What makes a queer person choose to live in an outdoorsy hot spot instead of an urban gayborhood? A spirited grassroots organization working to make its town a haven for LGBTQ+ nature lovers. Photographer Wyn Wiley, who moonlights as drag queen Pattie Gonia, was living in Nebraska and dreaming of making a move. The most obvious choice was a big city, where queer people often go find their community. But then a group called Out Central Oregon invited Wiley to Bend to host an event on Mount Bachelor called Winter Pride Fest. What they found in Bend was much more than a seasonal party: here was a place with a highly visible queer community. This, Wiley decided, is the place for me and my go-go boots.
This episode is brought to you by Hydro Flask, a company that believes every adventure starts with two simple words: let’s go! Shop Hydro Flask products for yourself or the outdoor lovers on your holiday list this season at hydroflask.com.
Maren Larsen (host): From Outside Magazine, this is the Outside Podcast.
Larsen: Do you have business cards that say professional homosexual on them?
Wyn Wiley: It's in the Instagram bio. I never thought I could do homosexuality for living, but here we are.
Larsen: God, that's the dream. I got to get into that.
Larsen: That is Pattie Gonia: drag queen, intersectional environmentalist, and professional homosexual, speaking with me, Maren Larsen, podcast producer and amateur bisexual.
If you're not familiar with Pattie Gonia, well, let's start here:
Instagram Clip: Pattie: "Make the outdoors gay again!"
Larsen: That's a clip one from the many videos on their Instagram feed. They are standing in a mountain stream ... wearing their trademark high-heeled black patent leather boots and long, curly red wig, and in this case, a shimmering orange dress made out of a tent fly. Pattie Gonia is the drag-queen alter ego of photographer Wyn Wiley. They launched their instagram account just over three years ago and almost immediately developed an obsessive fan base ... in large part, because people just seemed really excited about a drag queen who goes backpacking. Today, they have close to 400,000 followers, including yours truly.
Wiley: In drag, my pronouns are she/they, out of drag, my pronouns are he/they. Um, and I consider myself nonbinary and exploring what it means to just leave the binary behind and I do a lot of community organizing in the outdoors to bring together queer community and allies to try to make a better and more inclusive outdoors.
And then I'm also Wyn Wiley and I am also just like human being on planet earth, trying to figure out this stuff along with the rest of us.
Larsen: Since the publication of the first issue of Outside Magazine almost 45 years ago, our primary beat has been stories of people venturing to places where merely surviving is difficult. This has usually meant remote, isolated, and inhospitable locales, like 8,000-meter peaks, impenetrable jungles, or desert canyons. But for queer outdoorspeople, sometimes civilization, particularly the small, rural communities that are the gateways to the wilderness we love so much, can be just as dangerous.
Wiley: I hear all the time, both online and in person that the outdoors doesn't judge, the outdoors doesn't hate, the outdoors doesn't discriminate. To which I say, yeah, uh, nature doesn't but guess what does: humans. And I think we forget that every outdoor experience, isn't just an experience with the outdoors, but also the humans that we shared the trail with.
Yeah, I think we have a lot of work to do, to realize what it actually means to be an outdoorist in the year 2021, because the shit in the past that people have put up with is not flying anymore and hate and homophobia and racism have absolutely no place on the trail.
Larsen: Today, for the final episode of our Forces of Good series--and of 2021 – we tell the story of a drag queen who walked into a mountain town in six-inch heels... and decided to put down roots.
There are so many things that I love about Pattie Gonia's Instagram feed, but a couple posts stand out. There was the time they wore a Marie Antoinette-style dress made out of trash to encourage people to keep our trails clean
Instagram Clip: Pattie: “Girl, if you can hold onto your trash boyfriend for five years, you can hang onto your trash for five more minutes.”
Larsen: Or, back in July, when they lip-synced a classic show tune ... while dangling from a cliff in Yosemite with Pro Climber Jordan Cannon.
Instagram Clip: Pattie: "Yes I caaaaaan!!!” Cannon: “How do you sing that high?" Pattie: “I'm a girl!"
Larsen: Such performances make them exactly the one-of-a-kind personality that you would call if you were looking to spice up a pride event you're throwing in a mountain town. And so, in 2019, Jamie Nesbitt and Janet Ruttenberg Wiltshire from a newly created nonprofit called Out Central Oregon in the city of Bend did just that.
