Pride, Queer Joy, and the Outdoors
Pride, Queer Joy & the Outdoors - A Conversation with Mikah Meyer
In case you haven’t heard, Mikah Meyer is pretty amazing. A few years ago, he became the first individual to visit all 419 National Park Service Sites in a single journey—aka a three-year long road trip. He’s run across entire states like Forrest Gump, delivered inspirational speeches for colleges and conventions, and been pursued by a wild and potentially mystical gray goose (more on that story in a minute).
Mikah is also an advocate for the queer community and a proud CamelBak Ambassador. We recently caught up with Mikah to chat about Pride Month, his love for nature, and how he’s working to make the outdoors a safe space for everyone, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
What does queer joy mean to you?
Half-naked men in Speedos on top of a float in downtown.
Before I came out, that’s what I thought it meant. And I often wonder how many people outside the queer community see Pride Month as only that?
In reality, it’s so much more.
Queer Joy means not having to ask myself “Is it safe?” before holding someone’s hand. It’s not hating myself because I didn’t live up to the expectations of my parents or culture. It’s knowing that who I am is not something to apologize for, but to be proud of.
So, being in a Pride-filled space means LGBTQIA+ people get the ability to exist in the same way straight people do, not having to ask themselves questions like the above that ultimately come back to “Is it safe to be me? Am I in physical or mental danger for being myself?”
So, whether attending a parade, getting a feeling of, or having Pride—to me, means getting to be yourself: unapologetically.
What does queer joy look like to you?
This photo above.
So much of queer history and storytelling (especially movies and TV shows) is filled with tragedy!
It’s filled with stories of people being murdered for loving someone of the same gender, of being kicked out by their family, or excommunicated from culture for fear of their physical and/or mental safety.
Shoot, even half the above answer is me just explaining the problems we deal with as queer people living in a world that was designed for straight people.
So, while it’s powerful and important to learn stories of our past struggles, doesn’t it feel good to sit down and watch a movie like “Love, Simon” or show like “Heartstopper” that isn’t just about the tragedies our community has experienced, but about Queer Joy!
Because I love being gay.
It’s taught me that I’m not perfect (in the eyes of the world), so it’s freed me to be me, instead of living for someone else’s expectations.
So anytime I, or a story, can show the positive aspects of being LGBTQIA+ (which is, honestly, about 95% of it once you set aside the struggles), I’m reminded of all the joy that it is to be queer, and how we LGBTQIA+ people can help the rest of the world stop living by others’ standards, and instead, their own.
What does nature and the outdoors mean to you?
The freest I’ve ever felt was on a nine-month, 16,400-mile road trip I took immediately after finishing grad school.
I was in a different city every week.
I was meeting new people. Applying for jobs in each place. And getting to be a complete stranger to the world if I wanted to be. So, I was never anywhere long enough for anybody to judge me—or more accurately, for me to care whether they did so or not.
That period of feeling zero-judgement is exactly why I love nature and the outdoors. Unlike our daily lives where we’re trying to live up to the expectations of our bosses, family, or friends, nature doesn’t care!
Nature doesn’t send us emails asking why our report is late or give us passive-aggressive looks about our clothing choices. It is totally judgement free!
Now, anytime I’m outdoors, I remember the feeling I had during that nine-month road trip—of total freedom—and am reminded we can all experience it anytime we commune with nature.
The campaign was photographed in Dinosaur National Monument. What is the significance of Dinosaur National Monument and Rainbow Park Campground to you?
It’s where one of the few mystical experiences of my life happened.
For four days and three nights my rafting group was followed by a Canadian goose:
Swimming alongside our raft. Hiking miles up and down canyons with us. And snuggling against our tents and pooping on our stuff overnight.
Since I was visiting Dinosaur National Monument as part of a three-year road trip to every National Park Service site in honor of my deceased father, many people think the goose was my dad finding a way to come along on my journey.
There’s a whole lot more to the story that makes it mystical (and it’s part of a 90-minute, one-man show I perform all about the parks journey), but Dinosaur National Monument—and the rock figures in its Rainbow Park Campground—have played a large role in both what I do with my work for LGBTQIA+ inclusion in the outdoor industry, and also who I am and how I view the world after experiencing this place.
Why did you start Outside Safe Space?
I live in Minneapolis, a couple miles from where George Floyd was murdered. And during the aftermath, my city—and people around the globe—were asking each of us to do our part to fix our broken world.
Each night during the citywide lockdowns, I’d wonder how I could do my part.
I remembered the 1,000s of messages I’d received from the LGBTQIA+ community during my three-year journey to all the parks, and particularly their stories sharing how straight people treated them in outdoor spaces and made them feel unwelcome to be themselves—unable to express queer joy!
So, I recalled the upside-down pink triangle “Safe Space” symbol that some teachers put on their classroom door to symbolize they are an ally and safe person to talk to about sexual orientation.
Realizing something like that symbol—if taken off doors inside buildings and moved outdoors—could change the assumption that outdoorsy people are anti-LGBTQIA+ (or at least showcase the people who are allies), inspired me to make the Outside Safe Space symbol.
What does the symbol of Outside Safe Space mean?
It means “I’m not a jerk.”
That’s the short answer at least. The full description of the symbol can be seen on my site, OutsideSafeSpace.com where people can also get their own symbol to wear as part of their outdoor gear!
If enough people wear the Outside Safe Space symbol, then we can change the narrative of outdoor and rural spaces being anti-queer. If people start seeing others wearing this symbol on their outdoor gear, they might ask themselves why such a symbol is needed, and if they’re part of the problem or solution.
Then hopefully, it’ll eventually become the majority of outdoor fans who are publicly allies, making the Outside Safe Space badge no longer relevant! It’ll become assumed that outdoor and rural spaces ARE places to express queer joy in the world!
What is your hope for the LGBTQIA+ community in the outdoors?
That we don’t just feel like we have to fit into a straight space, rather that we can make it our own. I’ve spent a lot of time playing in LGBTQIA+ sports leagues, at gatherings of 5,000+ queer people, and even just a weekly Gay Poker Night I host—and in each instance, there’s an amazing freedom from just feeling normal. I imagine it’s how the 90% of the world who isn’t LGBTQIA+ often feels.
With that feeling of normalcy comes a beautiful expression of what it means to be queer. What it means to accept that you’re not the “ideal” person society wants, and that’s OK, and then grow forward and free from there. And as a result, I often find “queer spaces” to be some of the most accepting, creative, and free spaces. Nature provides those same adjectives for so many people, but we can also provide them interpersonally.
So, in a space that is traditionally less free for queer people to have a queer space, I’d love to see a melding of the power of nature with the power of the queer space to create outdoor environments where 100% of humanity feels 100% “Free to be you and me” as the 1970s Marlo Thomas song sings.
Meet Jenny Bruso of Unlikely Hikers, another diversity & inclusion advocate working to change the face of outdoor adventuring.