I can always spot the ones who are going to come back. It’s not how they take to climbing—some are still working on 5.8s and V1s after months—it’s something else. I guess if I had to call it anything, I’d say that they are the ones that “own their misfit.”
At CRUX, New York City’s LGBT* rock climbing club, we host monthly “newbie” nights for people new to climbing and/or NYC. We’ve had hundreds of people come and scramble up some 5.5s and Elvis-leg on V0s. Some do it on a date, some on a dare, but they all get a taste of climbing with CRUX, and then we go out for pizza and beer so they understand a bit of what we’re like as a ‘club’. I like to talk to people about why they came; the most common answer is “well, I’ve always wanted to, I just didn’t know how or where to start.” And that makes sense; without a group like CRUX, it might be really hard to start.
As for myself, the story is similar. I had done a few corporate ‘team building’ climbing events that I’d enjoyed. But I had always wanted to try climbing for real. When I came to my first CRUX night, I was in pretty rough shape: after a pretty awful breakup,I signed up for a Tough Mudder to distract me. I was shiftless and though I had some “pretty” muscles, they weren’t functional. I came to the rock gym not even knowing that there was a queer* rock club. It turned out I knew someone in CRUX who then invited me back. And I did come back. It was a great release, even beyond just knowing that I’d be able to do the obstacles at Tough Mudder better. I became addicted to the achievement of rock climbing. Now after nearly 2 years, I’m still coming back. This is what my life had been missing for a long time.
Climbing, at least for most of us over 25, isn’t something we did when we were in high school or even college. It simply wasn’t an option. The older you are the less likely there was a casual rock wall at a gym near you, let alone a full climbing gym where you could hone your skills. Today, the American queer climbing community is a patchwork of people who largely “found” climbing, not those who grew up on it. That’s bound to change with the explosion of gyms we’ve seen over the last decades, but for my generation, ‘coming out climber’ has been another journey of self-discovery that we queer climbers have adventured through.
Like being ‘different’ in terms of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, being a queer climber means that you have to be okay being the only one like you sometimes. You may have had to start out as the one queer person climbing in a gym/crag of ‘cis/straight’ people or the only one of your queer friends who climbed. You had to be okay being “different” no matter where you were, even within a set of already ‘different’ people. It’s comical, but climbing as a ‘lifestyle’ can be jarring to the people unfamiliar with what we do. I’m sure my queer climbers can relate to apprehensively telling someone on an early date “so, I’m a climber. I climb … a lot. That’s, not, like, gonna be a problem, right?”
Happily, the growth of the “queer” climbing network has provided a space for us to feel unique together. Events like Homo Climbtastic have fostered long distance friendships, spurred many cross-country (and even intra-country) climbing trips—and you don’t even want to know how many hot tub stories. Oh, God, the hot tub stories. But outside of that, it’s an organically-built, self-sustaining and supporting community. I can go onto the gay* climbing FB pages and say “I’m going to be in Bishop this weekend, anyone around for bouldering?” and instantly have some beta on people to hang with, places to go, you name it. Just this week I climbed in Toronto and Denver with climbers who I’ve previously met up with in Red Rocks, The New and The Red. I’m really thrilled that this year for the first time, climbing is part of the Gay Games (the third largest amateur sporting event in the world). That couldn’t have happened without the hard work, dedication and determination of some specific queer climbers acting to represent the burgeoning queer climbing community at large. I like to joke about it, but it’s frankly huge to get the acknowledgement by the international queer sporting world that there is such a large group of queer people who pick at our hands a lot and mutter “I could totally send that” under our breaths when passing old brick buildings.
Here in New York, it’s easy to find a ‘gay’ version of whatever sport you did or longed to do in your youth. There are gayeverything teams here. But the thing I’ve noticed about climbers of all stripes is that we aren’t looking for something with the structure of an organized sport—especially not the litmus test that comes with tryouts and team selection. “Achievement” is not a bar that CRUX—or any climbing club—would have an easy time defining universally. We all come to the wall or crag with only our own skills every time each climb. Climbers are improvisers, creative problem solvers, and make-doers. Look at the national or international champions: no two climb or even look the same. A climbing buddy and I may just have sent our first 5.12s, but those may be very different 5.12s.
Some people like stemming, some like overhangs, some like high steps; it’s an individual sport for individuals. Some in the queer community are attracted to the aspect of climbing that lets you define your style and success. Certainly in the case of CRUX, it couldn’t be more evident. I think the thing that unites climbers in general is this acknowledgement that we’re all so different. You can look out across the picnic tables at Miguel’s or the campground at D Acres and it’s just so obvious: we are an odd bunch. When I look at our membership specifically, it’s clear we are every color of every rainbow—a spectrum of diversity I would bet is almost unparalleled in “gay sports”—especially for how small we are in comparison.
The month of June marks Gay Pride month. CRUX walks annually in the gay pride march through Manhattan. I have walked with several groups before (corporate, political, advocacy) and have never felt the desire to walk with the same group twice—until CRUX. Of course I love climbing and I love my climbing friends, but it’s more than that. To whatever degree climbing has made my life better, the people in climbing nationally and especially locally, have been a large part of that. I keep coming back to the fact that each of our climbers “owns their misfit” and wears it with pride, whether they identify as boulderer, top roper or leader (or any of the identities that don’t matter when you’re at the climbing gym or crag). And I feel very at home with them. The people I march with are role models—for new climbers, for queer youth, for anyone. And it’s these misfits I call my CRUXies, my climbers, and truly: these misfits, near and far, are my friends.
*By “queer”, “LGBT”, “gay” I mean to be inclusive of anyone within the spectra of gender expression and identity, and sexual orientation and preference. I welcome any suggestions on how to be more inclusive in my language.
CRUX Climbing is a non-profit rock climbing organization dedicated to improving the mental and physical health of the LGBTQ community by providing a supportive environment for participation, education, and competition.