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Early this year I did a short interview, published on Rock and Ice, with Lor Sabourin (they/them), who recently became the first non-binary climber to send 5.14 trad, with East Coast Fist Bump (5.14a) in Sedona, Arizona.
The article saw dozens of climbers claw their way out of the woodwork to cry foul on social media. Their arguments ranged from outright banal and derogatory to semi-logical, with the general consensus of the coherent examples being “Why is this worthy of a news piece?”
I’m the last person you need to tell that “[Insert Name] Becomes [Insert Number] to Send [Insert Grade]” is a boring way to report news, and often makes for boring news in general. I literally wrote an edition of this column with that title a few months ago.
Sabourin’s ascent, however, is eminently newsworthy.
It’s no secret that coveted “firsts” are getting harder and harder to come by, and subsequently more and more contrived. Take so-called firsts like Colin O’Brady’s mantle of “First Person to Snapchat from the Summit of Everest.”
Many “firsts” have always been worth something, though, and many still are, particularly cases like Sabourin’s. That’s because there are two types of firsts that matter.
There are the original firsts, the ones that are increasingly hard to find in the modern era. The “First Human to Climb 5.15,” “The First Team to Reach the South Pole,” “The First to Summit an 8,000-meter Peak,” etc. Legitimate original firsts still exist, of course (take the recent first team to summit K2 in winter as a prime example), but the ratio is skewing further and further towards the contrived, with fame-seekers minutely modifying well-trodden objectives to land their names in the record books.
(Anyone who made a lot of cash off GME feel free to donate to my GoFundMe to support my groundbreaking efforts to become the first person in human history to ride a bicycle up White Mountain Peak (14,252 ft) naked while balancing an onion on my nose. More info on my website.)
There are important, newsworthy original firsts, and then there are important, newsworthy representative firsts, like Sabourin’s.
[Also Read You Can’t Be What You Can’t See]
Yes, there have been plenty of cisgender men and women who have climbed 5.14 trad, and of course, someone who uses “they/them” pronouns isn’t at a physical or technical disadvantage when climbing a route in comparison to someone who uses he/him or she/her. Neither is a black man in comparison to a white man. They may very well have had a harder road overall, due to lack of diversity and inclusivity in the climbing space, but it’s not technically harder to send because you identify as non-binary, or because you’re Hindu, or because you’re gay. That much is obvious.
What really matters, why these “firsts” are worth reporting on, is representation.
Growing up as a straight white dude, I was inundated with images of people who looked and identified like me in magazines. Every person in a climbing magazine fit my profile, with the exception of a few white women. Every time I went to the crag, I was surrounded by people who looked like me and identified like me. It was easy to feel at home in the climbing community.
Raised in rural Alabama, I had to drive by Confederate flags every day on my way to the crag, and often wacky anti-LGBTQ rhetoric on small-town church billboards (and no, this wasn’t in the 1980s. This was in the 2000s). I went to Horse Pens 40 last week, and saw dozens of examples of this sort of bigotry on the way there. It always makes me angry, sure, but I never have to feel afraid for my personal safety when I see that sort of thing.
There are many in the climbing community who aren’t as lucky.
The bottom line is that millions of people around the world identify as non-binary, whether openly or not. That’s an immutable fact, one that no Ben Shapiro-esque troll can dispute.
Those millions of individuals now have a role model in climbing that they didn’t have before: Lor Sabourin out here crushing 5.14 trad.
“I would give anything for this headline to say ‘Lor Sabourin is the 1,000th non-binary climber to send 5.14 on gear,’” Sabourin wrote on their Instagram in response to the interview we did. I’d take a different tack, and say I hope that someday soon it’ll be so commonplace that it won’t need to be a headline at all, just like we don’t run headlines whenever a cis white dude sends 5.14 trad.
Eventually, there will perhaps be a legitimate argument that news spotlighting the increasingly minute social categorizations we fall into as human beings is counterproductive when it comes to fostering the level of inclusivity we hope to achieve in our sport and society at large (“[Name] Becomes First Muslim to Send [Grade],” followed by “[Name] Becomes First Lesbian Muslim to Send [Grade],” and so on and so forth).
But in 2021 that argument is a slippery-slope fallacy. We’re far, far, far from reaching that point of contrivance. Representative firsts like Sabourin’s are breaking massive trail for people of their identity.
As a non-binary climber, Sabourin may not have had any greater intrinsic physical disadvantages than Brittany Goris (she/her), who I also interviewed and who sent East Coast Fist Bump a couple weeks prior. Sabourin did, however, have the mental and emotional obstacles of having no one who came before them to look up to, no community of 5.14 crushers before them who identified and represented themselves in the same way Sabourin sees themself. As Humsini Acharya wrote in a kickass Rock and Ice piece on this very topic, “When I went to every climbing session at Colorado University’s rock gym with a knot in my stomach, nervous about how bad I was compared to everyone else who seemed to have grown up in a harness, it wasn’t the image of Tommy Caldwell that got me stoked to keep climbing. It wasn’t Alex Honnold, Chris Sharma or Adam Ondra, or even Lynn Hill. It was a Google search, an Instagram account, three simple words that suddenly made me feel I wasn’t alone: Brown Girls Climb.”
That is the benefit that coverage of ascents like Sabourin’s has, and it’s infinitely valuable.
Sabourin touched on this as well in our interview. “It’s always helpful to have role models that do things before you and pave the way, but I haven’t been able to see very many people who share my experience in the climbing world,” they told me. “That’s given me a lot of freedom to explore my identity, but it’s also felt pretty lonely.”
They added on Instagram: “The truth is, I’ve been the first out non-binary person to send most of the routes that I climb. And for a long time, I thought that it meant that I had to choose between doing something that I love and being who I am.”
For the non-binary folks out there who are just getting into climbing, or for the non-binary climbers out there close to sending 5.14 trad, Lor Sabourin is living proof that they don’t need to make that choice. Sabourin is someone they can look to, someone they can relate to, someone they identify with and be inspired by. Sabourin is paving the way for more climbers like them to feel safe and welcome in the climbing space.
Everyone deserves an opportunity for representation like that.
Owen Clarke is a writer currently based in Tennessee. He is a Contributing Digital Editor at Climbing and Gym Climber. He enjoys Southern sandstone and fish tacos, and is afraid of heights. Follow him on Instagram at @opops13.