Queering the Outdoors: LGBTQ2SIA+ Identities in Outdoor Recreation

Our Blog
Korrin Bishop | Aug 10, 2021

We all love the outdoors, but not all of our experiences in the outdoors are the same. When we take time to learn about others’ experiences, we create more space for everyone to feel welcomed and find the support they need on the trial and beyond.

Sandy Heath is a PhD candidate in the Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Management Department at Clemson University. They also manage the Americans With Disabilities Act Program for the State of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Equity in the outdoors is both their career and academic focus. 

Sandy believes that public lands are for all of us to enjoy and conserve. To look at this more deeply, they focused their dissertation research on queer experiences in outdoor recreation.

Interview With Sandy Heath on Queer Experiences in Outdoor Recreation

We caught up with Sandy to learn more about their dissertation, “Queering the Outdoors: LGBTQ2SIA+ Identities in Outdoor Recreation.”

Gossamer Gear: Can you start by telling us about your background and how your dissertation work came to be?

Sandy: You bet! The more I write my dissertation, the more I realize how my path to this project started in high school. I came out as a queer kid my sophmore year and subsequently was unable to go to college or get a job after high school for this reason. At that time, Ellen had just come out on television, so I thought, “Maybe California is a good place for people like me.”

I made a cold call to Mammoth Mountain Ski Resort. That is the year I became a ski bum, a raft guide, and learned to backpack. Fast forward ten years of guiding and instructing in the outdoors—I enrolled in an undergraduate program. I enjoyed school so much that I just kept going. Haha, here we are. 

I have worked with some incredible mentors in the outdoor profession who have broadened my awareness of equity in outdoor spaces; so, when I started reading academic literature on parks, recreation, and tourism management, I realized there were some major gaps on who was represented. That was the impetus for the project. The stories from each participant have really validated that decision. Meeting each participant and hearing their lived experience has personally impacted my life in a profound way. I hope this project contributes to how we collectively view the outdoors.     

How many people participated in your research and what kind of fields did they work in? Any big takeaways from the recruitment process?

The study put out a call for volunteers who identify as LGBTQ2SIA+ and have worked (past or present) in an outdoor profession. Thirty-six people responded to the initial survey; however, I chose to interview six. Each interview lasted around three hours. From the six participants who volunteered, six different sectors in the outdoor industry were represented, in addition to participants sharing their personal backgrounds, which included cultural identity, racial identity, age, geographic location, gender identity, sexual identity, and queer identity. 

Professional experience ranged from working as a game warden, outdoor photographer, and trapper to professional guiding, therapeutic outdoor instructor, and community builder. 

I don’t think you can talk about experiences concerning a person’s identity without discussing intersectionality. LGBTQ2SIA+ or queer identity in itself can have multiple intersections of identity. The participants in this study, through the sharing of their personal stories, uncovered aspects of the outdoor industry that are often hidden by the authority and power of dominant culture. In addition, stories of joy, camaraderie, and community were also shared. 

Can you tell us a bit more about intersectionality?

In the late 1980s, the term “intersectionality” was coined after a 1976 lawsuit against General Motors (Crenshaw, 1989). African American women who applied to work at GM sued the motor company on the basis of unlawful discrimmination. The women filing the lawsuit were forced to choose racial discrimmination or gender discrimmination as the basis of the lawsuit and ultimately lost the case. 

The motor company reserved labor jobs for African American men and clerical jobs for White women so they technically met the requirements of that law. Crenshaw brought this disparity to light by illuminating how the spirit of civil rights and anti-discrimmination laws were being ignored for people experiencing multiple and simultaneous points of discrimination based on their identity. 

Sometimes the theory and praxis of intersectionality can be confused with a literal intersection or a meeting of two perpendicular points. I think what Crenshaw and other scholars and activists communicated to the world was how people experience a fabric of social barriers that shape opportunities and decisions. These opportunities and decisions impact how people move through the world. I think stories of how individuals navigated the social environment of the outdoor industry really came out in this project. 

What are some of the key takeaways from your interviews?

I think the main takeaway is that each person shared a totally unique viewpoint. No two stories were the same. One of the goals of this project was to highlight the uniqueness of each individual story and avoid making generalizations. I hope that comes across in the final write up. 

In light of your research, what are some ways we as individuals can better support LGBTQ+ members of our outdoor recreation community? 

One of the best actions is to be explicitly inclusive. Let your allyship be known. This is important because LGBTQ2SIA+ people traveling in rural places are often bombarded with negative signals. Billboards, flags, certain brand affiliations, or even body language can communicate that the environment might not be safe for us. 

At the very least, we are using energy to interpret a social situation when that energy could be better spent looking at our topo map or route finding. Another great thing to do is to make friends with lots of LGBTQ2SIA+ people if you're not already. Take inventory of who you travel and hangout with the most, then try to mix it up and expose yourself to people with different backgrounds. Find a course on how to be an ally. There are a ton of great resources out there these days.

Are there steps you’d like to see the outdoor industry and other outdoor recreation employers take to create better experiences for their LGBTQ+ employees?

Although difficult to pinpoint, there is undeniably an opportunity gap for certain people working in outdoor professions. You may have heard the old adage, “Success is when preparation meets opportunity.” 

Some of the stories I heard over the past months pointed to well-prepared LGBTQ2SIA+ individuals who stood on the banks of their career waiting for opportunities that never came. This happened while watching others, in some cases people they mentored, receive those very opportunities they themselves had been working toward. Other stories I heard pointed to the intricacies of how LGBTQ2SIA+ outdoor guides manage clients who are openly heterosexist. 

A common theme, though, was how the flow of opportunities toward some people over others seemed influenced by ambiguity at an organization or in a group culture. It seemed that when ambiguity was present, a person (or organization) was left to subjectively fill in the gaps to complete a story or draw a conclusion, which may have influenced the flow of resources. 

My main recommendation, based on what was shared during this project, would be to confront ambiguity and come up with a plan at your organization. Dial down your systems for hiring, promoting, engaging contractors, and engaging customers. Review your policies. Ensure LGBTQ2SIA+ people are covered under your harassment policy and you have a clear and safe reporting mechanism. Anonymous surveys can be useful for some applications. If you serve clients or students, have a plan for travel and group culture in the field. 

I am giving a few ideas here, but there are tons of ways to approach inclusive practice at your organization. Do your homework. Take a good look at the history of your organization to understand where the culture of your organization originated, then create a vision for where to go. 

What’s next for you and your research?

First, to graduate! I plan to continue working full-time as an Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) advocate while also learning how to fastpack in my free time with my wife Claire and pup Willy.  

Building Inclusive Outdoor Spaces

We hope you learned as much as we did from Sandy’s work and have left with some ideas on how you can be a part of making the outdoor industry more inclusive.