What is Reciprocity? by Tam Willey of Toadstool Walks

What is Reciprocity? 

(For original article with images, click here)

If we are part of an animate earth that is constantly inflating or deflating in response to what is being taken or given, should we consider how we engage with it?  If every splash has an infinite ripple effect, then how do we want to splash?

"Attention is the doorway to gratitude, the doorway to wonder, the doorway to reciprocity.” 
-Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants


I met an Ash tree on my first day of Forest Therapy Guide Certification Training when we were invited to go off into the forest and converse with a tree. Given the limitations of the English language and the personal ways we connect with the land, trying to describe these experiences can be challenging and exposing.  At the same time, sharing our unique stories about what we notice and how we engage with the natural world can support and inspire others on the path towards deeper land connection (or reconnection).  This is a form of reciprocity.   

I’ll refer to this tree by the name 'Ash,' and I will use 'they,’ 'them,’ and 'their' pronouns for Ash since we don't have an animate word for "it" in the English language.  Using inclusive language helps me pay closer attention.  My path towards creating an ongoing practice of land reciprocity started in a human-centric world exploring race, class, gender, privilege, and the various -isms and phobias that perpetuate views of superiority and inferiority.  As I continue to unpack my Western conditioning as a white American of Eastern and Western European descent, I find myself peeling back the layers of human dominance.  By referring to Ash as ‘it,’ I fail to acknowledge that Ash is a living, breathing, animate being.

"To define another being as an inert or passive object is to deny its ability to actively engage us and to provoke our senses; we thus block our perceptual reciprocity with that being. By linguistically defining the surrounding world as a determinate set of objects, we cut our conscious, speaking selves off from the spontaneous life of our sensing bodies."
-David Abram, The Spell of The Sensuous


By acknowledging Ash as an animate being, I am more likely to form a relationship, opening the door for reciprocity and healing for not only humans but also for the trees, waters, and all the beings of the natural world – also known as the more-than-human world.  As a gender variant queer person, using 'they' as a singular pronoun has become fairly routine in my community. Adapting, modifying, discerning and reclaiming parts of the English language can be empowering and even fun.  If using inclusive language is a new concept for you, or if you don't understand what I'm talking about, then I invite you to learn more. Setting the intention for Inclusivity will make the difference between being able to form that relationship or not.  Inclusive Language In Four Easy Steps


Respectfully, I began to introduce myself to Ash in my own quiet way without spoken language. I acknowledged Ash's place in the forest and looked around, taking in the mushrooms and leaves and dry stream bed nearby. I reached my hand out and explored the woven textures of Ash's bark, following the pattern with my gaze up into the impossibly high canopy, ablaze in sunlight.  I then looked down and wondered how deep Ash's roots went below the surface. Were they as deep as Ash was tall?  Was Ash photosynthesizing right in front of my very eyes?  

My thought web led me back up into my thinking brain. As if waking up from a dream, I suddenly remembered where I was. A wave of insecurity washed over me and I found myself asking the question, "Am I doing this right?" I looked around and noticed my fellow Forest Therapy Guide Trainees all engaging with their trees in their own way.  I shook my head, laughing at myself and remembering that there is no exact science to how to converse with a tree.  However, there is a load of research about what happens to our brains and bodies when we spend time being open with trees.  From increased cerebral blood flow to stronger immune defenses, there is plenty of evidence demonstrating how relaxing in nature supports human health.   

I stopped critiquing my conversation with Ash and began asking for support in bringing my best self to this training by being an active participant and not hiding in the shadows of self-doubt.  I had been anxious about the training and meeting a group of strangers, an issue that only arises in the human world.  In the forest, no one questions my gender or identity and I am reminded that I am natural and connected to the earth. Part of what drew me to wanting to become a Forest Therapy Guide is to be able to hold space for others who have internalized feelings of being unnatural, separate from, or even wrong.

