I was recently listening to an interview with sports psychologist Michael Gervais via the outside podcast, and I remember a moment at which he distinguished the world’s good athletes from the greatest by noting that in moments of intense pressure the individual is able to eliminate self-judgement, turn it off so that all of one's attention can be directed towards the next best move. As Dr. Gervais puts it, "Somehow they’re able to drive their experience into the present moment and be there for an extended period of time, and judging oneself is the thing that pulls us out of the present moment." In thinking about privilege and action, I wonder why the populations that feel so comfortable in a space that is seemingly open to all, is still white, upper class and male-identified? I wonder why the covers of the magazine that produces said podcast overwhelmingly match this population? I wonder why it is that when we talk about neurological freaks like Alex Honnold, we don’t talk about their privilege?
But I don’t write this to diminish the accomplishments of these amazing athletes, nor dissect the circumstances that lead someone to free soloing a 3000ft wall. This is more of a plea to the outdoor industry in a time of reckoning, to start representing those that have felt so removed from a narrative that belongs to all.
If there was ever a group of people that was too familiar with feelings of self-loathing and judgement, the queer community would be right up there at the top of the list. Queer youth are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to heterosexual youth, but that’s just the tip of the statistic iceberg. These patterns of fear extend far beyond adolescence.
My partner and I are white and femme and we’re more often mistaken for sisters than anything else. But I wonder if we were to slip up in front of the wrong group of people and show some public display of affection, what kind of rage could that act spark? I think of the tragic murder of Rebecca Wight on the Appalachian trail in 1988 and I selfishly find comfort in my invisibility. The thing about the natural world is that it is totally indifferent to sexual orientation or gender identity. It is exquisitely uncaring. So why is it so often off limits to more vulnerable populations? We have taken something so inherently lacking in judgement, and have still managed to construct barriers made to accommodate those of a certain class, gender, and race. Is it not telling that 40% of participants in outdoor activities make $75,000-plus salaries a year, or that black people only make up 7% of National Park’s visitors? Of course, we can look to the systemic and historical ways in which the outdoors have repeatedly been usurped by white colonial powers. The outdoors for many represent a place of fear, survival and trauma. Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, the natural world is a social space, marked with its own set of political and economic plights. Yet today, many still think of the outdoors as a niche industry, one that has less sway over our current political happenings (in part due to its exclusivity). But we need only look at another set of statistics that have been making the rounds, to know that this is just not true.
In 2017, the OIA (Outdoor Industry Association) reported that “Americans spend $887 billion annually on outdoor recreation. That’s more than on education ($278 billion), gasoline and fuels ($304 billion), household utilities ($313 billion), motor vehicles and parts ($465 billion), or pharmaceuticals ($466 billion).” And in recent years the National Parks System has seen attendance hit record highs with 2016 seeing 325 million visitors. So where is that economic and political clout going? Number one: to protect our wild places, as it should. It’s needed now more than ever. But with as much influence as this industry has, why can’t it look to the variability of life on Earth, and include a bit of that diversity in media and advertising?
I’ve recently seen many an article decrying the lack of diversity in outdoor media and the responses are often, as follows (these are actual quotes):
“The people of color whom I know and grew up with, we were all poor, don’t like going to the outdoors and roughing it. It’s not because they can’t afford it, I tend to believe they’d rather spend their non working hours in more comfort.”
“Most public land is open to anybody of any skin color, at little or no cost. I have been in the West and the East, and I personally guarantee, that anybody with a car and a little gasoline, can drive to a trailhead and take a walk for free.”
“Nature doesn’t gives a damn about your race or sexual identification, and brands don’t choose their customers. They merely respond to them.”
“You can’t make people do stuff, they have to want to.”
This rhetoric stings. It implies that everyone has a car, knows about or has access to public lands, can afford to take time off from their jobs, have been presented the option of going outside and choose not to. It negates a legacy of exclusion that extends to our wild places. Essentially we have created the conditions wherein marginalized people do not feel safe in the outdoors, and then claim they just don’t have interest. The internalization of popular belief is a vicious cycle, and while there have been exceptional people that have opened the door, many do not believe they have the right to walk through it. Speaking personally, media is often our (and was my) first glimpse into a community that does not yet exist. If more queer people were to see themselves adventuring outside without cost prohibitive gear, and among a wider range of bodies, then they’re more likely to believe it is possible. This narrative has not only been absent, but deliberately suppressed.
Queer theorists like Jack Halberstam and Scott Herring have worked to dismantle the dominant "story of migration from 'country' to ‘town’ — a spatial narrative within which the subject moves to a place of tolerance after enduring life in a place of suspicion, persecution, and secrecy.” This narrative puts forth the idea that the only means for queer community, happiness, or open existence is within the city. It erases and devalues queer rural existence, and is so clearly evident in media, and academic depictions of queer identity. Our television sets, even our modern political campaigns tell us that rural queers are oppressed, while urban queers thrive. The cumulative effect? Queer rural-to-urban migration is seen as compulsory, a necessary act of survival.
I want to believe that this isn’t the case anymore. I want to believe that queers and people of color can feel safe outside. More importantly, I’m asking outdoor media to show me it’s possible.
"Another Country: Queer Anti-Urbanism" by Scott Herring
"In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Times" by Jack Halberstam
"Queer Ruralism" by Bud W. Jerke
"Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors" by Carolyn Finney