Several years ago, I spent a dream of a summer drifting around Montana with two friends. We’d been working Yellowstone hospitality jobs, taking calls amidst the rotten-egg winds of sulfur springs for a hot $7.25 an hour. There was exploitation, harassment, and too many damn elk, and we fumed constantly that we should quit. One day, we did. Our plan from there on out was simple: explore the state, and not spend well, really, any money. We figured we would live out of a rusty old car for two months, camp for free on forest land, and spend our days laughing, hiking, and generally wandering around. Somehow, amazingly, it worked. We put in our two weeks, then said screw it and busted out of there the next day. Each morning the three of us would wake up in our too-small tent, discuss our dreams, and then roll outside into mountain dreamscapes. We hiked, floated in rivers, yelled at the top of our lungs from the highest mountaintops we could find. We rarely showered and routinely ate tortillas and peanut butter for dinner. I’d never been happier in my entire life.
After the fact, I realized that those months were glorious, free, and so very, very gay. In each town we found ourselves in, we went to the local second-hand store and bought the goofiest button-up shirts we could find. In an old bunker-turned-thrift-shop with the 10 Commandments painted on the walls, I bought my first pair of denim overalls. Fittingly, I wore them with religious, daily zeal. We threw out our razors, discussed the length of our armpit hair, and were given a hatchet by an old man with genuine worry in his eyes after watching us attempt to start a fire. Hairy, denim-clad, hatchet-wielding, we roamed the Montana landscape discussing feminism and our shared dream of living on a farm together growing vegetables and raising chickens. I had barely come out to myself as bisexual at that point, and figured we were just being free-spirits. Later, Ashley and I looked back on photos from the time. So gay!!, I messaged her. ABSOLUTELY FLAMING, she confirmed.
I’d ended up in Yellowstone that summer in a very well-executed attempt at running away. The year prior, a twisted-up black-hole of a relationship had left us both in states of chaos, and in social situations I somehow had lost my ability to speak without turning red and jittery. I wasn’t sure what was happening, but I knew I needed out. In the bone-deep gloom of an Oregon January, Montana beckoned, sparkling from a convenient 900 miles away. See, I’d just come out to myself as someone with anxiety, too. I felt I needed an escape from everything. Why not this?
Kindly, my therapist told me recently that “it’s not running away if you’re running towards something.” That summer, I was running towards things I didn’t even have the language for yet: space to be my anxious, bisexual self away from all of society’s judgements, and connection with others on similar journeys. As I soaked up Montana’s bright sunshine, mountain air, and the never-ending laughter and love of my friends, I felt my mental health and self-worth soar.
Talking with other bi folks, I’ve found that we often go seeking an escape from society in the natural world. We particularly need this because as bisexual people, we exist in a society that places us in boxes that never quite fit. Personally, I’ve been assumed straight my whole life since only my relationships with men have been visible to others. “Isn’t it frustrating,” one bi woman told me, “that they always think you’re straight when you’re with a man, and gay when you’re with anyone else?” This constant pressure to exist within identities that do not fit takes its toll, contributing to the alarmingly high rates of mental health among bi+ identifying folks. We report higher levels of mental illness than both heterosexuals and gay/lesbian individuals, with 58.7% of bisexual woman being diagnosed with a lifetime mood disorder, 63% of bisexual non-binary folks being diagnosed with a lifetime mental health disorder, and 27% of our young people having attempted suicide. Part of these numbers stems from the constant tension that exists between our identities and society’s expectations. “People aren’t comfortable with either way,” one bi woman shared with me, “because they can’t understand it.” Even simply attempting to successfully communicate who we are becomes agonizingly difficult, when language surrounding bisexuality fails to account for the diversity within our attractions and desires. So for many bi people, the outdoors can be a much-needed physical space we can occupy where just for once, we don’t have to try so hard to explain ourselves to others.
“You get high enough on the mountain or you get deep enough in the woods and you’re away from people,” a bi woman outlined for me, “and there’s this sense of calm being away from these structures that we are constantly living in. There are no cut and dry boxes, there are no definitions, there’s nothing like the sort of structure that we live in our lives.” That is to say, natural spaces can be a much needed respite from the otherwise constant demands put on us by our monosexual culture. As another person explained to me, “to summarize it all: in nature i can…be myself best.” For bi folks who face constant pressure to not be ourselves, this can be a radical and healing possibility.
