Northeast Ohio LGBTQ+ hiking group finds solidarity in nature
It’s an early February morning and the Cuyahoga Valley Queer Hike group makes their way along the Oxbow Trail at Cascade Valley Summit Metropark in Akron. The rushing waters of the Cuyahoga River are interspersed by the lively discussions of the 29 or so hikers.
The organization was founded in December 2019 as a private Facebook group specifically for members of the LGBTQ+ community who have a passion for hiking and nature. Each month they get together for a hike through the various parks across Northeast Ohio, mostly centering on the Cuyahoga Valley between Cleveland and Akron.
"We have done my favorite, the Ledges now, two or three times. We've done Brandywine, Gorge Loop now a third time," said group founder Kevyn Breedon, a 32-year-old transgender man who goes by he/they pronouns.
He is a program instructor for the Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park and brings his love of nature and love of the LGBTQ+ community to the hiking group.
Breedon said that in 2016 or 2017, he found out about a project called Venture Out located in New England. That hosts outdoor experiences specifically for the LGBTQ+ community.
"I remember saying, oh, that [would be] so nice to have something, you know, closer to Ohio," said Breedon. "Instead of just the Pacific Northwest or New England."
The popularity of the group has soared since it began. The group has over 1,000 members on Facebook that come from all over the region. Kevyn recalled that after the first month of the Facebook group's existence, it had 250 members.
"I really found something that people are looking for here. And, and very quickly it grew" said Breedon. "Our last hike at Brandywine Gorge [was] on a pretty cold, miserable, gray day. We had 20-something people [on] that November hike. Our youngest hiker was eight months old and our oldest hiker was 82 years old."
"I’m willing to drive a little bit because I love hiking so much and being in nature. And today's gorgeous the sun came out. I just love it!" said Amanda, a self-identified bisexual from Lyndhurst. She said the group has helped her connect with other members of the LGBTQ+ community in a setting beyond the internet.
"It's nice to have people, that I could connect to, like, you know, in person," said Amanda. "I've loved nature ever since I was a little kid. So to be able to have a group that is very like-minded, like me, that loves to just kind of come on hikes and just talk and, you know, just kind of unwind, and not have to worry about what's going on in the outside world. It's just a beautiful, beautiful group."
And having that feeling of safety is important, especially in light of recent Ohio bills impacting the LGBTQ+ community — mainly House Bill 68 which would disallow transgender Ohioans under the age of 18 from accessing HRT or hormone replacement therapy to treat their diagnosed gender dysphoria.
"It really is a serious situation here," said Breedon. "It's not always easy being transgender in Ohio, and I know people that have already had to flee, friends of mine that have had to flee."
Rose Pace, a transgender woman is joined on the hike by her dog Renly, who she named after a character from the Game of Thrones series. Pace said that when she came out as transgender during the pandemic, she could only find others like herself in the community online with most being far away in other states.
"When I started actually getting back to going out in public, it's like I didn't know where to do or where to go," said Pace. "And I'm not really a late-night type of person or anything like that. Going out to like a club or something is not my big thing. So just having a group of people that you can actually be with, you know, together in real life and know that you're not alone."
Kevin, a 34-year-old bisexual man from Kent shared what the group means to him.
"It's difficult to get people that aren't I guess they're, you know, familiar with the community to just go to a gay bar or something," said Kevin. "But you can get them [to] come to a hike and it, you know, you just meet people you get comfortable around. You get comfortable standing around holding the flags and stuff and it sits. It helps to build that connection."
He is referring to the point in the hike where group leader Breedon gathers up the hikers for a picture in a scenic area. The group stops in front of a ledge overlooking the Cuyahoga River. Breedon hands out various LGBTQ+ flags including the rainbow progress flag and the pastel pink and blue striped transgender pride flag before snapping the photo.
Toward the end of the hike where the mud gives way to the paved parking lot, Sarah Eli and Celeste Tannenbaum discussed their experience finding connections in the queer community.
"I live out in the country, and so I have to actively work to find queer community," said Tannenbaum. " Usually I don't just run into them at like the bar down the road or something like that one, as I did when I lived in the cities. And so, I feel like I need to put that effort into cultivating queer community and being around the queer people. And I really like this, the chance to do so."
Both described themselves as queer. Eli traveled down from Lorain County to hike and Tannenbaum from Marlboro, Ohio. They had just met that day.
"For myself, I grew up in a church, and I'm not really a member of a church right now, but there's something, I think irreplaceable about a community of people that you're not necessarily, you know, best friends or relatives or whatever," said Eli. "But you come together around a common cause and just share time and fellowship together. So for me, this is a way to get that."
The group resembles more a family than a hodge podge of new acquaintances. They are a group of people who want to live their truth and be free to just be themselves.
Group leader Breedon recalls that when he was first setting up the group, he was worried about possible blowback from his then-boss at Hale Farm and Village for needing Saturdays off for the hike.
"She's like, no, you're part of LGBT history here in Ohio," said Breedon. "Like someone's going to be doing research about what it was like in these times in Ohio, and your name is going to come up and Cuyahoga Valley Queer Hikes going to come up."