Lately, we’ve been examining opportunities for #OIBIZ to be more inclusive, and to embrace greater diversity. In our minds, there’s really no reason why the demographics of the Outdoor Industry are not a micro-cosm of the population of the United States as a whole. En route to telling us how to be more aware of a vibrant part of our industry, today’s guest-post by our friend Mo Kappes takes a surprising turn. When a whole population of people don’t feel safe outdoors – when the objective hazard isn’t a bear, a fall, or an avalanche, but another person – we have a whole lot of work to do. Important things to think about, here…
When PEMBAserves asked me a few months ago to blog about my experiences as a lesbian in the outdoors, I was stumped. What would I write about? I can tell you what it means to be a woman in the outdoors — that’s easy. People can see that I am a woman and treat me as such. Whether or not I am a lesbian can be more difficult to tell and, therefore, being treated differently because I am gay is much more subtle. We lesbians are a hidden minority.
As I pondered about what to write, my mind kept returning to a tragedy that occurred almost 15 years ago that has become a part of my collective memory.
On June 1 of 1996, a lesbian couple — Julie Williams and Lollie Winans — were brutally murdered on a section of the Appalachian Trail where it passes through the Shenandoah National Park. At first, the crime was viewed as a tragic murder on the Appalachian Trail, but then when it was discovered that these women were a couple, the tragedy was viewed as a violent act against two women because they were gay. Authorities posted fliers all along the trail that summer seeking information about the murders. Sadly, even 15 years later, no more information has surfaced as to what happened to Julie Williams and Lollie Winans that weekend in June.
So, why do I bring up something so tragic in my first blog post? Because, when I think of lesbians and the outdoors, I think of the murders of Julie and Lollie. I wasn’t sure why that was, why I couldn’t get away from this incident. I think I am more clear now as to why this tragedy is important to me.
I was on the Appalachian Trail (AT) that summer leading trips with juvenile delinquent boys from New Jersey. We were hiking a section of the AT through the Mahoosuc Notch in the White Mountains of NH and learned of the murders from the fliers posted at the trailheads and conversations with other hikers. We were states away from the murder site and hiking the trial weeks after the incident, but it was still there, present on the trail in the thoughts and experiences of people traveling the AT that year. It became a part of my 1996 AT experience as well.
My tenuous connection to Julie and Lollie grew as I became more involved in the outdoor education field through my membership in the Women’s Professional Group of the Association for Experiential Education. A few of the members of this group had been friends or co-workers of Julie and Lollie and actually knew the murdered couple. (Julie and Lollie met at Woodswomen, a Minnesota based outdoor education organization, where they led wilderness-based courses for women.)
In 2003, I came out of the closet and I had a new connection to them. It was then that I realized I was like them. They were outdoorswomen, outdoor educators, wilderness trip leaders, and gay. So am I. I assume they felt similarly about the woods as I do: It is a place I call home, a place where I am confident, both as a teacher and as an outdoorswoman. It is my classroom. It is a safe place. But, it ended up not being a safe place for them because of who they were – two gay women. Hate-based violence followed them into the woods and robbed them of their lives and robbed the rest of us of the notion that the outdoors were a safe place for us to be ourselves.
It has taken me a while to tease out what this experience has meant to me and I haven’t gotten much further than this. In 1996, I was fresh on the outdoor education scene and at the beginning of my career. This tragedy has not kept me out of the woods or prevented me from leading groups of young people into the woods to discover what they can find out about themselves and why they are. Yet, when it is all said and done, when I think of lesbians and the outdoors, I think of the murders of Julie Williams and Lollie Winans on the Appalachian Trail.
I have been working in the outdoor industry for 17 years as a wilderness trip leader, challenge course facilitator, and outdoor educator. My adventures have included numerous backcountry trips from backpacking in the Beartooth Mountains of Montana to canoeing in Northern Saskatchewan, Canada. I believe in the positive effect wilderness tripping can have on an individual in regards to personal discovery and leadership development. It is this belief that has guided me in my career choices and life decisions.
I have lived in Madison, WI since 1998 and currently work for the University of Wisconsin as an advisor for the Adventure Learning Programs (ALPs). This is a unique student organization that facilitates teambuilding workshops and high ropes course experiences for students on campus. My job is to mentor and guide the students who run this organization and I feel privileged to be working with such amazing young adults.
PEMBAserves has asked me to blog about being a lesbian in the outdoor industry and I am honored to have this opportunity to share my thoughts with you.