Coming Out with the Great Outdoors

Diane Schwartz talks about her work with the Madison LGBT Outdoor Group & Madison Area Women’s Outdoor Network.

Who are you and where are you from?

I grew up in Middleton, Wisconsin, and except for short stints in Wausau, Sauk City, and Mt. Horeb, I have lived in Madison most of my adult life. My parents grew up in rural Sauk County. I learned to love the outdoors while exploring the hills and valley around Sauk City. I learned to cross-country ski when I lived in Wausau in the 1980s and fell in love with the ski/bike lifestyle. In those days, I biked in the summer and skied in the winter and capped off the season with Kortelopet, a 23K race that runs with the Birkebeiner. When I moved back to Madison for grad school in 1987, I still played outside, but not as much. I now live on Madison’s east side and run outdoor programs for kids through Get Kids Outside, my own company (getkidsoutsidenow.com). I also am the site coordinator at Schumacher Farm Park in Waunakee and a member of the Business Forum, a women’s networking group in Madison.

How did you come to be involved in the Madison LGBT Outdoor Group, as well as the Madison Area Women’s Outdoor Network?

Prior to coming out about four years ago, I did most of my outdoor activities alone because I didn’t know where I fit in. All that changed after I came out. I became more confident and sought out others to play with. Plus, I was nearing the big 5-0 and figured it was time for a new start. I started surfing the web for outdoor groups and discovered meetup.com. I instantly became a fan. In April 2010, I joined the Madison Area Outdoor Meetup (MAOM) and became an organizer. The first trip I planned was a day trip to ski Nine-Mile in Wausau. It had been years since I had been there and I missed it. Two people signed up and I never looked back. Was it a risk? Sure. I drove up with a complete stranger, but I knew in my heart that this was a good risk. That person has since become a friend. In December 2010, I discovered the LGBT Outdoor Meetup group and became an organizer. Jon Higgins had just started the group, and I was so grateful. While I love MAOM, it is great to be around other LGBT folks. Jon shared the sentiment. Jon is a longtime Sierra Club leader and started the group to provide a comfortable environment for LGBT folks to enjoy nature and meet others. In November 2012, I saw the need for a women’s group and started the Madison Area Women’s Outdoor Network.

How do these groups support/serve the LGBTQ community?

Getting outside is critical to maintaining healthy and happy lives, but we also need community to break the isolation so many of us feel. These groups offer the joy of outdoor play and the joy of meeting new people all in one place. The groups are safe and friendly and focused on the outdoors. The response has been very positive. In one month, the women’s group grew to over 100 members. The LGBT group now has more than 288 members. The groups also give members opportunities for leadership. I am always looking for people to lead trips. At any given time, there may be three to five different events on the calendar.

How have these groups made a difference in your life and/or the lives of people you know?

It is not an exaggeration to say that these groups transformed my life. I am ten times happier because I have found people to play with in the outdoors, and I think many people in the groups share that feeling. Last spring, the LGBT group took a backpack trip to the Porcupine Mountains, a place I hadn’t been to in over 20 years. There is something about Lake Superior that fills my soul and feeds me spiritually. In February, the women’s group returned to the Porkies for a ski trip. Many women have thanked me for starting the women’s group, just like I thanked Jon for starting the LGBT group. People are grateful that there is a community of people ready and willing to do outdoor activities. Plus, I love seeing women getting involved. I like nurturing leaders and encouraging women to try new things like snowshoeing, skiing, and backpacking. Jon said that the most rewarding aspect about leading trips is introducing people to places they’ve never been, like Baxter’s Hollow or Parfrey’s Glen.

How can readers learn more about these groups?

Go to meetup.com and get a free account. Then search for the LGBT or women’s group and join. Once you join a group, you can see all the outings, and you can e-mail me or Jon. There is no fee to join.