I stepped back from Ash looking up and down and around, wondering what I could possibly offer and if it would be good enough. I leaned in and exhaled purposefully into the weave of Ash's bark, offering a few dozen concentrated blasts of my carbon dioxide. I felt my heart rate slow and thanked Ash in my own way until the sound of a crow call told me it was time to say goodbye.

In an industrialized civilization where consuming is in and conserving is out, living in gratitude and holding ourselves accountable requires hyper-vigilance.  Reciprocity is a path towards healing and an effective coping mechanism in treating stress-related illnesses that result from living in a rapid, industrialized environment.  It can be as simple as picking up a piece of trash. It can be leaving some kind of offering of natural material from your own body or from the forest floor as a way to honor or acknowledge a tree or a place. It can be creating a small structure, like a fairy house or an altar. It can be a form of activism or a regular monetary donation. It can also be a random act that isn't explainable in words. When we practice reciprocity, we can face our human experience with fewer symptoms of stress, anxiety, boredom, self-hatred, rage, and crisis.  We are less likely to cause harm.  We are less likely to internalize feelings of inferiority, and less likely to act under the illusion of superiority.

Guiding a Forest Therapy Walk is a practice of reciprocity in and of itself.  From start to finish, there are many opportunities to listen, notice, acknowledge, ask, and give. I always ask the land for support before I guide a walk.  I might ask for qualities like self-assurance, clarity, openness and patience. I recently asked an elder Cedar of Lebanon evergreen for support in remembering all the informational details I intended to share with my walk participants. As I asked for this clarity of mind, a small sprig dropped down from high up in the canopy, bouncing off on my head and onto the ground. I picked them up and tucked the little one into the fold of my hat, offering back a personal gesture of gratitude in the form of a bow. During that walk, whenever I found myself nervous or lost, I touched my hat, feeling for the cedar sprig. Later that day, I had a strong urge to pass on this little cedar sprig to another human.  I listened to the message and gave the offering.

"A gift comes to you through no action of your own, free, having moved toward you without your beckoning.  It is not a reward; you cannot earn it, or call it to you, or even deserve it.  And yet it appears.  You only role is to be open-eyed and present."
-Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants

Tam is an ANFT Forest Therapy Guide in Practicum and began guiding walks in Fall 2017 at the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain, MA, where she has lived since 1998. She works locally as a self-employedHandy Person and a teacher and custodian at The Eliot School. Tam has extensive experience working with LGBTQ Youth through BAGLY and The Theater Offensive’s True Colors. She also works as the Community Liaison for The Venture Out Project with whom she has guided Forest Therapy Walks and is currently planning a Nature Connection Retreat for May 2018. Tam has firsthand experience of the healing benefits of spending time in nature and strives to make her walks inclusive and accessible.  

For more information about Tam, visit her website: ToadstoolWalks.com

Posted on January 16, 2018 .

Interview from DNK Presents

dnkpresents.com/interview-venture-project

Recently I found out about an amazing organization called The Venture Out Project. I was so inspired by what they do I asked if I could interview them to share their story with our readers here at DNK Presents and Live Adventurously. Being in the LGBTQ+ family and in the outdoor space, it has always been very important to Kate and I to provide an inclusive environment for our participants, especially when often times they are already in a vulnerable state being outdoors and trying something for the first time with people they are meeting for the first time. If you don’t feel like you can be comfortable about your sexual orientation that can make it even harder to want to try something new in the outdoors. Have you experienced this feeling in the outdoors or trying something new in another area of your life? We would love to hear YOUR story. I hope you enjoy the interview, keep on adventuring!

What is the number one way you feel The Venture Out Project (TVOP) is able to provide a safe space for the LGTBQ+ community?

Perry:  The biggest surprise to me was how many folks have come on more than one trip.  When I founded Venture Out I thought it’d be the kind of thing where people came on one trip, learned some skills and then went to backpack on their own.  But what I found was that for so many folks, Venture Out was their only trans or queer community.  In many cases our participants may have had friends online, but many had never hung out with, or even met, another trans person.  People come back for a second, third, fourth or even fifth trip because they know that’ll it’ll be an opportunity not just to be outside, but to make friends and find community.

