It was not yet noon, and a group of wilderness instructors-in-training had just summited scenic Baker Peak in Vermont’s Green Mountain National Forest. They ate protein bars while group member Lex Jackson, 23, a cartography expert, gave everyone a lesson in topography. With Jackson’s help, everyone picked out the highest and lowest points on their maps.
The group sat in a semicircle on a long shale plateau. At the edge of the semicircle stood trip leaders Perry Cohen, 42, and Travis Clough, 41. Cohen sat with a foot propped up on a rock, watching Jackson and his fellow instructors-to-be puzzle over a map of the forest. Clough stood with his arms crossed, greeting the hikers making their way up the mountain.
A lean, ponytailed hiker stopped in front of Clough and asked, “Is this an LGBTQ hiking group?”
Clough seemed momentarily taken aback by the hiker’s directness. “Yeah, actually,” he said.
“Cool. I saw the trans symbol on your hat and I figured I’d ask. I’m bi-gender myself.”
While the instructors-in-training kept on with their cartography lesson, Clough explained to the hiker that the group was part of the Venture Out Project (TVOP), an organization that builds community by leading wilderness trips for queer people. Emblazoned on Clough’s hat, the group’s logo is a crest featuring a wilderness scene in the upper half and the trans symbol as a compass in the lower half.
Clough came away from the conversation with a smile. “They may want to do some day hikes with us,” he said.
“It’s great how we recognize each other on the trail,” Cohen added.
Cohen and Clough have led several trips together since Cohen founded TVOP in 2014, but this one was special. Nine queer backpackers—all with high levels of outdoors expertise—would be trained in what Cohen calls “the TVOP way”: integrating participants into a community while teaching them fundamental outdoors skills. After the trip, the trainees would go on to lead trips for TVOP, getting paid per trip.
Part of Cohen’s intention in founding TVOP was to create outdoors jobs for queer people. These jobs are sorely needed. A recent Civic Science survey of 153,000 people revealed that the unemployment rate for LGBTQIA+ individuals is 13 percent, three times the national rate of 3.9 percent. According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, 29 percent of respondents were living in poverty, as compared with 14 percent of the national population.
“As queer and trans folks, we’re often on the receiving end of help,” Cohen says. “And it’s really empowering when one of us gets to be the helper.”
When Cohen first came out to himself as trans at age 38, he was the senior executive in charge of leadership development for C&S Wholesale Grocers, a company of 17,000 employees. He and his wife lived close to the same New England woods where Cohen had spent his adolescence hiking. Every time he felt dysphoric in his body, hiking could be counted on to improve his mental state. After coming out, Cohen began hormone therapy and underwent top surgery. Then, a 2014 hike up New Hampshire’s Mount Monadnock proved particularly revelatory.
“I had recently had top surgery but had never taken my shirt off in public, because it felt weird to me,” he says. But at the top of the mountain, he did: “I had this unbelievable experience of loving my body for the first time and feeling truly present in it.”
Cohen wanted more queer and trans people to have that experience. He quit his corporate job and founded TVOP. Shortly after, he hired Clough as his office assistant.
Four years later, the organization has grown exponentially. In the summer of 2018, TVOP welcomed roughly 300 LGBTQIA+ participants on 36 trips in New England and the Pacific Northwest. Offerings included women- and people of color–centered trips, as well as youth trips. Clough, now director of operations, feels lucky to be part of the team.
“I love being in the wilderness and connecting with new people. I also love watching other people connect with each other,” he says. “I spent most of my outdoor life either by myself or with a few friends, but never in a community where when you look around, you see all queer faces.”
Training for the nine TVOP instructors consisted of a three-day backpacking trip in the Big Branch Wilderness Area. In addition to Lex’s cartography lessons, the group practiced hiking and camping protocol and role-played emergency medical scenarios that might occur in the wilderness. During one scenario, Loren Evans, a 34-year-old trans man and emergency medicine nurse, crouched on the ground and grabbed his stomach while spouses Danielle and Kate Nolan, 33 and 47, respectively, tried to figure out what was wrong.
After a handful of questions, the women asked about the date of his last period. Loren leaped up from the ground, nodding in approval. Transgender men who have not had a hysterectomy may still get their periods for a number of reasons. With TVOP’s many transgender participants—as well as the occasional trip dedicated specifically to transgender individuals—it was important that instructors be trained in trans health. “Don’t assume anything about a person’s health based on the way they look,” Cohen said.
