How Reconnecting to Nature Can Help LGBTQ+ People Build Community

Though Ana Seiler has fond childhood memories of camping trips to Mount Katahdin in Maine, her love for the outdoors didn’t fully blossom until after she graduated college in 2020. Stuck at home during a pandemic, she started exploring her options — and discovered Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), a program where participants work on an organic farm in exchange for free room and board.

Seiler eventually spent five months rotating through organic farms in western Massachusetts and western Maine, a decision that would eventually lead her to a life spent outside. Today, she is the marketing and partnerships coordinator at The Venture Out Project, an organization that leads backpacking and wilderness trips for the LGBTQ+ community.

Like many of her colleagues at The Venture Out Project, Seiler also leads trips as an interning instructor. Excursions range from short day hikes to multiday backpacking and rafting trips — experiences that are often brand new to the LGBTQ+ people on the trips. Seiler says working with The Venture Out Project has also been a learning curve for her personally. “I had never been backpacking before The Venture Out Project. I’d never been in the backcountry before The Venture Out Project,” she explains. “It’s so new to me that I’m still learning my love for it in a lot of ways. And I think that’s OK. I don’t think you have to start a new activity and be obsessed with it or throw it in the trash can.”

Seiler’s beginner-friendly mindset helps her connect with other hikers or backpackers on The Venture Out Project’s trips. Rather than guiding them down the trail, Seiler and other guides focus on teaching participants the skills they need for future outdoor excursions. “We really are out there to teach our participants how to do these things, not do it for them,” she explains. “That creates a really active, dynamic learning environment that is really inviting to people that want to be out doing these things on their own and just have never had the access to resources.”

That learning environment is the key to The Venture Out Project’s core mission: making the outdoors inclusive, accessible, and safe for everyone in the LGBTQ+ community. Historically, this hasn’t always been the case. Openly queer adventurers have faced harassment and even physical threats to their safety on hiking trails or in public campgrounds. Because rural areas aren’t always safe, many LGBTQ+ folks have avoided outdoor recreation — meaning that younger generations don’t have a well of knowledge to draw on, Seiler explains. Finding transportation to the trailhead or buying all the required gear can also be a financial barrier. The Venture Out Project hopes to eventually host events within a day’s drive of anyone in the continental US and make every trip free by 2025.

By gathering different affinity groups for each trip, The Venture Out Project creates a safe space for its participants. “We have queer plus-size backpacking. We have trans- and nonbinary- specific trips. Sometimes we have women-specific trips. We have youth-specific trips,” Seiler says. “It’s this micro environment that people can just really steep themselves in that can be really hard to find in your everyday life.” Instructors also focus on inclusion every step of the way, from volunteering their pronouns at the start of the trip so others can share theirs if they feel comfortable to using inclusive language rather than “girls” and “guys” when giving direction.

Each trip is more than just a bonding experience for the participants — it’s also an opportunity to see someone like them represented in the great outdoors. “Representation is something that you don’t realize you need until you get a little bit of it,” Seiler explains. “If you’ve never seen anybody before you do it, it’s doubly scary to think maybe I’m the first one. Or why aren’t people who look and act like me in these spaces already? There must be a reason that people haven’t been doing this.” That’s one reason Seiler didn’t spend much time outside until recently: “I was raised as a woman in a society that tells you it’s really dangerous to be a woman outdoors by herself. I just kind of developed this subconscious fear around being in outdoor spaces, especially alone,” she explains.

Of course, not everyone wants to dive straight into a multiday backpacking or canoe camping trip. That’s where The Venture Out Project’s latest endeavor, Basecamp at Beaver Falls, comes in. This 40-acre retreat includes tent and cabin camping, indoor and outdoor dining facilities, showers, a sauna, a pond, gardens, and more. Basecamp is also the home of The Venture Out Project’s “front country” programs — an entry point for LGBTQ+ folks who are curious about spending more time outside but perhaps aren’t ready for a backcountry trip. Events like woodworking workshops, forest bathing classes, and farm-to-table dining are already being planned for this summer and fall. The Venture Out Project also plans to offer the use of Basecamp to the local Elnu Abenaki tribe, whose land the property sits on, and incorporate works of art from Indigenous artists into the buildings.

Seiler says she’s particularly excited about opening Basecamp because it brings back memories of her days working on organic farms when she was just beginning to fall in love with the great outdoors. “I learned so much so quickly about being outside and being in kinship with nature and the land and recognizing myself as a part of nature and being around people who really value nature and one another. It was just so liberating for me and nothing like I had ever experienced before,” she says. Seiler hopes she can use her passion for gardening to entice people who haven’t spent much time outside to connect with nature. “Come and get your hands in the dirt with me in the garden,” she says. “Or come help me turn fruit from our orchard into fruit leather for our backcountry trips, and see what it feels like. Give it a try.”

Basecamp also offers Seiler an opportunity to tap into another of her passions: native pollinator education. She is planting a learning garden filled with native species to highlight the beauty, resilience, and importance of these plants — not just in southern Vermont but to the entire ecosystem. “It’s so much more than just not spraying dandelions with pesticides,” Seiler explains. “For me, stepping into a native pollinator education really meant stepping back and seeing that there is an entire ecosystem at play and recognizing each rung of that ecosystem’s ladder is important and vital.”

The theme of connection with community runs through everything The Venture Out Project does — and doesn’t just apply to nature. “Fixing one rung on that ladder is not going to save the whole ecosystem. And I think that it’s interesting to look at that and then also look at our own LGBTQ+ community in a very similar way,” Seiler explains. “We are one big community, and there are a lot of rungs on that ladder. There’s a lot of intersectionality and different experiences based on geographical location and age and ability, et cetera. Fixing one rung on that ladder is not going to protect or guarantee equitability for the whole LGBTQ+ community.”

The Venture Out Project isn’t just leading day hikes or teaching people how to canoe or even making the outdoors more inclusive — it goes deeper than that. Each trip is an opportunity to enrich the lives of its participants (and yes, teach them some outdoor skills along the way). “Everything we do at The Venture Out Project is meant to be something that our participants can tuck into their pocket and bring back and implement into their own lives,” Seiler says. “We’ve really disconnected ourselves as a part of nature. What we’re doing as a team is reintegrating people back into nature and finding that connection with nature and with their queerness and with their queerness in nature.”

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