Alex Blumberg: Welcome to How to Save a Planet. I'm Alex Blumberg, and this is the show about what we need to do to address climate change, and how we make those things happen.
Alex: Ah, the great outdoors!
[ARCHIVE CLIP: Oldest, largest and one of our most beautiful vacation lands is Yellowstone National Park.]
Alex: About 300 million people visit US national parks every year, and people spend around $800-billion a year on outdoor recreation activities like camping, backpacking and kayaking. And if you've ever hiked to the top of a mountain and looked around, it's probably not all that hard to understand why.
[ARCHIVE CLIP: For many years, Old Faithful has played with average regularity every 65 minutes. It's a majestic, awe-inspiring sight, reaching up with a plume of white steam that towers above everything and seems to dominate the world.]
Alex: They don't make newsreels like that anymore, do they? Spending time in nature has all sorts of physical and mental health benefits—we've talked more than once about literally hugging trees on this show. That's for a reason. But there is another reason why these outdoor experiences are so important: they help to build the climate movement. People who have outdoor experiences as a child—especially more "wild" ones—are more likely to be environmentalists as adults. And a survey of youth climate leaders showed that childhood outdoor experiences were formative in their activism.
Alex: But not everyone sees the outdoors as being a place for them. That was certainly the case for today's guest who showed up to our Zoom conversation with the camera off, then turned it on to reveal a surprise full face of drag makeup, and a wig that took up most of the frame.
Pattie Gonia: Hello! [laughs]
Alex: I mean, the only word is "Fabulous!" Well, I wish all of our guests took the interviews so seriously. Anybody else who's gonna come on How to Save a Planet ...
Pattie Gonia: You gotta turn to look.
Alex: Tell us who you are and what you do. [laughs]
Pattie Gonia: I am an intersectional environmentalist. I am a professional homosexual, and I am a drag queen. And my name is Pattie Gonia.
Alex: Pattie Gonia. And Pattie is just one of a growing number of leaders and activists trying to widen and diversify the climate and environmental movements. Because right now, it's a narrow group who are mostly benefiting from outdoor experiences.
Alex: Of the 300 million visitors to the national parks, nearly 80 percent of them are white, and nearly 80 percent of the employees are too. And more than 60 percent of the park rangers are men, mostly white men. The people experiencing and working in what Ken Burns the documentarian has called "America's Best Idea?" They look nothing like what America looks like.
Alex: And that might be, in part, because a lot of Americans don't feel safe in these places. You don't have to look very far into the past to find acts of violence towards marginalized people in the outdoors. On the 4th of July last year, white men in Indiana tried to lynch a Black man while he was camping. This summer, a newly married lesbian couple was shot while camping in Moab, Utah. Like Pattie told us ...
Pattie Gonia: People are always like, "The outdoors isn't racist or isn't homophobic." And I'm like, "Yeah, but guess what? People in them are."
Alex: And it is Pattie Gonia's mission to be a part of changing all that, and that is partly what we're going to be talking about with her on today's program. But also, before Pattie joined the movement to diversify the outdoors, she was known only as Wyn Wiley, a photographer in Nebraska who had no intentions of becoming a drag queen or a climate activist—and certainly not a combination of the two. How Wyn Wiley became Pattie Gonia, and how Pattie Gonia is working to make the climate movement more inclusive and more fabulous. That's coming up after the break.
Alex: Welcome back to my conversation with Wyn Wiley, aka Pattie Gonia. And just to say up front, Wyn uses he/they pronouns as Wyn, and she/they pronouns as Pattie. And Wyn told me that growing up in Nebraska, he remembers spending a lot of time outdoors as a kid.
Pattie Gonia: Some of my first memories of childhood ever were literally being in my backyard, and performing Cats: The Musical for an audience of literally nobody. It was my jellicle ball in my backyard. But yeah, like, I remember just being this little queer kid running around in the outdoors in Nebraska, and really just soaking up all the beautiful nature in Nebraska. You know, no one thinks of Nebraska as a really beautiful place, but it's full of more varieties of trees than you could ever imagine. Fall is so gorgeous there.