Wiley: So Jamie and Janet just reached out and just said, Hey, would you ever want to help host a winter pride?
And, you know, listen, I've done drag in a very untraditional way. I don't necessarily find myself in big cities. I think the narrative for queer people is often to, to run the big cities into metropolitan areas for acceptance. And that's why we have prides in all these big major cities, but the idea of doing a winter pride and doing it in a small mountain town really piqued my interest because also, I mean, I'm just going to call it like it is like Aspen, Vail, love you, love what you do for your gay ski weeks, but it is so exclusive. It is so white and straight and cis and privileged. And Jamie and Janet said that there were basically just a bunch of weirdos that hung out every winter and went skiing and snowshoed and hung out and really just explored like queer community. And that piqued my interest in a lot of big ways.
Jamie had co-founded Out Central Oregon with his partner in 2018, the same year they staged the first Winter Pride Fest at Mount Bachelor, which is about 20 miles east of Bend.
Jamie Nesbitt: We had no money. We weren't even formed as a formal LLC yet, but we felt it was important to at least initiate a Winter Pride Fest on the slopes of Mount Bachelor.
Larsen: This is Jamie.
Nesbitt: We had no expectations of how many people were going to show up. And in fact, Mount Bachelor's policy for giving group discounts is, well, you have to have a minimum of 20 people in your group for us to give you a discount, but they waived that for us, thinking that we would get less than 20 people.
To our amazing surprise, we had about 150 people show up for the weekend, which we thought was just a huge success.
Larsen: Afterwards, Out Central Oregon received a $10,000 grant from a local tourism association to help expand. The next year, Winter Pride Fest tripled in size, attracting about 450 people. And then, in early 2020, right before the pandemic hit, they invited Pattie Gonia to host a panel about inclusivity in sports at Pride Fest. Right away, Wyn was smitten with the town and with the LGBTQ+ community they found there during the festival.
Wiley: there is this event called drag tubing where hundreds of gay people gather to watch drag Queens go down a tubing hill on Mount bachelor in full drag. And I have never experienced that level of homosexuality outdoors.
Then like my wig almost flying off while snow was pelting me in the face while another drag queen was trying to push me off the tube while I was also in combat with another drag queen on a tube. And yes, it was this very, very super gay spectacle, but also was just so awesome to be outside with other Drag Queens and to be outside with other gay people. And that was really the first time in my life that I'd ever been outside with other Drag Queens.
Larsen: After Winter Pride Fest, Wyn went back to Nebraska, where they had grown up and lived all their life, and the pandemic descended on the country. During that period of quarantine and isolation, they had a realization: Nebraska was home, but it sometimes felt stifling. They wanted to live in a place where they felt they belonged. And for them, that meant somewhere they could be their outdoorsy, queer, backpacking-in-full-drag self.
Wiley: I think like many people, the pandemic was a big, there is no time left to waste moment. And I think while I am so grateful to be from Nebraska, I have to give myself queer community and that had to be in a place that wasn't the cornfields and being quarantined in Nebraska. really let me know that there was a lot missing in my life
Growing up in Nebraska was not easy. I think most all queer people from rural environments really have to survive. And I think it's so easy for us to think that we are the ones that are responsible for not growing. But maybe the soil that we're planted in originally just isn't really for us. And I think I found having soil that can really support you in your growth just means the world of difference.
Larsen: And so, they decided to test out the soil in Central Oregon.
Wiley: I started to spend some time here renting an Airbnb. I'm seeing what it would be like to live here for two months. And would do outdoor campfires with the queer people that I had met, or we'd go on hikes or would go on a backpacking trip and that human connection during pandemic time, especially that queer community in that outdoor time with queer people was so special to me. And I just knew that this is where I needed to be. And so I decided to move to Bend.
Larsen: Moving more than 1,000 miles to find a nurturing LGBTQ+ community is not uncommon. But as Wyn said earlier, queer people are usually escaping to big cities, which are supposed to be the centers of what is typically thought of as queer culture – bars, dance clubs, drag shows, and pride parades. And here they were moving from one rural place to another.
