The Venture Out Project
Develop confidence, skills, and a sense of belonging through outdoor adventure
Pacific Crest Trail, Oregon
By Matt Kulke
Those of us who love the outdoors look to wild places as an escape from the chaos of everyday life. We know the feeling of waiting for 5:00 p.m. in our desk chairs so we can head for the mountains and the relief of a service-less cell phone. But for people who are underrepresented or marginalized in the outdoor world, wild spaces can amplify societal pressure instead of providing an escape from it.
In the third grade, I spent the majority of my time building shelters in my backyard and reading adventure books like Hatchet and My Side of the Mountain. My parents signed me up for the Girl Scouts, telling me that I’d have the opportunity to go camping and make friends at the same time. I didn’t yet know the word transgender, but I knew that I wasn’t a girl, and being constantly referred to as one (not to mention the copious hairstyling time on our camping trips) was disappointing enough to take the fun out of s’mores and river rafting. I quit the Girl Scouts, telling my mom that I’d rather go camping alone.
When I began my physical transition in high school, I considered participating in a backpacking trip with a local camp, but was too nervous to follow through. Sometimes people thought I was a boy, sometimes a girl, and occasionally, I met someone who was confused enough by my presentation to comment (“You should just choose”) or ask questions (“Did you have surgery?”). It was one thing to meet someone like this at school, I reasoned, but another thing to be stuck with them on a two-week long trek through the wilderness.
At age nineteen, I went on my first trip with the Venture Out Project, an organization that leads outdoor adventures by and for the LGBTQ community. The trip was a four-day long backpacking excursion along a stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail in Oregon, filled with whimsical waterfalls and the greenest greenery I’d ever seen. These four days, during which I was one of many trans people, were one of the first times in my life that I didn’t have to think about being trans. One of the trip leaders explained to me how to safely bind a chest while hiking in the same casual tone that he taught me how to organize a backpack. It was clear that I wasn’t a hassle or source of confusion to the group, but rather, an important part of making it work.
Everyone carried part of the load, everyone had a job at the campsite, and no one got left out.
Being on the trail with other queer and trans-identified adventurers was transformative for me. I had attended queer support groups before, but never been part of a group where LGBTQ identity was a prerequisite as opposed to the centerpiece of the experience. Conversation flows more freely when you’re hiking next to someone, and it is easy to get close when your basic needs depend on the cooperation of everyone in the group.
Life as a queer or trans person can be filled with complications, whether it is navigating family relationships or finding a doctor with experience in treating transgender patients. At times, we can internalize these complications and logistical headaches, feeling like we are less worthy of acceptance and adequate treatment. Camping trips break our normal routines and remind us that most of us have the same basic needs when it comes down to it: food, water, shelter, and maybe some good conversation. The stripped-down nature of a backpacking trip makes our progress in these basic tasks very visible to ourselves, and also presents clear opportunities to encourage and assist others. The act of caring for oneself and for each other, as trans and queer people, is a powerful antidote for feelings of shame or inadequacy.
When we packed up our gear and said our final good-byes at the close of the trip, I was left feeling like the outdoor adventures I had dreamed of as a kid were far more accessible. The Venture Out Project leaves participants with the skills to pursue outdoor adventures of their own, a sense of belonging in the world of outdoor recreation, and a community to sustain the feeling.
Learn more about The Venture Out Project at www.ventureoutproject.com