.Outdoor Educators Work to Be More Inclusive on Queer Issues

The Monterey Bay is rich in beautiful sea life, with its pacific spiny dogfish, great whites, bat rays, harbor seals, sea lions, anemones, plankton, sea stars, and so much more.

And of course, when young marine biologists look beyond this corner of the Pacific Ocean, the living permutations seem limitless. A quarter of a million species fill the world’s sprawling oceans, which cover more than two-thirds of the planet. As many as two million species are believed to lie undiscovered.

“The entire ocean world is so diverse. It’s how nature flourishes,” explains Rachel Kippen, executive director of O’Neill Sea Odyssey, a Santa Cruz education nonprofit that turns a catamaran into a floating classroom for field trips.

That diversity includes all kinds of shapes, colors and lifestyles. It encompasses hermaphroditic fish and a bevy of asexual beings—concepts not foreign to many members of the LGBTQ community and their allies.

“When we talk about these terms in nature, it’s scientific, and we’re completely fine with it,” Kippen says, “and then when we talk about it with people, there’s oppression attached to it.”

In recent months, Kippen and her staff began questioning their teaching methods when out on the water, especially those relating to LGBTQ issues. Her staff was always careful not to split a group in two by gender, with boys on one side and girls on the other, knowing that such experiences could be painful for trans youth. But even still, Sea Odyssey staffers worried about mistakenly misjudging whether a young student identifies as a boy or a girl—an error known as mis-gendering—when addressing them directly.

With such concerns in mind, the Sea Odyssey is teaming up this year with two other environmental nonprofits, with the goal of being more inclusive and respectful on LGBTQ issues. The goal, Kippen says, is to provide a safe space—not just to students, but also to current and future interns, staffers and donors.

Kippen says Sea Odyssey educators will spend the spring season implementing what they learned from a recent Diversity Center training. Ideas for possible larger changes going forward have come up as well. Those concepts include raising a rainbow flag on the catamaran, introducing all-gender bathrooms, and using scientific examples of diversity like hermaphroditic nudibranchs to illustrate a range of representation. 


The new effort first began when Kippen and her crew members started thinking about LGBTQ issues at work.

Curious about how to move forward, Kippen reached out to her friend Cabrillo Trustee Adam Spickler, and they met up to talk. As a trans man, Spickler is used to locals reaching out to him to talk about gender and diversity. His sense is that most people don’t know many trans people who are in positions of power. He’s always happy to discuss and willing to be a go-to resource.

Spickler says he’s found that environmental and outdoor-oriented groups often don’t feel welcome to those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. And members of the LGBTQ community, he explains, are careful to avoid spaces where they worry they may not feel safe. When you’re queer-identified, and you’re worried that you might be picked on, targeted, what-have-you, you tend to avoid those spaces where you feel like you’ll be alone,” he says.

Kippen says the outdoor enthusiast community doesn’t always reflect diversity. She’s even witnessed how hyper-masculine the surfing community can at times be, and that’s the type of culture she wants the Sea Odyssey to avoid.

In their conversation, Spickler suggested that she reach out to the Diversity Center. There, Kippen learned about the Diversity Partnership Fund, a grant program supported by the Santa Cruz County Community Foundation. The Sea Odyssey teamed up with two other environmental nonprofits, Watsonville Wetlands Watch and the Web of Life Field (WOLF) School. Together the three groups formed the LGBTQ+ Watershed Educators Alliance and applied for the grant, which they were ultimately awarded.

That kicked off a cultural competency training series run by the Diversity Center. As part of its series, the Diversity Center brings in speakers from its Triangle Speakers program, a rotating panel run by the center. The Diversity Center invites speakers who have experienced issues relevant to the day’s training in their own various ways. For instance, one of the Triangle Speakers in a session may be a man who knew he was gay since he was 4 years old. Another may be a trans woman who came out as an adult. Another might be an ally.

Diversity Center Youth Programs Coordinator Ashlyn Adams ran the first training, which took place this month. She says educational program changes will foster a new generation of scientists, thinkers and teachers who are respectful and inclusive of diversity.

The themes have already been resonating. Leaders of the WOLF School, which does overnight trips deep into the wilderness, have given particular thought to how to make trans kids feel safe and comfortable. Traditionally, the nonprofit has broken its sleeping arrangements into two cabins—a girls’ room and a boys’ one, says Tyler Feld, lead naturalist for the school. The school is now working on creating a gender-neutral option.

“The outdoors is a space that’s really healing,” says Feld, who recently launched a queer hiking group of his own called Branching Out. He wants to be sure that WOLF School makes nature feel truly safe to everyone. That way, he says, they can allow everyone to tap into nature’s healing beauty, experiencing all the natural world has to offer.

Kevin Heuer, the Community Foundation’s director of community engagement, says the new alliance will create more leaders for LGBTQ youth to look up to as leaders. “Kids learn best when they are engaged,” he tells GT, via email.

Jonathan Pilch, executive director of Watsonville Wetlands Watch, says his team has yet to go over what they learned and discuss how to implement changes. But he’s looking forward to digging in.

“We want to be forward-thinking on all sorts of different issues—whether it be climate change or the language we use to communicate with program participants and all the ways we be inclusive,” he says.


Over at Community Foundation Santa Cruz County, Heuer says the Diversity Partnership Fund was originally started by locals who wanted to increase respect and enhance services for the LGBTQ community. This new alliance of environmental educator groups is another step in that direction, he explains.

“Affirming a welcoming learning environment is a critical step in creating the healthy natural environment that we seek,” Heuer writes.  

Spickler knows that many local leaders are interested in examining issues around inclusion, representation and respect around LGTBQ issues. They can start by asking for help, he says. The Diversity Center, he adds, is always a great resource.

“Look toward folks who are working with LGBTQ communities and are doing good work or who identify as queer,” Spickler says. “Just say, ‘I want to do more. What are some things you think I can do to be a better ally?’ Asking how to be a better ally is a great start. We can always all be better allies for each other.”


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