LGBTQ+: stories from our members

Posted by James Mchaffie on 22/02/2021
February is LGBTQ+ History Month. Photo: @rhysvevans_photography

As part of LGBTQ+ history month we asked members of the BMCs Equity Steering LGBTQ+ sub-group to share their stories about getting into climbing and walking.

Historically speaking, there have been notable key figures of the climbing and mountaineering community that were LGBT. For one, Geoffrey Winthrop Young, born in 1876, founder of the BMC and a president of the Alpine Club, is a shining example of someone whose sexuality as a bisexual man* would have not been so easy to disclose even until a few decades ago. LGBT people have always existed in the climbing community, just it has not always been easy to be 'out' within it, with the LGBT community having to wait for wider society to take its time catching up to the modern day era of welcoming it with a big rainbow hug.

READ: Glossary of LGBTQ+ terms

Robert Dufton, lead on the BMC LGBTQ+ sub-group and a member of 'Not So Trad', an LGBT+ climbing club largely based in London, has collected together accounts from three BMC members to shed further light on LGBT experiences within the world of climbing and walking. These enlightening narratives have been submitted by Michael Phillips, Paula Brough-Heinzeman and Kieran Woolley. 

CARVE YOUR NICHE

by Kieran Woolley

Photo credit: Climb Cornwall

When did you fall in love with the outdoors? Some of my experiences probably mirror yours, shared, but unique to us with our own little twists.

For me it was when I first saw Dartmoor. When I climbed my first tree behind my father’s workshop and then repeatedly became stuck, needing to wait for him to come home to rescue me (it took me a while to realise that down-climbing was hard). When I started to go off on solo adventures into the surrounding countryside with nothing more than a sandwich and a bag of crisps in my backpack. The feeling of seriousness, commitment, and exposure on a Cornish sea cliff. 

I have never fallen out of love with the outdoors, but there have been breaks where I’ve felt I haven’t belonged and that it isn’t for people like me. What do I mean by that? At the time I didn’t know what that meant or why I felt like that. I didn’t fully realise that I was transgender until my mid teens and then it still took me years to fully accept what that meant and what I needed to do. Although I always thought of myself as someone who possessed a bullish, pig headed determination to achieve my goals and survive, I was scared. Scared of judgement, of questions, of not fitting in.

Climbing had always held a lot of appeal to me, so much so that I held myself back from trying it for fear of it becoming tainted by misgendering (in my case being referred to as female) and of being rejected or laughed at for being trans. Worst of all, I feared that I would never feel male enough in comparison to other men in that environment and that it would make the gender dysphoria worse. Eventually a good friend managed to drag me to the climbing wall and I was hooked! Climbing pushed everything out of my head from the instant my feet left the ground. I remember the immense feeling of achievement the first time I managed to haul myself up to the top with little style, feet banging on the wall and with the coordination of a very confused spider!

Photo credit: Matt Thomas Instructor 

As time went by, I felt like I was gradually becoming a part of a community that I had had no idea existed. The more I belonged, the more I wanted to get involved and I ended up pursuing qualifications that would allow me to work in climbing walls and the outdoor industry. Many of the  people I’ve met through the outdoors, I now have the privilege of calling friends. They are brilliant, fun, quirky, principled, and strong willed. I feel comfortable around them and as if my gender identity is both important and unimportant. It’s been a gradual process, but profound. Letting my guard down and allowing people to get to know me has been hard and scary in places but also joyful and incredibly rewarding.

Having said this, every time I meet someone new I still feel myself internally bracing. I know eventually I will either be asked a question that will mean that I out myself or I will need to lie or avoid questions. With that comes the possibility of rejection, derision or potentially even a loss of work. More likely is the barrage of questions about my physical transition, which although I’m more comfortable than most talking about, a crowded indoor wall probably isn’t the place.

READ: Climbing with Pride: an insight into the LGBT community on UKC

I am incredibly privileged. I’m white, middle class, and I have passing privilege - strangers read me as cisgender (someone whose gender identity is the same as the sex they were assigned at birth). My parents have been incredibly supportive and I’m now part of a pretty cool community. With all this said, I still found it incredibly difficult to take that first step as an adult to get back to the things that I knew deep down that I always wanted to do. There were no 'out' trans people around (that I was aware of) when I was a kid, they were only punchlines to jokes. There were no examples of how to exist as someone like me, doing the things that I love.