Pattie Gonia: And I remember also, like, the times, like, alone growing up in Nebraska, even on my grandma's farm, where I was just at so much peace with the world, watching these sunsets over the Midwest, seeing hundreds and thousands and millions of birds migrating across the whole entire state, like through all of fall.
Alex: But not all of Wyn's early outdoor experiences were so positive.
Pattie Gonia: In high school, I joined Boy Scouts because my father forced me to. And the homophobia that I faced there in the outdoors really turned me off to the outdoors, and while I was learning amazing skills like backpacking and figuring out how to survive outdoors, which I'm really grateful for, it was also one of the most traumatic places of my life. And I mean, I remember in Boy Scouts being at summer camp and being called the F-word every single day. I remember feeling like the outdoors were only a place for masculine people, or for people that were conquering and were out there to really, yeah, not be with nature and not celebrate nature, but to conquer nature.
Alex: During this time, Wyn had still not come out to his family and close friends, but after high school he did.
Pattie Gonia: what I was met with was a lot of love, but I was also met with a lot of conditional love. I was met with, "That's okay, we love you. But never paint your nails. Never do drag. Never do anything effeminate, never be trans, never choose to transition." And I really internalized that. That really just told me what I had to be to be a successful gay, because I could be gay, but I had to change to still succeed in life, you know? And I wanted to succeed. I wanted to make it in this world.
Pattie Gonia: And so I remember my freshman year of college changing my voice lower, because I wanted to straight pass more. I wanted to fit in. I wanted to be a part of things. I didn't want to be left out. And so I feel like when I came out of the closet I almost went further back in.
Alex: Part of this pressure that Wyn felt had to do with his decision to stay in Nebraska, and not do what so many young, rural, LGBTQ+ people do: move away from home to live in a city, or somewhere with more of a queer community. Wyn says he didn't want to do that.
Pattie Gonia: I think the dominant narrative for forever has been for queer people to run to cities for acceptance. I remember sitting in high school and being like, "Where's it gonna be? Is it gonna be LA? Is it gonna be New York City? Is it gonna be Seattle?" It was never gonna be somewhere rural. It was never gonna be somewhere outdoors for me.
Pattie Gonia: Because there's safety in numbers. I think people find that in cities, but to be honest, Alex, like, I'm not gonna survive or thrive in a city. I'm gonna survive or thrive in a place that's surrounded by nature. I think I told myself I wanted to be one of the ones that, like, stayed and made it work, or to change the place, you know? And I tried to do that through a lot of love, I tried to do that through a lot of education. And I really didn't want to just throw my middle finger up. I wanted to see what it would be like to stay and to maybe do the harder thing and to try to make it better. But 10 years of it was a lot.
Alex: 10 years. A decade of talking with a deeper voice, trying to blend in, feeling that conditional support. During that time, Wyn did manage to build a career for himself in Nebraska as a professional photographer, but even though he was living where he wanted to live, he wasn't living as who he wanted to be. And having both of those things at the same time was feeling increasingly impossible. Pattie Gonia, in other words, was nowhere on the horizon. But then a few years ago, Wyn took a trip to this annual photography conference in LA.
Pattie Gonia: They always have this giant dance party at the end of this conference, and the invitation is just to come as who you are. And so I decided about three years ago that I was gonna come as who I wanted to be that night. And so I went to LA, I went inside this drag queen store. I bought a pair of high-heeled boots, and I did drag for the first time that night. And I'll never, ever forget looking in the mirror and seeing so much of the femininity and the queerness and the freedom that I had left out of my life. And it was a life-changing experience and it was so beautiful. And that night was filled with so much joy and fun, and was just crazy and beautifully queer and weird.
Pattie Gonia: And my drag looked absolutely terrible, but I did not care. I was having the time of my life. My face was literally like—okay, so fun fact about drag makeup for you?
