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I Looked For Homophobia in Climbing and This Is What I Found

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This article originally appeared in Climbing No. 258 (July 2007) under the title “GLBT and Joshua Tree: Queering climbing, a first-person essay.” We present it here as a suite of essays Climbing is running for LGBTQ Pride Month. While things have begun shifting positively on a society-wide basis since the piece first appeared in print—for example, gay marriage was effectively made legal in all 50 states in 2015—the issues around homophobia that the author, Tanya Pluth, brings up, both within and outside the climbing community, remain as pressing as ever.

1995: I told myself it was an umbrella, not a gun. Why, at 6 p.m. on a Wednesday, would someone stand five feet away, yell, “I thought you were a man, you fucking dyke!” and point a gun at me? They wouldn’t. That’d be ridiculous. Scary. Unbelievable. The woman with the gun wore a thick winter coat, hood pulled up so I couldn’t see her whole face… only her nose and her teeth, white in the shadow. Other words that I immediately forgot poured out of her angry throat.

A particular thing happens when a gun is pointed at you. It’s a kind of focus that decides a gun is an umbrella, that notices the third button missing from the woman’s coat, and that sees her left shoe has red laces, but her right has none at all.

It recalls that Emmanuel Hospital is only three blocks away, and maybe you could crawl there after getting shot. It’s a focus that navigates the intersection of the banal and the dramatic, the secure and the volatile, the wisdom of instinct in the face of reason.

In essence, it’s a focus that’s much like the one required by climbing.

***

Five years after I experienced this assault, Seth and Helgi, two old-school climbers, took me to Smith Rock to try my hand on Cinnamon Slab in some kind of sport they called “trad climbing.” Six years of climbing later, I realize that like many other GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bi, and Transsexual; I use “queer” to include all) climbers, I hadn’t really thought much about queer-ness and climbing — a fortunate testament to the tolerance level of most climbers. I climbed wherever I felt drawn to the stone, and chose my climbing partners based on intuition about their climbing skills and their overall personalities, not their sexual orientation. But this last one, at least, was about to change.

Flash forward to spring 2006, when I threw my hat in the ring for a trip based solely on two facts: Joshua Tree quartz monzonite and a bunch of GLBT climbers. Loosely translated, GLBT climbers means gay/bi men. As most of us know, the ratio of male to female climbers is, well, like laying the full Joshua Tree guidebook next to a copy of John Long’s thumb-width classic How to Rock Climb. And since we GLBT types still only make up about 10 percent of the population, it’s safe to say that transferred to the total number of women climbers, this percentage works out to about, oh, five of us being GLBT women.

At Joshua Tree’s Hidden Valley Campground, I met the folks from the Bouldering and Rock Climbing Club at Connexion.org by seeking out the VW Jetta with the little pride flag sticking out of the roof rack. Michael, who’d recently relocated to Southern California from the East Coast, showed up first. Then a bunch of guys straggled in as daylight waned.

“Thank God you came,” Doug, also from Socal, said, welcoming me. “There’s got to be at least one token lesbian on each trip.”

Doug introduced me to Bill, Eric, Todd, and David. Each agreed that most Connexion.org trips have at least one lesbian mascot. They said it so kindly that I forgot to feel annoyed, jumping instead into conversation. I asked the guys about their experiences as GLBT climbers.

“There’s a lot of assumed heterosexuality,” David, a climber from Colorado, said when I asked him about gay-ness and climbing. “People think you’re straight because, well, check these guys out — no one ‘looks’ gay, whatever that means.” Andrea, a GLBT and Joshua Tree lesbian climber, said assumed heterosexuality also comes into play when seeking climbing buddies. “The straight guys think I’m cute, so a lot of times if I climb with them, after a while they hit on me,” she said. “And then when I tell them I’m a lesbian, it’s, like, suddenly I’m even more attractive and they won’t let it alone.” She says she doesn’t often climb with other lesbians “because, well, let’s just say it’s a small community.”

Small community or not, queer-ness remains, well, a queer thing. Some of us do “look” gay, and some of us don’t. “A lot of times I feel like people tend to stereotype, both gay and straight,”

Jared, a queer climber living in North Carolina, told me. “I get flack from the gay community: ‘Oh, [climbing’s] so butch.’ It’s seen as hyper-masculine. But as a climber, I also defy straight stereotypes. Gay men, especially gay climbers, are not going to be super effeminate. Climbing’s not going to be that guy’s scene. He goes to the fabric store for fun. I go to the New River Gorge.”

