GLBT Inclusion in Outdoor Education

So I posted a version of this awhile ago, but I just completed my seminar and I thought I would post my revised presentation “Inclusion of GLBT Youth into Outdoor Education” here for your reading pleasure. The biggest change was that I made it more personal for my place of work (the Hartley Nature Center) Feel free to comment and let me know what you think.

The seminar itself went well and I got very positive feedback. I had a powerpoint with it as well, but eh. Keep reading to see my thoughts on this subject.


“It is imperative that outdoor educators understand the silencing effect that their attitudes, demonstrated through their language and behavior, has on all participants of their groups. This behavior can include the assumption of heterosexuality and the implied validation of the heterosexual desire. I would suggest that most (if not all) outdoor programmes actively reinforce heterosexuality as the norm and homosexuality therefore as deviant. This situation forces homosexuals to remain silent for reasons of emotional and physical safety. The message this gives is that there is only one ‘right’ form of sexual desire and alternatives should be abhorred, silenced or at best tolerated and certainly not flaunted.”

– Annie Dignan of the University of Otago

Why are people silent? Is it out of fear? If so, what is there to be afraid of? The idea of fitting in often leads to conforming to certain social norms. I’m sure most kids have experienced what it’s like to not fit in. Getting picked on isn’t pleasant. And when you don’t have the right lunch box, you might end up spending recess hiding in the library. But it doesn’t end in elementary school. Fitting in is something ingrained in our minds at a very early age. So why do some people “choose” to be deviant? Isn’t it easier and safer to be silent?

Homophobia works because of silence and a lack of understanding that not everyone is the same. Silence feeds homophobia. Fear of the unknown is what causes most conflicts in human life. But what is homophobia really? A phobia is an irrational fear, something that is beyond the control of a person. But, according to Dignan, this insinuates that it is not the responsibility of the person to change it. This is where the term heteronormativity comes in.

Heteronormativity is just as it sounds. It is the reinforcement of the heterosexual norm. What has caused this conformity? Why do people want to be the same? Our western cultural history has made a big impact on how we view the outdoors. Our outdoor “legends” have included Paul Bunyan, Pacos Bill, Davy Crockett, Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, and a whole slew of straight, white males. Does that mean that those who don’t fit into that stereotype shouldn’t participate in the environment? Sometimes it certainly feels like it.

Recent research “notes verbal and physical harassment as being the reality for a large number of school students (and staff) labeled as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Do we think for a moment that this unjust treatment would stop when they are taken into the outdoors?”
Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a lot of development in the needs of GLBT people, mainly youth, within Outdoor Education. This is surprising, considering the large amount of attention that the community has been getting in public awareness. The political debates have been raging about equal rights in marriage, adoption, civil unions, and more recently, homelessness among GLBT youth. But the context has yet to focus on Outdoor Education.

Yet again we are led to silence. It is hard for anyone to change perceptions if no one speaks up. There is a very inspiring article called “Sharing Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Life Experiences Face to Face” by Mary McClintock. She has some great insight on why she is an activist and why she speaks out about who she is.

“I choose to speak on panels for a number of reasons. Speaking up is a self-empowering act in a world that continually tells me I should hide and be ashamed of who I am. I speak about my experience of being a lesbian in a homophobic world because it is one way that I can break the silence about our lives.”

I have been fortunate enough to have been given the chance to sit on a couple of panel discussions. Panel discussions are one way to have your voice heard. Being a part of a speakers’ bureau is another way. Either way, sharing experiences is important to spreading awareness. They say knowledge is power. Fear is commonly caused by ignorance; when we don’t know or understand something it makes us afraid and angry. In her article, McClintock mentions an experience she had after a panel discussion in a college classroom. Two students, a sixty-year-old woman and a twenty-year-old man, came up to her and thanked her for coming to speak. What they had learned during that time had changed their perception of gays and lesbians and made them question what they had previously heard about that community.

This is why being more inclusive is important. For one, it spreads awareness and teaches people about differences, which fights ignorance and anger and can help everyone understand each other. Another huge reason, though, is that GLBT youth need role models and have a desperate need to be more included into social programs.