Pattie Gonia: Your face literally—when they say your face melts, your face literally melts off your face. Like my eye makeup was down here sitting on my cheekbones. But I'll never forget the freedom that I felt that night, and also just how I viewed drag for the first time as this playground where anything is possible.
Pattie Gonia: And the next day, you know, as happens in the world, I posted some photos online and those photos eventually made their way back to people in Nebraska. And I will never forget the silence from people that I thought were in my corner and I thought were in my life. People just slowly started to back away because they were like, "Oh, well, here we go. Wyn is finally, like, making everything about his queerness." Or "Here goes Wyn. Like, the liberals have finally got him. Like, here he goes, like, doing all the queer things."
Pattie Gonia: And really making them uncomfortable. And yeah, going back home to Nebraska, my house was egged. I lost clients. Literally, I had some clients cancel on me. And it was just a really sour taste in my mouth.
Pattie Gonia: And it hurt so much that I said, "Screw it." And I remember taking those boots and putting them into my closet and, like, closing that door and just being like, "Screw this. This is too hard. This is too much. No, I don't want to do this, not if it means that I'm losing so much."
Alex: And those boots sat in the back of that literal and now metaphorical closet for six months, until one day when Wyn opened that closet door to get ready for an upcoming backpacking trip. He was going out with some of his closest friends. Friends who he knew he was safe to be himself around.
Pattie Gonia: I looked and I saw my backpacking backpack and those boots. And I just said, "Hmm, what if?" And I decided to pack those boots into that backpack and to go on the backpacking trip.
Alex: So Wyn, boots at the bottom of his big camping backpack, made his way with his close friends to the top of the trail in the Colorado wilderness near the Continental Divide. And it was there that the boots came out of the bag.
Pattie Gonia: My friends all turned around and I was just, like, standing in these high-heel boots. And I was, like, strutting around and kicking. And it was so fun, and we took some fun photos, and we took some fun videos. And I, like, edited these little video clips into a little video of me dancing in these high heels.
Alex: I want to watch that first video that you—that you posted.
Pattie Gonia: Oh my dear God. Here we go! [laughs]
Alex: [laughs] And I happen to have a link right here.
Pattie Gonia: Oh wow. Here we go! Oh my gosh!
Alex: Oh, there are the boots!
Alex: The video opens on a close-up of two thigh-high, patent leather stiletto heels strutting across the ground. And then it cuts to a wide shot of Wyn in the heels with a huge backpack, twirling those telescoping hiking sticks like batons. The bottom half is all nightclub drag queen, the top half is all rugged backpacker, complete with backwards baseball cap and bag of snack food.
Alex: Are those Flamin' Hot Cheetos that you're eating? [laughs]
Pattie Gonia: Yes, it is. Alex. Yes it is. [laughs]
Alex: Did you guys bring a drone with you on your hiking trip?
Pattie Gonia: You know, we did to take drone of, like, nature. And then, like, it just found a different purpose.
Alex: [laughs] What did that feel like?
Pattie Gonia: I felt free. I felt feminine. I felt masculine. I felt like a mix of all of it. I felt empowered. I felt—yeah, I just felt like kind of anything was possible. You know, I think it's like a supershero finds her cape, you know?
Alex: Do you have the boots now? Can you show them to us?
Pattie Gonia: Yeah. So these are six-inch heels. They are black patent leather. They are filled with rocks from hiking.
Pattie Gonia: Just literally rocks stuck in the boot. [laughs] So this is what I get for backpacking. Like, they just get ripped to shreds but ...
Alex: Oh my God those are totally—like the heel on the—I mean, the sole of the boot is completely torn.
