In Vermont, a Popular Program Seeks to Make Hiking as Inclusive as Possible

The success of Pride Hikes shows that LGBTQ-safe spaces outdoors continue to be needed—and cherished.

Slightly more than a year ago, almost 20 hikers trekked up Snake Mountain, a scenic peak looking out over the Champlain Valley an hour outside of Burlington, Vermont. The first of many trips, the hike was designed to specifically include members of the LGBTQ community in the outdoors. After that initial success, Pride Hikes has become an event where hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts could bond over birds, plants, soft-serve ice cream, and their shared experiences as LGBTQ individuals.

“Sometimes we’re talking about the plants,” Gwendolyn Causer, co-leader of Pride Hikes and a teacher and communications manager at Audubon Vermont, says. “Sometimes we’re talking about how it feels when someone is deadnaming you . . . or what it’s like to feel supported or to feel that you are your own true self.” (Deadnaming is when someone refuses to use a transgender person's chosen name, insisting on using the one bestowed upon the person at birth.) 

The idea for Pride Hikes began at a potluck dinner in February 2018, when Sunshine Orta, formerly the transgender program coordinator for the Pride Center of Vermont, and Becky Swem, education & outreach coordinator at the University of Vermont’s Prism Center, started discussing the need for an outdoor program specifically for the LGBTQ community that included hiking. Soon after that conversation, Orta contacted Causer to partner with Audubon Vermont to create Pride Hikes. Four months later, Pride Hikes, now a collaboration between Audubon Vermont, Outright Vermont, and the Pride Center of Vermont, began.

Instead of being a one-off event during June, officially LGBT Pride Month, Pride Hikes participants have gone out once a month through all weathers and conditions, including mud, rain, and snow—save for a canceled trip during a snowstorm this past March. Approximately 10 to 15 people show up to each hike, with new faces joining every time. Recently, Causer says that hikers began bringing their children to Pride Hikes events, giving the program an even wider and diverse reach without fear of the harassment that can occur while being outside as an LGBTQ individual 

“Pride Hikes are open to allies and people who want to come be supportive of that," Causer says. "But it’s really not enough to hold a hike and say this is for everyone." Instead, she says that one must create an intentional space for LGBTQ individuals that affirms their identity and allows them to be outside in a group where they do not have to hide parts of themselves to stay safe. To that end, Audubon Vermont staff receive training from Outright Vermont on how to best serve the LGBTQ community, such as using correct pronouns and being respectful of people’s identities, abilities, and individual challenges.

And that investment has paid off: The main reason hikers give for Pride Hikes’ success lies in its inclusivity of all abilities and identities, even the ones that aren't obvious at first blush. Causer often carpools with people who don’t have access to transportation, lends equipment such as snowshoes out to those who need them, and ensures that the hikes are not a race to the top. After suffering a spinal injury in 2012, Orta could not push as hard as he used to before the accident. Although he was only able to go on a couple hikes before moving away to attend school for physician assistant training, Orta misses the support of the Pride Hikes community and how it met his needs. 

“On both of the hikes I went on I was the last or right before the last,” Orta says. “But you know, I was never alone on the path. On the way up one time Becky stayed behind with me and Gwen stayed with me on the way down.”

This support is especially important for those who are transgender, whom Causer says faces particular challenges and safety concerns while hiking. Orta noted that one of these issues is bathroom access, saying that it “doesn’t go away just because it’s the woods.” Hiking in a group that is aware of that need helps transgender people hike without fear of violence or ridicule.

For one transgender woman and active outdoorsperson, Pride Hikes allowed her to be herself without fear. She transitioned in 2018, just a few months before the first Pride Hikes. During those days, she struggled to leave the house and “not feel out of place in the world.” Even going to the grocery store or the gas station can be “daunting,” she says. She explained that during transitioning, a transgender person may have trouble with physical activity or aquiring the appropriate clothes for winter. But at Pride Hikes, this is non-issue because of the “go-at-your-own-pace” style and support from people who can understand or empathize with the struggles that queer people face.

“No one really cares how you look or what you’re wearing, as it's more about who you are as a person,” she says. “No one messes up your pronouns. Everyone uses your preferred name.”

Besides forming a safer space outdoors for the LGBTQ community, Pride Hikes has institutional and national implications. According to Gustavo Mercado Muñiz, the transgender program coordinator for the Pride Center of Vermont, new individuals who were introduced to the center through Pride Hikes are now accessing the center’s resources. Additionally, the program’s core values of inclusivity and accessibility are a foundation to inspire other initiatives: An Audubon chapter in Ohio interested in starting its own inclusion events has already been in touch with Causer to learn from her experiences.

The next event for Pride Hikes is July 21 at Snake Mountain. This is an intentional return to the hike where it all began, a nod to the continuing success of Pride Hikes and to the people forming a strong LGBTQ community on the mountain trails of Vermont.