Making Outside a Safe Space for Everyone
Imagine packing your bags for your first bikepacking trip. You’re excited to explore a new place, challenge yourself, and experience the freedom of adventure. Then a local news station picks up your story and posts it on Facebook. When you scroll through the comments, your heart sinks. The comments are derisive, aggressive, and derogatory. You know that the people who posted the comments live in the place you’re about to bike through. Your excitement about your new adventure shifts: you remember you are vulnerable.
This is exactly what happened to Mikah Meyer a few days before leaving on his first bikepacking trip across rural Oregon. “The comments were atrocious,” he said. “I was glad I was traveling with a friend. Going with a friend or a group helps. It helps to have numbers.”
Mikah and his friend Cole went on to have an amazing trip. They crossed Oregon in thirteen days, winding along the coastline from north to south. They camped in beautiful places, sampled local ice cream, and mingled with sea lions. Along the way, they handed out Outside Safe Space stickers and pins. Even though they didn’t meet any other LGBTQ cyclists, everyone they encountered was friendly and open to conversation. Other cyclists shared stories about their own LGBTQ friends and family and identified with Mikah’s goal of making the outdoors safe for everyone.
Online harassment affected Mikah’s perception and experience of cycling, but it didn’t stop him from going anyway. “I hope people who read about this will feel empowered to be out and be themselves,” he told me later in a phone interview. “Everybody can be a role model to somebody. The more we show ourselves authentically as we are, the more people can enjoy the outdoors as a safe space.”
Mikah has been on some incredible adventures. In 2019, he became the first person to visit all 419 National Park Service sites in a single journey. He’s also run across Mississippi and Minnesota. He said the homophobic Facebook comments he received before cycling across Oregon weren’t unique. It’s common for people to deride or deny the need for LGBTQ representation in the outdoors. He explained that the same thing happens to his colleagues who work for racial representation. “It’s as if anything that falls outside the dominant norm is inconceivable to those who haven’t personally experienced what it’s like to feel the pressure of conformity based on race, gender, or sexual orientation.”
His response to this problem is to create more awareness and understanding. In 2020 he began the Outside Safe Space program to promote outdoor safety for the LGBTQ community. The program distributes stickers, pins, and clothing with the rainbow tree Outdoor Safe Space symbol. When people wear this symbol in the outdoors, they indicate that they welcome LGBTQ folks in outdoor spaces.
“The reason to wear it is to show empathy,” Mikah explained. “We spend our whole lives coming out to people. When you go to a campground, you don’t know how people will react, so you have to suss out each time if you can be yourself and come out. Sometimes I ask straight people: Before you hold your loved one’s hand, do you ask yourself if you’ll be harassed for doing so? Because LGBTQ people ask ourselves that question every time. “
Harassment creates fear and is sometimes a precursor to violence. LGBTQ people are nearly four times more likely to be victims of violent crimes than heterosexual or cisgender people. The risk is especially high for trans people of color. Comments — either verbal or written — that deny or deride the need for LGBTQ representation contribute to this culture of harassment and violence. In my conversation with Mikah, he emphasized the need to listen to and believe the experiences of LGBTQ folks.
“Just because you personally haven’t experienced something doesn’t mean it’s not real. I haven’t been an NFL quarterback, but I believe Tom Brady when he says what it’s like. If a queer person tells you a space doesn’t feel safe, why not believe them?”
Mikah hopes that more straight, cisgender people will “come out” as allies in the outdoors. “Straight folks have the privilege of assuming people don’t have a problem with their sexuality. So whatever straight folks can do to show that they accept us is helpful. By wearing a pin or a sticker they can communicate that they are an ally and a safe person that queer people can be themselves around.” He hopes that over time, the need to demonstrate allyship will become irrelevant. “My dream is that Outside Safe Space becomes so ubiquitous that we don’t need it anymore. When LGBTQ people actually think of the outdoors as safe. When the safety that has traditionally been heteronormative can be just as welcoming for everyone.”