Pattie Gonia: Yeah. And as the youth do these days, I posted it online to this joke little Instagram account called Pattie Gonia and, like, thought that, like, 30 of my friends would follow it. And then woke up to, like, 10,000 people following it. Hundreds of thousands of views on the video. Like, Fergie resharing the video because I was dancing to a Fergie song. But yet also again, it was this thing where, like, a lot of people back home were seeing this again. And I was like, what am I gonna do? Am I gonna finally choose myself and say, "No, I'm gonna go for this?" Or am I gonna put those boots back into my closet again?
Pattie Gonia: And I'm just so glad that I kept on going. Ugh, this wig is hot. Can I actually take it off? We're doing the rest of this podcast with this wig off.
Alex: Yes, of course, of course. We don't have to do that.
Pattie Gonia: Here we are. The wig's off, shit's getting real.
Alex: After the break, shit gets real, and Pattie Gonia finds her unlikely place in the climate movement.
Alex: Welcome back. So Wyn Wiley just posted his first video as the outdoors-y drag queen Pattie Gonia, and suddenly, tens of thousands of people were following Pattie Gonia's account.
Alex: So this video, your first Pattie gonia video goes—we'll call it viral, and ...
Pattie Gonia: Thanks, Alex. Appreciate the stamp of approval. You're like, "Not viral, quite. But kind of."
Alex: Viral-ish. How did it feel? Did it feel like, "Holy shit, I've unleashed something here and I need to figure out what to do with this?"
Pattie Gonia: Yeah. It felt like "Holy shit, I've unleashed something here. And that is how it felt." The messages I was getting from queer people that are like, "Yes, we are out here. Like, thank you so much. Like, the outdoors needs a drag queen. Like, oh my gosh. Like, I feel this." The people that were sending in videos to me of wearing their high heels and strutting and backpacking, like, it was unbelievable to watch and to see. I was like, okay, like, I think there's some momentum here.
Alex: It seemed clear that Pattie was filling this hunger, something that people had been looking for: queer representation in the outdoors. In the immediate aftermath of that video, Wyn responded by making lots more videos. There's one where Pattie emerges from a tent in Central Park and backpacks around New York City in full camping gear. There's another where Pattie is wearing a dress made out of leaves, out in mother nature—which Pattie calls "Mother Natch." And one where she bends and snaps to pick up trash on a hiking trail.
Alex: The more Pattie posted, the bigger her profile got. In the months after her first video, her follower count increased rapidly, sometimes by as much as 20-30,000 a month. And more and more, Pattie's followers were feeling like a community. So Pattie thought maybe there's another way to engage that community beyond just posting these videos. So four months after that first video went viral, Pattie invited her followers to come on an actual IRL hike with her. Over 50 people and at least three dogs showed up. Since that first group hike in 2019, Pattie has traveled all around the country, helping to lead hikes in parks and wilderness areas from California to Oregon to New York.
Alex: The hikes she hosts can vary from short afternoon trail cleanups, to four-day-long backpacking trips in the wilderness. And a huge variety of people join.
Pattie Gonia: Everyone from people who are getting in the outdoors for the first time ever. Like, one of the quotes I'd love to say to people is just, "Go touch grass! It's amazing! You know, like, just go outside. It's cool!" But then there's also, you know, really seasoned outdoor people, and really these people seeing, oh, here are queer people in my city or in my area that I never knew were out here, you know? And it's incredible how many queer people just find each other and they're like, "Oh, you are a biologist and work in this area of Yosemite National Park? Well, I'm a naturalist and I work in this area." And it's so cool to see people just meet and be like, "Okay, cool. I now know people that are queer or also that are allies that are in this area that I can just have be a part of my community."
Pattie Gonia: Some people bring heels, some people don't. It's fun. We make it really accessible for people of all different talents and abilities. And yes, it's about a hike, but it's never about a hike. In the outdoors, there is a diversity movement, and that's filled with incredible community groups of plus-size hikers, of Black hikers, of disabled hikers, of queer hikers, and people that are experiencing the outdoors in different ways than just what's been fed to them.
