I am writing this blog post for Pride month 2020 as an opener for a larger conversation about LGBTQ+ youth and adults, their access to outdoor learning, the issues that still present themselves, how belonging and a sense of community can help us all to find out who we are and then ask questions about how we can increase representation in outdoor learning leaders. This is my story and a reflection of how things have developed and changed since I was a teenager 20 years ago. I hope this will be a springboard for us all to deepen our understanding further by opening up the doors to more LGBTQ+ voices and their experiences in outdoor learning.
Living my teenage years in 90s England I grew up before the Equality act, before the age of consent was equal regardless of orientation, before trans people could change their gender, before civil partnerships, let alone same sex marriage. Equal rights, opportunities and acceptance were still distant in the future, it was hard to find places to talk and even harder to find role models. I went to an all girls school and my relationships with other girls were fraught with misunderstandings, missteps, missed opportunities. At home I was the only girl of 4 siblings, expected to fill the role of 'daughter', wear dresses, say the right things, be someone I wasn't. Being a teenager is hard and confusing for almost everyone, but when you have no role models who are like you and no place that you feel safe it can also be very dangerous time. In a previous blog post I wrote about the freedom I experienced in young childhood to play outside but, as I got older, the expectations changed from both family and society. I felt adrift and with no where to belong.
Finding safe places in outdoor groups and societies was essential for my mental health and growing sense of identity in my teenage years. My Girl Guide group was very focused on the outdoors and by meeting the same people, every week in a safe community I felt more able to be myself, to let down barriers and explore my own interests in a safe environment. Away from family expectations my sense of self grew, connections with others became important and I became more confident in myself. But did I feel able to talk about LGBTQ+ issues? No. Later came adventure groups where I excelled and in an environment that challenged gender roles, made me feel accepted as part of a group. I felt a sense of belonging. I would be lying if I said that I felt free to be open about myself and my feelings in these places, but I absolutely felt more myself and more free than I did elsewhere. Reflecting on this I see so clearly the strength of community and belonging, that is so central to outdoor groups, which supported me in a time where I felt so lost and without guidance. I can see that safe spaces away from expectations and gender roles were incredibly important for me, and a lot of this was to do with my likes and interests being in activities that are traditionally viewed as 'for boys'. This is more about gender than sexuality. It also had a lot to do with being away from places where people knew the younger me and gave me the space to develop into the young adult I was becoming. Saying all that, I am still aware this was the 90s and people didn't talk about gender and sexuality in the way that people do today. I have been trying to look back on this time and think about what I would have needed to help me open up about who i was.
There were no LGBTQ+ role models, I was not represented, but this was true of all society and not just in the outdoors. There wasn't a safe place to talk openly about these issues, there were no diversity policies. I didn't know which adults were 'safe', I didn't know whether I would still be welcome in the communities I belonged to if I spoke more about myself and my feelings.
So, why did I feel unsafe? What has changed, if anything in the last 20 years? What can we do to change things, to create visibility and representation, as well as safe spaces for LGBTQ+ people of all ages?
The outdoor sector is, arguably, a traditionally white, hetero-normative industry which is dominated by men. There has been plenty written over the years about women and feminism in outdoor learning and we have seen a huge growth in representation recently, especially in Forest School which is dominated by women leaders. Through my research I have found very little written about LGBTQ+ representation and issues in the outdoors. One particular paper, Speaking out: perspectives of gay and lesbian practitioners in outdoor education in the UK (Barnfield & Humberstone 2008) used interviews with gay and lesbian outdoor practitioners to discuss their experiences. It highlighted that in 2008 there was still continuing issues of hetero-normality in the industry and that the LGBTQ+ practitioners still did not feel freely able to speak about their sexuality. It concluded that there is still so much work to be done to increase representation and challenging of hetero-normalizing processes. It said 'For those who do try to create a safe environment through raising issues around heterosexism, there is a risk that they may be stigmatized as gay or lesbian. For organisations, failing to recognize heterosexism and heterosexist bullying/violence is not only negligent but also misses opportunities for professional development and creativity in the pedagogic process.' (Barnfield & Humberstone 2008, pg 39). Clearly we, as leaders in outdoor learning, need to challenge these issues head on, find ways to increase safe places and openness and show young people that they are represented.