At the beginning of the trip, the instructors-in-training had written their hopes and fears on a set of index cards. On the last night, Cohen read the cards aloud at the campfire. As the flames crackled, the group heard fears of being too slow or too introverted and hopes of bonding with other queer people in the woods. Then everyone collected their cards and tossed them into the campfire to burn. The silence that followed felt warm and meditative.
“The fact that [this organization] exists is just mind-blowing,” said future instructor Graham Oxman, 26. “It’s awesome.”
After the training trip, everyone regrouped at TVOP headquarters: Cohen’s house in Northampton, Massachusetts. Cohen and Clough had two backpacking trips scheduled for the next few days, and the newly minted instructors were going to lead them. Participants from all over the country had already signed up online for the trips. As Cohen’s dog and two children scampered in and out of the room, instructors were debriefed on their participants’ allergies and special needs.
Mercy Shammah, 35, was assigned to lead the Vermont Classic, a beginner-level trip for adults. Shammah is the founder of the nonprofit Wild Diversity, which focuses on bringing queer people and people of color into the wilderness. Her co-leader, Evans, has been backpacking since childhood and, like Cohen, spent a good deal of time outdoors during his transition. “My experience in the outdoor industry was very white, cis, and heterosexual,” he said. “It was discouraging because it felt like there was no place for me in that community. This is why TVOP is so important.”
Since Wild Diversity is not yet tax-exempt, TVOP serves as its fiscal sponsor, essentially functioning as its “administrative home.” This means that TVOP, which has two administrative staffers, is able to process charitable contributions for Wild Diversity and support infrastructural needs, like providing them with insurance, filing taxes, bookkeeping, and legal assistance. They also share resources like waivers, emergency action plans, policies, and procedures.
Shammah and Evans drove with their seven adult participants to the Big Branch territory that they had backpacked through a few days before. The group traveled in two cars, chatting excitedly as the road grew steeper. When they arrived, Shammah and Evans performed a gear check and helped everyone adjust their packs and lengthen their hiking poles. As the hike began, so did the rain. Everyone was wearing ponchos within five minutes.
Rain notwithstanding, participant Amie Freetly, 38, was comforted to be in the presence of other queer people. “The queer community aspect of it makes things feel safer,” Freetly said. “There’s some safety in numbers there.” The Vermont Classic was Freetly's third backpacking trip and the first to which they had come equipped with their own gear. As they've become more serious about backpacking, they have been investing in more equipment. A TVOP veteran, Freetly was excited to meet new people and reconnect with friends they had met on a previous trip.
“For me, a highlight is sitting around the campfire at dusk and talking,” they said. “I feel like the personal connections that come out of the trips are the part I think of when I think of the trip.”
Shammah admitted to “mom-stressing” about whether everyone in the group was having a good time. Then, early in the trip, the group stumbled upon a ropes course at the edge of the woods. Participants and instructors stood on a giant wooden platform positioned over a fulcrum, attempting to balance the platform like one would a seesaw. There followed a series of crashes, with participants skittering off the platform and laughing. When balance was finally achieved, a cheer went up from the group that echoed through the trees.
Cohen has big plans for the organization. He intends to team up with a nonbinary indigenous group called Queer Nature to educate TVOP participants on topics like ecology and decolonization. He also hopes to expand trips so they’re accessible to people with disabilities.
In the meantime, most of TVOP’s funds go toward providing scholarships for participants who can’t afford the cost of a trip. Occasionally TVOP will also donate to a trans-led organization or cause. Recently, Cohen lent his support to the #Hike4Rights campaign, a cause organized by two activists who spent August 2018 hiking across Massachusetts to advocate for the rights of trans people in public spaces.
TVOP also supports budding LGBTQIA+ organizations and businesses, including many started by instructors on the Vermont training trip. Danielle and Kate Nolan run an LLC called DnK Presents, a company that leads outdoor adventures for private groups. Raei Bridges, 23, is building an outdoor education organization called Rusty Anvil. For these entrepreneurs, TVOP offers an opportunity for professional partnership and development. Cohen invited the Nolans and Bridges to share their expertise with TVOP participants by leading trips and hosting classes, allowing them to raise awareness of their organizations while doing so.
At several points during the week of training and trips, the TVOP employees-in-training expressed wonder and gratitude that they were where they were, being paid to do what they were doing. Cohen was equally awestruck.
“I can’t believe this is my job. I get to take queer people outside,” he said. “What could be better than that?”