On Oct. 8, Abby Rowe gave a talk in Minsky Hall about her experience as an openly LGBTQ educator. This talk was sponsored by the Maine Bound Adventure Center and the Rainbow Resource Center. It was also part of the Association for Outdoor Recreation and Education Campus Challenge, as well as Coming Out Week.
Rowe is certified as a wilderness emergency medical technician (WEMT), with over twenty-five years of experience as an outdoor educator. She began her career when she was a student at Cornell, where she found refuge working in the outdoor education room.
At the time, Rowe was beginning to explore her sexuality and didn’t feel comfortable in many of the athletic spaces on campus. She described her soccer team as “divisive,” because her teammates and coach had expected everyone to date fraternity members. This environment alienated Rowe from her teammates and the athletic community. When she found the outdoor education room, Rowe found a safe space to work and be authentic.
“[The outdoor education room] became my home. It became my life,” Rowe told the audience.
Rowe also noted that the outdoor education room felt comfortable for her because of how diverse the staff was.
“The people who worked in the outdoor education room were a lot of really functional queer people, a lot of really awesome straight allies,” Rowe said.
Even though Rowe’s first job in the outdoor education and recreation industry was so positive and queer-friendly, she noticed a lack of diversity in her following jobs. For example, she told the audience that she was one of the only gay staff members when she was the director of outdoor education at Colgate University. Rowe noted that being a minority in this academic setting was uncomfortable. She also said that her co-workers treated her differently for her sexual orientation, which made it hard to feel welcomed or comfortable as a queer person in an academic setting.
However, Rowe’s queer identity is not the only thing that has impacted her career. She also discussed how being a woman in such a male-dominated industry affected her. During her talk, she described a rather awkward experience she’d had as the only woman involved in a work-related outdoor activity. Rowe shared a situation where her male co-worker had used the term “guys” to address the group but always made it clear that he meant it in a gender-neutral way. He only explained the intent behind his wording when she was there because she was the only woman in the group, which singled out Rowe and created tension between her and her coworkers.
Rowe followed up by saying that she found the sexist bias in her work life to be more frequent than homophobic bias.
“I feel like I’ve encountered some bias in my work life. It’s been more focused on me being female than being queer,” she said in a comment to the Maine Campus.
Throughout her talk, Rowe made it clear that she thought diversifying the outdoor industry was important to her. She discussed her service in the outdoor recreation industry and noted how providing educational opportunities about the outdoors benefitted families, women and the LGBTQ community. Rowe valued these communities and enjoyed providing a space for them.
“The outdoors were so instrumental for me in terms of self-confidence and personal growth. [The LGBTQ community, communities of women and families] are the communities I identify with the most, and I feel I can serve the most,” Rowe noted.
Rowe’s talk came at an important time for the UMaine community. Not only was it delivered during Coming Out Week, a week of celebration for LGBTQ students at UMaine, it was also held on the same day as two supreme court cases about whether companies could discriminate against LGBTQ workers. This talk highlighted the importance of creating a space for LGBTQ people in the workplace and served to enforce the idea that the Supreme Court cases should be thoroughly reviewed. Rowe offered hope and education for the LGBTQ community and others at a time when it was more necessary than ever.