Perry Cohen & the Venture Out Project are working to make skiing a safer, more inclusive space for the LGBTQ community

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Perry Cohen & the Venture Out Project are working to make skiing a safer, more inclusive space for the LGBTQ community

In 2014, Perry Cohen was working a corporate job in New Hampshire. Cohen had always been an outdoors person, growing up in Keene, New Hampshire, as an avid skier, hiker and backpacker, but professional life didn’t align with that enthusiasm for the outdoors. Cohen grew up skiing at the now-defunct Maple Valley ski area in southern Vermont and spent a winter in Jackson Hole as an adult, so skiing and the greater outdoor world was ingrained in him. It’s an activity that he’s passed on to his nine-year-old twin daughters, helping to instill a love for the sport in them.

“It’s always been the thing I’ve come back to, my favorite thing to do in the whole world is ski,” said Cohen.

At that same time in 2014, Cohen had realized that he was transgender and wanted to go through the process of transitioning from female to male. Amidst the period of transition, Cohen found solace in the outdoors.

“I was hiking and biking and skiing more and more, and one day I went on this big hike on Mount Monadnock, and I got to the summit and all of a sudden I had an epiphany,” said Cohen. “I was like, ‘oh, my god, this body that I’ve never liked and felt at home in, this is what got me to the top of the mountain.’ For the first time in my life, I felt like my body was my own and there was a purpose to it, and if other queer and trans people could have this experience where there’s no mirrors, no gendered bathrooms and you get to the top of the mountain because of the body you have, not in spite of it, wouldn’t that just be the greatest gift people could give to themselves?”

Venture Out Perry Cohen
Perry Cohen ripping skins. Photo courtesy of Perry Cohen.

When Cohen reached the bottom of Mount Monadnock, [New Hampshire], he decided to quit his job and dedicate his life to an LGBTQ outdoor organization. However, after researching the web, he didn’t find a single LGBTQ-dedicated outdoor community-outreach group. After a 24-hour “freak out,” Cohen realized that he had all the tools and experience gained from his corporate job to start this type of company himself, and aimed to provide a community-based initiative that promoted inclusivity and diversity in an industry that hung its hat on the idea of inclusivity, but has always been dominated by a similar demographic: white males of privilege.

“I came up with a few names and crowdsourced them, and people liked Venture Out for the double entendre that it is,” Cohen described. “That was really the beginning, just an idea, we built the website, incorporated as a non-profit, and I thought it was going to be for youth, then I started telling more and more of my friends about it, and they were like, ‘I would love to do this; I never got to do these experiences in this body with this identity in this way. Would you consider adult trips?'”

In its first year, Venture Out launched with two adult backpacking trips on Vermont’s Long Trail. Both trips filled up immediately, and Cohen received feedback that there was a demand for winter, ski-focused trips, too. Now, Venture Out runs at least four winter adventures each year.

At the time that Venture Out was taking off, Cohen was still in the infancy of his trans-identity. Cohen admits that, while Venture Out was a success off the bat and helping to provide outdoor adventure experiences in a safe, welcoming environment for the LGBTQ community, he was slow to realize how it was helping him in his own identity development.

“I’d never felt like outdoor work was good enough. Frankly, I was really lucky to grow up the way that I did; I went to really good schools, went to an Ivy League college, have several masters degrees and it was really hard for me to reconcile wanting a career in the outdoors with the way I was raised, which was to go make money and be successful in a traditional, corporate way,” Cohen described. “There was a big evolution in me in realizing that this was contributing in a bigger way than any of that corporate stuff ever was. Once I realized, ‘oh, so if I can transition my gender, then I can transition my job.’ I’d already made the big shock to everyone, gone through the disappointment or mind-blowing revelation, so changing my job shouldn’t be that big of a deal to people.'”

In addition, his work with Venture Out was creating an inclusive community built around the outdoors for Cohen that he had never experienced before, especially not in his previous professional career.

“In the corporate world, I wasn’t able to be that friendly with the people I worked with,” Cohen said. “In this world of the outdoors, I could work with really good friends or meet people on trips that turned into friends. The boundaries that were so rigid between relationships in the corporate world didn’t have to be that way with Venture Out,” Cohen noted.

Cohen has seen firsthand what Venture Out has provided for people who have been struggling with their own identities in a world that, oftentimes, shuns differences. He highlights a specific participant in a Venture Out youth trip, named Tyler. Over the course of a weeklong trip, Venture Out leaders were excited to watch Tyler truly blossoming as they were able to explore their identity, identify different personal pronouns and be a part of a queer community for the first time in their life. It helped Tyler understand that they were not alone.

“They told me, ‘I have never met another trans person in my life, I’ve never actually experienced this in real life, to see you and the other instructors, there are so many different ways that I can be happy and healthy and that I can be queer and trans,'” Cohen describes. Tyler went home and recounted their experience to their mother, who, in turn, called Cohen.

“[Tyler’s mom] called me in tears, so happy, and said, ‘Thank you for what you have created. This is the happiest I have ever seen Tyler, and they already want to come back next summer.'”

Tyler has joined Venture Out for four summers, once again as a youth, then as an intern and now as an adult trip leader. “I feel incredibly proud that we can not only provide these experiences for the participants but that they can grow and ultimately become an instructor and get something on their resume they probably would have never had without Venture Out.”