Wiley: Being queer, we are not born having queer elders around us or queer siblings and we often have to find them, right. And for me it took not running to a city, but running into the forest to get a little lost, a lot a bit lost, and to find queer people and a group of people that really resonated with just exploring themselves through nature.
Larsen: And here's where you start to understand Wyn's choice … for them, being outdoors, around other queer people who love to play outside just as much as they do, that's where they feel most themself. And that feeling is worth taking some big risks ... and leaving the only place they'd ever called home.
Wiley: Existing as a queer person in rural environments is an act of rebellion and resistance and beauty.
I was told my whole entire life that because of my queerness, I was unnatural. So for me, going outside is not only reclaiming a lot of my childhood that I lost, but also really putting a stamp on it that, oh, no, actually my queerness and my connection to nature is showing me that queerness is nothing but natural.
I lived 27 years of my life telling myself that I was going to be the good model gay person who would stay around Nebraska and make a difference and make a change.
But I think there comes a point where you have to say like, who's it for? Is it for other people? Or, or can I, and will I live for myself.
It's not a running from that motivated me to leave the rural places that I love, but it's a running to have a space that gives me what I need to thrive so that I can hopefully give even more to that place. And for me, that meant running towards queer community that felt warm and cozy and good. I think that's why I love Bend because it is this weird bubble of it's a mountain town, but you go a mile outside of this place and it is an incredibly rural environment. And it reminds me a lot of where I'm from. And so I think I, in a lot of ways still crave that rural life. So maybe in the wise words of Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus, I get the best of both worlds here.
Larsen: We'll be back after a short break
Larsen: So, I need to come clean here: I had ulterior motives in doing this episode. Not just because I'm a big fan of Pattie Gonia as a drag queen and Wyn Wiley as an activist and was dying for the chance to interview them. But because I'm a queer person living in a small, mountain-adjacent city much like Bend, struggling to find my best-of-both-worlds outdoorsy community. Frankly, I'm jealous of what Wyn and Jamie Nesbitt and Out Central Oregon have in Bend. And in recent months, like many, many queer people before me, I've started to wonder if I should give up on the outdoorsy part of the equation and move to a big city.
Part of that urge comes from a desire to run towards a queer community that is already established, where I know I'll be able to find my people. But part of it is also a desire to run from: from homophobia, from isolation, from leering or judgmental stares. This is something that Wyn understands very well.
Wiley: I'm going to be honest with you. Part of the reason I moved to Bend is because I know I'm probably going to be running into more liberal and open-minded and accepting people on the trails than in another place. And that is such a privilege. but I moved here for that. I moved here for that safety factor, because literally just north of Nebraska is Wyoming and that's, you know, where one of the most like appalling murders of a queer person happened in the outdoors.
Larsen: Wyn is talking about Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming who was brutally beaten and left to die outside Laramie in 1998. His murder inspired the creation of several films and documentaries and dozens of songs, and fueled the passage of a hate crimes prevention act in his name, which was signed into law in 2009.
Wiley: That is always on my mind too, especially when I'm in drag outdoors, which is why I never do drag alone outdoors. Never. I won't do it because I am too afraid to see what could happen if I ran into the wrong person while I was outwardly expressing in that way. So yeah, it's something I really don't talk about a lot, but it's always on my mind.
Larsen: This is part of why the dominant narrative among queer people is about moving from rural areas to big cities, and not the other way around. Hate crimes happen in cities, too, but when you're living around lots of other queer people, there's strength in those numbers.
This is where Out Central Oregon comes in: to create safe, visible spaces for queer people to exist, connect, and thrive. Jamie Nesbitt co-founded the organization after moving from San Francisco to Bend in 2016 for the outdoor opportunities, and finding that there was very little visibly queer community there.
Nesbitt: There were a number of LGBTQ advocacy groups in central Oregon that had been around for various lengths of time and they were doing some great things. I think 20 plus years ago, it probably wasn't very welcoming.
Central Oregon is on the brink of a very rural area and typically much more conservative and so while these organizations being advocacy for, for the queer community existed, I think there was still a lot of fear on their part of becoming visible.
Larsen: In other words, making a mountain town the kind of place where a drag queen is comfortable putting down roots... that takes a lot of work. For Out Central Oregon, the core of the effort is creating spaces where members of the queer community can be out and proud – like, say, a winter pride fest at a well-known ski area. That kind of happening gets noticed.