Every child needs a role model, whether it is a family member, a teacher, or a friend. Unfortunately, not many GLBT youth will come out for fear of what the reaction will be of their peers and the adults in their lives. This is why being active in the community is important. In a 1994 report by Hetrick Martin Institute, it was found that “Gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth are two to three times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers.” Not only is this because of physical and verbal abuse by others, but it is also because of the internalized homophobia that they suffer from. It is taught from an early age that heterosexuality is the norm and anything else is bad, or, in some cases, sinful. Many youth grow up to adulthood attempting to pass as a straight person, creating a very small amount of “out” role models for the next generation to rely on.

Because of this fear of oppression, they will suppress themselves and will fear to join clubs or organizations in case they are discovered and eventually kicked out. This causes a lot of stress on not only their personal life, but their social life as well. There aren’t a lot of ways to express themselves and release pent up in energy in a positive way while bottling it all up inside them. There are resource centers, but what about the independent interests of the teens? Some like sports, some like the arts, but where can they find a place that will accept them as they are? For those who enjoy the outdoors, why not have a program that includes them while giving them a safe environment in which to be themselves? In a recent conversation I had with Angie Nichols, the director of GLBT services at UMD, she agreed that without these healthy experiences, there’s no “alternative to some of the maladaptive things youth can get into, as can college students. (And other adults for that matter).”

For all kids no matter the age, it’s important to be outside. Not only is it good for the body, but it’s also good for the mind. I’m somewhat of an ecopsychologist in that I believe that people need green spaces for their mental health. Rob Kanter of the University of Illinois said it best: “There is a cumulative message in all of this. As a society, we need to recognize that trees and green space are not luxuries, but necessary components of healthy human habitat.” This is the idea behind “No Child Left Inside,” which is an organization that encourages parents to get outside with their kids. While video games and TV might be somewhat stimulating to the mind, it isn’t exactly encouraging social connections and the psychical push a body needs to feel good. Richard Louv, in his incredibly insightful book Last Child in the Woods, has this to say on the subject: “It reduces their stress level. Biologically, we are still hunters and gatherers. We haven’t changed since that time. What happens to the human organism when you take nature away from it and replace it with television and computers? I call that cultural autism where children’s use of the senses is reduced to the size of a screen, like a computer. Only in nature are we using our full senses all at the same time in a positive way.” We, as humans, are genetically programmed to have an affinity to nature. Scientists call this need Biophilia. Louv also cites research that correlates the increase of depression in teenagers with the decrease in exposure to nature. Being that depression is a huge problem among GLBT youth, it is likely that having programs that bring them out of doors would increase their feeling of self-worth and therefore their moods. Not only does it make a person feel better, but being outside means being in a neutral territory where youth can grow together as a team. Working outside with others connects people on a more primal level and builds bonds of trust when fostered right. There has been some research that promotes the idea that when children are exposed to green spaces in their urban homes, their sense of community is increased. Why should it be any different for GLBT teenagers looking to find a welcoming experience?

So what can we do to open up Outdoor Education for more people? How can programs become more inclusive to the youth of the GLBT community? I know that there are some programs that say right on their brochures or applications that they welcome everyone equally. And there are some programs that are exclusive to the GLBT community (the Colorado Outward Bound Program for GLBT youth, Camp Trans, and the EcoQueers in Canada are a few that come to mind, as well as OutWoods here in Minnesota). The Outward Bound program runs very much the same way any of their other programs are run, except that their leadership trainings also involve becoming leaders for their community. Other than the fact that most taking part in it happen to be GLBT, it is pretty much the same kind of program, including rock climbing, leadership games, facilitating discussions, and other problem-solving activities. Our local non-profit organization OutWoods is a GLBT recreation club that goes camping, hiking, biking, and other outdoorsy things. Adults from all over the state get together with these like-minded people in a safe environment and get out into the wilderness that they love. These are great programs, but what are some of the problems? Sure some programs welcome all equally but that doesn’t mean the other participants will. And while having exclusive programs for the GLBT is helpful, it’s also separating homosexuals from the heterosexuals, which doesn’t do a great deal for either side in equality.

So what does help? Writer Arnold Grossman has a few ideas for us. One, “learn the facts about gay, lesbian, and bisexual people so as to be able to dispel myths and stereotypes about them.” Another way is to challenge those who attempt to discriminate in any way about GLBT people. Don’t just ignore put-downs and prejudice; fight it actively by talking about it out in the open. Grossman also says that creating a safe space or environment where acceptance and support is openly encouraged is highly important. Be consistent when displaying positive behavior and be an accepting role model, even if you’re just an ally. Have resources on hand to help with any questions. Creating programs that deal directly with GLBT issues is also a big step in the right direction. These programs are open to not just gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people, but to all people. Grossman also says that in Outdoor Education:

“Recreation activities that focus on youth participation and empowerment, peer and leisure counseling, and cooperative games and hobbies can be effective in helping gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth and their heterosexual counterparts to learn about living in a diverse society and accepting differences.”

