Steph explores the unique challenges that LGBTQIA+ people face in the outdoors, and what exploring means to them.
My friend Dan is an avid hiker. He taught me how to identify the birds that inhabit the dune foliage near his home on Dharug Country in Sydney’s north. A flight attendant turned small business owner, Dan donates a portion of his company’s profits to native bird conservation. Like the blue fairy wrens he adores, Dan is bright and bold. His smile is beaming, his laugh booming.
Dan’s a gay man in his early thirties. When I first met him, his outdoorsy interests didn’t gel with my assumptions about gay men. A member of the queer community myself, I’d nevertheless fallen prey to the stereotypes and assumptions that can make some LGBTQIA+ folx nervous about participating in outdoor adventures.
Like Dan, the four explorers I’ve interviewed for this piece are defining the community of queer adventurers in this country. This is exciting! I hope their insights will inspire you to continually challenge the limitations we place on our thinking and dreaming.
31, she/her and they/them
What does outdoor exploration mean to you?
First of all, I’m a bit of an outdoor slut: I love most outdoor activities and I’ll spend time with anyone who wants to do something outdoorsy with me! Big fan of horse riding, multi-day hikes, wild swimming, climbing and surfing. Also, I recently started snowboarding and I’m totally in love.
I quit my job in the city a few years ago and moved to the High Country (Victoria) because I wanted to build a life oriented towards the outdoors. As a queer woman navigating the complexities of intergenerational trauma, my connection to wild places is at the core of my healing journey.
What stereotypes do you perceive regarding LGBTQIA+ people and the outdoors?
Outdoor adventure subcultures are still highly gendered — especially in the case of more ‘extreme’ activities like mountaineering, climbing and canyoning, which tend to produce very ‘masculine’, male-dominated communities. The gendered stereotypes and accompanying ascribed behaviours can make these communities inaccessible or uncomfortable for queer people.
As we begin to undo this stereotyped thinking, more of our unfounded assumptions will also crumble. For example, there’s a dominant lens through which a lot of us view outdoor activities as the domain of the fit, able-bodied, competitive, and affluent.
But if we switch that out for a social justice lens, we begin to see that all bodies belong in outdoor spaces. Queer explorers who don’t ‘look’ or ‘act’ like we’re conditioned to expect are helping to blow our perspective wide open. We can reorient ourselves to adventure as a pathway to joy, healing, and social connection.
How has your sexuality affected your access to outdoor travel and adventure?
Being able to pass as straight means I can access outdoor spaces without fear of discrimination based on my sexuality or gender identity. That said, I’m pansexual so my experience of safety and belonging in the outdoors changes based on the partner I’m with.
When I head outdoors with a male partner, I’m treated like a straight person. This affords me a bunch of straight privilege but it also erases my identity, which can be frustrating. When I adventure with female or non-binary partners, I experience the outdoors as a queer person. This comes with a range of unique challenges: additional safety planning, unwanted questions, jokes, and assumptions, and the ever-present (and always-creepy) male gaze.
LGBTQIA+ people have unique things to offer the explorer community because…
Learning to navigate a straight world as a queer person builds heaps of valuable, transferable skills, like good communication and negotiation, safety planning, and group solidarity. Any time a queer person enters the outdoors, they subvert traditional adventure culture and challenge what it means to be ‘outdoorsy’. This gives all of us permission to ditch the stereotypes, drop the act, and instead show up as our whole, flawed selves.
26, she/her, Lebanese Australian
Tell me about how you enjoy the outdoors
I mostly spend my outdoor time bushwalking on day trips. I sometimes go camping with friends, or occasionally with my family. I love to feel small among mountains and big landscapes, getting exercise and taking a break from city life. Also, if it’s a sunny day, I’ll be at the beach.
What’s it like engaging in outdoor adventures as an LGBTQIA+ person?
A lot of queer culture centres around nightlife, so LGBTQIA+ people might not gravitate towards outdoor adventures as much as nightlife to meet others and enjoy safe, respectful company. Many of us, queer or not, enjoy being affectionate with a partner out in nature; for queer people, however, publicly displaying affection can bring with it the fear of attracting unwanted attention.
