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The queer nature of Pattie Gonia
The first backpacking drag queen is creating a joyful force for climate action by reconnecting queer and marginalized people with nature.
I didn’t reach out to Wyn Wiley, the artist and organizer behind the popular environmentalist drag queen Pattie Gonia, to talk about their partnership with The North Face. But on the day of our interview, it was impossible to ignore.
Two days prior, the outdoor clothing brand had announced the second year of their collaboration with Pattie for “Summer of Pride,” a series of LGBTQ+ Pride outdoor events. The Instagram video announcement featured a red-headed Pattie in head-to-toe rainbow 80s glam, sashaying a runway of forest and field.
“I’m here with The North Face to invite you to come out… in nature with us,” Pattie said, near-echoing the message North Face and Pattie put out in their 2022 partnership video.
But the internet reaction to Pattie Gonia’s North Face partnership was far different this year than the year before. While the 2022 video saw little but positive coverage, the 2023 announcement provoked a barrage of right-wing outrage-bait, accusations of “grooming,” and calls for a North Face boycott.
When I reached Wiley over Zoom on May 25, the waves of bigotry pouring in were reaching their height. So I asked Wiley—who uses he/they pronouns when out of drag and she/they while in drag—if they were doing OK.
“The answer is never,” Wiley laughed. “But we get by with a little help from our friends.” He said his chosen family—people and cats—have been the first and best line of defense against hate. And when that hasn’t worked, he always has disassociation. “That's a plus of queerness,” they said. “I've learned how to disassociate from the age of zero.”
Beyond the personal, Wiley said the right-wing response to the North Face campaign has only proven why such a campaign was necessary in the first place. The whole point of “Summer of Pride”—the point of most of Pattie’s organizing, really—is to show queer people that they belong in nature, despite what some might have them believe.
“If you want to know why queer people might not feel safe outdoors, look at the comment section,” Wiley said. “Yes, these are keyboard warriors, but these are also real people that we share the trails with.”
Wiley themself knows what it’s like to not only fear, but internalize that anti-queer hate—and how both can result in avoidance of the outdoors. “Growing up, I was told all the time that my queerness is unnatural,” Wiley said. “That created a disconnection between me and nature, because I didn't think that I was nature.”
But when Wiley was able to repair that disconnect—when he was able to accept that he was, in fact, nature—he not only felt better about living in the world, he was able to create a sustainable, joyful motivation to save it.
Today, Wiley says, “The outdoors are a space where I reclaim my full belief that I am nothing but natural.” That was the real reason I wanted to talk to them: to discuss how he’s trying to convince thousands of others to believe the same.
“We tell people all the time to fight for climate. But I think that we forget a very important first step, which is to go outside and connect to climate, because we fight for what we love.” - Wyn Wiley, aka Pattie Gonia
Creating a joyful force for climate action
While Wiley was born in Nebraska in 1993, Pattie Gonia was born in Colorado in 2018. Before a backpacking trip with friends, the group began brainstorming drag names for Wiley, when one suggested a pun on the outdoor brand Patagonia. For an outdoors enthusiast, it was too good to pass up—so on their next hiking trip, Wiley packed a pair of high-heeled boots, changed into them at the summit of the mountain, and snapped a few pictures.
Today, Pattie boasts an Instagram following of over a half million people, who are regularly treated to photos and videos of Pattie enjoying the outdoors—including mountain climbing in six-inch heels. But the account isn’t just limited to glamour shots: Pattie posts regularly about the climate crisis, the harms of fast fashion, and raises money for intersectional environmental and outdoors groups.
(One of my personal favorite posts shows an e-mail Pattie received from a PR representative of the China-based fast fashion brand Shein, asking for a collaboration. Pattie not only rejected the request, but urged the PR person to get a new job “somewhere that isn’t killing the planet.”)
Offline, Pattie’s organizing is focused on bringing underrepresented groups outdoors. Activities have included one-day group hikes with varying accessibility levels; climate-themed outdoor drag shows; and free backpacking courses for queer youth. They’ve also helped fund and create an LGBTQ+ summer camp called Brave Trails, and convinced sponsors to provide free hiking gear to those who can’t afford it.
These activities are integral to Pattie’s overall theory of change: that we cannot expect marginalized people to fight to save a planet they feel deeply, utterly disconnected from.
“We tell people all the time to fight for climate,” Wiley said. “But I think that we forget a very important first step, which is to go outside and connect to climate, because we fight for what we love.”
“Before I started doing drag and realizing that I could bring something to the climate space, I was like, “This space seems boring and stuffy” … And I think that there's an opportunity for that to be different.” - Wyn Wiley, aka Pattie Gonia.
For marginalized populations, connecting to the environment might not be as easy as it sounds. According to 2023 research from the University of Montana, Black and Hispanic Americans were far less likely to have participated in outdoor recreation activities than white Americans in 2020. The researchers added: “Many other intersecting identities are actively excluded [from outdoor recreation], including people with disabilities, fat populations, and members of the LGBTQIA2S+ community.”
The reasons for these barriers include income and location—but it also includes fear of violence and discrimination. As the research notes, there is a “concentration of queer culture in cities,” and rural areas with access to nature are often perceived as less queer, and less safe.
In addition, though the research notes that nature “is a fundamentally queer space, with the vast majority of species known in nature being in some way gender or sexually non-conforming,” much of the cultural narrative around the outdoors “have been folded into the toxic-masculine realm, in which it becomes something to be ‘conquered’ or ‘tamed.’” This narrative “runs counter to the nature of the environment itself and serves to alienate queer people from a potentially healing space,” the research says.
