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09 Jul 2019

Community Voices: The Outdoor-Rec Industry Can Help Shift Outdoors Culture From Homophobia Toward Inclusion

Written by  Mikah Meyer, High Country News
Mikah Meyer. Mikah Meyer.

“Nature doesn’t care if you’re gay,” I’ll often hear in reaction to articles by myself or my outdoorsy LGBTQ peers. And it’s true: Nature doesn’t care if I’m gay.

But people do.

A few ago, I finished a world-record journey to all 419 National Park Service sites. For three years nonstop, I lived in a van, hiked trails everywhere from American Samoa to the Arctic Circle, and accomplished an outdoors journey no human had ever done before. But comments about the trip have included things like, “Well now I need to be careful in the bathroom at national parks,” and, “Why do you have to shove your lifestyle down our throats!” A sponsor terminated our partnership halfway through the project, saying over the phone and in writing that I was doing too much LGBTQ outreach.

A camping website called The Dyrt posted an interview with me on Facebook featuring a thumbnail photo in which I’m holding a rainbow flag in front of Yosemite’s Tunnel View. The comments were so inflammatory that the publishers decided just hours later it was inappropriate to leave it up. They later denounced the hateful comments and reposted the story with a call for civility—which was unheeded. A rainbow flag incited such anger from a community of nature-lovers that they ignored what so many outdoor enthusiasts have told me is their “dream trip.”

This happened in June, of all months, the one month when my social media feels like an explosion of rainbows due to worldwide Pride festivals. When historic anniversaries like the Stonewall uprising and marriage-equality decisions are remembered. And when seemingly every corporation, from Listerine to Disney, is releasing products that celebrate these culture-changing moments.

Yet, as the rest of America chases this “Pink Dollar,” the outdoor recreation industry seems less interested in the near $1 trillion in purchasing power of the U.S. LGBTQ community. Or the shift in culture evidenced by the fact that the Los Angeles Dodgers’ 2019 “Pride Night” was the team’s highest attended game in seven years. Or—as I can attest after seeing Tinder photos from every corner of the United States during my parks journey—the vast market of gay men hoping to look cute in athletic clothes on top of a mountain.

Some in the LGBTQ community argue that corporate Pride promotions are simply “rainbow washing” to increase profits. But as someone who didn’t meet an openly gay adult until I left my home state of Nebraska at age 19, while 14 years later can get married in any state across the U.S., I’ve seen the progress our culture has made. And I believe companies had a large part in it.

In an age when corporations are afforded some of the same rights as individuals, financial power plays a significant role in our society, from politics to cultural acceptance. When Marriott, a company started and owned by Mormons, is willing to sponsor Pride festivals and has an entire annual #LoveTravels campaign aimed at making LGBTQ travelers feel welcome, even people in so-called “flyover states” are influenced by ideas more progressive than they might see at home.

In the same way, the outdoor recreation industry has the power to help build a future where LGBTQ outdoors fans are seen the same as everyone else. In that world, other nature enthusiasts’ reactions to a photo of a flag-bearing hiker would be the same whether it was an American flag or a rainbow one. If outdoor companies follow the example of the rest of corporate America, they could use their influence in a way that both helps their bottom line and improves the lives of outdoor lovers.

As civil rights leader Marian Wright Edelman said, “It’s hard to be what you can’t see.” The backing of inclusive values by outdoor brands will help nature enthusiasts like the Eagle Scout who wrote me via Instagram to share that he’d never had an outdoorsy gay role model until learning about my national parks record. Better representation will invite more people to experience our great outdoors. While LGBTQ discrimination still causes vastly higher rates of suicide attempts among LGBTQ youth than their straight peers, this moment in time gives me hope.

When I started my national parks journey in 2016, the outdoor recreation industry had never had a Pride Month ad. Now, several companies and nonprofits sponsor an annual LGBTQ Outdoor Summit; an outdoors-themed drag queen is commanding attention from brands, and REI (which I work with to help promote LGBTQ inclusion in the outdoors) received the Kenji Award at 2019’s Outdoor Retailer tradeshow in part for their “Outside With Pride” apparel.

This promotions and inclusion work of the past three years has expanded the tent of who sees themselves in outdoors culture, meaning we’ve come one step closer to a goal: A hope that one day, the readers of an article about a gay man visiting all of America’s national parks won’t care about the sexual orientation of the adventurer. After all, if nature doesn’t care that I’m gay, why do people?

Adventurer Mikah Meyer was recently named one of NBC’s “Pride 50” for groundbreaking work with LGBTQ communities. He is a regular speaker on topics ranging from epic outdoors experiences to the benefits of inclusion for businesses and individuals. He is based in Minneapolis. This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

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