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Celebrating LGBTQ People in the Outdoors

The Venture Out Project celebrates the LGBTQ community through backpacking trips throughout the U.S. This film, Venture Out, from Spruce Tone FilmsTrans Wave Films, and REI, profiles project founder Perry Cohen with some participants on an outing to Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. 

Video Transcript

PERRY COHEN: The outdoor community, for a really long time, has been a space of white, privileged men. So I think there's a movement amongst many, many diverse people and groups to say, let's make more visible the fact that we have always been in the outdoors. You just haven't known it. 

[MUSIC PLAYING] 

I love the word queer. To me, it is the only word that fits to describe my identity and my experience. My name is Perry Cohen and I live in Northampton, Massachusetts. I came out as lesbian in college, and then coming out as trans didn't have until I was 30-- I guess to myself, like 27, and to my friends and family, 38. So it took a really long time. 

The only surgery I'd had before that was my C-section with my kids. They were the impetus for me to kind of dig back in and re-examine who I am and what my gender identity is, and how I want to walk through the world as a demonstration to them of what a good person is and does, and the kind of person I wanted to model for them. 

I love you. Have a great day. 

SUBJECT 2: You too, Dad. 

PERRY COHEN: So my transition, I feel like, informed the whole second phase of my life. It was incredibly freeing for me. And that was the beginning of the Venture Out Project. 

The Venture out project is a non-profit organization, and we lead backpacking and other outdoor adventure trips for members of the queer LGBTQ community. Our first trip filled up immediately. And then after that first year, people started signing up for multiple trips. 

And so I asked someone. I was like, don't get me wrong. I'm thrilled that you're coming on multiple trips. But you could do this on your own. You have all the skills. You have all the equipment. Why do you keep coming back? 

And they laughed at me, and they said, you're completely missing what you're doing, Perry. This isn't a backpacking organization. You're building community here, and backpacking just happens to be the means by which you're doing that. 

I think one of the things I like most about Venture Out trips is that participants come from all across the US, all different ways of life, all different experiences. 

TYLER LERCH: I've been exploring my identity since I was 14. My name is Tyler, and I use they/them pronouns. In high school, it wasn't safe for me to even look gay. I was really suicidal for three years, and depressed. And I had a severe eating disorder. 

The Venture Out Project was my first introduction to the queer community, and actually being with people that I can relate to and not feel like a weirdo. It totally turned my view of myself around. 

I found out about it on Tumblr. I saw the post for some free spots on a backpacking trip for queer youth. And I got so excited that I rolled around on the carpet screaming, 

PERRY COHEN: Tyler found us on Tumblr, which is amazing because I don't even really know what Tumblr is. Tyler is this go getter, totally energetic, possibly the most positive person I've ever experienced in my life. 

TYLER LERCH: I'm going on my first adult trip in a couple days. And before this, I've only gone on youth trips. We're going to the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, and I'm really excited because I think it's going to be a landscape that I've never seen before. 

[MUSIC PLAYING] 

PERRY COHEN: Welcome. 

TYLER LERCH: Thank you. 

PERRY COHEN: How was your trip? 

SUBJECT 3: But what I'm starting out tomorrow is I'm deciding to wear a pair of shorts just because I [INAUDIBLE]. 

PERRY COHEN: Everybody coming on the Colorado trip identifies as non-binary and/or trans. We found that though we are an all-inclusive LGBTQ organization, people really, really gravitate towards our identity-specific trip. So whether it's a BIPOC trip or a trans trip or a women's trip, those tend to fill up faster than the open trips. 

SUBJECT 4: My mom heard about it in Backpacking magazine. And she was just like, hey, you should look at this. And I did, and I'm like, queer people? Colorado? Yes. 

SUBJECT 5: This is my third trip, and I just love coming here for community. And it's just awesome just to be outside and be relaxed. 

LOREN EVANS: Obviously on the trail, we don't know everybody. And for safety reasons, A lot of times we decide not to tell them that we're a queer group, just for safety reasons. 

JESSE YELVINGTON: We are definitely going to be challenging ourselves. Like we maybe haven't been backpacking before, maybe haven't shared something about ourselves that we might share with this group. There's going to be the opportunity for many, many different types of challenges while we're here. And I would really welcome everyone in the group to try to move forward and try to challenge yourself in some sort of way. 

[MUSIC PLAYING] 

LOREN EVANS: About three different hospitals [INAUDIBLE] couple different levels because we'll come out and have [INAUDIBLE]. 

We're going to have one of the guides in the front and one of the guys in the back, OK? So we're going to keep a steady, slow pace. If you need a break, let us know. You're going to feel it a little bit. We're going to be going up today. But you guys are all very well and capable of doing this, and you're going to be really proud of yourself once you get to the top. So. 