Pattie Gonia: And there's nothing that I just do as, like, "It is I, Pattie, organizing these group hikes." It's more like I'm going out there and I'm saying, "Hey community, show up." But when people come to these group hikes, I'm almost stepping aside and being like, "And here are way more knowledgeable people that I am co-hosting this hike with that will speak to you on really incredible things about our climate and our planet and social justice. Listen to them. I learned from them. You should too." You know? And that feels beautiful.
Alex: Pattie has co-hosted hikes with Teresa Baker, founder of the African American Nature & Parks Experience, Cindy Villaseñor, a zero-waste educator, and Karen Ramos, founder of Get Out Stay Out, a nonprofit that provides outdoor programming for Indigenous youth.
Pattie Gonia: It always ends with different, you know, people that are basically co-hosting this hike with me, speaking on different subjects, from low-waste living to environmentalism in general to social justice in the outdoor movement to just different topics that people always leave with, I feel like, so much more knowledge and thinking from different perspectives.
Pattie Gonia: I almost feel like drag too, gives you an opportunity to be a host and to create that attention, to create that "Here is your mother, but also here are way smarter scientists," you know?
Alex: Right [laughs]
Pattie Gonia: Drag has always been at the forefront of social rights movements.
Pattie Gonia: Drag queens and trans people and queer people have always been at the forefront of advocating for other people's rights and also their own. Now I just want to see what drag can do when it's at the frontlines of the climate justice movement.
Alex: In the last year, Wyn has also started working as a counselor for an organization called Brave Trails[https://www.bravetrails.org/], which is an outdoors summer camp for queer youth. And Pattie's performance work has also continued to grow beyond videos on Instagram. She recently did a big pride event at Yosemite, and worked with REI on a spoken word piece about plastic, where she performs in a dress made entirely out of plastic bags. By the way, REI is working with her? Patagonia? What are you guys doing? She's literally named after you.
Alex: Anyway, the point is that when Wyn described himself as an intersectional environmentalist, professional homosexual and drag queen, he wasn't kidding. It is a full-time job. And Wyn loves it. But it happened very quickly. Like, he didn't have a background in climate science or environmental activism, and that first Pattie Gonia video was literally the second time in Wyn's life that he'd ever dressed in drag.
Alex: It strikes me that you're having to learn so many things all at once. Like, so you're sort of like, "How do I head up this community?" At the same time, you're also learning literally to put makeup on, to be a part of this community. [laughs]
Pattie Gonia: Yeah.
Alex: It's sort of like, "Here's what we're gonna do, folks. Also, by the way, do you have any makeup tips for me?" [laughs]
Pattie Gonia: Literally. That was literally my life. No, literally my life was like, "Hey, like, strutting here. And, like, this amazing, like, activism project here." And then also I was like, "Also, call for any makeup artists in the San Francisco area that can, like, do my makeup for me." And, you know, like, I felt ashamed to do that because I felt like I should be able to just pick it up and do it. But, like, here's what I'm learning too: ask for help. There are people out there that have amazing skills, you know? Like, when I think about my drag even to this day, like, visualize this. Like, drag is literally the definition of, like, a transformer of so many humans' crafts coming together. Like, my friend made this dress for me out of quilts that are over a hundred years old. And this lady, like, made this quilt. And, like, you know, my friend styled this wig. And drag is a beautiful invitation for collaboration, but so is activism as well. And so yeah, it was learning a lot.
Alex: And why do you think it's important to create these specific spaces for queer people outdoors? Like, why is that necessary?
Pattie Gonia: I think it's important because nature has been weaponized against queer people for forever. We're told that we are unnatural. We're told that queerness is not normal. You know, we're split into these binaries already since birth. And I think that being in nature, we get to reclaim nature as a space that is incredibly queer. It's not queerness as in, "I am attracted to X, Y, or Z." It's queer as in nature has always taught us that creativity and queer solutions are the way to anything not just surviving, but thriving. And nature always shows us how important diversity is. Like, without diversity in ecosystem, it will never thrive.
Pattie Gonia: And with it, magic is possible.