 Travis: Safety in numbers!  Being with other queer folks not only provides the collective safety container, but also, safety in our own bodies.  I know even for me, I feel safer and seen when around other queer & trans folks. 

What has been the biggest eye opener or surprise as TVOP has grown in what it is today?

Travis: The biggest thing I’ve noticed is how many people have WANTED to learn how to backpack or break into outdoor activities, and just don’t know how to start or who to ask. And gear is often SO GENDERED.  Which is completely ridiculous.  We’ve heard so many stories at this point of our participants going to outdoor stores looking for boots or backpacks and being steered away from the “men’s section”, or the “women’s section” because of their perceived gender.  It literally makes no sense at all.

 How did you become part of the TVOP family?

Travis: I found out about TVOP in 2015 when a friend posted something about it on my Facebook wall.  Like “Hey look at what these queers in New England are doing”.  I’m originally from New England, but was/still am living in Portland, OR.  I immediately contacted Perry, the founder of TVOP, and asked I could lead a trip for him.  We agreed on a week long backpacking trip that summer on The Long Trail in Vermont.  There were three guides and two participants!  

Six months later, he hired me on as his Office Manager and now I’m the Director of Operations.  We also now fill our trips to capacity (and even have wait lists!)

What is your favorite trip to guide and why? 

Travis: After every trip I lead, I declare “that was my favorite!”.  This is such a hard question – all of them are so emotionally powerful.

But I will say…this last summer Perry and I lead an experienced backpacking trip in Oregon.  It was originally supposed to be on the Loowit Trail around Mount St. Helen’s.  Due to Oregon having such an amazing snow winter last year (yay!), it was not clear of snow in time.  Instead we spent four days backpacking in the Colombia River Gorge – which is so incredibly beautiful.  The area we were in last July, is the same area that caught fire this fall and has since burned.  I’m so grateful we got to share this special area with folks.  The gorge will regrow, probably even more beautiful, but it will be some time.   On the last day of this trip, we crossed into Washington and summited Mount St. Helen’s – which is never NOT a profound experience.  This trip was an incredible one.

This upcoming summer, Perry and I are guiding a trip for those of trans experience in Maine – my home state.  We’ll be climbing Mount Katahdin, spending a few days in Baxter State Park, and then spending a few days in a small rustic cabin on a cove on a small Maine Island.    I have a feeling this will also raise to the top of my list of “favorite trips”.

What have some of your participants gone on to do or said after a trip with TVOP?

 Travis: This is such a great question.  Several of our past participates have actually gone on to become instructors for us!  Another one of our favorite participants lives in Texas and had never played in the snow before.  His first trip with us was a week-long Queer Winter Camp in Jackson Hole, WY.  He now regularly goes on skiing trips with his brother!

Perry:  My favorite story about a what a participant did after his trip still gives me chills.  This participants came on our queer ski trip in Wyoming.  He called me up a few weeks after the trip to tell me his story.  “When I came on this trip I was only out to four people in the world as trans.  I thought it was something I needed to keep secret. I felt scared and ashamed.  But on our trip, I met so many out and happy queer and trans folks.  It was really eye opening to me.  I saw the lightness with which you all walked through the world and contrasted that to the tension I felt from carrying this secret.  So after much thought I decided I was going to have a gender reveal party for myself.  I invited a bunch of friends over for a party and about an hour into the party I told them I was trans.  They were so welcoming, supportive and happy for me.  It feels so good to be relieved of this burden.  I could not have done this without TVOP.  Thank you for showing me what could be.”

What are you most proud of as an employee?

Travis:  My proudest moments are spending time with Queer Youth.  This past summer, we put the youth fully in charge coming up with a plan to get everyone up the mountains.  Their care for each other was so pure.  To see them struggle, to see them negotiation and compromise, to encourage, and support each other.  It’s just incredible.  And then to hear them giggling at night is just the icing on the cake.  So proud to be an employee of TVOP and be able to create these experiences for queer & trans youth.

 What is next for TVOP?