The past 20 years have seen significant changes in the way we approach LGBTQ+ issues as a society. We have also seen changes in the way we address the challenges that are unique to this aspect of diversity. We are not in a position to say that we have equality or full acceptance, indeed we can see the challenges faced by the LGBTQ+ community by looking at statistics of mental health issues and experiences of bullying for those who identify as such. Stonewall publishes facts and figures on these issues (www.stonewall.org.uk/media/lgbt-facts-and-figures) and they demonstrate just how far we have to go. The website tells us that 'Only half of lesbian, gay and bi people (46 per cent) and trans people (47 per cent) feel able to be open about their sexual orientation or gender identity to everyone in their family.' We also know that 18% of LGBTQ+ people have been a target of workplace bullying or negative comments, 2 in 5 uni students have hidden their sexuality or gender identity due to fear of discrimination, 'The number of LGB people who have experienced a hate crime or incident in the last year because of their sexual orientation has risen by 78 percent since 2013.' This is very upsetting to read and it seems unbelievable that is 2020 we are still faced with statistics like these. I have been thinking until now about how we create safe places for young people and adults to feel they can express their gender and sexual identities. I have seen a way to do this by increasing representation of LGBTQ+ leaders and vocal allies, but now I see further how the knock on effect of this will be to increase the number of young people openly expressing themselves within their outdoor communities. This will then lead to further understanding and acceptance within other families and other community groups.
I have always lived by the motto 'be who you needed when you were young ' so I am asking myself what we can be doing, as an industry, but also myself personally, to promote openness and support for young people. As part of this I have been looking at what other outdoor learning programmes have been doing to support the LGBTQ+ members of their communities since to introduction of the equality act in 2010. Scouts, for example, have a support group for LGBTQ+ leaders called 'FLAGS' (www.flagscouts.org.uk/) and both Scouts and Guiding have thorough diversity policies. It is worth mentioning here that Guides also has a specific policy for Transgender members and there has been controversy over the years about trans people and their acceptance within the programme. There are a few specific LGBTQ+ organisations for both youth and adults to increase involvement with outdoor learning, Outdoor Lads, for example, provides regular outdoor experiences for gay, bisexual and trans men (rather ingeniously with the hashtag #GetOutMore). Some organisations, like Duke of Edinburgh Award, have created programmes specifically for LGBTQ+ youth. On a slightly broader subject there is a wonderful website called Pride Sports which promotes sports groups aimed specifically at LGBTQ+ people.
Looking at Outdoor Learning on a whole there is still clearly a need for breaking down some of the more traditional gender stereotypes in some adventure activities, for using outdoor learning as a place to discuss the history of LGBTQ+ people and the challenging of stereotypes. For me, Forest School in particular seems like the perfect place to be promoting diversity. We create strong communities which focus on emotional connections with nature and each other by leading long term programmes with the same people in the same place every week. We focus on the importance of meeting basic needs, which includes safety and security, so that learners are able to reach self actualisation and live their best lives. If we can find a way to amplify the voices of LGBTQ+ leaders (like my own) within our sessions and writing (like this blog!) then we can show young LGBTQ+ people a representation of themselves. The research and my own experiences show us that it is emotionally damaging to hide behind that fact that for many LGB people it is possible and sometimes feels easier to pass off as hetero-normative, but it also does a huge disservice to LGBTQ+ youth who are desperate for role models that look and feel like they do.
I am also reflecting on what more we can do as a community interest company to actively support these groups, to find ways we can share and talk about the oppression that the community has felt in the past and continues to be a victim of today. How can we create safe places for people who want and need to spend time with people who are like themselves? I am working on the idea of an LGBTQ+ support group in the woods with speakers and visitors from the community, bringing in other LGBTQ+ practitioners that we already work with to act as role models for these, often vulnerable, young people. We would love to hear thoughts from our community on how we can support these people and groups futher.
As outdoor practitioners we often talk about celebrating and understanding biodiversity in nature, it is just as important and urgent to talk about celebrating and understanding diversity within our community of learners.