Climbing is supposed to be scary, but if you’re queer, trans or gender non-conforming, it can be terrifying.
For a first-time climber, walking into a gym can be bloody terrifying. Seeing people fall off walls, contort their bodies into impossible positions and hear people use words like ‘beta’ and ‘dyno’ can intimidate even the boldest newbie. But for some people, the idea of entering any sporting space induces anxiety.
‘The image of sport is so dominated by masculinity that I think it makes it harder for other identities to find space within those forms of masculinity,’ says Argo, a climber who identifies as non-binary and uses they/them pronouns.
‘I felt these two aspects of my personality weren’t compatible at all.’
Argo isn’t alone. Many queer, trans and gender non-confirming people are turned off sport because of its reputation as hyper-masculine, competitive and non-inclusive.
‘They (queer and trans people) would like to get into sport but without an inclusive space to get them going, they just won’t,’ Riley Edwards, who identifies as non-binary, explains.
Riley was seeking to create just such inclusive spaces when they founded ClimbingQTs, a climbing and social group based in Naarm/Melbourne. Starting out initially as a Facebook group to connect climbers with similar queer experiences, ClimbingQTs is now a network of more than 750 climbers that hosts regular meet ups, events and outdoor trips.
Daniel, a gay man who’s been climbing since 2018 had actually never exercised before he set foot in a climbing gym.
‘I’ve always thought of myself as a non-exercise person.’ Daniel says there is a social stigma to exercise, ‘like [it’s] associated with bullying or idealised body image.’
For Daniel, having a group like QTs helps ‘spread the message that queer people can also do exercise.’ It’s an important message to spread because climbing, as well as other sports, has a positive impact on mental health and can heal the often fraught relationship many trans and gender diverse people have with their bodies.
When Riley was experiencing gender dysphoria, the deep distress that comes from a person’s gender identity not matching their assigned sex, they felt very disconnected from their body.
‘But then I started climbing and my body was what got me out of scary situations and took me to crazy beautiful places… through climbing I began to appreciate and trust my body again.’
Daniel went on a QTs organised trip to Djurite/Arapiles, where many attendees climbed outdoors for the first time.
‘One of the best weekends of my life!’ Daniel says, ‘Not only for the whole experience of climbing on rock and learning so much, but also because of the sense of community… I really felt like I was part of something.’
It’s the sense of community at the heart of the QTs that makes them the largest LGBTQ+ climbing group in the country.
Argo says they ‘never really understood the community that people experience from sport until ClimbingQTs.’
Riley maintains that for this reason, ClimbingQTs will always be both a climbing and social group.
‘A lot of people don’t even come to ClimbingQTs to workout or climb, they come to hang out and talk,’ Riley laughs. ‘With QTs, it’s not about whether they come and crush and send hard.’
Community really is a cornerstone of climbing. Climbers going out together, teaching and learning from each other is what keeps the sport alive. Argo says, ‘Climbing is a skill and experience passed down to others, often from our elders. Those who have had those years of experience, and know all the best spots and knots too… so if there isn’t the space for that community to form, those relationships to be built, and knowledge to transfer… it makes it really difficult.’
It’s also expensive, with courses, gear and travel costs being well out of reach for a lot of LGBTQ+ people. ‘I don’t own a car and I don’t know how to drive so I could never make it to the Arapiles by myself,’ Daniel explains.
This sense of belonging is the sweet stuff that bridges the gap between being a queer person who feels disenfranchised from sport and being a regular on the wall. But for all its positive impact, ClimbingQTs still has to justify its existence.
Any climber will attest to the fact that climbing is one of the most welcoming sporting codes there is. There is always a friendly face at the gym ready to cheer you on or help you out, so why is it that queer, trans and gender diverse people need their own space?
Riley says it’s important to understand the difference between being welcoming and being inviting. They agree that climbers are some of the most welcoming people out there, and many QTs do engage with the broader climbing community outside of the ClimbingQTs, but ‘there’s a big difference between ‘oh, we don’t care who comes and goes, we’re open to everyone’ and ‘we really do care who’s a part of this community and we want to make sure that it’s diverse’.
The difference is between warmly inviting someone into your home, making sure they’re comfortable and offering them tea, versus simply letting someone in and not telling them to leave.
As LGBTQ+ people have faced decades of discrimination, groups like this one signal their inviting atmosphere in an active and intentional way that cisgender and straight climbers might take for granted.
Now that ClimbingQTs is established, Riley is shifting the group’s focus from inviting queer, trans and gender diverse people into the world of climbing, to ensuring the wider climbing world is safe and supportive of them.
‘The community obviously wants more events and camps and outdoor trips, which is all stuff we’re going to do (once we can start doing it again), but I’m really excited about all the probably boring stuff, like the impact we’re having on the wider community’, Riley explains.
The ‘boring stuff’ is the advocacy work and initiatives ClimbingQTs is working on. Things like ensuring competitions are inclusive and have non-binary categories, working with gyms to implement gender-neutral facilities, and creating resources for gyms and other sporting clubs to make their spaces more inclusive to the LGBTQ+ community.
The ins and outs of inclusivity can be a more difficult project to master than some climbs, which is why Riley sees QTs as a resource for anyone that wants to make their space not just welcoming, but inviting too.
One climbing gym that’s really embraced the QTs ethos is Port Melbourne’s BlocHaus. They’ve partnered with ClimbingQTs on a range of projects, from hosting a global Zoom meet up on IDAHOBIT (International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Intersexism and Transphobia) to policy changes within their gym.
BlocHaus General Manager, Ollie says, ‘BlocHaus at its heart is about making bouldering accessible and fun for everyone. It’s important for us to do what we can to break down barriers to participating and to create safe spaces for our diverse community. We’re proud to be an LGBTQIA+ ally and know there is always more to learn to work towards real inclusion.’
Riley hopes their work with ClimbingQTs and BlocHaus will inspire the wider climbing community to think more actively about inclusion, and become an example for other sports to follow. Because, by going out of our way to invite queer, trans and gender diverse people into sport, we can ensure that no one ever feels they’re too gay to play.
If you are interested in learning more about the ClimbingQTs then check out their Facebook page.