Travis:  TVOP is growing!  We’re offering more trips, and as mentioned before, hiring past participants as guides.   This summer we’re offering our first “POC Centered” Classic Backpacking Trip lead with Mercy Shammah of Wild Diversity in the Pacific Northwest! We’re also expanding our ages on our Queer Youth Backpacking trips and have trips for both 12-14 and 15-19 year olds!  Another exciting new offering is a Nature Connection Retreat co-run by Tam Willey of Toadstool Walks taking place in Colombian River Gorge of Washington.

 

Posted on December 16, 2017 .

Queer Youth Backpacking Last Summer

Last summer I hopped a plane to Hartford, Connecticut from Tampa, Florida. Travis picked me up at the airport and we drove to TVOP's base, where the other teens and I piled into the queerest van on Earth.

It was beautiful with its rainbow breathing dragons, solar system, and quirky bumper stickers. It took us to some cabins where we would spend our first night filling our packs, eating s’mores, and enjoying indoor plumbing for a bit longer. The next morning we set out. Throughout the next six days, we learned why Vermont is affectionately called "Vermud" by hikers and that there are at least two different types of rain: tree piss and sky diarrhea. A few other lessons we learned were wet boots aren’t so bad compared to burnt boots, freeze dried bananas are not delicious, and hiking two miles at a steep incline is totally worth the view, and the victory candy bar.

A short summary of each day is: day 1, I tried a tofu hot dog for the first time. Day 2, I slipped on a boardwalk and landed right on my ass. We also went swimming in a foggy lake and it was awesome.  Day 3, I took a dump in the most scenic place yet and we all sat by the fire singing songs with a thru hiker. Day 4, I swam in a second beautiful lake while overhearing another backpacking group discuss hypothetical situations taking place at a Denny’s; it was one of the stranger things I’ve heard. Day 5, we were ambushed by flying squirrels (whom Perry valiantly fought off). Day 6, we set up camp beside a river and I made a giant carne. We also made pudding and I put too much peanut butter in the peanut noodles (I am so sorry). Day 7, we piled into the van and said our goodbyes back where we started, after getting some homemade donuts at a country store.

Overall, I believe we hiked about 32 miles. I will never forget last summer’s TVOP trip and I can’t wait to join them this summer. If you’ll be coming too, be ready to poop in the woods, take a dip in a lake or two, and tell stories you’ve never thought you would. See you then!

Posted on February 7, 2017 .

Surviving An Avalanche Course and Our Visit with Malcolm, the FTM Traveler

I sat on the plane, holding on the tarmac, waiting for the pilots to let us know if the weather was clear enough for us fly.  I had anxiously been awaiting my trip to Mt. Hood to take my AIARE level 1 Avalanche Certification Class.  I was eager to practice digging snow pits to understand the snowpack, using my beacon to search for skiers who'd been caught in a snow slide, and most of all, I was excited to see my co-worker and friend Travis and to ski some deep powder with him.  We don't travel in avalanche terrain on Venture Out Project trips, but still I thought this was a safety certification worth getting since backcountry skiing is one of my all time favorite activities.  I love the freedom of the mountains, the feeling of strapping climbing skins to the bottom of my skis and climbing uphill like a member of the 14th Mountain Division.  I love that in the backcountry there are no lift lines, no crowds, no groomed runs and that the only sound is the hoots of joy that come from skiers and riders who've climbed their way up, just to ride their way down.  The pilots announced that we were clear to fly and I fell asleep dreaming of the freeskiing that lay ahead.  

Travis picked me up at the airport and we made the harrowing drive over snow covered roads up to Mt. Hood.  The snow was falling at rates of at least an inch an hour and I was twitching with excitement over the prospect of skiing the next day.  

The next morning we walked into our Avvy 1 classroom and oh so quickly our dreams of feeling free and happy to play in the snow were crushed.  Immediately we were consumed by dude bro ski culture.  Our instructors unironically asked us, "What do you rip on?"  "Excuse me, what?" I asked.  He responded, "You know man, what do you rip on to get down the mountain?"  

