Eco-activist drag queen Pattie Gonia is here to save the world.
The self-proclaimed “backpacking queen” is on a mission to teach her 285,000 Instagram followers how to enjoy the outdoors responsibly while making space for people of color and LGBTQ+ folks. Occasionally she’ll even hand out free lessons to Patagonia, which her name is a pun on, and other outdoor companies.
“It all starts with empathy and compassion, and if you are an outdoorist, the baseline is that you try to make actions of advocacy and accountability and allyship,” Pattie said. “To me, that’s what it’s all about.”
Drag performance has been embraced for centuries as a way for people to play with the concept of gender. It has practical implications, like “gender-bending” in theater and wartime spy operations. Over the last few decades, it’s also shown its immense entertainment value, with shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and drag trivia nights at local bars.
But Pattie said that as the popularity and commercialism of drag have increased, the performance has lost some of its original intentions. She said that throughout LGBTQ+ history, drag has always been a form of activism.
“If you look at some of the first [drag queens], they were often people of color or trans people of color, and drag literally was an art form for activism, for marching on those front lines,” Pattie said. “It’s a political message.”
Pattie’s not looking to call out other queens on forgetting their history. She said she too is guilty of glossing it over, but there’s an opportunity to recenter the gender performance and ask: What’s the purpose here? What’s the importance and power of drag?
Behind the booming personality of Pattie is Wyn Wiley, an Eagle Scout and wedding photographer. Although many people want to credit his drag persona to his experience in the outdoors as a scout, Wiley said that it has more to do with his experiences as a creator and desires to communicate through art. Drag is an umbrella for all the ways he expresses himself. Under that performance, he employs his photography and public relations skills, his voice and his activism.
“I love drag because it’s like a template and a canvas for me to imagine the world however I want it to be. I think that drag is a really powerful tool for performance art, but also just for my self-expression,” Pattie said.
Another side of Pattie that Wiley enjoys exploring is the dissonance of growing up in an outdoorsy, rural area like the Midwest as a queer person. Wiley was raised in Nebraska, where he continues to live today.
“I’ve kind of always been in environments that are really different than me or where I’ve often been the only queer person in my community. That really inspires me a lot too,” he said. “I love gray areas. I think we spend so much time searching for places that are completely comfortable and I’m like, I kind of think some discomfort is a good thing.”
Pattie said that many queer people flock to cities, but she really started to become herself more so in natural spaces. Although a part of her eco-activism on Instagram focuses on conservation with messages about recycling and plastic use, her main goal is to make outdoor spaces more accessible to everyone.
“There have always been queer people in the outdoors and there just haven’t been tools to allow them to gain visibility,” Pattie said. “We’re really starting to see where [LGBTQ+] people in the outdoors feel safe for the first time, and I think we’re just starting to see that happen for people of color.”
Being part of the LGBTQ+ community herself, creating a space for queer people has been a top priority for Pattie. However, during pride month in June, the queen used her platform largely to advocate for the Black community. Parks and trailheads are often a place where people of color, specifically Black people, feel unwelcomed, excluded and invisible. In May, the internet exploded with another video of a white woman needlessly calling the cops on a Black man. Amy Cooper called the police on Christian Cooper (no relation), a Black birdwatcher, in Central Park when he asked her to put a leash on her dog.
“I’m excited to continue to be a learner because I do not have the answers, I just have my actions and my efforts, and I’m excited to always care more than it did the day before,” she said.
Pattie said she’s thankful that marginalized people are beginning to feel more comfortable in the outdoors, but there’s a “shit ton” more work to be done.
“A huge part of my role of making community efforts is taking a hold of the privilege and the capital that I have with connections to brands or to donors, and basically using that to fund community for people in the outdoors,” she said.
Using that platform to elevate the social justice message of Leah Thomas, a self-proclaimed intersectional environmentalist, Pattie helped in raising over $116,000 for six Black-led outdoor organizations. The hiking queen pointed out in one post that this was over the $100,000 that Patagonia, a company with nearly $1 billion in annual revenue, donated to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many brands were quick to drop sponsorship of her and other outdoor community leaders, which she said showed her just how fragile the industry is. And despite working with several outdoor companies in the past, Pattie doesn’t look to the industry to have solutions to the problems that exist in the community. To effect real change in the movement for equal enjoyment of natural spaces, she’s been working with other activists like “Dr. Kiona,” the digital educator behind How Not to Travel Like a Basic Bitch.
“I’m really excited to do projects with like-minded people that are really pushing the community forward,” Pattie said. “They’re injecting the outdoor space with an incredible [sense of] community for more unlikely people to be there, for queer people, for people of color, for disabled people and for allies to be there with us.”
Pattie views her role as a trailhead where different communities can meet. She emphasized that the work she does isn’t exclusively for queer people, that it’s always inclusive and everyone’s invited to the party.
“I think a lot of my work is being a bridge between different worlds,” she said. “I think that’s what I’ve always done, sometimes being the only queer person that people know in Nebraska.”
The way she works and who she works with may have changed during the pandemic, but Pattie is still enjoying the great outdoors. She said she’s never experienced as much thankfulness for the park down the street from her house as she has the last few months. She said the period of stay-at-home orders and social distancing should make us all take a step back and rethink what natural spaces mean.
“It’s not about what Instagram photo we can get or what amazing experience we can have,” Pattie said. “I think there’s a lot of this fantasy outdoorsy world, but you know what’s outdoorsy as hell? The bird out your window, literally your backyard, if you’re lucky enough to have one. Let’s start there.”
Don’t get her wrong though, hiking is one of Pattie’s favorite activities. Her Instagram is brimming with photos of her in six-inch heels, rolling mountain peaks in the background. Yes, she really does hike in those things and she plays it off like it’s no big deal, while some of us can barely walk down the street with platforms on.
“I mean, listen, it’s not any more difficult than climbing the side of a mountain just with your body. It’s like, shit’s hard, shit’s weird,” she said. “Why do we do any of this shit? Why do we take a bicycle downhill on the side of a mountain at 40 miles an hour? Everything is crazy. So is trail running and so is hiking in heels.”
Oh, and her favorite place to hike in Colorado?
“My favorite spot to hike in Colorado is wherever there is a rainbow over my head,” she said with the pageantry of Miss America. “You know, a gay as fuck answer.”