Q&A: Pattie Gonia on Leadership, Social Media, and Outdoor Advocacy
How Wyn Wiley inadvertently launched an intense personal and public journey for a more equitable outdoors via "professional homosexual" Pattie Gonia
While explaining the various steps of writing this article to friends, I realized the outdoorists I know could be split into two groups: those who heard me say "Patagonia" and pictured Yvon Chouinard's dirtbag-turned-industry-leading gear company, and those who heard "Pattie Gonia," the outdoor industry personality-slash-advocate-slash-influencer known for her queer approach toward protecting "Mother Natch." Pattie does tireless, collaborative, community-oriented climate and equity work and she doesn't do labels or binaries, meaning my attempts to explain her role to friends in the former group mostly fell short. Lucky for me, Wyn Wiley, the photographer from Nebraska who created Pattie during a backpacking trip in 2018, doesn't know how to describe it all, either.
In the four years since Pattie first strut down a trail, Wiley has jumped into the uncharted world of outdoor advocacy—creating job boards for queer outdoorists, partnering with brands to sponsor equity-focused events and organizations, joining climate panels, co-founding the community organization The Oath, and working with other organizers to divert capital resources towards communities that need them.
The more visible part—what Wiley calls "the cherry on top"—is what's online: colorful, messy social media pages filled with upcycled drag outfits, crowdsourced fundraisers, queer love, and a deeply empathetic approach toward bettering our outdoor spaces.
We recently hopped on Zoom with Wiley to talk about the intersection of the queer and outdoor spaces, maintaining a healthy relationship with social media, and the power of relation-driven change.
How do you define this multifaceted leadership role that you've assumed in the outdoor community?
I don't know. Human being figuring it out the fuck out, just like the rest of us? I'm just trying to do what work I can with what's available in front of my face—trying to maximize it, make it the best damn thing it can be, and then move on. But there's no grand plan. There's no 'I figured out some magic thing.' It's literally just trying and failing and trying again.
The new environmental non-profit you're involved with, The Oath, is a community dedicated to creating the next generation of "radically empathetic decision makers." What was the thought process behind this approach?
I'm going to quote someone else that is far smarter than me here; my friend Pinar from Queer Nature says "the revolution is going to be relational," and that is something I live by all the time. I think it's relationship with ourselves, relationship with each other, and relationship to the other-than-human world. The success and growth of any environment is completely built on relationships being symbiotic, not parasitic. When we were forming the curriculum, it felt wrong to create something that was prescriptive and it felt right to make something that made people think for themselves.
Social media strikes an interesting balance in your work. What have you learned through your time with it?
Social media is a tool, just like anything. You can use it to create harm. You can use it to create community. You can use it for grassroots activism. You can use it to inflate your ego. Some days, it's all of those things. Some days, it's none. I've had a very unique relationship with social media my whole life—it helped me find the first queer community I ever had, which then I started meeting in person. Social media got me out of Nebraska because I was able to launch my photography career via the Internet. I've had incredible mentors in my life—people like Teresa Baker and José González, who I co-founded the Oath with—who have really shown me that the Internet is not a ride-or-die. You can do a lot of good things with the tool and you can also cause a lot of harm. So I think I'm figuring out more and more how to create momentum online that's translated to real life action.
Being an outdoor advocate can look a lot of different ways, and yours seems to be both effective and unpredictable.
The solution to the climate crisis or to outdoor equity is not everyone becomes an influencer. This is what I do, so I'm going to pursue the fuck out of it, and everyone else should pursue what they are incredibly passionate about. Which is again why the Oath is oriented towards what's the work that's available to you and only to you? For me, it happens to be this weird-ass professional homosexuality, outdoor space, and it's not just available to me, but I love it, and I'm really passionate about it, so I'm going to pursue it.
What irks me at the end of the day is how much visibility someone like myself in my role gets and how much people who are really over there doing massive work don't get seen or appreciated. I try to be really aware of the space I take up in that way because it just doesn't sit right with me often, and yet it's also the reason why I'm able to connect so many people. It's such an interesting catch-22.
"Give all the damns you can. Take all the breaks you need. Fall in love with what you want to fight for and help other people fall in love with it, too."
You've spoken in the past about being told, either verbally or not, that your queerness and queerness in general was unnatural in the outdoor space. What has changed to make you unlearn that and see it differently?
Growing up, I very much learned that it was wrong to be gay and that who I was as a person, something I could not shake, was literally unnatural, was going to be the death of me, and was going to send me to hell. So much of my identity is at a constant give and take between who I feel like I really am and who I've learned to [be] to survive in environments that weren't built for me. And also, I have so much privilege in the middle of that—I am a straight passing white male. Growing up in my outdoor experience, I became full of toxic masculinity as an out gay man.
So all that is to say that what really changed in me was having a supportive queer community, for the first time in my life, through Pattie. Pattie is that journey of healing for me, but I think the more time I spend out in nature, the more I feel that healing too. This seems very sappy, but I really feel this to be true: I go outdoors to reclaim the childhood that I didn't really get to have.
What's possible at the intersection of queerness and the outdoors?
I think that everyone can realize that they're all a little gay. When people, and I mean this genuinely and from a point of comedy, realize that there is queerness in them, they can stop thinking of themselves as just in one box and instead just see what life can be. And it's not about who you're having sex with—I mean queer as in how you problem solve, how you think about things, how you connect to people, how you're neurodivergent. Nature shows us that queerness is all around us and in every single living thing on Planet Earth, and that queerness is a really amazing, pioneering trait that helps things survive. Everyone's queer.
The traditional narrative is just to run to the cities for acceptance as a queer person, right? But I feel like queer people, now more than ever, are realizing that the more they run towards the forest, the closer they get to what they're actually after—connection to nature, connection to self, connection to some real queer community. I want that for everyone.
"Pattie is that journey of healing for me, but I think the more time I spend out in nature, the more I feel that healing too."
How do you empathize with people who are discomforted by your work or by the outdoors' inherent queerness?
On a very literal level, they're protecting the harm that has been done to them. Hurt people hurt people. A lot of times people think that the hateful people are these Proud Boys/straight male types….but I have never sat at a meaner lunch table than some of the people in the diverse outdoor community. Lateral oppression is a very real thing. People who have also been oppressed by current structures try to laterally oppress other underrepresented communities because of trauma patterns. There is space for everyone, but we need to hold the same standards that we expect for other people onto our own communities as well.
You seem to shy away from the idea of being a leader. Why is that?
I will be a leader when I need to be. I will step up when I need to, especially working with the outdoor industry, because there's a lot of language that I speak because I went to advertising/PR and marketing school. But I don't like the word 'leader' because I could not do what I do without a whole entire team of people that work with me. For me, it's always about collaboration. I am the visible little iceberg, because that's my role, but it takes a village. Always. Also, I think that it's often my role, and the role of a lot of other people, especially who hold privilege and other underrepresented statuses, to be an active follower and to amplify voices. The word 'leader' assumes a lot of power dynamics that I just don't enjoy.
What's something that the average person can do in their own lives or their own communities to help your vision of progress, be it in person or online?
Give all the damns you can. Take all the breaks you need. Fall in love with what you want to fight for and help other people fall in love with it, too.