them became the greatest takeaway for Cimmaron. “Being able to see other people that are like me in a space, enjoying themselves, finding strength and courage… feeling comfortable and feeling held or feeling like they belong. And embracing that for myself, I think is the biggest thing that has changed.”
His experience shows that for others to truly be accepting in a community, they have to invite LGBTQ in not just expect them to show up. The difference between a ‘you can come if you want’ mentality versus ‘we would like you to join’ is monumental. “I think that’s the biggest thing—accepting just me as a human and not what boxes you’d like to put me in. I can’t change my blackness. I can’t change my queerness, but we can change how we treat people like me in these spaces.”
As for me, I’m Cat Hardman (She/Her/Hers) and I live in Columbus, Georgia. When NRS and I approached this event, I was very excited—and nervous. I hopped on a plane, rented a truck, and drove to the Summit. As soon as I started talking to people, I started to feel more comfortable. I had never been around so many queer people. Listening to everyone share their stories gave me the encouragement I need to come out to my family.
Some of my family knew, others didn’t. I was so nervous; my anxiety was through the roof. Yet everyone there sat with me and helped me relax. Later in the day I finally got a call back from my family and I came out to them. I was unsure of how they would react, but they told me I was loved and that’s all that mattered to me.
The biggest takeaway I had from this event was meeting many other queer and BIPOC folks from all around. I was able to create connections and make new friendships. With the paddling community, a lot of my close friends knew. Sponsors were the scariest people to show my true self, as I did not want to lose those relationships. Later on, I realized that if a company wouldn’t support me, I should not be representing them. All of my sponsors gave me the support I needed and I felt loved by all of them, The Summit showed me that there others in an outdoor setting that are queer, it gave me a sense of hope that I could be my true self wherever I am. If I am kayaking, climbing, or skiing, I can be myself in the outdoors.
Editor’s Note: Guest contributor Cat Hardman’s life has been saturated with whitewater since she was five years old. As a World Class Kayak Academy alum, she’s paddled around the world and competed across the country. Read more about Cat here and watch her feature in the My Home Run series.