This Minnesotan is Making the Great Outdoors a Safe Space for All
In 2019, Mikah Meyer became the first person to experience all 400-plus U.S. National Park Service sites in a single 200,000-mile swoop. The three-year trek evolved from a bucket list journey to a mission of promoting his LGBTQ+ Outside Safe Space initiative to nearly 70,000 Instagram followers and beyond.
What sparked your adventure?
MM: My dad passed away from cancer at age 58. We're sold on this idea that we need to wait until age 65 to take long vacations, but I learned not to assume I have that much time. Visiting all of the National Park Service sites was a life dream of mine. I started the trip on the 11th anniversary of my father's death.
At first, you didn't identify yourself publicly as gay. Why?
MM: I was crowdfunding the trip, and when I started in 2016, there was zero representation of gay people in the outdoor recreation industry. LGBTQ+ people often feel unwelcome in this space because for so long, outdoor recreation has been portrayed in a heterosexual light. I thought, "If outdoorsy people don't like gays, they're not going to donate to me and my project if they know I'm gay." That's why I spent the first year of my journey trying to hide that part of myself.
MM: People who knew I was gay said, "Mikah, we really need you to be this role model who doesn't exist and to help change the culture." In sort of a beautiful revelation for a Lutheran pastor's son, this idea of vocation really resonated. Those messages inspired me to come up with Outside Safe Space.
How does the program work?
MM: It can be hard to know who your allies are when you're on a trail or at a campground. I wanted to create a symbol—a rainbow tree—that provides a clear, nonverbal sign that you're an ally of the LGBTQ+ community. If a person sees a rainbow tree pin or sticker on your backpack or water bottle, they'll know you're a safe person, and they can be themselves around you. I hope we get to a place where it's not needed anymore, but until then, I want the tree to become as ubiquitous as the Nike swoosh.
What have been the big victories?
MM: Near the end of my national parks journey, I did an Opt Outside campaign with REI. It was the first time in the history of the outdoor recreation industry that an openly gay man was featured in an ad campaign. I also now have sponsorships with Eddie Bauer, Brooks Running, Schwinn Bikes, and CamelBak. But these brands are exceptions in an industry that still largely excludes LGBTQ+ people.
Do you get pushback?
MM: Daily. On social media, I get hate-filled messages from people who often say something along the lines of, "Nature doesn't care if you're gay." And I respond and say, "You're right, nature doesn't care. But you do." Outside Safe Space was created to help people be more like nature. Nature doesn't judge.
How do you know it's working?
MM: During the pandemic, I ran across Minnesota to launch Outside Safe Space. On the first day, I stopped at a Dairy Queen, and an employee asked me about my rainbow tree shirt. After I explained, she joked that our politics probably differed, but then said, "My daughter has special needs. Whenever we go outside, people treat her different. So I know how you feel, and I hope what you're doing works."
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.