By Rachel Goldstein
Rachel Goldstein is part of a team of CPCIL Research and Knowledge Gatherers producing content and compiling resources on themes such as inclusion, ecosocial justice, partnerships, conservation, organizational sustainability, climate change and biodiversity, connection to nature, conservation financing, and ecotourism, to support effective and equitable leadership and inclusion in parks and protected areas across Canada. These positions are funded by Canada’s Green Jobs Program and supported by Project Learning Tree
Deep in the heart of Oregon, USA, lives a 6’3” drag queen by the name of Pattie Gonia. Pattie can often be seen in her trademark leather platform boots climbing mountains, ascending peaks, or catching a wave. Recognizable by her signature flaming locks and the fact that she’s, well, a drag queen, Pattie crosses boundaries and sets new standards in the world of the outdoors, not unlike her namesake.
Popularized in the late 1800s by the Black Queer community, drag has developed from a fringe movement to a mainstream phenomenon. In essence, it is a way for members of the queer community to embrace and express an artform. Drag is a performance of gender that comments on the performativity of gender itself. In mainstream media, it is typically a queer man performing as a woman, though drag can encompass all gender identities and sexual orientations. If you are struggling to find the connection between drag and the Canadian Parks Collective for Innovation and Leadership, consider the queen who is branching out of the typical femme architecture of drag to embrace the outdoors in her art. Ms. Pattie Gonia is a self-described “lady in the streets but a freak on the peaks”. She is the intersectional, environmentalist drag queen that we all need. Pattie describes drag as “an artform that is most oftentimes performed by queer people that bends gender as a means of self-discovery and performance”. For Pattie, it is also a means of taking political action and drawing attention to the climate crisis and the need for environmental sustainability.
Category is: Environmental Sustainability
I recently spoke with Wyn Wiley (he/him/they), the man behind the queen, Pattie Gonia (she/her/they) about his experience bringing drag to the outdoors.* Wyn is relatively new to the drag scene, having started performing as Pattie just over two years ago. His unique take on drag, however, has amassed Pattie over 300,000 followers on Instagram and international attention in that short period of time. Wyn’s drag is unique for many reasons. For anyone familiar with mainstream drag, Wyn’s approach is a polar opposite. Drag in the media is presented as femme-passing, high-fashion, and runway ready.
While Pattie Gonia can certainly encompass these traits, she often chooses to simply adorn herself in hiking gear and a pair of thigh-high platform boots, sometimes accompanied by a wig, makeup, or a gown, but never without the boots. When I asked her about the importance of her boots, she reminded me that drag is simply another artform. Painters will bring their easels and canvases into the outdoors to capture a scene, photographers will bring their cameras, and Pattie will bring her boots.
Pattie also brings her unique take to her performances. A typical drag performance is often in a bar or club setting. Pattie prefers to perform in the outdoors. She starts off by speaking to her audience about environmental concepts or diversity in the outdoors and ends on a performance. Any questions I had for her about feeling duty-bound to incorporate environmentalism into her drag were rendered irrelevant when she informed me that “there are many days I’ll just get in drag, or just get in heels and just perform outdoors and it’s not for anyone but Mother Nature herself.
“Every time I’m out there in heels is like a performance, no matter if even just a little squirrel on a tree sees it, or if it’s just for myself.”
When I first encountered Pattie’s drag, my first thought was simply, how? How does someone unite the artform of drag with the inherent ruggedness of the outdoors? This is what Wyn had to say: “I think for the longest time I loved the outdoors and for the longest time I really cherished my queer identity. And I felt like the two had to be so separate because I thought that the outdoors was this masculine story. I didn’t think that the outdoors would ever be a place for me as a queer person. But it turns out that queer people have kind of always been in the outdoors and nature is just incredibly queer. I think it very much happened by accident, but ever since, I’ve been intersecting two worlds that I never thought could be together.”
Nature As An Equalizer
The perceived masculinity of the outdoor world is a daunting obstacle many people are faced with. Working out our place in what should be a neutral ground is a challenging feat. Pattie has managed to carve out a space for herself on the trails despite these challenges. She described her reception in the outdoor world as polarizing; people either love Pattie or hate her. A point Wyn was intent on emphasizing, however, was his role as a straight-passing, white man. Though hiking in leather boots and a bold lip is certainly not the easiest way to blend in, he explained that “a lot of my life isn’t easy, but it’s easier than most”, referring to the unique experiences of visible minorities in the outdoor industry.
The ability to present as straight in his daily life has also contributed to Wyn’s love of drag. Starting out in the drag world, he said, “I think there was a lot of femininity that needed to release inside of me, and I think that there was a lot of life, coming from Nebraska, that kept me really closeted even though I was out as a gay man, and drag was that freedom to me.
“Drag is just a beautiful freedom that lets me keep on pursuing what it’s like to explore femininity and the outdoors and to do drag in a space that I love so much.”
The outdoors do not take notice of gender identity or sexual orientation and so nature, in an ideal world, should be an equalizer. The outdoor adventure industry need not be gendered, and yet it is. This is something I have been pondering in my role at CPCIL and was something I was eager to discuss with Wyn.
