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New Documentary They/Them is a Compelling Look at One Climber’s Journey

The film follows nonbinary climber Lor Sabourin projecting a hard trad route, but it’s much more than that. Review and Q&A with Sabourin below.

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I’m a writer through and through, and always have been. I believe in the power of words to tell stories, to convey ideas, to move people. Nine times out of ten, I vote for the written word over any other medium. That’s why I decided to be a writer, not a filmmaker or photographer. 

Every now and then, however, I come across a story that words simply can’t do justice, at least not to the level that the visual medium of film can. Sometimes I have to shake my head and admit, “Damn, it’s a good thing someone made a movie out of this.” 

They/Them, Patagonia’s new film co-directed by Blake McCord and Justin Clifton, which releases this evening at 6pm MDT, is a perfect example.

On the surface, the 70-minute documentary, which has been in the making for three years, follows nonbinary climber Lor Sabourin (they/them) as they project a hard multipitch on gear. There are rad shots of Sabourin crushing and stellar after-action closeups from the belay ledge after they finish a pitch. In that regard, it’s typical climbing film fare, with clean, crisp cinematography, a solid soundtrack, the works. But it’s a hell of a lot more than that.

Lor Sabourin on The Cousin of Death, Northern Arizona. (Photo: Blake McCord)

The film documents the 28-year-old Sabourin’s journey as a nonbinary climber, from their early childhood to recent years, when they’ve become one of the strongest trad climbers in the game. It features interviews with their mother and sister, friends and climbing partners. It covers their work with The Warriors Way, a mental training program that works to help climbers develop confidence on the wall. It tracks from their childhood struggles with gender identity to their history as a runner to their early years as a climber.

One of the most fascinating things about They/Them is that the 600-foot, five-pitch trad line Lor works throughout the film, Cousin of Death (5.13+), is never mentioned by name. It’s ostensibly the vehicle for the narrative, but at no point does anyone name the route, nor discuss its difficulty (the grade is never mentioned either). It’s just “the climb” that Sabourin happens to be stoked on at the time. 

It’s a refreshing choice, as far as climbing films are concerned, and puts the focus on Sabourin’s journey as a person, not their journey up a rock face. More importantly, it highlights the fact that the most difficult obstacle Sabourin has faced in their climbing career, the biggest challenge they’ve had to overcome, hasn’t been a scary runout or techy hand crack, but acceptance and understanding from their own climbing community, the same people that should have their back. Ironic, huh?

I wrote an article for Rock and Ice in early February, interviewing Sabourin after they sent East Coast Fist Bump on gear. The Sedona trad route, rated 5.14a at the time, is now listed as 5.13d on Mountain Project, seemingly due to new beta. Regardless, it’s a brutally hard line. Only a handful of women have sent 5.14 trad. Sabourin was the first openly nonbinary person to do so. The article was met with a wash of vitriol on social media (both the article and subsequent social media response are mentioned in the film because of this, actually). 

One of the complaints was that being “nonbinary” didn’t make the climb any more difficult for Sabourin than if they had been a cisgender man or cisgender female. So why, commenters said, was this worthy news?

That was never the claim being made, however. The “news” was that Sabourin had accomplished a representative first for people of their identity. The “news” was that nonbinary climbers now had a role model they could look to, someone who identified as they did, who had faced some of the same obstacles they had as a result of their gender identity, and who climbed hard. 

(I covered the topic again in my old Rock and Ice opinion column, “The Choss Pile,” in an op-ed which was later republished on Climbing. You can read that piece here.)

When you hear words like “nonbinary” and “gender-neutral” or see “they/them” in someone’s email signature or social media bio, it’s easy to be catapulted into the realm of the abstract. Perhaps you’ve personally never felt anything but 100% cisgender, 100% heterosexual. Perhaps you don’t know anyone that (openly) identifies as nonbinary or uses they/them pronouns. Perhaps you’ve watched digital flame wars where the ultra-extremist minority on both sides end up stealing the microphone, inevitably painting both sides in a bad light.

As a result, if you aren’t careful, you can begin to develop your own voracious opinion about something you have very little understanding of or direct experience with. Full disclosure, this is something I’ve often struggled with myself to some degree, as well.

In that regard, They/Them helps the viewer cut through all the bullshit, through all the Twitter threads and Instagram comment sections and quotes taken out of context and clickbait news articles. It takes you to the ground level, puts you face to face with Sabourin and their story. It’s a visceral, firsthand account of Sabourin’s experience as a nonbinary person, and goes far beyond mere climbing. They’re unapologetically honest about all their struggles, many of which cisgender viewers will relate to. The film covers everything from climbing fitness to eating disorders to rape, and Sabourin dives into it all with a wry smile, happy to share.

I’ll keep this review short because as I said, words don’t do They/Them justice (and you can read my interview with Sabourin below to hear from them firsthand). The full-length film is free on YouTube, so there’s nothing that prohibits you from heading there at 6pm MDT tonight and watching it.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in buzzwords like nonbinary and gender-neutral and forget that this is a living, breathing person, who loves climbing like you and I do (and is damn good at it), just trying to live their life and identify in the way that they feel comfortable.

