GOAT Path to Adventure: Vermont LGBTQ+ Tour Group a Gatekeeper to Green Mountains
The joy of sliding on snow is not exclusive to any one group of people. The mountains are colorblind, and carving turns at speed delivers the same thrill to everyone regardless of age, ethnicity, background or sexual orientation.
Opportunities to experience skiing and riding are not always presented to everyone in the same way, however. Vermont resident Keith Oberlin recognized a few years ago that as a gay man, he and many of his friends would be helped tremendously in their pursuit of outdoor fun and adventure if they joined together. United in a club, they could motivate and support each other to get outside and enjoy the dynamic sports scene that the Green Mountains offer.
Keith followed through by creating Get Out and Trek – known more commonly by the popular acronym GOAT – as a club to promote camaraderie and help all involved have safe and enjoyable experiences in the Vermont outdoors, including on the state’s renowned ski slopes.
Ski Vermont sat down with Keith to explore his own path to outdoor adventure, the genesis of GOAT and why the club is so crucial to opening the gateway to Vermont sports to LGBTQ men and women.
Ski Vermont: Tell us a bit about your own experiences with the outdoors and how those gave rise to Get Out And Trek.
Keith Oberlin: I would not have described myself as outdoorsy when growing up. Outdoor sports didn’t come naturally to me. I wasn’t the most coordinated kid. In fact, I was the last of my brothers to ride a bike and learn to ski … but something changed in my early 20s. I suddenly was throwing myself into the outdoors. I was the one planning trips with friends and coworkers. I organized ski trips for my rowing club and river trips for my whitewater kayaking buddies.
About 10 years ago, I started visiting Vermont to snowboard and when I and my husband, Ben, needed a break from NYC we bought a home outside of Manchester. Two years ago, I create GOAT, Get Out And Trek, with the goal of opening the world of outdoor sports to the LGBTQ community.
SV: Describe your experience with ski clubs, especially those geared toward gay skiers and riders: How did you first become connected, what was your initial impression of the clubs and their trips, was the emphasis more on skiing/riding/traveling itself or the shared social aspect of it all?
KO: I grew up fairly poor, and any club seemed off-limits due to the expense. My outdoor adventures as a kid and even as a young adult were not organized. It was just me, my family, and sometimes friends. This “clubs aren’t for people like me” mentality started to erode after college when my interest and skill in outdoor sports seemed to explode.
Seeking more friends that did outdoor like things, I found a gay rowing club and started whitewater kayaking with a group. Those were my first experiences of group-related sports and each gave me a feeling of belonging and sense of community.
My move to New York City was a challenge. I was single and without my outdoor community. It happened that I was at a NYC Gay Pride parade with a friend who pointed out a float for a gay ski club and told me I should try it. That winter I signed up for two trips, and my first trip – Vermont, coincidentally - was when I met my now-husband. After a while, I started leading trips for the club. The people I have meet over the years are some of my closest of friends.
I’ve learned that well-managed clubs play a critical role in the gay community. They are a source of meaningful friendships, a place one might find their significant other, a safe space to be your authentic self and a place to learn and enjoy your sport.
SV: What prompted you to start GOAT?
KO: Get Out And Trek: The name says it all regarding its purpose. I had a lot of fun with my rowing club and ski club and I made some great friends. I thought, why not extend that? Let’s do some biking, kayaking, hiking, and camping during the rest of the year. I looked around outside of small non-profit clubs; no company existed for the gays that did this. I thought there is such a need in the gay community for more activities beyond bars and parties that really focus on the outdoors and outdoor sports. That was the beginning.
But GOAT is about more than trips. In all the time I was kayaking, I never met any gay people who were comfortable being out in the sport. I was the only one. I never saw gay athletes or outdoorsmen, I never say the outdoor industry market to us. Basically, I didn’t see me in the outdoors. I started thinking about the challenges queer people might experience trying to enjoy the outdoors.
With GOAT, I am creating a place where the LGBTQ community have a sense belonging, where they are respected for the athlete, adventurist, and enthusiast they are, and where the barriers to accessing the outdoors are removed. Further, through GOAT, I seek to help change the outdoor industry into one that recognizes, supports, and celebrates the LGBTQ community.
SV: What was your initial vision for GOAT? How did that vision shape the formation of the company? Once the company was started, did you need to change aspects to better suit your participants’ needs/wants, or the markets/activities you were involved in?
KO: I believe there’s an appetite in the LGBTQ community for getting outdoors, and unplugging from a hectic world, with like-minded people.
Our focus at GOAT was initially on moderately priced trips. And, trips that were not about skiing/board given the number of ski clubs and gay ski weeks that already existed. Last year we took groups kayaking, ziplining, rock climbing, etc. in Vermont, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New York. It was a way to introduce the community to GOAT and to non-winter sports as well as for us to see what people wanted. It was a huge success.
Something that is very important to me, is listening. We ask our members for a lot of feedback. “What do you want to do? Where do you want to go?” We want to build trips people think are fun, are excited to go on and bring their friends on. It became clear that everyone wanted us to build ski trips. So, last year we added four ski trips (day trips from NYC, a weekend in Vermont, and a trip to Big Sky). And they all sold out. That was a significant statement.
We’ll continue to listen and build trips people want to go on.
SV: Talk about your experiences visiting and skiing in Vermont as a gay man, and with groups such as GOAT. Do you feel like Vermont is a welcoming and inclusive place? Can you pinpoint experiences or memories that illustrate both its good and bad sides in this regard?
KO: What can I say? I live here. Ben and I have always felt welcomed in Vermont. I think that’s because Vermont encourages individualists. People who live their lives and let others—who may be different— do the same. Occasionally, is there some friction when NYC Gay Exuberance meets laid-back Vermont? It happens. Vermont isn’t always as reciprocally emotive and warm as the stereotypical gay traveler. But I believe that demonstrates the tension between Vermonters versus Not-A-Vermonters and challenges with tourism rather than about being gay.
But regardless, any time I’ve interacted with the Vermont hospitality industry, I have had a great experience and have been treated with the utmost respect. It is for this reason I will be creating an annual ski trip to Stratton Mountain and look to build it to be a major event every winter.
SV: We talked briefly about nature as a safe space, and the importance of that. Can you put into words your and your clients’ needs for such spaces and activities within them? Can you quantify the value/importance of the environment that skiing in Vermont provides, and what is unique about it compared to other places/activities?
KO: Vermont is beautiful, with wonderful people. It has a relaxed and genuine feel. It’s an ideal location if you’re an outdoor enthusiast in the NY/Boston metro areas and you want to get away and experience the best the outdoors offers. As far as I’m concerned, it’s perfect for the kind of trips GOAT wants to run. Vermont would be an ideal place to host an annual ski event and possibly an annual summer event celebrating the outdoors and everything Vermont.
The queer community is complex and diverse. Even groups within the community don’t fully understand the needs of others within it. GOAT continues to grow in its understanding of what is needed to create truly safe spaces for all. Gender pronouns and roommate preferences are often the starting point but being open and willing to learn is the most important aspect of creating safe spaces for all parts of the LGBTQ community.
I believe most Vermonters and Vermont business embrace the willingness to learn and grow and that’s what sets Vermont apart.
On the web: https://beagoat.org/