Venture Out Project’s Perry Cohen on inclusion and queer participation in the outdoors
As the organization celebrates five years in existence, Cohen reflects on the space VOP has created, both emotional and cultural, for outdoor participants in the LGBTQIA+ community
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With growing clout in the outdoor industry and multiple large-scale DEI projects in the works, including a new initiative with Outdoor Gear Exchange in Vermont, it’s hard to believe that Massachusetts-based Venture Out Project is only five years old. In half a decade, the nonprofit that started as a backpacking group for queer and transgender hikers has grown into an advocacy powerhouse, expanding its scope to include workshops, educational programs, summer camps, and partnerships with the likes of REI and Eddie Bauer.
We caught up with Perry Cohen, founder of VOP, to ask him about the origins of the organization, challenges he’s faced as a queer outdoor leader, and his hopes for the future of DEI in the outdoors.
Tell us about the genesis of the Venture Out Project. How did it start?
About five years ago, I was working a corporate job in my home state of New Hampshire. One afternoon, I was sitting under the fluorescent lights looking outside at mountains, wishing I was on them. This was about the time I was realizing I was trans and wanted to transition. There was a lot in my life that I needed to figure out, and so I did what I always do to solve a problem: I went out for a hike in the mountains.
It was on that hike that I had the epiphany which led to the Venture Out Project. I had gotten to the top of the mountain I was climbing, I realized, because of my body, not in spite of it. Everything that had always been difficult for me about my body I suddenly appreciated. I remember getting to the top, getting the chills, and thinking, “This body that I’ve felt so dissociated from, this is what got me here.” And for the first time I really loved and appreciated my body. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be incredible if other queer and trans people could have this experience?” So I went down the mountain that day and quit my job. I knew what I had to do. I wanted to work with my community to break down barriers to outdoor access.
And that led to the formation of VOP?
Not immediately. After I quit, I went looking for queer outdoor jobs, and to my dismay I found nothing. I had experience running organizations, and I knew I could figure out how to start a nonprofit if I wanted to. That was the true genesis of Venture Out—wanting to belong to an outdoor organization for other queer and trans people and realizing that one didn’t exist. So I built it. On March 1, 2015, we ran our first snowshoe event, and 20 people showed up. Keep in mind, this was before we had any brand recognition at all. It was eye-opening to see how fast this caught on. I had assumed people out there wanted this kind of group. When they showed up to that first event, it confirmed my assumption. From there, it just kept growing.
What’s the biggest challenge VOP has faced in making itself known and heard in the outdoor community?
There’s a huge barrier for many identity-based groups in the outdoors because a lot of people don’t understand why those groups need to exist. That’s the biggest comment we get. “Oh, you need your own hiking group? I thought the outdoors was for everyone.” We hear that a lot. The reason we need to exist is precisely because that attitude prevails. While others are saying things like that, people in our community are thinking, “Well, if you don’t recognize that I might not feel safe, then you’re not going to help me feel safe.”
I think also there’s a very traditional outdoorsy ethos that’s mostly straight, mostly white, largely male, and pretty economically privileged. And if you don’t fit into that, you wonder if you’re welcome. It’s lots of little micro things, like never seeing yourself in an ad, never finding clothes that fit you, not finding a bathroom that feels welcoming, not seeing anyone like you on the trail—or, when you are on the trail, having people stare at you because of the way you look.
So that’s the point. The more we tell our stories through Venture Out, the more people understand what it must feel like to be marginalized. I think people don’t really understand microaggressions, because they sound so small. But when you start talking about all the ways they crop up in everyday life, people actually start to get it. If we can be really vulnerable and share these personal stories, I think that’s the best way to get through to people.
Any new VOP initiatives that you’re excited about?
We ran a pilot program last year to train volunteer hike leaders, and we’re about to expand that program through a full year. We’ve got 26 new volunteers coming out from states across the U.S. Basically, we train them to lead hikes in their communities on local trail systems. We’re also adding flat-water canoeing trips to our roster this year, which is a first for us. I’m excited about that because hiking is only accessible to certain people and canoeing is going to add another group of participants who can come on our trips. And then of course we’ve added some partnerships, like the new All Outside initiative with Eddie Bauer and a collaboration with Unlikely Hikers to do a couple of plus-size backpacking trips.
What are VOP’s ultimate goals in the industry?
Our mission is really two-fold. Our main goal is to build community—we just happen to use the outdoors to do that. When I first started the organization, I thought it was going to consist exclusively of outdoor trips. But participants kept telling me, “The thing that keeps us coming back isn’t the backpacking skills. We’re coming back because we finally found our community.” The second part of our mission is to make the outdoors more accessible. One way to do that is through our queer and trans trips, but the other way is through consulting with mainstream outdoor organizations, to encourage them to be more inclusive of their trans and queer participants. I’m really glad we’re approaching it from both sides. Yes, there’s a queer- and trans-only space in the outdoors that we encourage, but also we’re trying to make the outdoors more affirming across the board, to change the attitude in general.
To learn more about VOP’s new partnership with REI, check out this video released last month.