“There’s nothing straight about nature” is the unofficial slogan for OUT There Adventures (OTA), Elyse Rylander jokes. She is the founder of OUT There Adventures, a non-profit organization that strives to empower queer youth by facilitating opportunities to connect with the outdoors. Nature is winding and unbounded–it doesn’t fit in any predetermined mold. This is what makes the outdoors such a generative setting for an affinity space for queer youth.
“There’s no other opportunity that queer folks have to see queerness represented in a physical way,” Rylander says. There is no expectation to fall in line, which allows a unique opportunity for self-exploration and growth in community with other queer individuals who share similar experiences. Students are free to exist without explanation or justification.
Elyse Rylander, founder of OUT There Adventures.
The main principle of an affinity space is “intentional exclusivity,” Rylander says. Like OTA, which is built by queer folks for queer folks, affinity spaces are cultivated by people of the identity they seek to uplift. This exclusivity is constructive, it demands thoughtfulness and yearning for community.
We ache to find others of our kind because once we find them, we feel we can find ourselves, too.
The foundation for many affinity spaces, it seems, is love. A fierce desire to join with others who are not merely like-minded but also akin in body & spirit. We ache to find others of our kind because once we find them, we feel we can find ourselves, too.
This is the crux of OTA’s work. The organization’s mission is to create the opportunity for queer youth to explore their own boundaries and recognize their own strength. OTA fosters an affirming space for students to witness and kindle the courage they have always had.
A photo from a 2018 OTA expedition in the San Juan Islands.
An experienced outdoor educator, Rylander always shares with OTA students at the beginning of trips that she has higher expectations for them, both on their expedition and in life, than for students in open enrollment courses. OTA students handle hardship with grace and compassion that students in open courses may not. The resilience that queer people develop out of necessity as resistance against the structures of homophobia, transphobia, and heteronormativity works as a catalyst for these youth to realize their own self-efficacy.
“These kids have had to go through a lot more shit to just be able to be themselves,” Rylander says.
At first, OTA trips were so small that they ended up resembling “family vacations,” she joked. Students looked at their trip leaders as mentors and almost parents, developing close, long-lasting bonds. But this was never the goal for OUT There Adventures. While it is important to have leaders who model healthy queer adulthood, the intent of the program is to encourage students to bond with each other. When students connect with one another, joyfully and authentically, OTA has met its goal.
Since the first OUT There Adventures trip in June 2015, the organization has brought hundreds of queer youth into the outdoors. These participants leave with amplified senses of self-efficacy, lifelong friendships, and confidence to further explore their interests. Students have gone on to embark upon careers in the outdoors and sometimes even come back to guide OTA trips.
OTA is the first program of its kind, but it builds upon a legacy of queer people in the outdoors. This Pride Month, we honor this legacy and look hopefully towards a joyful, inclusive future. Filling a void in inclusive settings for queer youth, OTA is an inspiration for everyone seeking to build affinity spaces.