As Venture Out gained momentum, it was approached by more and more outdoor gear manufacturers looking to partner, mostly with gear incentives. At first, Cohen and Venture Out would work with almost anyone, looking to secure funding in its infancy. However, now that the organization has developed more power in the industry, it has become more selective about who they work with, always making sure that the brands align with the values of Venture Out. Last year, Venture Out entered into a partnership with Eddie Bauer as a part of the brand’s All Outside Program, in which it relies on community leaders and activists already working toward making the outdoors a more inclusive environment for underrepresented communities. Leaders of the All Outside Program, like Cohen and Venture Out, are relied upon to provide insights into product development, marketing and event planning. It’s an effort that is unlike anything Cohen has seen before.

“This partnership truly feels like a partnership because we get to meet not only with the social and marketing teams but with product development, with the guides and athletes, the president of the company,” Cohen said. “There’s an integration of this philosophy of who should get to be outside, who should get to feel welcome outside and the responsibility of the brand to help make that happen that Eddie Bauer is approaching with that I haven’t seen anyone else doing.”

One of the biggest victories in Cohen’s eyes is the focus on more androgynous or non-gendered clothing lines that can help folks with gender dysphoria—feeling that one’s emotional identity is that of the opposite biological sex—or of many different genders, feel comfortable in their own skin while recreating outside.

Venture Out Perry Cohen
Cohen in his element. Photo courtesy of Eddie Bauer.

“So many people, whether transgender or cisgender or non-binary, like clothes that are maybe designed for the ‘opposite gender,'” said Cohen. “To be able to have a non-gender line, especially things like jeans or T-shirts or flannels, or even puffy jackets, not every woman wants something that flairs out at the hips, whether she’s straight, gay, trans or whatever, and so to have the ability to say we need more general, androgynous clothes is huge.”

Cohen says that the program isn’t just about social media posts that elevate Eddie Bauer’s reputation, but it’s actively pushing the industry to evolve. The brand is working with Venture Out on training initiatives, product influence and marketing pushes. “In exchange for the support they’re giving us, I think what I’m excited about is how easily this aligns with the organization.”

The new partnership is a huge development for Venture Out, but the first six-plus years of Venture Out has endured speedbumps, too. While reception to the project—extended press, Outdoor Retailer roundtable inclusions, the All Outside partnership or the invitation to join Diversify Outdoors—had been mostly positive, comments on social media and a lack of proper accommodations have been two of the most common hurdles.

“We took people on a ski trip to a ski area and had a trans woman on the trip who was very tall, she had to go to the bathroom and there were no single-stall bathrooms,” Cohen remembered. “She went to the women’s room and got [confronted] immediately; there was this person who was so excited to be on this trip, and I watched her as she walked out of the bathroom and her face dropped and her whole aspect changed, and I felt terrible, because here I was promising people that they’d be safe on this trip and there was no good bathroom option, and immediately someone said something to her.”

Cohen and other Venture Out leaders learned a lot from that experience and now scout bathrooms as part of the pretrip work and planning. They also implemented an action plan that helps keep instructors and participants safe in a bathroom when they might be the target of harassment. Cohen is adamant that in order to instill change in the ski industry, or outdoor industry as a whole, for that matter, establishments like ski areas need to do more than just hold Pride Weeks or put up rainbow flags.

“The industry can really step up, put in an all-gender bathroom in the base lodge or make some accommodations. If you’re going to invite people in, you have to have the facilities and the policies and the people around to make people feel welcome and safe and I think that’s a gap that still needs to be closed.”

In addition to its trips, Venture Out is funded through its consulting arm, where it works with outdoor organizations to take these steps toward inclusivity. One of the main pieces involved in those improvements is education.

“I think a lot of microaggressions are perpetuated because people aren’t even aware of them,” Cohen said. “Things like getting your ski patrol trained to work with trans patients, educating ski schools—especially as more and more kids are coming out as non-binary and trans—educate the staff, through one three-hour training or something, it’s not a huge investment but it makes a huge difference for people. It’s training, education, talking about it and not being afraid; so many people are afraid to say or do the wrong thing that they avoid the conversation, which is way worse than making a few fumbles while you’re trying to learn.”

There have been stumbles along the way, and the industry as a whole still has a long way to go in order to fully open up the outdoors, but Cohen is hopeful that the growing efforts of organizations like Venture Out and other partners in the All Outside Program will lead to extended change. He also notes, regarding skiing and snowboarding, specifically, that those sports can also provide a bit of inherent inclusivity that simply going for hikes, for example, can’t. Snowsports can be on the frontlines of change.

“It’s actually one of the less obvious gendered activities, because of the clothes and helmets and goggles, and I think that’s kind of a magical thing that doesn’t get talked about a lot,” Cohen describes. “I would guess that there is a part of me and other people, not even consciously, but part of what’s so special about it is you’re just out there, and gender in so many ways takes a back seat in a way that it doesn’t in a lot of other things we do and places we go in the world.” 

The work being done by Cohen and Venture Out is life-changing for many people, who are being able to experience the natural world—an environment that is already incredibly impactful to humanity—in a community setting where they feel comfortable, accepted and connected. It’s helping many members of the LGBTQ community infuse the outdoors into their identities.

Visit ventureoutproject.com for more info.