We sat in a freezing cold classroom listening to lectures on snow rounding and faceting while watching glorious snow blanket the slopes just outside our building.  All the while we felt smaller and smaller as the bros in the room took up so much space, literally and figuratively.  They asked questions with a 2 minute preamble just so the rest of class could hear how much they already knew about avalanches.  They told tales of "epic pow days on gnarly peaks" with their bros.  It was like I was at Ridgemont High.  And to top it all off, our instructor just couldn't get Travis' pronouns right.  

We never actually got to ski during the class.  Turns out there was too much snow!  Avalanche danger went from Considerable to High which meant it was just too unsafe to travel in the backcountry.   

But wait!  it does get better!  In the midst of feeling like such outsiders in a place that both Travis and I feel so at home in (the wilderness), we had the immense pleasure of spending the weekend with our friend Malcolm, the FTM Traveler.  It was such a breath of fresh air to come home to our condo and meet up with Malcolm at the end of our long class days.  Being a group of 3 trans folks made us feel strong and good and supported.  We shared stories of outdoor adventure, of family, of love, of friendship, of leadership and of being trans.  We made each other feel safe and strong and supported.  Hanging out together fueled us and showed us first hand the power of our queer and trans community.  Being in the company of Malcolm and Travis each night helped me remember why I put up with the dudes at the Avvy class.  I do that so I can be trained and safe and take queer folks out into the woods to feel the freedom of the backcountry unencumbered by dude bros.  I do this because we deserve the woods and nature just as much as anyone.  I do this in the hopes that I can bring other trans folks out on an adventure and they can hoot with joy at the thrill of riding down a mountain; so that they can feel proud of summiting a peak.  I do this so folks can feel like their body, even just for a moment, is something to feel good about.  

 

Posted on December 22, 2016 .

Cariboose Raises $1791 for Queer Youth Backpacking

It has been one month since Cariboose (Tam) and I (Travis aka Bear Bait) finished our 272 mile trek on the Long Trail in Vermont, starting at the Canadian border and walking south to the Massachusetts State line, and into North Adams, Mass. where we celebrated our journeys end. My feet still ache every morning, but not to the degree they did while hiking 8-9 hours, days on end, over roots, and rocks, always wondering where the "footpath" was that we were promised from the map describing the The Long Trail "A Footpath in the Wilderness".  This mostly served as a funny joke that we laughed over several times.  

This trip was journey of friendship, pain, love, challenge, tears, laughter and an opportunity to not take our everyday comforts for granted.  I also had the opportunity to have Cariboose describe for me, scene by scene, script included, Rocky I-V for I've never seen any of them, and she is a devote fan. This ate up an entire day, and few weeks later, I secretly wanted her to tell it to me again. 

Tam has always loved an underdog story.  Doesn't matter what the sport is, if there is a marginalized, oppressed, or evidently weaker character that beats all odds, Tam is there in the front row.  And one could say our journey on the Long Trail was an underdog story too. 

Being in the woods we were finally both free from navigating restrooms, stares, peoples ignorance and fear.  At least for the most part.   We had a few encounters that left us reeling and saying "did that really just happen?".  While I generally don't feel safe in a public restrooms anywhere, I always feel safe with Tam.  I would not have been able to finish (or start) this trail without her.   And she was the courage behind this journey.  

While keeping a blog of her thru-hike on the Long Trail, she ran a fundraiser effort which benefited The Venture Out Project.  Tam raised a whopping $1791!  This money will go towards scholarships for our Queer Youth Backpacking trip next summer.  

Tam has been dedicated to queer youth for several years, through being an Adult Adviser for BAGLY (Boston Alliance Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Youth) and working with The Theaters Offensives' queer youth group True Colors. Because of Tam, queer youth who might not otherwise be able to attend a backpacking trip, will be able to.  Last summer, we had several queer youth utilize our scholarships to join us on our backpacking trip. Witnessing the transformation of what these youth think they can do is truly inspiring.