This is one reason why Wiley co-founded The Outdoorist Oath, a non-profit that encourages individuals to promote social justice, equity and environmental responsibility on the trails. Co-founded alongside their mentor José González, founder of Latino Outdoors; and Teresa Baker, who created the Outdoor CEO Diversity Pledge, the Oath seeks to inspire nature enthusiasts to create inclusive outdoor spaces.
But Wiley also recognizes that another big driver of the cultural toxicity in the outdoor space—the hyper-masculine “conqueror” mindset—is capitalism. “I think that capitalism has really disconnected us from nature, which is very convenient in order to extract from this world,” they said.
And that knowledge can be tough for Pattie to grapple with; because the fact is, two large corporations fund much of the work they do.
Balancing corporate sponsorship with anti-capitalism
Two of Pattie’s biggest funders are the North Face and Tazo, the latter of which hired Pattie to promote their organic regenerative agriculture tea. I asked Wiley how they grapple with that contradiction: the belief that capitalism and consumerism is driving environmental catastrophe, and the choice to work with for-profit-corporations that drive consumerism.
“It’s something that I think about every single day of my life,” they said.
They’ve considered community-funded models, where Pattie’s community would have to pay fees to access content or go to an event. “But I want to provide as much barrier-free access as possible,” they said. They’ve considered non-profit funding, but “They can't even make enough money to keep their own doors open.” They’ve considered Patreon funding, but ultimately, “It's not enough to fund a team on the back end to do what I do.”
In the end, Wiley said corporate partnership with due diligence was the best option for the type of work Pattie is trying to do. With Tazo, “I didn't partner with them for a year and a half, until I saw so many boxes ticked on the back end,” they said. “Show me your supply chain. Literally, show me it.” With the North Face, Wiley said, the sponsorship had to only focus on the events themselves. “My partnership with them doesn’t promote a single item of clothing to sell,” he said.
This corporate funding is able to feed Wiley’ large creative team and help create the broad-stroke community impact she’s looking for. “Through that funding, I’m able to hire myself and 20 other staff members who are all BIPOC or queer people, to provide opportunity and make space for queer people to get outside,” they said. “I can choose to do that, or not do that. … Do I lose street cred in the environmental space? Hell, yeah. But also, do I make a lot of community happen? Yeah."
Ultimately, Wiley maintains that there must be some room for growth in the corporate realm. He credited his mentor, José González of Latino Outdoors, with the analogy that guides his approach. “I think a lot of capitalism needs to burn to the ground,” Wiley said. “But I also think that what we learn from nature is that if you have a giant wildfire, it ruins an ecosystem. If we have prescribed burning, it burns part of the ecosystem in order to form new growth.”
“I'm a believer in that Indigenous knowledge,” Wiley said. “I'm trying to grow as I burn.”
How queerness drives Pattie’s climate optimism
Wiley’s approach to saving the planet is incredibly optimistic. He believes there are some corporations that can become forces for good. He believes the same about some Republican-identifying people, too.
This belief does not come out of people-pleasing or pacifism, Wiley insists. It comes from anti-capitalism. “There's some evil to fight in the world,” they said. “But I think we're being distracted with thinking that each other are evil, rather than the systemic forces killing this world.” They think the ongoing culture wars—the same one that drove the backlash to Pattie’s North Face ad—are about ensuring people without wealth keep at each other’s throats, so they’re not at the throats of the ultra-wealthy.
Wiley’s optimism also stems from their own queerness—because it taught them that it’s possible not only to survive in seemingly impossible conditions, but to thrive.
This was another reason I reached out to Pattie for an interview. Because over the last few years, I have come to grips with my own queer identity—and it has expanded my sense of possibility for the world. In rejecting the way I thought I was supposed to live; in expressing a new, more authentic version of myself; in creating more loving communities and families; in watching my queer friends do the same; I’ve started to think maybe changing ingrained systems is not so impossible after all.
I wanted to ask another queer person who thought a lot about climate change if they, too, had experienced anything like this—and if that expanded sense of possibility translated into how they viewed climate change.
When I asked Wiley through our Zoom screens 3,000 miles apart, their knowing smile felt like we were sitting in the same room.
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The way Wiley sees it, the ability to survive and thrive amidst adverse conditions is what makes queerness and nature so inseparable. “We see this everywhere in nature,” they said. “When I see a tree bend this way, and then bend the other way, and then get its arm chopped off, and then still find some way to be living—that's queerness to me. I relate a lot to that.”
They recalled a morning back home in Nebraska, listening to birds chirp on a grassland prairie. “To me, this is queerness,” he said. “Most scientists agree that these birds are singing to each other in the morning as a roll call of who made it through the night. That’s what queer people do with Pride. That is us.”
“We will get misunderstood for being too loud,” Wiley said. “But the purpose and reason we do that is to tell each other that we exist, we are happy, we are alive.”
It’s that inherent joy of Pride that Wiley believes the climate movement can learn a lot from. Because although there is clearly a long way to go in the fight for true LGBTQ+ equality, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for a bit of celebration every now and then.
“If you want to talk about one thing that we suck at and the climate community, it's celebrating anything—like, my dear God,” he said. “I think we need a climate future where there's a lot more joy, where there's a lot more partying, where there's a lot more celebrating. Because there's a lot to celebrate.”
Arielle Samuelson contributed reporting.
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