It’s safe to say that Mikah Meyer loves a challenge.
After all, we’re talking about a man who sought to be the youngest person to visit every U.S. national park in one journey and he did it. He also stood up to advocate for LGBTQ people in the wide open spaces of the great outdoors. Along the way, he got major outdoor brands and suppliers to get on board by sharing a story of faith and acceptance while growing up the gay son of a Lutheran minister.
Since Feb. 1, Meyer has been running across the state of Mississippi in part to promote the Outside Safe Space program he started last year, but also as an effort to foster understandings and conversations on inclusion and equity issues.
The Minneapolis-based writer and advocate says the idea came to him after completing a similar run across Minnesota last fall. He asked his social media supporters what state they felt was the nation’s most homophobic.
“Having been in college at the University of Memphis, where the suburbs spill into Northern Mississippi, I know how bad it is down here and I know how desperately needed anything positive about LGBTQ folks is down here,” Meyer said. “In the planning for this, I received a powerful message from an operator for The Trevor Project. Anecdotally, they shared that the majority of their calls come from two states, Florida and Mississippi. That is why I’m here.”
Meyer notes that this run, much like his three-year sojourn to every national park, emphasizes that there are what he terms “multiple Americas” in regard to LGBTQ people. He met this fact head-on this while planning a route through Tupelo in this run’s opening week. The route would include a stop at the birthplace monument of rock-n-roll legend Elvis Presley.
“On Monday, we went to Elvis’ birthplace to scout out the place,” Meyer recalled. “I had called their administration earlier that day and said I was coming to do this and asked if they wanted to work together. They basically said no, they didn’t want to work together.”
“On Tuesday, I run to Elvis’ birthplace house. We show up, take pictures, and there is this one employee just watching us the whole time,” he told Outsports. “Wednesday, we show up to run from the house, and on this day I’m dressed-up in an Elvis costume. We roll up into the parking lot and this same employee comes out shouting at us, ‘you can’t be here! you need to leave now!’ But, we had been filming for two days. It was weird, in what changed between day two and day three?”
Meyer termed incidents like those as the “quiet homophobia” bubbling underneath. He also cited a speaking engagement at two Rotary Club meetings while running through Oxford. Speaking engagements are a staple of Meyer’s adventure quests. Speaking, and delivering an occasional sermon the way his late father did, helped raised money for his mammoth national park trek.
He did something different for these speeches, however. “When I speak to Rotary Clubs, I always start out with being a pastor’s kid, my dad died of cancer, and I love national parks. I talk-up my church history, and they love it,” Meyer said. “Then about halfway through, I talk about being gay. You can see one-third of the room slump in their chairs and get on their phones. It’s like ‘we love all the good about you, but leave that one part out’.”
Despite the slights, bumps and weather conditions that went from sweltering to a surprise snowstorm, this runner will have plowed through more than 170 miles across the state when it’s all over, to end with a celebration Feb. 28.
There have been a number of moments of joy and connection. One of those happened in Oxford. He said a passing motorist yelled out, “What are you doing?” Meyer said he yelled back, “Running across Mississippi for gay rights!” The motorist shouted back, “Hell yeah!”
Some of those moments will be part of a documentary film of this journey. Filmmaker Derek Dodge, who produced an acclaimed 2018 documentary on gay endurance racing driver Hurley Haywood, chronicled this trip from the beginning. “Mississippi is a place I had never been before,” Dodge said. “There are some real differences of opinions and lifestyle and it’s eye-opening.”
Dodge also noted that he and Meyer have been able to have a lot of impromptu interactions with people on the streets and in the stores across the state. The opportunity to have those moments keeps Meyer running and speaking out.
“I’m here to be a light in the darkness,” Meyer emphasized. “I’m running across the state in a rainbow tutu so that maybe some little queer kid here can see that. If one kid here in Mississippi hears about this and it gives them the hope and the will to keep going, then it's worth it.”