Queen P: Pattie Gonia on Drag and Identity in the Outdoors

Queen P: Pattie Gonia on Drag and Identity in the Outdoors

INTERVIEW BY WILLOW DEFEBAUGH

PHOTOGRAPHS BY EVAN BENALLY ATWOOD

Whether they’re hiking in heels or organizing on the trails, drag environmentalist Pattie Gonia is on a mission to bring inclusivity to the outdoors—proving that climate and queerness go hand in hand and that community makes a queen out of everyone.

Willow Defebaugh

Pattie! Tell me about your makeup look today.

Pattie Gonia

Well, yesterday this photographer that I follow photographed a bird (a bilateral gynandromorph northern cardinal, to be exact) that is half male and half female—split directly down the middle. The red half is male, the white half is female. In most bird species, it’s actually the males that are the colorful ones (hence, drag queens). I thought it was quite incredible, so I thought to myself, Why not make a look out of it today?

Willow

It’s perfect. Speaking of drag, let’s start with Patricia’s origin story.

Pattie

Oh, Patricia Gonia! Well, the lesser-known story is that Ginger Snap was my first drag persona. I was going to a photography conference, where I would teach and speak, and it was the first truly safe, inclusive space that I was a part of. They always had this dance party on the final night of the conference. The invitation was just to come as whatever you want to be. And so, I went as Ginger Snap because of my red hair and at the time I was a full-time photographer. It was the first time that this queer kid from the Midwest ever did a thing that I was told my whole entire life not to do. You know, when I came out of the closet, I felt like I almost went further back into the closet because I really started living by what everyone else told me I had to do in order to be a good gay, rather than having the permission to truly be and evolve into every version of myself.

 

I often ask myself who I would actually be if I was born now. I think I would truly feel more nonbinary. Since birth, I was served a binary of: You’re either gay or straight, you’re either male or female. And I think a lot of that was just inaccessibility. I think that my parents were trying to love me the best their language would allow. But I think there was some internal homophobia that was built inside myself, too. So, all of that was kind of let loose when Ginger Snap happened. I thought to myself, What is this world like? Oh my gosh, this is such a world that I never let myself live. But because it was a photography conference, people took photos, and they leaked back to Nebraska without my consent. I came home to my house being egged, came home to a lot of people who I thought were friends being completely silent and even lost some clients in the process. For the first time in my life, I was seeing conditional love. I think it’s kind of the secret of the coming out process that it’s also painful and weird because you’re like, Who can I trust?

 

When I was Ginger Snap, I wore these black high heel boots, and when I came home, I put those boots physically into my closet, and I said to myself, Fuck this, it is too painful. It is too much. I will just go back to my straight-passing gay life. I will play by the rules again. I will just do whatever because I don’t want to lose people in my life. And it wasn’t until six months later, when I was packing to go on a backpacking trip with a few of my good friends, that I was looking in my closet and I saw my high heel boots. And I thought, I’m just going to pack them in my bag. I’ll just get them out on the summit. And I remember on this trip feeling like, Oh my gosh, while I’m out here in nature, no one is judging me. This is a completely safe space. And I’ve always felt myself able to be more feminine when I’m outdoors. Even though it wasn’t really the birth of Pattie on that backpacking trip, that was the first time that I wore those boots in the outdoors. And I will never forget that experience.

 

So then, I posted this video online, it went viral…but I remember sitting there and being like, This is an opportunity to start living unapologetically and to truly put to death a past me that gave up so much of myself for other people’s safety. And yeah, it was painful. Even more people that I thought were in my corner left my life, but this new, beautiful outdoor queer community was forming. And I’m sitting here now just realizing how important it was for me to choose to live unapologetically, because I think I could have just so easily put my boots back into the closet. But a closet is nowhere to be. And I think a lot of us live a lie to ourselves that we are out of the closet when really we’re still not letting ourselves be unapologetically who we are.

Queen P: Pattie Gonia on Drag and Identity in the Outdoors
Queen P: Pattie Gonia on Drag and Identity in the Outdoors

“Oftentimes, we find ourselves saying, We must act on climate now. No, we have to connect to climate now so that we can act on it from a place of connection and love—because we fight for what we love. We have to get in touch with our identity and who we are.”

Pattie Gonia

Willow

“Coming out” is such a strange phrase because it implies that there’s this one moment when the door opens and we step outside of it, when coming out is often a continuous process, in the same way that there was not one fixed moment when Pattie was born. I came out as gay at one point, I came out as nonbinary at another point. Sometimes, I feel like it’s closets within closets.

Pattie

I couldn’t agree more. If anything, I’m learning that giving yourself permission leads to more discovery and more metamorphosis. Language informs our understanding of ourselves. Like, I literally did not even hear the term “nonbinary” until two years ago. Until we have a word for something, it’s so hard to live it out. We feel like we’re wrong. Language is powerful.

