A year after Zander McCrae came out as trans, he found himself on an eight-day kayaking trip through the San Juan Islands with a queer youth outdoor-adventure group.
Founded by Elyse Rylander, OUT There Adventures (OTA) organizes outdoors activities specifically for LGBTQ+ youth and allies. That kayaking trip in 2015 was OTA’s first organized trip. Since then it’s partnered with other outdoors organizations to create queer-centric programming, from day trips to longer service-oriented expeditions and a mountaineering school.
The programs have helped numerous LGBTQ+ youth like McCrae build leadership skills, find queer community, and begin on a path toward a career in the outdoors.
McCrae, who was 17 at the time of that first OTA kayaking trip, had just started testosterone treatments the week before the outing and was nervous about having to administer a shot by himself for the first time.
But having the other members of OUT There Adventures cheering him on boosted his confidence and made him feel comfortable and affirmed in his body for the first time.
“I had never really experienced queer community before,” he said. “When we went out and did [the trip] it was the first time I felt OK in my body and really affirmed [by] people around me too.”
Although many consider the outdoors a place to get away from the stresses of daily life, encounters with homophobia at campgrounds or in public restrooms in the outdoors can make LGBTQ+ adventurers feel unwelcome or unsafe.
Affinity groups like OTA give queer youth a space to feel safe and centered, because “we don’t have the same needs as cisgender white males,” McCrae said.
OTA frequently works with trans youth, many of whom may just be starting or have recently completed a hormone regimen. For some, like McCrae, this may mean having to administer a shot by themselves for the first time, or the stresses of the outdoors might trigger disorienting physical effects.
“We have a trans kid that’s freaking out because they’re like ‘I’m getting my period. This wasn’t supposed to be happening.’ And then all of the gender dysphoria that that creates for them,” Rylander said. “I try to utilize those opportunities from my own experience to normalize it and try to talk about how we can process through things together. I think that if we did a better job with having that cultural conversation, then more people would feel empowered to also go out there.”
McCrae said that feeling welcome and safe in an environment can be about language too.
“There’s a lot of binary vocabulary that happens in the outdoors. It’s not necessarily that people are discriminating against queer people or trans people, but the language is centered towards cispeople, cisfemales or cismales, and I don’t really fit into either category. So I would prefer to hear language that’s more accessible to me and things that feel more affirming to me. And Elyse has got that down,” he said.
Rylander began laying the foundations for OTA in 2010, when LGBTQ+ rights were a national topic. It was a few years before the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down, before Obergefell v. Hodges extended the right to marry to same-sex couples, and shortly after Proposition 8 barred same-sex marriages in California.
With tensions high and queer communities facing backlash, Rylander saw an opportunity to help queer youth get away from this national attention, connect with nature, and find community. She envisioned OTA activities as spaces where queer youth could heal and grow away from those with privileged identities and oppressive environments.
“There’s just a level of being able to breathe a sigh of relief, and I don’t have to explain to you or to everyone here who I am in these really fundamental ways, because they just get it. Those spaces are so critical for folks that are in the minority,” Rylander said. “To have the space to heal and to figure out how they’re going to continue to trudge through the day, because sometimes it really is just about trudging and keeping one foot in front of the other.”
Being outside doesn’t always guarantee that queer youth are immersing themselves in safe spaces — Rylander said OTA participants frequently have to deal with derogatory slurs, or other campers commenting on participants being in the “wrong bathroom” — but being with the group can help them feel more supported.
For instance, on an OTA camping trip to Mount Rainier in 2018, a group of LGBTQ+ teens encountered people using homophobic slurs at the campground.
Group leaders notified the National Park Service, and NPS sent a crew of lesbian park police from the department to address the situation, Rylander said, laughing as she told the story.
“So then all of the young gay girl teenagers in the group were like falling in love with these cops. It was hilarious,” she said.
“We’re traveling with the kids for our courses and we have this gaggle of teenagers with pink and blue hair and presenting their gender in all of these amazing ways,” she said. “We have to negotiate those public spaces in a very particular way every time that we are in them.”
Rylander said they work through these and other issues by processing them together, having counselors share their own experiences, and, if necessary, calling in authorities.
By creating community and safe spaces for queer youth in the outdoors, Rylander hopes to increase interest among LGBTQ+ folk in volunteer and professional stewardship.
Through OTA, Rylander has mentored some potential young leaders like McCrae who found his passion for the outdoors through his positive experiences with the group and hopes to forge his own career in the industry.
McCrae still holds fond memories of that very first kayaking trip he took with OTA. From floating peacefully along the water, flipping his kayak in frustration or laughing with strangers around a campfire, that week was a seminal experience for him, and helped him chart his path in life.
“When I was on that one trip with Elyse … I would get these overwhelming feelings of being at home and knowing that those were some of the only moments in my life where I was 100% sure that I was in the right place and 100% sure that it was something that I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” McCrae said. “I would be willing to do things to keep myself in good health and motivated and educated in order to achieve those feelings over and over and over.”