Denver Ambassador Brian, friend of LGBT Outdoors Sarah, founder Justin Yoder and creative director Patrick Thompson hiking in Colorado.
Getting back to nature, the LGBTQ way
You don’t have to go to a gym to get the exercise you need to stay fit and healthy. In fact, sometimes you can get more exercise — and have more fun — if you head outdoors. That’s the idea behind LGBT Outdoors, a group founded by Dallasite Justin Yoder to give LGBTQ people an outlet that combines outdoor adventures and camaraderie.
It began about a year-and-a-half ago when Yoder started an Instagram account featuring LGBTQ people who love the outdoors. It grew quickly and now has six chapters around the country. While the COVID-19 pandemic slowed the organization’s gatherings, Yoder said he hopes things will be ramping up again soon with the group’s first national gathering planned for September.
Yoder took a few minutes recently to answer some questions for Dallas Voice and introduce his organization to the broader community,
— Tammye Nash
Dallas Voice: How did LGBT Outdoors get started, and how long has it been around? Justin Yoder: The outdoors has always played a big role in my life. I grew up on a farm in Missouri and have always loved what the outdoors had to offer. After coming out in 2010, I wondered if there was still a place for me in the outdoors. For a long time, I didn’t see one. So I started an Instagram account to feature members of the LGBTQ community who also loved the outdoors. I wanted to show the world that the outdoor space isn’t just for straight white guys — and that the LGBTQ+ community was equally capable of exploring, enjoying, and tackling the rugged wilderness.
Nearly immediately, the response from LGBTQ+ people was through the roof. About a year-and-a-half later, we still get messages saying, “I thought I was the only one!” Or “I’ve finally found my tribe!”
This over-the-top response clearly told us that the outdoor world was a place that many LGBTQ+ people long for — and that a way to help facilitate connection was needed.
Is this a local organization? Or is it statewide or national with local chapters? While we are homegrown and based here in the DFW Metroplex, we currently have six chapters across the U.S. DFW, Houston, New York, Chicago, Denver and Orange, Calif. Each chapter is led by a vetted LGBT+ Outdoors ambassador. Our ambassadors are incredibly passionate about the outdoors and have diverse backgrounds from IT, the U.S. military, police — there’s even a neuroscience student. We give our ambassadors a decent level of freedom to choose and host event activities, as the terrain, outdoors culture and local natural offerings vary from chapter to chapter.
How does one become a member? Are there rules or dues involved? We currently don’t have a “membership.” We curate a lively family/community in our private Facebook groups. We have a main group and local groups for each of our chapters.
In order to protect those who are not “out,” we keep our groups private and screen each person who wants to join. Our main Facebook group currently has more than 3,200 “family members,” which is thrilling since we only recently created it in April of last year. We ask that those who join our Facebook groups simply respect each other and our community culture. You can find the group at Facebook.com/groups/LGBTOutdoors.
What do you think are the main advantages of participating in the group? The chance to socialize; opportunities for physical fitness activities….something else? Nearly any doctor will tell you that physical activity of any sort is good for you, even better in the fresh air of a wild landscape. Most doctors will also tell you that having a sense of community — a sense of belonging — is vitally important as well, especially in a pandemic.
Even if most interaction is virtual at the moment (Facebook groups, virtual happy hours, etc.), we’ve been overjoyed to see the conversations and connections taking place. Our primary mission is to connect the LGBTQ+ community with the outdoors — and to each other. We want to be a safe place for people to genuinely feel a part of something, away from the chaos and noise of the bars and clubs.
Do you offer a variety of events to accommodate people of varying levels of ability/physical fitness? Do you guys mainly do activities in the warmer months, or do you have winter activities, too? Do you have a schedule of upcoming events? I’ll answer these all together, as the answers sort of blur together. While getting started last year, we did successfully have a small handful of in-person events — all with Covid-compliant social distancing, extremely limited capacity, masks, etc. We’ve hosted varied events — from hiking and kayaking in DFW, fishing in Houston, national park visits in Colorado and Wyoming, hiking in New York and even a volunteer trash clean up in California.
The pandemic has obviously slowed things down as we can’t do what we want to do safely.
That being said, we do like hiking as a frequent event. Hiking has a very low barrier of entry. Nearly anyone can do it with tennis shoes and a water bottle in hand. Amateur hiking doesn’t require any costly gear or months of training.
As we continue to grow (and create a larger support base), we intend to offer many more in-person events to satisfy the needs of all ability levels to the best of our capability. But we always want everyone to feel welcome, no matter their experience level.
And once Covid is safely pushed back, we are open to nearly all outdoor activities. While we have our core structure, LGBT+ Outdoors is very much a community-driven machine. Feedback and input from “the fam” is both wanted AND needed. When the community says, “Hey! Let’s do THIS!” then our ambassadors will take that input and try to put it into action. This is important because popular activities in Texas might not be received well in California or New York — and vice versa.
New York and Illinois have snowy mountains for skiing and snowboarding. California has its famous beaches, which are great year-round for surfing, camping, or just beach-bumming. Nature is 24/7/365, and there’s no reason why we can’t be as well. You can hike the same trail in the middle of winter AND the middle of summer, and it will be two completely different experiences.
As I’ve said, COVID — especially recently with the tragic jump in cases — has gotten to a point where we choose not to continue with our in-person events. So they’re on hold for the moment. We hope to be able to restart them in the spring, pending COVID numbers and local guidelines and regulations.
We are, however, in the early stages of planning our first nationwide weekend event, LGBT+ OutdoorFEST Sept. 24-26, at one of Texas’ favorite LGBT+-owned campgrounds, Rainbow Ranch, LGBT+ Outdoorfest will welcome “family” from across the nation for a gathering of camping, kayaking, hiking, education, community and much more! This will be a campout open to our entire LGBT+ Outdoors family and will include workshops, community experiences and some epic social time that can only be created outdoors.
What else do you think people need to know about the LGBT Outdoors? We want all LGBTQ+ people to know that there is a place for them in nature! Sure, the bars and clubs can be fun, but when it comes to feeding your spirit, what can be better that getting outdoors? We have a number of resources on our website, and, as soon as it is safe to host events again, we will be ramping back up with a variety of events around DFW such as kayaking, hiking and camping. So stay tuned and watch our website, LGBTOutdoors.com, for information.