In the case of the Hartley Nature Center, simply encouraging GLBT Youth groups from the surrounding area to come use this facility and letting them know they are welcome to learn here would be a big step. There are several youth groups that would most likely be interested. Shirley Duke who runs the Together for Youth, a GLBT youth church group here in Duluth, has been talking about getting the kids outside more during the summer and I know that Angie Nichols, who I mentioned earlier, knows OE/Recreation speakers who will come give talks to GLBT youth on options in this field. There are enough groups in Duluth alone who would be interested in having the Hartley Nature Center as a place to run programs or join programs the Nature Center might give in the future. Sarah also mentioned that in the future, Hartley might do more off-site programs, and if that’s the case, going to talk to these groups about what the center has to offer would be a great step in the right direction as well. I know that the QASU from UW-Superior has been known to participate in camping trips and if they’re interested in that, there’s a high probability that they would enjoy spending some time at a place like Hartley.

Letting people from all walks of life know that we’re open to diversity is important. The website doesn’t mention this and it’s not advertised, at least from what I have seen. The internship brochures are the only place that it is mentioned that Hartley is a place of equal opportunity (“HNC values diversity and welcomes applications from individuals with varying life experiences.”) But how will other groups in the community know they are welcome here?

There is a nature center in Kalamazoo, MI that is known for its open doors. In fact, in 2002, the Arcus Foundation, a foundation for equal rights, granted the center with the Arcus Gay and Lesbian Fund for their hospitality and their willingness to accommodate anyone, and their emphasis that everyone should have a connection with nature. They got their message out by contacting GLBT groups in the area and having their website linked to as a welcoming site on GLBT community sites. Another nature center, the Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans, makes a point of acknowledging their diverse audience on their website in their mission statement. Along with these smaller organizations, there are some much bigger groups that accept and encourage diversity. The North American Association of Environmental Education has an entire Diversity Committee dedicated to the support and diversification of the field of Environmental Education. Their diversity commitment can be found directly on the website: “NAAEE recognizes the integral connections between environmental concerns and wider questions of social needs, welfare, and economic opportunity. It also acknowledges the need for greater emphasis on equity and celebration of diversity within NAAEE and in the field of environmental education.” Their diversity committee is set so that they can make sure that there is no discrimination going on in their duty to increase knowledge of environmental education. Everyone has the right to learn.

The most important thing Hartley can do is let it be known that we are a safe space. Advocates for Youth have several recommended tips for organizations that want to work to support GLBT youth. One thing organizations can do is “offer staff opportunities to receive training on GLBTQ issues, cultural competency, facilitation skills, working with the media, and conflict resolution.” Adding to the mission statement of our center would be a good way to open our doors as well. By making our mission statement include some of our values, it lets GLBT youth know that they are welcome here and that homophobia is not accepted in our programs. Other than writing it into our mission statement, there are also less subtle things that will let the outside community know where we stand. Posting a Safe Zone sticker somewhere in view of visitors is a key step as is using inclusive language. Of course, since working primarily with GLBT youth isn’t our focus, having a resource or referral list to other groups more advanced in these issues is a must for an organization that promotes acceptance.

The importance of getting out there is to let people know that this is a safe place to be who they are. Kids need role models, especially when they feel like no one in the world wants them around. And sometimes it does feel that way, and it makes the world seem bigger and scarier without people to back them up. Knowing that they don’t have to hide in a place like this, and doing something they want to do while being outside and learning, is what they need to feel like they’re not being outcast from everyday society. They need to feel included and accepted. I think the Hartley Nature Center could be just the place to further the inclusion of GLBT youth in Duluth and to help dispel the so-called “heterosexual ideal.” Every little step counts.



2 responses to “GLBT Inclusion in Outdoor Education”

  1. Mom says:

    you should have this article you wrote published in a magazine that deals with this subject. Excellent!!!! by the way this is mom. love ya hon!!!

  2. […] teaching experiences there as one of their Naturalist. I held my first professional seminar there, “Inclusion of GLBT Youth into Outdoor Education”, which made several connections for HNC with the local youth groups. It was a place that I actually […]

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