Being in nature fills a particularly bi need for connection, too. “When you’re outside, you just feel like part of something that’s bigger,” one woman explained. When I asked various bi people how they feel outside, again and again they used words like accepted, safe, hugged, at home. Others described feeling like they are a part of “momma nature”, or one small, vital part of a big world.
“One thing that I love,” someone else shared, “is that when you’re in a forest, the ground is only 30% dirt. Everything else is roots. They’re connected, and it builds this network… You don’t think about that when you’re walking on these roots that connect all these trees, where you can’t tell where one tree starts and one tree ends. You are literally in the middle of this system of connection.” When we venture outdoors, we are a part of this, too. Every bi person I spoke with recognized this feeling of connection as one of the main reasons they go outside.
Our community needs this sense of interconnectedness urgently as we continue to be uniquely socially isolated. In straight spaces, at best we do not fit quite right, and at worst we face rejection, microaggressions, and outright violence. Yet in LGBTQ spaces we often do not find acceptance, either. Attending an LGBTQ Outdoor Conference, I was overjoyed to be surrounded by nature-loving queers, yet simultaneously felt a deep shame and anxiety knowing I was dating a man. I kept to the edges, knowing those around me might judge me or assume I was an overeager ally. As one individual explained to me, “I would love to get to a point where I feel comfortable being involved in LGBTQ+ groups, but I’ve always felt excluded and not queer enough.” Ongoing feelings of isolation and non-belonging contribute greatly to our mental health rates. “A lot of mental illnesses can stem from feeling like you’re outside in some way and isolated,” one individual explained to me. Feeling alone and bottling up yourself in those ways, “that’s like, 5 simple steps to get mentally ill,” another recognized. Research has confirmed that what these folks explained to me is true: a study from American University found that bi folks report high levels of loneliness and ‘double’ exclusion from both straight and queer communities, and this is strongly linked to poor mental health outcomes. So when nowhere we turn within society seems to see us and accept us fully, the outdoors can be a container where we can finally stop having to explain ourselves, and just belong.
There’s great relief, then, when we as bisexual folks can go outdoors and be away from society for a minute. We can feel connected and like we are a part of the space around us, and don’t have to do the exhausting work of making those around us comfortable with our identities. When all I’m surrounded by is trees and dirt, nobody asks me how many women I’ve dated or whether I’ll have a threesome with them. If we literally see no other people, I don’t have to worry that someone will see me holding my boyfriends hand and assume I’m straight. I can breathe a deep, self-accepting sigh of relief in natural spaces, and feel that I actually have a place to belong on this strange, spinning planet.
Unfortunately other people go outside, too, and bring society with them. Having to engage with outdoor recreation culture can make me feel more isolated, anxious, and depressed than ever. I found this out the hard way this past summer, when I ventured out on a new adventure: hiking 1000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. I’d read Vanessa’s warning about toxic masculinity on the trail, and Carrot Quinn’s eloquent denunciations of long-distance hiking culture; I felt I knew what I was getting into. Still, on my blog posts before heading out I wrote, “I hike for healing, mentally, emotionally… because society asks a lot [from] us, and sometimes (recognizing this as a privilege) we get to say, no, not today. Today, I’m going hiking.” I was reseeking my safe outdoors space where society couldn’t ask me to be things I simply wasn’t. I sought the kind of freeing, magic experience I’d found in Montana.
The problem was, I couldn’t find it. No, from my first day on trail, I realized that being a respected thru-hiker meant not being my whole self. Each day I had to prove my right to be there to men with light packs and deep desert tans, as my ‘mere’ 1000 mile section hike shadowed compared to their whole Mexico-to-Canada treks. A competitive energy buzzed constantly, and my confidence started shaking again, too. Welcome back, imposter syndrome. I did not feel seen, valued, or empowered by other hikers who seemed to share few of my feminist values and instead lived by a competitive, masculine, dominate-the-wilderness mentality.
One day, I realized just how much this was hurting me. I was hiking with a man I felt safe with; we lay by a lake eating cookies and watching a mountain goat disappear in and out from behind grey granite rocks. We swapped life stories; he listened when I spoke and offered no unsolicited advice, a welcome relief. When telling me about his girlfriend back home, he casually called her his ‘partner.’ The word startled me, a quick gut punch. It had been weeks since I’d heard that word. It shook me how deeply I’d missed talking to someone with the same vocabulary as me, who spoke this same language. I realized just how isolated I felt being miles away from anyone who saw and valued the whole me. This isolation played a large part in the increase in my anxiety that I experienced on trail. I had difficulty sleeping most nights, and intrusive thoughts increased worryingly. Camping solo, I came closer to panic attacks then I’ve ever been. Add into this the lack of access to healthy food, enough water, sleep, or any for-sure privacy, and so when I crossed the border into Canada, I didn’t feel like I’d gone from “lost to found” like Cheryl Strayed. Don’t get me wrong, the beauty, movement, and physicality of the trek remained almost spiritually transcendent. But I felt I’d gone from lost to still lost, maybe, and a little lonely, too.