YouTube Clip: “Winter pride fest 2019 is the second LGBTQ+ multi-event ski weekend. Event organizers say there are several events, and the goal is to bring the entire community together.”
Nesbitt: With visibility comes acceptance, right? It's easy to have preconceived notions about a marginalized group if you've never actually experienced that marginalized group firsthand. And so by being more visible as an organization or as a community, you're kind of teaching the rest of the community that, Hey, these are people just like you and me and they are active members within the community and we should be embracing them as much as we embrace anybody else.
Larsen: And it's working. When Wyn visited Bend just four years after Jamie moved there, they were struck by what they found: a vibrant queer community. One with a uniquely outdoors bent that fits its surroundings. Wyn knew immediately that this is where they wanted to be.
Wiley: What queer community looks like for me here in bend is, hey, you know, like the person who cuts my hair is a queer owned small business, and I'm so stoked to support them. It's really awesome that also a street away, another one of my friends, Patrick lives, who's a climber who's creating queer climbing community. And I think it, it feels really intimate and small. And I've learned just not to underestimate small and to not underestimate like the ability to just collaborate and create community with just a handful of people.
Larsen: None of this is to say that Bend is a paradise for all the people who've long been excluded from mainstream outdoor culture. The town is more than 92 percent white, which means it still has a long way to go towards being welcoming to non-white queer folks. Wyn says that it's imperative that everyone in the growing outdoor community here works to build an environment that includes people of color, too.
Wiley: Now that we're here, it's our responsibility as outdoorists and as people that live in these more rural and quote unquote mountain town environments to really do the work of being actively anti-racist in being an active ally, because there's, there's a lot of work to do.
My story with Pattie and my story with Wyn will always be the story of having a marginalized status, but yet also holding so much privilege, um, And there's a lot of people that when they're out on the trails, can't just wipe off their makeup and suddenly be straight passing.
Larsen: Still, to me, Bend does sound dreamy in some ways. Where I live, there is queer community, but it often feels scattered and inconsistent. Without a central meeting place or core organization providing resources, groups often form and then fade.
Sometimes, it can feel like everything is coming together. Recently, I had my small crew of queer friends over for a holi-gay party, and everything felt joyful and light, as we swapped gifts, stories, hugs, and recommendations on where to take a date or go for a hike, which in my town has a lot of overlap.
Other times, it feels like there is so far yet to go. The day after the party, I took a friend's advice and hiked to a local hot spring with a date, which was absolutely perfect until we noticed a lone man staring our way from the next pool over. He continued to ogle us for the rest of our soak. Afterwards, my date told me she'd been uncomfortable showing affection. I told her I wished I'd confronted him.
The ups and downs can be dizzying. But so far, I'm sticking around, doing everything I can to participate in what queer community does exist here and working to build my own. As Jamie reminded me, real progress takes time, and it's definitely worth the effort.
Nesbitt: We get a lot of feedback from people who have lived in the area for many years, who have said, if it wasn't for what you guys have done, you know, uh, things would be quite different now, they wouldn't be quite as advanced as they are. Which is really great feedback
Larsen: Out Central Oregon presents an inspiring model for how we can build queer communities in unexpected places. But as Wyn points out, it's not one we can simply uproot and transplant anywhere.
Wiley: Every ecosystem has different needs, right? There's no copy paste to creating queer community or marginalized community. Like every single environment needs its own things to not only survive but thrive.
What if we look to nature to realize that like every, every solution and every like community map is going to have to be hyper hyperlocal and, and done by the people from the community, for the people, from the community, like that's the only way it's going to be successful, you know?
I am so grateful to have found this utopia of weird ass people.
Larsen: You can follow the weird-ass people of Bend on instagram: @pattiegonia and @outcentraloregon.
I’m Maren Larsen and I wrote this episode, which was edited by Michael Roberts. It's our last episode of 2021 ... we'll be back in your feed on January 12th.
This episode, and the rest of the Forces of Good Series, was brought to you by Hydro Flask, maker of beautifully designed insulated bottles, cups, and coolers, and a company that believes that every adventure starts with two simple words: let's go! Shop hydro flask products for yourself or the outdoor lovers on your holiday list this season at hydroflask.com.
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