In that regard, They/Them makes a profound, compelling, and refreshing case for reality.

They/Them (2021) begins streaming free on YouTube on October 6th, 2021

Q&A with Lor Sabourin

Tell us about the process of making this film. What was it like having your life documented, having to talk to your friends and family about these deeply personal topics?

It was a long, long process, but it was really amazing. Blake [McCord] has been one of my close friends in Flagstaff since I moved here. We were already close before the film project started, and that kind of made it possible. I definitely wasn’t going out looking to make a film. He kind of pitched the idea to me, and I was a little hesitant, but I also love spending time with Blake, and I like rock climbing, of course, so I figured it’d be a fun thing to do. In the beginning, though, I didn’t expect that it was going to be such a cool learning opportunity for me. Three years is a long time to spend reflecting on your story.

What was behind the decision to leave the climb [Cousin of Death] anonymous, and not to discuss the grade. That was intentional, yeah?

Yeah, it was intentional. I think so often in climbing films, the climb is the main character. Blake and Justin [Clifton] and I had a lot of discussions about the idea that the climb is a character in the film, but it’s not necessarily the main character. The story arc is not taking on this objective, this climb, and that being the entire story.

Overall, are things improving for LGBTQ people in the climbing community? There’s been a lot of more visibility lately. Has that made stuff better? 

My answer to that would be twofold. There is a lot more visibility, yes. I think that has given people the opportunity to find community in a way that wasn’t possible before. That’s really special and really important. Overall, visibility has definitely increased, but there are really positive sides to that and then there are also really negative sides and potentially consequential sides to that. That’s going to hit everyone slightly differently. 

For some people, this is a year when they’ve been seeing themselves for the first time, and it’s mostly positive. Then there might be someone who gets directly targeted by violence. And for them, the visibility is mostly negative. It’s person to person. It’s hard to say how much it’s improved and how much it hasn’t.

Building off that, you’re probably the most visible nonbinary climber, you’re on the tip of the spear in that regard. What keeps you going? Who are you doing this for, the activism, taking the time to make a revealing, personal film like this, and so on?

I feel like I have a lot of privilege that protects me. I have put in a lot of work as well, but I think certain parts of my identity, like being white, being masculine of center, are things that really do protect me. They don’t necessarily prevent violence from happening to me, and they haven’t always, but they make the types of aggression that are put towards me really different than that towards a person who’s trans and also BIPOC or a fem-presenting person, for example. If you’re part of a community that experiences oppression, but you have these privileges, then you just want to leverage those and use them to make other people feel safer. So there is some of that. 

But then the other thing is just waking up with a sense of purpose and believing that the world can be different. I don’t necessarily think that I’m going to wake up tomorrow and all of a sudden have the climbing community that’s, like, totally ready to accept my identity, but I do believe that if I put in that work that the next generation of climbers will have the resources they need to make that community possible. 

I’ve also been given so much by the generation that came before me. You know, they made it possible for me to be someone who could survive by being a professional rock climber, to have the life that I want to live, to have a partner that I can live with openly. I’ve been given this huge gift and platform by the generation before. So I guess I’m like, okay, now I’m going to use that, I’m going to find ways to pass it on.

Outside of climbing, what else are you into? What else gets you stoked?

Well, I’m in grad school right now, getting my master’s in counseling. I think I might be the most stoked grad student in the world. Most people are like, “I’m in grad school and just trying to get through it,” and I just love being a student. I’m totally thriving in that space. 

That’s a huge one, but wrapped into that I really love writing. I love writing research papers, but I also write for my own benefit a lot. I really love reading, and that’s something that ties into grad school as well, but I always have a book outside of school that I’m reading. I used to be a very serious runner, as well. Running was my original sport, before climbing. I still run, but it’s something that is a much smaller part of my life. 

I think my favorite line in the film is when you say, “Our fear isn’t stupid, something to hate. It’s wise. It’s letting us know things about ourselves.” I love that. Could you expand on that a little bit?

So many people, both in the climbing world but also outside of the climbing world, want to overcome fear or get rid of fear. But fear is a response to stress. So I think learning the wisdom behind fear and learning how to respond to it is one of the coolest things about climbing. 

Fear is a regulator, right? If we experience a ton of fear it gets us to stop. If we’re not experiencing any stress or fear then we get bored. So, like, when we’re in that middle ground, if we took the fear away… well, the obvious physical risk of taking our fear away would be that we would not be able to understand danger, but also we wouldn’t be able to engage with stress in the same way and it wouldn’t be this amazing learning opportunity that we can have because of things like fear and frustration. 

Unfortunately, rather than, “What’s my fear? How can I work with my fear to make this an appropriate learning situation?” which is the question we should be asking, we are just like, “How can I get rid of this feeling that’s uncomfortable?” Rather than wanting to get rid of the feeling of fear, if we can understand the feeling, it can help us develop and grow. That’s so cool. It’s one of the coolest things we get to do as climbers.

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