“I think it’s important to have drag and LGBTQ representation in the outdoor community because queer people have always been in the outdoors,” Wyn said.
“People just haven’t been turning their eyes on them. I think we’ve spent so long in an outdoor industry, an outdoor community looking for really traditional hero stories, often in tune with masculinity and the hero’s quest, and a lot of this conquering mindset. I’m here and I think a lot of queer people are here to find the outdoors as a place for healing and for community and for joy. I think also there’s this narrative in queer culture to run to metropolitan cities for acceptance — I want people to run into the woods for acceptance, to get lost a little bit and to find way more about who they are. I think there’s a lot of beauty to be found there.”
Wyn also emphasized the importance of increasing representation of LGBTQ+ people in the outdoors as an issue of safety. The outdoors should be a safe space for all, and increasing queer visibility is one way to show the LGBTQ+ community that there is a safe space for them in the outdoors.
Wyn was first introduced to the outdoors through the Boy Scouts of America. The Boy Scouts have often been criticized for their role in promoting heteronormativity in the outdoors and excluding queer and gender non-conforming children and staff. When asked about his experience, Wyn replied that he was grateful for an avenue into the outdoors, but that children now are exposed to much healthier and safer ways to access the outdoors through organizations such as Unlikely Hikers and other queer-friendly organizations.
Wyn’s commitment to activism is something that I think resonates with several Parks communities. Working in conservation is not simply a day job — for many, it becomes a lifestyle. We think about it every time we use single-use plastics or hop on an airplane. The same is true for Wyn.
I asked him how he avoids burnout from the constant pressure from both the LGBTQ+ community and the environmental community, as well as the pressure he puts on himself to do his part. It turns out, the CPCIL community is not so different from the world of eco-drag. We all turn to the outdoors when we get overwhelmed. Wyn periodically escapes to the wilderness, unplugs, and unwinds with our closest mutual friend — Mother Nature. In his own words, “rest is a radical act of resistance”.
Pattie’s commitment to environmentalism does not stop at activism, however. She incorporates sustainability into her drag in the form of upcycled costuming. She sports wigs and gowns made out of sea debris, trash from quarantine, and old newspapers. In a documentary called Dear Mother Nature, created in collaboration with the outdoor company, REI, Pattie wears a gown made entirely of repurposed plastic bags. At her Sundance debut, where she presented the film, she wore a gown curated out of upcycled tutus, old sweatshirts, towels, and jeans. I asked Wyn how Pattie’s ecowarrior persona has affected his daily life. He first corrected me, saying he felt more like an “eco-muggle”, but went on to explain.
“I’m very much just trying to figure this out like everyone is, but I think realistic change happens when I can wake up and be one per cent more of an ally to the world than I was the day before,” he said. “And when I say the world, I mean to people and our planet because I think that environmentalism needs to be intersectional. We need to ally each other as diverse groups of people and we need to ally for all marginalized communities, and I think we need to ally for nature as well. I’m learning so much every day just how possible it is to wake up and be one percent better. It’s never going to look like these big flashy changes in my life. The work is the little one percent things in the cracks; all the nooks and crannies where I can bring kindness into the world or where I can use one less piece of plastic or where I can learn one more thing or unlearn one more thing. I count all of that as caring for our environment.”
It turns out we are not so different from the heel stomping drag queen that is Pattie Gonia. We are all just trying our best to reduce our environmental impact on this world and spread the word however we can. When I asked Wyn what Pattie’s next steps are, he told me he’s going to continue to fill the niche he currently occupies. Pattie has created a unique platform and will continue to speak out for the environment in the way that only she can. Wyn concluded our interview with this gentle reminder: “never forget that what you do is activism too, just behind the scenes”. So, I’ll task you, reader, with the same thing. Never forget that what you do is activism and is making a difference, whether it is writing policy to protect ecosystem services, interviewing a drag queen, or gluing on a lace front wig and taking it to the trails.
* A note about pronouns: In this piece, with permission from Wyn, I have used both male and female pronouns for Pattie/Wyn interchangeably. Wyn gave me the following explanation of the importance of using the correct pronouns, which I think is a useful introduction or refresher for anyone uncomfortable or unsure about the concept:
“Pronouns are a way that allies can show their love and respect for queer people. When we say pronouns, they’re not just our chosen pronouns, they are our pronouns. I think that there’s a connotation out there that these are our chosen pronouns when really, it’s not how we identify, it’s what our identity is. Pronouns are as easy as just using the kind of gender identifiers that people want to use. I think it’s a really safe bet if you don’t know someone’s pronouns to just assume they/them pronouns so as not to possibly misgender them. I think they/them pronouns is becoming an identity that a lot of queer people find home in. Merriam-Webster just updated the definition of they/them in the dictionary to mean nonbinary pronouns. Entering words into our normal vocabulary like queer, nonbinary, and they/them pronouns, can really help us create an inclusive space for all.”
If you would like to learn more about other people in the outdoor community doing excellent work to promote LGBTQ+ representation and other forms of intersectional environmentalism, please check out the following for a brief introduction.