Alex: Perhaps you're familiar with the patented How to Save a Planet final question. But perhaps you're not.
Pattie Gonia: Refresh my memory. Like, I've listened to every episode but I'm drawing a blank.
Alex: Pattie Gonia, how screwed are we?
Pattie Gonia: I get, like, emotional. I don't know. I wake up every day and it's different. Sometimes I just, like, have very little faith in humanity, and then sometimes I feel like so much is possible. And yeah, I believe that now is a really important time. A more important time than ever. If not now, then when? And that motivates me. And I think—I feel like my purpose on this Earth and our purpose right now is to figure this out.
Pattie Gonia: I will leave us with a quote that is not my own words, because I think that people are way smarter than I am.
Pattie Gonia: But yeah, I feel like this is really fitting that one of my all time favorite quotes is by E. B. White, and they say, "I arise in the morning between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy or savor the world. This makes it really hard to plan the day."
Pattie Gonia: Yup. Thank you, E.B. You know? So yeah, I don't know. I think we might be screwed, we might not. I'm gonna give it my best shot because why the fuck not.
Pattie Gonia: Quote Pattie Gonia. There we go. There's my quote to go into the outcries for forever. Oh God, y'all, the amount of sweat that's under this quilt right now, you have no idea.
Alex: I know. I bet, I bet. Your—I want to say that your mascara held up really, really well through that answer. Not showing anything.
Pattie Gonia: Thank you so much, Alex.
Alex: Which brings us—mascara intact—to our patented How to Save a Planet calls to action. First, there are so many activists, educators and meetup groups working to diversify the outdoors, groups like Brown People Camping, Unlikely Hikers, Outdoor Afro. We're gonna link to a bunch of these groups in our show notes and newsletter for you to check out. Maybe you'll find someone to go on a hike with. If you're not the hiking type, it's worth giving a few of these activists a follow, and learning from some diverse experiences in the outdoors.
Alex: Our next call to action this week is to revisit this notion that we talked about on the program before: your climate action Venn diagram. This is the brainchild of our former but still beloved co-host Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. And if you haven't heard about this on How to Save a Planet yet, she introduced it to our audience in our episode called "Is Your Carbon Footprint BS?" It's a method of finding a climate action that uses your unique talents, connections and interests. Rather than just eating more salad or feeling guilty about not recycling enough, you can actually do something that connects uniquely to you, and will therefore have a greater impact.
Alex: The way it works: you draw three overlapping circles. In one, write a list of what you're good at—what are your skills? In the second, write a list of what work needs to be done, what climate solutions need to happen? And in the third, write about what brings you joy, what gets you out of bed in the morning? Pattie's work is a great example of finding something unique to you that fits right in the center of that circle. If you make your own Venn diagram, send it to us at howtosaveaplanet.show/contact. We may share it on the show.
Alex: A third call to action: Pattie put together a job board. We will link to that in the show notes as well. If you're a queer person looking for work in the outdoors, you can add yourself to the list. And if you work somewhere that's hiring people for work in the outdoors, you can add your job posting to this job board.
Alex: And our final call to action—this is a simple one—go outside! Touch some grass. Send us some pictures of it, and tell us how it felt. You can sign up for our newsletter at howtosaveaplanet.show, and follow us on Instagram and Twitter @how2saveaplanet—with the number 2. We will be doing a Q&A with Pattie Gonia on Instagram next week, so make sure you're following us there so you can submit your question.
Alex: How to Save a Planet is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production. It's hosted by me, Alex Blumberg. This episode was produced by Anna Ladd. Our reporters and producers are Kendra Pierre-Louis and Rachel Waldholz. Our supervising producer is Lauren Silverman. Our editor is Caitlin Kenney. Our intern is Nicole Welch. Sound design and mixing by Peter Leonard, with original music by Peter Leonard, Catherine Anderson and Emma Munger. Our fact checker this episode is Claudia Geib. Thanks to all of you for listening. We'll see you next week!