Willow

It really is. There was a whole part of myself I didn’t understand because I didn’t have the language for it. It took me until I was 30 to hear about being nonbinary, which opened a door in understanding who I am. But that’s the whole thing about the gender binary: It imposes the belief that there are these two, fixed options and that there’s nothing in between or outside of it.

Pattie

Which is so contrary to everything nature teaches us.

Willow

Completely. In our previous conversation, you mentioned something about how activism and community are so central to the history of drag. Can you tell me more about that?

Pattie

When I look at drag history—it was all activism. The purpose of it was to interrupt, to mess with the rules that society wrote, to put it in people’s faces. And that just resonates a lot with me. Getting in drag is a political act. I do the work of activism and advocacy on the shoulders of so many greats, and the drag queens that I really look up to nowadays are advocates who are making space for others. Peppermint, Sasha Velour, Bob the Drag Queen, Marty G. Cummings—they’re doing the damn thing. And that’s just something for more drag queens to claim because I think it gives drag purpose, it gives it life.

Willow

Who is the community around Pattie?

Pattie

The common goal for all of my collaborators or the Pattie community is to get outside and get connected to nature. ’Cause if you can’t get connected to it, how are you going to advocate for it? Oftentimes, we find ourselves saying, We must act on climate now. No, we have to connect to climate now so that we can act on it from a place of connection and love—because we fight for what we love. We have to get in touch with our identity and who we are. We’ve done everything from drag shows to group hikes and trail and beach cleanups. This year, we’re doing a lot of trash cleanups on trails, as well as trying our best to fund and support the nonprofit efforts that provide opportunities for other diverse or queer people to get into the outdoors. Oftentimes, that means me not taking center stage and instead fundraising backend capital support for different organizations that are doing the work. Not trying to reinvent the wheel but funding the wheels that are working: organizations like Soul Trak Outdoors, which is a Black youth outdoor nonprofit, Brave Trails, which is a LGBTQIA+ summer camp, and HBCUs Outside, which provides a lot of the missing gaps for college outdoor programs to be run by people of color for people of color.

Willow

Drag queens are often expected to be constantly turning out new looks and content. How do you tackle sustainability in that space?

Pattie

I have a lot of respect for how different drag queens do different things, but I think I’ve just had to give myself assurance that the way I do it is perfect for me because I do drag in such an untraditional way. Like, I’ve been wearing this same eyelash for three months, but I love it. I wear this jacket that I wear every day hiking and call it a drag look. I wear the same four outfits in a revolving manner—if I do that in everyday life, I can do that in drag, too. There are also so many incredible sustainable designers out there—why wouldn’t I want to collaborate with them and shine a light on their work? I do drag for self discovery and for community and for impact. And I think as long as I’m doing that and also being sustainable in the process, it’s cool by me. You don’t need to build a shell, you just need to have a heart.

Queen P: Pattie Gonia on Drag and Identity in the Outdoors
Pattie wears Gunnar Deatherage upcycled dress, necklace, corset, and cuffs, Annie Hardt wig, Chase and Scout earrings

“Is drag defined by being able to paint this face? Do I feel the pressure of that? For sure. But honestly, drag is a feeling. For me, drag is bending gender in any way you want to bend it.”

Pattie Gonia

Willow

So many of the issues that we’re experiencing in the world today can be traced to ego, which is really a fancy word for identity. In Western culture, we have this understanding that identity is fixed, like you have this personality that you’re supposed to be projecting in the world. And then it’s like, Well, what happens if I express this new part of me, does that change my identity? And so, we have these identity crises when we change and evolve. We have this view of the self as being so individual and fixed when we’re actually a product of so many things. Like, I say, This body is Willow, but really, it’s a heart, it’s lungs, skin—it’s hard to say where to draw the line. What is your relationship with identity these days?

Pattie

Wow, I fucking love that. If anything, it’s like there really is no Pattie. I mean, there is, but it’s also just me. When I’m in drag, I’m not putting on an act; it’s just another way for me to express parts of myself. I struggle with drag because I don’t want to compartmentalize Pattie and Wynn. I don’t want to separate these two worlds, you know? Because it’s not that. Sometimes, I feel way more in drag when I’m just in my high heels and no makeup at all. Like, is drag defined by being able to paint this face? Do I feel the pressure of that? For sure. But honestly, drag is a feeling. For me, drag is bending gender in any way you want to bend it.

 

Drag has also given me this confidence that I’ve never had before in my life because I felt like I had to squash a whole entire inner side of me that I didn’t know I had. I’m learning to not just code switch when I meet a new person. It’s so easy for me to pop into masculine me—lower voice, straight passing—’cause it’s what I’ve always fucking done. And I feel ashamed because I have had that internalized homophobia my whole life. So yeah, my relationship with identity is really, really in progress. I try to have a bird’s-eye view as to my story—and it’s funny. Oh, the irony of “person with super toxic self-harming talk leaves Nebraska, puts on heels, and realizes that the biggest person in their way was themselves.”