***

I kept the questions flowing, and by the end of the trip felt confident that the day’s last tie-in wouldn’t be the final time climbing with my new friends. We approached the Southwest Corner, a 5.6 on Headstone Rock that is more steep, exposed, and runout than any of us wanted it to be. We loitered at the base of the climb and stared up, offering half-hearted suggestions.

“I could get to the second bolt alright.”

“Where? I don’t see any holds.”

“It’s just getting to the third. …”

Awkward silence. I was thinking. We were all thinking, probably… about warnings, intuition, “what-if” scenarios.

I wondered how long we’d all sit there before admitting the obvious — none of us meant to try the thing. Finally, Doug

broke the silence.

“Well, at least now you’ve got a theme for your story — gay climbers really are wimps,” he said.

No, we weren’t wimps. But we were gay. And as queers in a world where even San Francisco, the international mecca for all things gay and proud, has more than 300 violent anti-queer hate crimes each year, we learn to follow the voices inside when they give us a heads-up that something isn’t right… social conventions and egos be damned. Still, experience, knowledge, and intuition are scant defense against a society full of people willing to tell you when you’ve stepped out of line: strangers with guns, a president willing to change the Constitution to protect marriage from the idea of queer commitment, the American Center for Law and Justice listing the “gay agenda” as one of the top three threats to the American way of life.

I’ve never experienced overt homophobia from other climbers, and none of the GLBT climbers I spoke to shared stories of intimidation or harassment at the crag. I wish this meant that it never happens and that climbers across the board welcome gay-ness. On the one hand, the climbing community values libertarianism, independence, and above all, people who can climb. On the other hand, climbers come from all walks of life.

During a recent perusal of the online climbing community, for example, I found plenty of latent — and not-so-latent — homophobia. Typing the word “gay” into a forum search on rockclimbing.com, I pulled up threads titled “Are desert corners gay?” and “Gay, delete please” in reference to climbing routes. And on a thread

that asked, “Any Gay Climbers? Or is there still a don’t ask, don’t tell?” a diversity of opinions peppered the 20-plus pages of responses: from, “This site makes it difficult to be honest about that sort of thing, especially considering — if you run a search on ‘that is so gay dude’ you’ll get almost every thread in the system,” to, “Treat all people with respect. Expect it in kind. Climb away,” and the much refrained, “I honestly don’t care which way you swing as long as you don’t make it my business.”

I wish I could say that when climbing it doesn’t matter that I fall in love with women. But climbers don’t exist in a vacuum. When we strap on our harnesses, rack our gear, and head to the crag or the gym, we carry with us all aspects of our lives. As David so elegantly told me: “Gay-ness becomes one more thing you have to pack along with you. It’s like, OK, do I have my cams? My rope? My homophobia shield?”

I don’t know that I’d hold my girlfriend’s hand on the way to the crag or that I’d feel like I could do that safely. Maybe it’s just my prudish Catholic upbringing and has nothing at all to do with the whole gay thing. Maybe there are others who feel fine doing so. I hope that’s true. I hope that becomes truer. But life has taught me that anything can happen… that a stranger can walk out of nowhere with an umbrella-gun and yell for five minutes about how dykes are the worst creations since screaming cockroaches. But then, she just turns around and leaves, and I learn what it’s like to walk away. Again and again. Like shaking 20 feet above your last piece of piss-poor pro, convinced of an imminent fall, only to scrape to the anchor— courting circumstance with confidence, finding the “actual” behind the “what-if,” and then seeing what happens next.

Many folks in the climbing community say that gay-ness doesn’t matter to them, that they don’t even think about it. But the truth is, I want it to matter. I want people to think about it. Because one day we might be climbing together, at Joshua Tree, say, before heading into town for a beer. And afterwards, we might be walking down the street, and someone might decide they need to get all angry and homophobic. And in that moment, it really matters to me that you care that I’m gay — that you care and stand with me, and be willing to tie into the other end of the rope to see what happens next.

Tanya Pluth (tanyapluth.com) is a freelance writer and performing songwriter.