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Challenging Perspectives: A Conversation on Inclusivity

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The last decade has been filled with #MeToo, #EffYourBeautyStandards, #EverydaySexism and #NastyWoman. #MeToo led to the launch of #UsToo, which raises awareness for LGBTQ survivors of sexual violence. Feminism has also incited people with disabilities to speak up with the question, what about us? 

These forms of activism echo in everyday life, from the ‘gram, to the store, to work and to the gym. In the climbing world, there’s been a surge of women-only events, panel discussions on inclusivity and LGBTQ-specific clubs. And with the ease of technology, it’s easier than ever to get your voice out there, but much harder to be heard. 

Gym climber caught up with people of varying genders, sexual identities, abilities and ethnicities to get their take and let their voices be heard: What is the best way to promote inclusivity in the climbing community? Is it through panel discussions, events and clubs? What should we, as a community, do differently to better support one another?

Part One: Nikki Smith

Nikki Smith is a rare breed of talent; she’s regularly published in Climbing, Rock and Ice and Alpinist. Her photography often makes covers. Smith has also written five guidebooks and established more than 150 first ascents throughout Utah, Idaho and Wyoming. 

It’s not Nikki’s byline, however, that was historically printed. Not too long ago, Nikki was known as Nate. After years of struggling to understand her gender identity, Nate’s time ended in 2018. Nikki bravely made her true self known to the world. Nikki’s full story can be found on Outside online.

Nikki’s thoughts on inclusivity:

What is the best way to promote diversity and inclusivity in the climbing community?

There are so many areas that need improvement in order to “promote diversity and inclusivity in the climbing community”. For me, representation is an important step. Although the climbing community is growing and is more diverse than ever, we don’t see that represented in our climbing media, the ads, catalogs and websites of climbing and outdoor companies, or the athlete teams supported by climbing companies. It’s even less diverse when you look at the employee makeup of most of the outdoor companies. Not seeing myself in climbing, the outdoor community or the outdoor industry as a whole made it difficult for me to believe that I’d be supported if I came out. “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

What are your thoughts on panel discussions or identity-specific clubs or events in the climbing community? Do you think these are effective vehicles for change?

Panels can be a great way to get a diverse group of advocates together to speak to issues affecting the outdoors, but there are some major issues with this format. Often the panels are hosted by people who don’t have a background in JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion). Because of the lack of experience, the questions they ask can be problematic and continue to reinforce negative stereotypes and lack of inclusion. The panel moderators need to have a working knowledge of JEDI in order to better facilitate the panel. Also, these panels are often only attended by people from the marginalized communities represented and other individuals who are already doing their own self-work to learn more about these issues. We need to work on ways to increase attendance and participation from more people within the industry in order for them to be truly effective.

Gender, sexual identity, ability and ethnic-specific clubs and events are helping to bring others into climbing and the outdoors by creating a space where participants can see themselves, learn from others like them and help build a community. Traditionally, many from underrepresented or marginalized groups haven’t had access to outdoor spaces or are too afraid to participate in outdoor sports for fear of violence, sexual assault, or constant tokenism/marginalization. By creating these spaces, the participants can try out climbing or other outdoor activities in an environment where they feel safe and supported. They can learn from others who have faced the same challenges and have found ways to navigate through it. They show that you are not alone and can not only participate but can thrive within these activities.

Has anyone ever said or done anything to you (intentionally or unintentionally) to make you feel excluded? 

All the time. As someone who is queer/trans, my identity wasn’t visible in the way that other marginalized identities can be. Because of that, I listened to friends, climbing partners, and co-workers in the outdoor industry say transphobic and homophobic comments for years. Now I’m regularly stared at on the trails and in gyms, pointed and laughed at, harassed and misgendered constantly.

Many organizations within the outdoors in a well-meaning attempt at inclusion, latch onto language, policies, and programming they think is inclusive without engaging people from those marginalized communities to see if their initiatives represent them or continue to marginalize them. They need to do a better job of including people from marginalized groups in their organizations and ensure that those people are being paid for their time and expertise. Marginalized people are regularly asked to do consulting work for companies without any compensation for their expertise, time and experience.

Nikki Smith can be spotted behind the banner, holding the “Protect Black Trans Women” sign. Photo Matt Burbach

Stay tuned for more like this!

Feature Image by Laura Hughes

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