We want to thank Tam with our deepest gratitude for her dedication to queer youth  & backpacking and for sharing her fundraising efforts with us. Tam's fundraising page is still open if you'd like to contribute to the Queer Youth Backpacking trip: August 6-11. 2017.   And be sure to read the blog!  It was an amazing adventure, and Tam captured it so eloquently. 

THANK YOU CARIBOOSE!

 

On the summit of Camel's Hump (and the top of Vermont)  

On the summit of Camel's Hump (and the top of Vermont)  

Hitching into town became a normal thing every 4 or 5 day activity. Thankfully, Vermonters are very friendly to hikers! 

Hitching into town became a normal thing every 4 or 5 day activity. Thankfully, Vermonters are very friendly to hikers! 

And we made it to the end/beginning of the Long Trail.  (Most hikers head north, but you know, we wanted to be different) 

And we made it to the end/beginning of the Long Trail.  (Most hikers head north, but you know, we wanted to be different) 

Posted on October 7, 2016 .

We Stand with Orlando #Pulse

When I started writing this blog post the horrific shooting at Orlando Pulse hadn't yet happened.  I was writing about the amazing time we had at the 15th Philadelphia Trans Health Conference.  I talked about the people we met and the community we were a part of for three wonderful days.  I talked about the celebratory nature of the conference and how inspiring it was to see trans people from all walks of life being out and proud and happy.

Then I woke up to read the news that 50 of members of our LGBTQ+ community had been brutally murdered while celebrating their Pride. They were dancing and creating community in a space that was supposed to be safe.  A space that generations of queer people had fought to achieve.  A Pride that had started in 1969 at the Stonewall Inn as a protest and as riots against police brutality.  And a Pride that had evolved into celebration.  A Pride that I admit, I had come to take for granted. Reading this news, thinking about the predominantly Latinx queer community that was a target of this violence, I found myself unable to write about the good time I had, about the pride I felt and about the inspiration I get from seeing a whole generation of young queers who are so unabashedly out.  

I just started writing to help me process what had happened and what I was feeling.  In writing, I realized that I needed to write to remind myself, and as an explanation to others, why The Venture Out Project and other queer spaces and groups exist.  People sometimes ask why we need trans and queer spaces.  This is why.  We need them because despite the progress that has been made, despite the fact that even trans and queer folks sometimes take Pride celebrations for granted, we cannot assume our safety.  We need our community.  We need to support and love one another and we need a community to hold us up when times are hard.  As a former soccer player of mine wrote so eloquently, "Unlike the aftermath of hate directed at people because of their skin color or religion, I do not share this previously unfamiliar feeling with my cis-gender, straight family. That fact – that for most LGBTQ people, we do not share something so core to who we are with our families – makes the safety and solidarity of the LGBTQ community so profoundly important. " (Katie Kraschel)

And so I look to my queer and trans community.  I look to the Venture Out Project to help me through this.  To provide me a space to be with my community.  I hope you have a community and a place where you can feel safe and be vulnerable and share your true self.  I thank the people in my life, in my family, at The Venture Out Project, at Camp Aranu'tiq, at Philly Trans Health, and those who stood and stand at the vigils this week.  Thank you for being visible and helping me be visible.  

 

Posted on June 13, 2016 .

I was nervous but I kept coming back to TVOP!

Hi, my name is Gabe.  I have been a regular participant of The Venture Out Project for over a year.  I had discovered TVOP by stopping by their booth at the 2015 Northampton Pride.  I had never heard of them before and I shyly and quickly grabbed a brochure, and then made a mad dash away from the table.  That evening, I read the brochure I had ran away with and realized I was interested in the hikes, but I felt really timid!

After a few weeks, I decided to join a hike. As I pulled into the parking lot of the Notch for my first Thursday Night Hike I was so nervous.  I was certain that everyone had known each other for years and were much better hikers than I was.  After some introductions we were started to hike!  I noticed I hung to the back of the group, didn’t talk much, and just listened. I really enjoyed the hike, and the people were so nice!