I fell in love with the outdoors again when I realised it was a place that I could carve out a spot where I could exist as just me. I want other people to feel like they can carve out a space for themselves too. Do you feel like this has struck a chord with you? I’ve recently become a member of the BMC Equity Group for LGBTQ people and we would love to hear from other LGBTQ people about what you need in order to feel happier accessing outdoor spaces and activities? What do you think would have made a difference to your engagement with the outdoors before you got into it? 

You can drop james@thebmc.co.uk an email if you want to know more or want to send the Equity Committee a message.

A LIFE IN THE MOUNTAINS

By PB Heinzmann

My name is Paula. That wasn’t always my name; it changed along with most other things in my life, many years ago now. That was before equal rights were even imaginable; before LGBTQ stood for anything. That is a long story but it is not the story I am telling today. This is a thank you letter' and it is long overdue.

As a troubled, confused young kid, unable to come to terms with myself and close to rebelling against everything, I was sent to stay with an aunt, who offered to give my long-suffering mother a break. My aunt had good neighbours, two gentlemen who shared the bungalow next-door. They were always referred to as “Mr Hague and Raymond” and for some reason, they took a kindly interest in me. Mr Hague was an elderly, retired gentleman; a great storyteller.

Raymond, was younger, very tall and extremely athletic. He ran a gent’s outfitters. His great enthusiasm however, was mountaineering and whenever his work allowed, he would be off to the hills.

I was at that time, by far the least athletic person I knew; I loathed the competitive, school sports regime and am unsure now how it came about that I was invited to join him but early one Saturday morning, I found myself riding with Raymond in his car, up to the Lake District to climb a mountain.

My outfit was an odd assortment, with worn but serviceable boots, oversized wooly jumper and cagoule. I had an old gas-mask case for a shoulder bag, to carry sandwiches, snacks and a flask. On the way, he told me climbing stories about the mountain; of a crashed wartime aircraft, of heroes and high achievement; of the birth of the sport of rock-climbing. I was spellbound.

We climbed Great Gable that day. It would be a nice day out for the regular hill-walker but for me, it was the most physically and psychologically challenging thing I had done in my life until then and also the most wonderful. I walked and scrambled through a new and magical world and found myself on top of it. I could not have been more thrilled if it had been Everest. I have carried that magnificent, first view down the majestic, glacial valley toward the sunset beyond Wastwater in my heart from that day to this. I had never been more tired or more sore than I was the next day but I was hooked and I could not wait for our next expedition.

In the months to come, we climbed most of the best-loved lakeland fells together. With the towering presence of Raymond to teach and guide me, I had great adventures and returned home filled with stories of our exploits. Raymond taught me respect for the mountains, the elements and the need for good judgement of my own abilities. When we set out to climb Helvellyn by Striding Edge, descending Swirral Edge, it was on our third visit that we reached the summit, after twice wisely changing to a lesser challenge to avoid severe weather. I was never safer than when I was climbing with Raymond.

Then, one weekend, my aunt told me that Raymond couldn’t take me with him as planned; something had come up at work. The next weekend, she told me the same thing. I did not find him at home, when I tried to visit. I could not understand what had happened and wondered if he had grown tired of my company; I could not understand why he had not told me himself or why I never got an answer when I knocked at his door. My aunt told me I must stop calling on him.

Eventually, I sought out far less worthy company and fell into all kinds of trouble. It was only many years later that I learned the disgraceful truth. Some local busybody had approached my aunt and uncle to inform them that Raymond was a homosexual. In those days, that was still regarded as if it were some heinous crime. Despite the recent decriminalisation, bigotry and hatred were still commonplace. Nobody questioned the appalling false accusations made against Raymond, a decent and warm-hearted man, who they knew had always treated me with the utmost kindness and integrity. Instead, my family reacted by ostracising our good neighbour.

I was lost for a long time after that, before I found my way back to the mountains and remembered the lessons that Raymond had taught me. After wasted years, his example now helped me again, to turn my life around. He was the best mountain leader I ever knew.

I never saw Raymond again in this life but I will never forget him. He is the gentle giant beside me every time I climb a mountain. Together, we have climbed in all the great ranges of Europe, wandered the Alpine valleys, swum wild rivers and explored deep forests. We have camped under the countless stars, cooked on many a cheery campfire and so, over these long years, we have crossed countries and continents together.

Wherever I go, upon meeting the locals, when they ask about my journeys, they always seem to come around to the same question, sometimes while looking over my shoulder, in surprise:

“You walk all alone, in those mountains?”