I know I’m definitely more careful showing affection to a female partner when I’m outdoors — especially if I’m adventuring overseas where being away from cities usually means being away from queer-friendly spaces.
What’s the future for LGBTQIA+ explorers?
The stereotype that ‘lesbians are outdoorsy and ‘gay guys aren’t’ is slowly disappearing. Queer explorers are proving that there’s more to queer culture than nightlife and urban activities.
For example, I know there’s a Blue Mountains lesbian walking group. I am very happy this exists!
Where are you itching to go on your next adventure?
Speaking of the Blue Mountains, I want to go canyoning there. I went in Colombia and absolutely loved it!
What do the outdoors mean to you?
Spending time at the beach and hiking are really spiritual and life-giving experiences for me.
How do you see stereotypes affecting LGBTQIA+ people’s engagement with outdoor adventures?
Society loves a good binary! Sporting events — like marathons, runs, adventure hikes, triathlons or cycling races — are divided into male and female categories. So, gender-queer, intersex and trans people can feel unsafe and excluded from participating.
Have you personally experienced this exclusion?
I live in the queer-friendly bubble of Sydney’s Inner West, where I feel safe and even celebrated for the expression of my gender. As soon as I enter a new space, though, I am always aware of my sexuality and gender identity and wonder, ‘Will people stare or even become aggressive?’ When I see a pride flag in a new space, it helps put me at ease.
While nature can be a really great shared space for vastly different people, the presence of gendered bathrooms at campsites is an example of how hetero and cis norms pervade all aspects of life in our society to this day.
Sadly, as a queer person, I’ve had to rule out visiting a bunch of countries where my gender identity and sexuality puts me on the wrong side of the law — and could even incur the death penalty. That’s pretty intense exclusion.
Where to next in your adventures?
So keen to get back on the slopes and go snowboarding!
28, he/him and they/them, third generation Chinese Australian
Describe your relationship with the outdoors
I spend my time long-distance running or exploring Sydney’s National Parks and clothing-optional beaches. I love connecting with nature. I get a heightened awareness of the relationship between my mind and body when I spend time in water. I usually do this alone, to take time to reflect and meditate.
How do you see stereotypes affecting LGBTQIA+ people’s engagement with outdoor adventure?
I think we’re still dealing with the legacy of decades of rhetoric conflating homosexuality with over-sexualised, predatory behaviour. For so long, the world wasn’t ready to see and respect queerness. Sadly, the ‘cruising culture’ stereotype affecting gay men persists, portraying us as just out to find anonymous hookups wherever we go.
This means that when queer people head outdoors in a clothing-optional context, we enter a space where decades-old stigma still colours our interactions with nature and with one another.
Not that queer people are a homogenous bunch! And I’m glad we’re seeing that more these days. Queer people of all stripes are confidently doing the things they love and, as such, are putting paid to baseless assumptions about people and places.
LGBTQIA+ people should get outdoors and start exploring because…
The greatest sense of community I’ve found has centred on shared love for a particular place or outdoor activity. There’s potential for profound connections between people who share a high regard for the restorative powers of nature. Also, the forces of nature are such a leveller. We’re all equal before them. To stand in awe of a mountain or a river together creates compassion and deepens intimacy between people.
Describe the adventure you’re itching to take next
I’ve always wanted to explore trails in the Northern Territory and engage more with some of our beautiful Indigenous communities. I’d love to get to know more queer Indigenous people, and to expand my limited understanding of Country and culture.
Let’s Make the Outdoors Judgement-Free
The LGBTQIA+ community of explorers is perhaps uniquely placed to appreciate the outdoors as a relatively judgment-free space with power to bring us together across differences in gender, sexuality, and expression. Sure, there’s a way to go in ensuring respect and safety for queer folx when they adventure beyond the bounds of progressive cities, but that’s what conversations like this are for.
This Pride Month, fang a rainbow sticker on your drink bottle — but also celebrate these intrepid, insightful LGBTQIA+ explorers who’re blazing trails out there.