[MUSIC PLAYING] 

TYLER LERCH: Just whenever I'm in nature, I feel all the pressure just kind of fall away. And I don't have to be someone specific or be anything. I can just exist and not have to think about it. And for me, that's such a release. With the Venture Out Project, the experience is being with people like you in your community who you can relate to and that you can find safety with that you may not have at home. 

PERRY COHEN: The strength of intergenerational connections on trips is that people get to hear about what life was like for the people who came before them and what life is like for the people that came after them. Just because we're queer or trans or non-binary, our experiences are so vast. 

[MUSIC PLAYING] 

SUBJECT 6: I get such a thrill every time my sister calls me her brother. You know, still. All the time. 

LOREN EVANS: I was at work the other day, and they were going to fit like a mask on my face. And the person fitting, she goes, oh, you have a beard, and I was like, oh my god, I have a beard. Like you forget, you know? When I close my eyes, in my head sometimes I still have a ponytail and all that stuff. So it is cool. 

SUBJECT 6: I transitioned eight years ago. Been on T for over eight years, and I live as a man in the world now. And what I find is that around the water cooler, I can't talk about what it was like to go to an all girls' Catholic high school or what it was like to be a nun. I've lost 42 years of my life. It's what I wanted. I want to live life as a man. But I realize that there's 42 years of life not as a man that just can't come up in certain conversations. Like I want to tell a story, and I chuck it. So here I can be my full self. 

LOREN EVANS: I used to go to softball tournaments recruiting for college in Colorado, in Aurora. And that same tournament's still going on today. And we have softball players coming in. And I get really excited because I've played softball in college and things like that. And I'm taking care of these people, and I know if I say anything to try to relate, I'm just going to out myself. And it's just like, that was a huge part of my life and my identity. And I almost have to stuff that, you know? So I definitely understand what you mean by that. 

TYLER LERCH: With TVOP, it really gives me a sense of self that I don't really have in the outside world, I guess, where it really helps me bring myself back to really who I am. And it's really what helped me find who I was in the first place. 

PERRY COHEN: And I love that you don't have to explain. Like when I talk about having had babies and carried babies, everyone's like, right. I don't get these looks of like, what the hell are you talking about, or how does that work or something. 

SUBJECT 7: In general, it just takes so much energy to go through life in like the cis world as a trans person, Dealing with those things that like, oh, wait, can't say that. Or like, I am going to say this, but then I'm going to have to explain all of this stuff. I come outside, in large part, to not have to deal with that. 

LOREN EVANS: This is the only place that I truly feel like I can be my complete self. In most of the situations, I'm afraid to tell people if I'm trans. And then I wonder how I'll be treated after that. And it just kind of takes away from the whole experience. 

But knowing that everybody here just accepts for who we are, I mean, that's the reason you come back. The communities, the friendships. It's like getting to retreat to your safe space and then finding all your friends there. I mean, it just feels awesome. 

PERRY COHEN: There's two things we share, right? We share a love of the outdoors and we share being queer. And those are two really powerful, powerful things. 

[MUSIC PLAYING] 

LOREN EVANS: Good night, everybody. 

TYLER LERCH: Good night. Sleep well. 

SUBJECT 8: Good morning, everyone. So we're at 4:55 AM at Millner Pass, and we're about to climb Mount Ida. It's dark out. The sun should come up shortly. We're going to do the summit. Round trip will be about nine and 1/2 miles and 2,600 feet of elevation change. I'm psyched. This is going to be awesome. Sunrise hike. 

[MUSIC PLAYING] 

TYLER LERCH: I learn a lot about myself through TVOP. It changed my life in every way, where I went from being this kid that just absolutely despised who I was and was trying to change everything about myself to being someone who just really loves who they are and really enjoys learning more. I love learning more about myself. It just is one of the most positive things in my life. 

I'm so hopeful for my generation because I feel like we're so far because of what the generations before us have done. And I'm really, really thankful. 

PERRY COHEN: Being a member of a marginalized community, it's really important that we have spaces just to ourselves where we can talk about things that we wouldn't feel safe or comfortable talking about in the presence of others. 

SUBJECT 9: Woo hoo. We made it. 

PERRY COHEN: I think to be able to do it in the outdoors, in a place where we historically have not felt welcome, is a really important means of feeling empowered and reclaiming a space that should be open to everyone, but that we have felt excluded from for a really long time. 

[MUSIC PLAYING] 

My hope is that we change the outdoor industry enough to make it more safe and fun and affirming for all kinds of people, but especially trans and queer people. 

[MUSIC PLAYING] 

Camping