Writer, photographer, and runner Erin McGrady helps create safe spaces for queer folks in the South and beyond. Learn more about her in the fourth installment of our “Who is a Runner” series.
Meet Erin McGrady
Erin McGrady contains multitudes. She’s a runner; a gay, Korean American woman; an adopted child of white parents; a business owner. She also battles depression. Erin embraces all these life experiences, but labels aren’t really her thing.
“I think that we can all be more than the labels that are assigned to us, so I’m constantly in rebellion, rejection of that. On one hand, I don’t want to be seen as a person that really struggles with depression. Although that is me, I want to be able to move through it and still be me, but I accept that is a part of me,” she said.
For Erin, running is a powerful tool that she uses to improve her mental well-being.
“I guess you could say it saved my life in that something special happens after the third or fourth mile where I become a better version of myself. I feel like I have some hope, and I have the courage to have hope as opposed to sometimes when I start out — I just have all these negative thoughts about myself or my outlook on things. That repetition of feet and being outside and moving and breathing hard literally transports me to a different place.”
While Erin does enjoy the solitude of running alone, she spends plenty of time on the trails of Asheville with Caroline Whatley, her partner in life and business. The couple matched on Tinder and married in 2017 after a long-distance courtship.
One of their first dates was a run, and they were both taken aback by each other’s running styles. Caroline preferred to take the same route every day, while Erin made a conscious effort to explore a new path each time she left her home.
“I often feel a lot of joy running around the trails here in Asheville. I love some windy, twisty single track. We have a lot of that. Some of it’s pretty technical with the rooty, rocky stuff. I have been known to trip while trail running so that part’s not fun, but just being out there in nature is great. Caroline and I love to do that together.”
About Authentic Asheville
Running styles aside, Erin and Caroline share an incredible work ethic, some admitted stubbornness that keeps each of them on their toes, and tattoos that tell the story of their relationship. They also share a business called Authentic Asheville. Part travel blog, part camper van resource, Authentic Asheville also plays an important role in the LGBTQ+ community in Asheville and beyond. They partner with a digital magazine called DapperQ to create guides that feature safe spaces for LGBTQ+ travelers.
People in the LGBTQ+ community deal with this challenge daily, and Erin and Caroline are working hard to help alleviate some of those concerns for travelers in the South.
“We’ve had the experience of feeling like we make other people uncomfortable, and where we’re sort of allowed into the space but not really welcomed into the space. … I think it’s a question for both of us all the time, if it’s really because we’re gay or if it’s really because we’re a biracial couple, or if it’s really because Erin’s Korean and not white. It can be hard to figure out which of those it is, or if it’s all of them together,” Caroline said.
To create their travel guides, Erin and Caroline do plenty of research and then canvas an area for a minimum of 48 hours. Then they collect and share information about LGBTQ+ safe spaces. Think coffee shops, restaurants, bookstores, music stores, parks, community centers, and more.
“It’s a way for the community [to find] some surefire places where they’re going to be safe and they’re going to feel seen and welcome. Most people when they travel, they don't have forever. They might have a weekend or a week, and no one wants to go somewhere on their own dime and have a terrible time, or an unsafe time,” Erin said.
The couple has covered cities across the country, including Amarillo, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Savannah, and many more.
Erin explained that when she and Caroline are on assignment for travel guides for DapperQ, many of the people they meet are enthusiastic because there’s an immediate rapport that comes from shared experience within the LGBTQ+ community.
“They’re excited that there is this resource out there and that they get to be included in it, especially in places like Savannah where it’s in the South and there’s a lot of deep, very complicated, difficult history there."
"You can let your guard down and you can be in community almost immediately with queer people like yourself. The rest of the world is happening outside the door, but when you’re in that space, you feel like you belong there.”
Want to learn all about this small but mighty community-building effort? Follow @authenticashville on your favorite channels or check out its homepage for trip guides to plan your next run-cation.
Brooks has partnered with the Camp4Collective to amplify amazing, untold stories in our “Who is a Runner” series. Be sure to explore our YouTube channel to see more of these great stories.