For people like me with mental health barriers, the outdoors itself and the white, patriarchal, colonial culture of outdoor recreation can be alienating and dangerous. Personally, my mental illness presented heightened symptoms on trail that made my journey harder and less empowering; I know for many others their symptoms prevent them from every stepping foot there in the first place. “It’s a horrible cycle,” one woman noted, “because you don’t want to go outside because you’re anxious, then that makes you more depressed and that makes you even less likely to go outside.” This is particularly apt for bisexual people, as we face higher rates of mental illness than those of any other sexuality.
Moreover, we have to recognize that bisexual folks face various other barriers to having positive outdoor experiences. To start, our community faces incredibly high levels of abuse; one report finds that upwards of 46% of bi women have been sexually assaulted. When talking about the outdoors, it’s necessary to understand that further isolating bi folks with abuse histories in natural settings may not always be rewarding. Outdoor spaces continue to be heavily male-dominated, and creepy, misogynistic comments and actions are not that rare, either; in fact, Outside Online found that 53% of respondents to a large-scale female recreator survey had been sexually harassed while outside. Facing this type of harassment in a space where you are alone and far from cell reception is challenging for anyone; to someone with a history of trauma, it likely would be the very opposite of healing.
Additionally, our community faces statistically high rates of poverty. A report from the Center for American Progress found that the poverty rate for bi people is at least 2 times higher than that of straight, gay, and lesbian counterparts. This affects our outdoor experiences. Getting time off, using money for gas and equipment, and living in areas with outdoor access are privileges only available for people with relative levels of wealth. Once outside, those with fewer economic resources often feel further ostracized as their gear, stories, and knowledge are not valued in outdoor circles. For bi folks seeking mental wellness outdoors, lessened access and inclusion due to money is a huge barrier.
On top of this, our outdoor experiences are influenced by our higher likelihood of disability. According to the Movement Advancement Project, 40% of bi men are disabled, compared to 26% of gay men and 22% of heterosexual men. One report published in the American Journal for Public Health concludes that “disparities in chronic health conditions, high risk behaviors, and poor physical and mental health… contribute to the heightened prevalence of disability” in LGB communities. This affects our ability participate in outdoor activities, too. One individual I spoke with experiences physical symptoms and chronic pain that can impede her mobility. She finds that getting outdoors is often the very thing that has “kept [her] fighting,” but also is simply not an option on some days. Recognizing that ableism runs rampant in outdoor circles, and most outdoor spaces are not maintained with disabled people in mind at all, this further inhibits our ability to get out there.
Bi folks also often have lower levels of social support that make it harder to set off on large adventures that require a strong safety net: who will mail our food boxes on thru-hikes, drop us off at the trailhead, or watch our dogs while we’re gone? Additionally, racism, sexism, and transphobia create very real risks for members of our community with those intersecting identities. With all of this in mind, it becomes clear that for many reasons, bi individuals are not getting out there as much as others, and may be having bad experiences when we do.
Thus, it feels greatly naïve to reiterate the tired idea that mentally ill people just need to get into nature to heal, especially when talking specifically about bi+ communities. If I’ve learned anything from being bi, it’s that answers are usually both/all, yes/and; we hate being asked to choose just one, to deny that multiple seemingly contradictory options can exist at the same time. So, yes, the outdoors is a risky place for bisexual people due to the specific disparities we face; often we never get there in the first place because of this. And, when we do find our safe natural places, we experience a uniquely soul-filling, mind-settling feeling of belonging, connection, and freedom from society’s parameters.
Maybe we make it to the greenspace down the block, or the county park, or a ragged, windblown mountaintop; with the barriers we face, we seem to value local, small pockets of nature more than most. We find these spaces, and allow the shame and isolation we’ve been given to drift down the river, float away in the wind, sink to the ocean floor. That one summer in Montana, I felt the radical possibilities of being bi and mentally ill and self-loving, all at once, in communion with the natural world. It wasn’t about conquering mountains, no, it wasn’t about dominating at all. It was that I could be there, unapologetically, fully seen, and fully me.🌲
edited by rachel.