The Venture Out Project Is Carving Out a Space for Queer and Transgender Backpackers
A childhood Outward Bound trip inspired Perry Cohen to create one of America’s first queer and transgender guiding services. Now, he wants to change the outdoor industry.
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After saying sayonara to a corporate job in leadership development, Perry Cohen established The Venture Out Project, one of the first wilderness guiding companies run by, and for, queer and transgender people, in 2014. Besides leading backpacking trips for LGBTQ+ adults and youth and runs queer and trans inclusivity workshops for corporations, camps, and schools.
Venture Out’s 2018 trips include a LGBTQ+ family camping weekend in western Massachusetts, an inclusive queer women’s backpacking trip in the Green Mountains, a transmasculine-centered sea-to-summit trek in Acadia, and a trip geared specifically towards queer trans people of color.
Before he left to guide a winter adventure weekend in southern Oregon, BACKPACKER had the chance to speak with Cohen about the importance of queer leadership, how backpacking helped him understand his queer/trans identity, and the new frontier of inclusive wilderness recreation.
BP: Where did your love affair with the outdoors first begin?
I grew up a girl in southern New Hampshire, and if you don’t go outside, there was nothing else to do. We camped, we hiked, we biked, we skied, so it was just kind of instilled into me. I kept going all throughout my life. Even in Philadelphia, in college and graduate school I would go hiking and mountain biking, anything I could do to get outdoors.
Did you ever participate in backpacking trips as a teenager with large guiding companies or summer camps?
Over one summer when I was a high school student at Deerfield Academy, I went on a month long Outward Bound Trip. It was a 28-day sailing and rock climbing course in Maine and I would say that that was one of the beginnings of my recognitions of my queerness.
What about the trip brought about this realization?
I remember hearing about people who had gone on Outward Bound or NOLS trips who had all these incredibly profound experiences and made all these intensely intimate relationships with people. I was really eager for the trip and then I remember everything just kind of falling flat during the trip. The outdoors part was great-I backpacked, sailed, and climbed, and I loved that part-but the connection and leadership development that I had heard so much about just didn’t happen for me and I really didn’t understand why.
How did you come to make sense of it all?
Fast forward 20 years, and I’m married to a woman in a lesbian relationship; we have two kids. I’m working in corporate America, and simultaneously I’m in graduate school at Penn. I’m doing research on trans athletes and these lights start to go off. ‘Oh, that could be me’ I remember thinking. So I get into all this research on trans people in the outdoors and trans people at summer camps.
What did all the narratives from the research say?
All these queer and trans people said they never felt safe on these backcountry trips. They always had a guard up about their pronouns on the trip, or how they talked about their partner, or, specifically if they were trans, being really careful not show any body parts that were unexpected. A lot of them were going into these trips hoping to get connection and community, but were spending so much emotional energy protecting themselves that they weren’t able to achieve that promise. I realized that was exactly what happened on my Outward Bound trip.
Is this where the origins of The Venture Out Project began?
I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if queer folks could go on these trips to make connections, learn about backpacking, and learn leadership all at once? At the same time, I realized, oh my God, I’m trans myself. So I came out to my partner, and she was amazing and we’re still together.
In my family life I was living as my true self but I was still in this corporate job that was not feeling true to who I was. So one day I said to myself, I think that if I’ve transitioned my gender I can transition my job.
Did the outdoors or backpacking help at all with your transition?
There were moments where I felt uncomfortable with my body where I hated my hips or legs, but I would climb a mountain and realize that it was those hips and those legs that got me to the top of the mountain. So despite feeling out of place in my body, I also had a really big appreciation for it.
Who did you originally found The Venture Out Project for?
I thought it was going to be specifically for queer youth, but the more friends I told about it, [the more] I started to get this response from adults that said ‘you know I never got this experience as a kid,’ or ‘I always felt uncomfortable as a kid on trips like that, could you have adult trips too?’ Our pilot year ended up being all adult trips, and they sold out.
Now, we are about to start our fourth summer. We have a 12-14 year old trip, a 15-19 year old trip, adult trips, trans trips, a POC trip, and a family camping trip.
What steps do you think the greater outdoor industry is taking to embrace diversity?
On top of our backpacking trips, The Venture Out Project also has an educational arm. I think it’s awesome to have the special trips for queer folk, but wouldn’t it be great if anybody who went on any trip anywhere could be more affirmed and included? Many outdoor organizations and schools are taking us up on inclusivity workshops and training.
Do you think it’s coming from the top down, or vice versa?
I think there is grassroots stuff happening in those bigger outdoor organizations. I keep meeting queer instructors from Outward Bound and NOLS who are pitching queer trips, so hopefully they get recognized and accepted. There are also a lot of diverse groups like Outdoor Afro, Latino Outdoors, Queer Nature, Unlikely Hikers, who are creating opportunities for folks to get outside and simultaneously putting pressure on these mainstream organizations to be more inclusive of all different types of folks. I think they are starting to realize they might lose potential participants for not being more accepting. It is kind of a slow road, which is why, right now, there is a market for Venture Out.
Where do you think stereotypes of queer and trans people not being as active in outdoor recreation come from?
I believe we’ve always been there. We just had to keep our identities quiet, so there is no documented history of us in wilderness. When we talk about it, I meet so many queer and trans and gay people who say ‘oh I’ve done this forever,’ but they didn’t bring their queerness to the outdoors—for safety, I think. We seem to bring our queerness to the bars, or to other safe spaces in our cities. I think once you start digging you can find queer stories, but you just have to listen and read between the lines.