I just smile and tell them, “I am never really alone”

Thank you, dear Raymond, from the bottom of my heart, for a lifetime of wonderful adventures in the mountains.

OUT IN THE OUTDOORS

By Michael Phillips

Hi, I'm Mike, a gay, cis male, climber and climbing instructor and I use He/Him pronouns. It's nice to meet you and discuss LGBTQ History Month.

Hopefully, you're thinking nice to meet you too. But you might also be thinking, why has he introduced himself in such an upfront way? I don't know why he needs to tell me that? Or, what does that mean?

The reason for introducing myself like this is that LGBTQ people are often hidden or missing from the outdoors. So either are forced to out themselves or not feel they can join in in the first place and sadly there isn't really much history or many role models to help. Please don't misunderstand me, once a part of the outdoor community there is very little nastiness or bigotry.

I am lucky, I got into the outdoors as a teenager through the Scouts and before I really understood my sexuality. Then I went from school to college and trained as a climbing instructor, which was also where I first came out as gay, so the two merged for me. I say I was lucky and to an extent I was. I had friends who accepted me and a lifestyle I enjoyed. However, I also had my first experience of homophobia from a fellow student. For a while, they made my life a very unhappy place to the point where I had to get my tutors to intervene. Thankfully this made me stronger in some senses. From that point, I was always open about my sexuality, with only one other experience of open homophobia in my eight years in the outdoor industry.

As lovely as this was and as much as I enjoyed the experiences and adventures of this work, it was also tough on a personal level. The outdoors naturally takes you to out of the way places. This kind of isolation can be difficult for anyone but particularly for anyone who doesn't have a place in the community. As I mentioned earlier, the outdoors and the communities and landscapes that those of us live in and move through are mostly straight, Cis, male, white, and non-disabled. This makes it extremely difficult for an LGBTQ person to find a community, let alone find intimate relationships. I found I had to travel large distances and into potentially risky situations just to find individuals like myself. Equally, often because I had developed to fit into this non-queer environment, I also found I didn't really fit into the queer communities either and so found myself in a lonely limbo between communities.

After leaving a career in the outdoors after eight years, I went back to Uni to study Youth and Community work. Through this time, I started to explore my experiences of not feeling like they fit and found that this fit most LGBTQ peoples' experiences. I also explored the impact of the changes made by the LGBTQ rights movements over my lifetime. Although I still hadn't found a community yet, I found some understanding and a cause. I became more and more interested in Trans and Non-binary people's similar experiences of limbo. Through this time, I realised that I had been and continued to struggle with my mental health, both caused by and causing this feeling of limbo.

Over these years, I struggled to get back into the outdoors as I couldn't really find a place for myself to enter back into the community. The few climbing walls near me were not the easiest to access. Even when I did access them, I never really felt it was easy to make friends with people I didn't know there, feeling anxious about having to come out, and/or being judged. It wasn't until I split from my partner, moved cities and joined an LGBTQ choir (Spectrum choir) that I started to meet other LGBTQ people and actually met some friends interested in climbing. Thankfully between lockdowns, I once again found my passion for the outdoors and had some amazing experiences.

I have also started to set up an LGBTQ climbing club, Devon LGBTQ & friends CC. Once I took the leap and set up a Facebook group to see how many people would be interested, I had over 30 interested people in around a week. Those who managed to come to some sessions, before COVID-19 shut everything down, found taking part in climbing and sport extremely positive. With many saying that without an LGBTQ club they wouldn't have even tried climbing. Most recently I have also started volunteering on the BMC Equity LGBTQ subgroup to help encourage more thought about helping to get more LGBTQ people into the outdoors.

This continuing lack of understanding and/or ambivalence makes it difficult for LGBTQ and other minority people to join the outdoors. As the combination of fear, lack of obvious access options and lack of knowledge in the outdoors makes even the first step to joining a group, for instance, difficult. 

I'm aware that my experience is only one experience. I'm sure there are many others, but I hope that this makes people think a little more about LGBTQ people and the outdoors and the challenges we can face. Despite this, I have had some amazing experiences and made some amazing friends. I still passionately love the outdoors and so want as many different people to be able to enjoy it as well.

---

*You can read more about the life of BMC founder Geoffrey Winthrop-Young by reading Alan Hankinson’s biography ‘Geoffrey Winthrop Young: Poet, Educator, Mountaineer’.



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