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Queer Fear: The Power Of Affinity Spaces In The Climbing Community

I arrived in Washington running on fumes. This was not just because I had missed the “Next Services 80 miles” sign as I drove through rural Oregon in the wee hours of the morning. A month of living out of my car, teaching climbers in torrential spring thunderstorms, and squeezing in my own training sessions between clinics had left me exhausted. As I pulled into the gas station, my mind was racing with thoughts about the upcoming weekend and how I was going to show up for my students during another marathon of clinics. I was in Washington to teach a series of mental training clinics that were geared towards women and underrepresented genders. Even though an effort was made to be inclusive, I was often the only transgender person in “Women’s+” spaces. Even as an instructor, this was lonely and isolating.

I hurried into the gas station to use the restroom and buy a coffee for the last leg of my trip. It was a simple pit-stop, but for a non-binary person traveling solo in rural America during a time when transgender human rights were a source of political unrest, using the restroom could be a dangerous task. 

I sized up the scene. Two people waited outside of the women’s bathroom, chatting about the drive and their plans for their upcoming vacation. Two large men walk into the restroom in front of me. I quickly weighed my options– I could follow the men nonchalantly and wait for the stall. When I entered, I could stall for time and hope that they didn’t notice. I could wait in line with the women, hoping that they didn’t ask me to speak in my deepening voice or look too closely at the peach fuzz that had sprouted up on my chin. Images of past experiences of violence and intimidation swirled through my mind. An armed man chasing me out of a gas station on the way to the Red River Gorge. A woman shrieking at me as she waved her arms in front of her small child as I walked towards the paper towels. 

At the last moment, I noticed a blue port-a-john outside of the gas station next to a small construction site. I sprinted across the parking lot. I had never been so grateful for the acrid smell of human feces and the swirl of flies around my head. I left the gas station feeling shaken and relieved. 

An hour later, I pulled into the parking lot at Frenchman’s Coulee and opened the trunk slowly, trying to prevent the usual avalanche of climbing gear that built up after a long road trip. As I sorted, I plugged in my headphones and hummed along to some “recharge” music: the usual combo of Taylor Swift, 90s boy bands, and the Fugees. I reminded myself that today was not about me. It was time to refocus on the students and their needs. I could take care of myself later. 

I walked up to a group of climbers congregating in the parking lot. “Are you all here for the Warrior’s Way clinic?,” I asked, doing my best to sound upbeat and psyched. I was greeted with enthusiastic smiles and nods. As we launched into introductions, I was completely caught off guard. The first two people introduced themselves with they/them pronouns. The third person was wearing a rainbow shirt that said “safe space.” As I scanned the circle, I realized that I was surrounded by a group of LGBTQ+ climbers for the first time in my career in the climbing industry. 

We started hiking and the group explained to me that they had taken the event planning into their own hands when they saw that I was coming to town. “We decided that we wanted to learn about falling and risk management in an environment that felt safe, which included being around other queer people when we were learning,” one participant shared. “Since there weren’t any LGBTQ+ climbing spaces where we could do that, we decided to create our own.” They had contacted all of the LGBTQ+ climbers that they knew in the area to organize the clinic and designed it intentionally to be a safe space. “We’ve been calling it ‘Queer Fear.’”

What the students didn’t realize, though, was how badly their instructor needed an affinity space too. I had grown up believing that the only way that I would be able to succeed in the outdoor industry would be to downplay my queer identity. At the time, I had not met any LGBTQ+ people who worked in the industry and definitely had not seen anyone talk openly about their identity. Without representation, I assumed that it was safest to hide that part of myself. If I could assimilate, I would be accepted and loved. That day, however; I realized how much more fulfilling it was to teach something that I was passionate about when I was not dedicating half of my energy to masking a part of who I am. While teaching, I rarely went into detail about my personal journey with climbing, mental training, and developing a healthier relationship to my body. In that group, though, it felt wonderful to be vulnerable with my students and share my personal experiences with them. As the hours rushed by, I felt inspired by lessons that I had taught hundreds of times and connected to the experiences of my students in a new way.

I was recharging through teaching.

I’ve talked a lot about the importance of representation in climbing. It’s usually in reference to providing healthy role modeling to LGBTQ+ youth or people who haven’t seen themselves in the sport. That day, though, I remembered that representation works in both directions. My students were not the only people exploring what it meant to engage fear intentionally and gather resources for being brave. For the first time, I had allowed myself to imagine a life where my identities coexisted and my community lifted me up.