I'm Gay and I Love National Parks: Here's My Guide for LGBTQIA+ Visitors
Tips and tricks for venturing outdoors safely and comfortably
National parks belong to everyone. America’s National Park Service motto is “Find Your Park,” and is indicative of the fact that these hallowed spaces are equally accessible for people from all walks of life — all races, sizes, ethnicities, religions, and sexual orientations. But let’s face it, there’s a stereotype that national parks are havens for the uber-fit straight white guy. Breaking down engrained stereotypes may take time, especially in parks nestled deep in red states and rural areas, but as a married gay man, I’ve discovered how to make visiting national parks super fun and safe.
Don’t let stereotypes take over
As a gay guy who lived in a bright-blue Chicago bubble for 13 years, it was all too easy for me to slip into my own stereotypes in terms of how I view others. When my husband Brad and I moved into an RV full-time and traveled the country for two-plus years, we began visiting more and more national parks, frequently in off-the-beaten-path areas (a.k.a., rural red pockets). It was natural for me to assume everyone around me — whether hiking in a park or stopping for gas — was judging, side-eyeing, or muttering slurs under their breath. What I learned from our time on the road, which took us everywhere from Montana to Florida, was that 99% of the time, people are good, welcoming, and want to share these spaces with you. Regardless of conflicting political beliefs, most people have been nothing but gracious and kind as we’ve spent time in national parks and the small towns near them. It’s one thing to be mindful of your surroundings, but negative preconceived notions need not be the default mentality.
Consider park-appropriate PDA
Listen, it’d be great if gay couples could engage in public displays of affection anywhere and everywhere they’d like, but the world still has a long way to go. Making out in The Castro is one thing, but making out at Old Faithful just hits different. Even if everyone in any given national park was totally cool and open-minded, it’s best to err on the side of caution and not get too intimate in nature. It’s a surefire way to draw more attention to yourself, and if this is something you want to be wary of (which is smart when out of your element), you might want to save the PDA for when you’re back in your cozy hotel room or private RV park.
Avoid the crowds
As an antisocial gay man, avoiding crowds in general is my mantra, but this is especially pertinent when visiting national parks with your partner. It’s basically just math: the more people there are around you, the likelier it will be that someone might scoff at you. Even if I’m not holding hands with my husband, I’m a gay man who clearly looks — and sounds — like a gay man, no matter how muted I dress. So to mitigate the possibility of a judgmental gaze, we try to avoid the hot spots in national parks. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t hit up the popular parks (Yellowstone, Zion, and more), but rather seek out the quieter areas within them. Seriously, Old Faithful looks like a mosh pit when that thing erupts; so try the Fairy Falls Trail or the Mammoth Hot Springs area instead. No matter what park you’re in, there’s bound to be a more underrated option worth seeking out for the solitude and reassurance.
Map out your plans ahead of time
Planning can start well before you even arrive at a park: mapping your route, deciding where you’ll stay, and figuring out what you’ll do in the area. But there's more to consider: If you’re road tripping to an unfamiliar remote area, fuel up and stock up on snacks beforehand, while you’re still in more populated areas. This also applies to the trails you take and activities you plot, in order to ensure you’re not wandering into an environment that could be triggering. For instance, on a recent trip to south Florida, I put gas in my rental car (and bought croissants) while still in Miami, before venturing into the quiet farmland surrounding Biscayne National Park. I like to avoid needing to stop in a more rural area I’m unfamiliar with.
Let your rainbow flag fly
As much as I tend to minimize my obvious gayness in the parks, it’s important not to completely stifle and hide who you are, either. There’s a fine line, and if you thread that needle just right, you can even carve out a bit of gay space in nature. This might mean slapping a “Love is Love” sticker on your backpack, rocking a trans flag pin as a subtle symbol of inclusivity, or even playing a little music. True story: while hiking in Grand Teton National Park one time, a small group of travelers trekked past me playing Lady Gaga on one of their phones, presumably as a way to alert potential bears of their presence. Turns out “Born This Way” is both a queer bop and a great grizzly deterrent! Of course, a little rainbow pride can go a long way, too.
Know when to go it solo
Just because you’re in a same-sex marriage and traveling together, doesn’t mean you have to always stick together for national park exploration. For instance, I prefer to do strenuous, miles-long mountain hikes, while my husband is more of a kayaker. When we’re in national parks together, we usually trade off and meet in the middle, participating in activities together at a comfort level that works for both of us. Other times, we like to go off on our own at our own pace. As a gay man, though, this can pose its own set of discomfort — and not just from potential grizzly run-ins. As a default, when I’m hiking alone, I tend to keep my ensemble as straightforward as possible (no one needs to wear chunky rings and sparkly purple shawls on a trail, anyway); and without being outright rude, I don’t go out of my way to talk to passersby until they make the first move. As soon as someone smiles or says hello to me, I return the gesture with a huge smile on my face. It’s sensible self-defense to remain cognizant and reserved, but it goes a long way.
At the end of the day, national parks really are for everyone. They’re places of inspiration, healing, and awe-inspiring wanderlust. Nature doesn’t judge or discriminate, and so as long as you visit with a few mindful precautions, you’ll have a safe and memorable time “finding your park.”
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