I kept coming to the weekly Thursday Night hikes but I didn’t know how everyone identified.  I thought they were surely different than I was.  After a month of regular hikes with TVOP, I finally started to realize that a lot of the folks in the group were trans just like me.  As I became more familiar with the weekly hikers, I started to open and up and felt I was fitting in. 

In hindsight, I’m so grateful I stuck around during those first few weeks of awkwardness!  I’m still a regular on Thursday Night Hikes, along with attending other trips as well including backpacking & skiing.  

Posted on May 20, 2016 .

Pride, Mother's Day and my Manniversary

Noho Pride Parade with my family and The Greenfield Center School

Noho Pride Parade with my family and The Greenfield Center School

Today is Mother’s Day.  It is the day after Pride.  And tomorrow will be my two-year anniversary of being on T.  It’s kind of a wild confluence of events for me.  I’m celebrating being my true self, having a mother, having been a mother, being partnered with a mother, and being lucky enough to lead an organization dedicated to creating a safe and fun outdoor community for our LGBTQ+ community.  And at the same time, all of these events give me pause. 

In some ways being on T for two years is a fairly short amount of time, and yet in so many ways it puts me so very far away from being a mom, being a lesbian and being part of a community of women that for so many years felt like home to me.  I felt this acutely yesterday at Pride when two women came over to The Venture Out Project table.  They were excited about what we do but looked concerned.  I asked them if they were interested in joining us for a hike.  They looked up and asked, “Are women allowed on your trips?”  In that moment I realized that these two lesbians, who only two years ago would have passed me on the street and given me that knowing look, had no idea that for 38 years I had outwardly represented myself as a woman, that I carried and gave birth to my now nearly six-year old twins, and for three years was called Mommy.  They had no idea of our shared connection, of my intimate lived experience of what it means to be a woman, a lesbian, and a mom.  And yet I realized that my telling them I’m trans, that of course women are welcome because many of us have lived as women, would do little good because no matter what I told them, they saw a man standing in front of them. 

Some tell me I should feel good about the fact that my physical appearance represents my gender identity.  And to be sure, in many ways and in many contexts I do.  But yesterday at Pride in Northampton, the self-proclaimed lesbian capital of the world, I felt sad that folks I was meeting for the first time had no idea the complexity of my gender identity, my past and my connection to the lesbian community.  Which is of course to say, none of us can see the complexity of someone’s identity just by looking at them.  We can read some things on people’s bodies, but they’re not always accurate and they’re certainly incomplete.  What I like about The Venture Out Project and the community we are creating is that it is a place where we can all share the complexity and nuance of who we are and that we welcome and affirm each other for that very reason. 

So on this Mother’s Day, day after Pride, and Manniversary Eve, I want to shout to the world that everyone is welcome at Venture Out – that we seek to be a space that attracts a diversity of people, a space where we recognize each other for who we are and where we seek community in our shared and unique experiences.  In fact, my favorite trips have been those where we have people from age 20 to 60 sharing a tent, a genderqueer college student teaching a 50 year old lesbian how they use the word queer, and a 55 year old gay men telling a group of young queers about what it was like to live through the AIDS crisis of the 80s and 90s.   That to me is really what all three of these holidays are all about.  They are about recognizing that there is a Mother in many of us who takes care of our chosen family, that the anniversary of starting T is for me more an anniversary of becoming my true self, and that Pride is about celebrating all of the past, present and future in our community.  Thank you all for being part of my community. 

Posted on May 8, 2016 .

I found Venture Out Project through a friend.

I found Venture Out Project through a friend. The moment I realized such an amazing organization existed, I was immediately hooked and wanted to book a trip. Being an outdoor person living in Colorado is a pretty common thing. But doing those activities with other trans and queer people is not as common. The idea I can be with like minded people who understand the journey I have been on, and able to share their journey felt like a tall glass of water on a hot day. 

I have always been into nature and outdoors. As a kid my parents taught me young how testing yourself on a trail, or camping in the rain can teach you so much about yourself, and how to be self reliant. It taught me what l it feels like to be uncomfortable but to keep going because around the next corner could have the view of a life time.  All that I learned in the outdoors prepared me for my transition and  molded me into the trans man I am today. 