 

Like even painting my nails is so powerful for me. And it seems so silly, right? Like paint your fucking nails. Just paint them, no one really cares. But it’s important to me, it’s powerful to me, and it’s about wearing that. I do live such a straight-passing life, but then I have these completely vibrant, hidden butterfly wings. And so, if you’re asking about identity, I’m in year two of really encountering my true self and giving myself permission to change and to be.

Willow

That’s beautiful. I think this is also where conversations around queer identity get so nuanced and fascinating. You say that it was you who stood in your own way, but was it you or was it the system you were brought up in and what it instilled in you? Shame is so insidious, the way it shifts the narrative and the blame. Have you experienced a lot of discrimination as a queer person in the outdoor community?

Pattie

The outdoors, just like any community in America, has so much work to do to be an equitable space for all. I have faced direct homophobia, and I have faced covert homophobia. So, I’m just really thankful to be in community with people that make me feel safe when I’m out on the trails, because I’m oftentimes never alone. And also, I’m a six-foot-three, 195-pound, muscular, white, straight-passing male. So, I also hold a lot of privilege. When I hear the experiences of other people—people of color, trans folks, people who hold so much less privilege than me—I just think the outdoors has so much work to do. And by that, I mean the outdoor community and outdoor industry, because nature is just fine.

 

I think about Ahmaud Arbery who was outside on a run or Christian Cooper who was birdwatching in Central Park. People are racist and homophobic, whether they’re in their houses or on the trail. And I think that we are a lot more vulnerable when we’re out on the trail and we’re alone and encountering another person. The majority of us have this mindset to leave no impact on the trail, but as a community, we need to be thinking more about what it looks like to be an ally for the people we are sharing the trail with—allyship on the trails.

Willow

There’s this stereotype that has separated queer people from the outdoors—that we’re not “outdoorsy”—and simultaneously there’s this history of weaponizing nature against queer people—saying queerness doesn’t exist in nature, which we know is scientifically incorrect.

Queen P: Pattie Gonia on Drag and Identity in the Outdoors
Queen P: Pattie Gonia on Drag and Identity in the Outdoors

“Treating yourself like a queen is just treating yourself well, giving yourself what you need, and celebrating all that you are. Being a queen is about giving yourself the space you need to just keep on discovering yourself.”

Pattie Gonia

Pattie

For sure. Even just being “outdoorsy” is still such a masculine concept because it’s been sold to us by commercialism when, really, the outdoors is so feminine. I mean, we are in Mother Nature’s house—need I say more? Even as a kid, going to Boy Scouts camp, I was fed the lie that unless you get in touch with your masculinity and “become a man,” the outdoors are not a space for you. And so, my first outdoor experiences were completely toxic. But then, also I met my first openly queer person there.

 

I do want to give a shoutout to two queer people in my life, Pinar and So. They’re a couple who founded [the Instagram page] Queer Nature, and they have just opened up my mind in so many ways to how directly queerness shows up everywhere in nature—how much queer community exists in the outdoors beyond what we often see. Really, there’s no better place for queer people than in nature. There’s this narrative of queer people running to metropolitan spaces for acceptance, but if anything, I feel like running into the forest with the butterflies transforming in beautiful ways is really the queer future.

Willow

In a recent post you wrote, “I don’t want you to call me a queen. I want you to treat Mother Nature and your damn self as one.” So, what does being a queen mean to you?

Pattie

Well, if anything, I would be more inclusive with my language, and I would actually say, Treat yourself like royalty. Though, even that is still a colonized concept. But in a broad sense, I think that treating yourself like a queen is just treating yourself well, giving yourself what you need, and celebrating all that you are. Being a queen is about giving yourself the space you need to just keep on discovering yourself. That’s what it means to me. The concept of drag is so weird though, because I often feel this ebb and flow of centering and celebrating self and also community.

Willow

That’s interesting because individuality is also so central to the queer experience and queer community. And that uniqueness is so important. There is such a thing as a healthy relationship to ego. In an ecosystem, every individual has a role to play. Going back to the idea of a body: The heart has an identity, it has a role to play, a uniqueness within my particular ecosystem. Identity and community shouldn’t have to be at odds, because your identity is part of your community. I guess you could say it’s not a binary.

Pattie

Love it. What an invitation to keep searching, and I think searching in the beautiful queerness of nature all around us is quite a wonderful place to start.

CREATIVE ASSISTANTS Dayna Turnblom and Jenny Dugan

Shop Atmos Volume 05: Hive

Shop Atmos Volume 05: Hive

In the face of the climate crisis, one thing is clear: we will only get to an ecologically just future by way of working together. If humankind is to heal its relationship to the rest of creation, it must restore harmony—which cannot exist without collaboration. And what could be more emblematic of holism and harmony than a hive?

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