During transition the outdoors was my safe space. I knew I could go hit up a trail and work all my frustrations and fears out in a healthy way. It was my own personal therapy and kept me from drugs and alcohol. Through my love of the outdoors I have been able to challenge myself. This summer I will be competing as male in a 100 mile mountain bike race in the Colorado Rockies. The race has a 12 hour cut off time which will push me to the limit. I know no matter what happens I will be pushing myself to see what I really can do. My reward after will be flying to Vermont and backpacking with the Venture Out Project. 

As a transgender person we spend so much time on self reflecting. Wondering who we are and how to get there. Sometimes it feels overwhelming, and that we as trans people don't have outlets to express ourselves other then to talk about being trans. It becomes consuming and exhausting. We need positive outlets to express ourself. The Venture Out Project allows our community to express ourself in a healthy and positive way. To become an outdoor person, to find peace in a sometimes confusing world.  Remember you are better then you think you are, and you can do more then you think you can. Get outside!

Posted on April 25, 2016 .

My name is Eli Garza. I am a transgender man from San Antonio, TX.

Eli.JPG

Hello, my name is Eli Garza. I am a transgender man from San Antonio, TX. I discovered The Venture Out Project through a post on Facebook. When I read the information on their website, I instantly felt like I found what I had always been looking for. Without hesitation I signed up for a week long ski trip to Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

I have lived my whole life in Texas where our winter’s average to 60 degrees and snow is that very rare occasion where we shut down the whole city. In San Antonio I am very involved in our LGBT community. I serve as a board member for our San Antonio LGBT Center and I am the chair of the LGBT employee resource group at my job. I love the outdoors. As a child, my family took camping trips every Easter weekend. This past summer my brother and I hiked Big Sur in California, and in December I gathered a few friends for a “Texas” winter camping trip. It wasn’t until I discovered The Venture Out Project that I found the two things I am most passionate about (the LGBT community and the outdoors) together in one.

Going to Jackson Hole, Wyoming for a week long ski trip was not something that was in my comfort zone. I had only seen snow twice, I had never skied before, and I had never taken a trip with strangers. My friends and family worried about my well-being in 30 degree temperatures. I was anxious about what this experience would be like, but Perry and the whole crew from The Venture Out Project were very helpful and comforting. Before the trip they kept constant contact with me letting me know what kind of clothes I should take, where to find discounted ski tickets, and workout tips to prepare for the skiing.

During the trip, the people that were once strangers soon became friends and mentors. They all helped me with dressing appropriately for the day, they would lend me gear, and they helped me learn to ski. I had an absolute blast. From crashing into trees to pizza wedging down a steep hill, it was all amazing. I learned that hot tubbing is crucial after a day of skiing, that Travis and Luke need to become my personal chefs, and a puzzle of Jackson Hole Resort is impossible to complete.

The snow and the skiing were a great part of the trip, but that is only a small portion of what I took away. Since my transition, I had never been around other transgender men I could relate to. I know trans guys in my area but none that I am close to. I was so inspired by the other trans men in the group and how comfortable they were in their skin. One night, we were having a conversation about tattoos and one of the guys said, “I have a tattoo of a transgender symbol so I never forget I am trans.” He doesn’t know this, but that comment stuck in my head. Since my transition, I have been trying to forget that I am transgender. I had never seen how comforting and easy it was to love yourself for everything you are. I took off my shirt for the first time during this trip and it was as if I took of a mask I was so desperately trying to keep on. Through these seven days, I began to love myself more and more for who I am.

I’d like to thank The Venture Out Project for all the work they put in to making these trips happen. To everyone who I met at the trip, thank you for helping me discover the love for skiing, Jimmy Chin, and myself. I left San Antonio as a self-conscious (transgender) man to spend time in the snow with some queer people and I returned as a very proud TRANSGENDER MAN who is okay at skiing.

Posted on March 31, 2016 .