Four years after I came out to both my family and my school, a friend of mine asked if I wanted to attend Milwaukee’s Pride Parade. It was the end of my junior year of high school, shortly before the ritual of signing yearbooks and taking finals. It was also the middle of my athletic season. That spring and summer, I captained both the rugby and baseball teams. In response to my friend’s invitation, I said, “No, of course not. Those aren’t my people. I don’t belong there; the queer community doesn’t accept me anyway. Besides, I’ve got a game that day.” And I didn’t go. I’ve thought about going every year since, and every year since, I’ve stayed home. But something changed last semester. I’ve spent years only bringing up my sexuality when I thought it most mattered, and I often used it as an excuse to remove myself from uncomfortable situations. I wondered why I couldn’t be gay and look straight at the same time. I questioned the conflict between my queer identity and my straight appearance in the spaces where I felt most comfortable, among those who saw me first for who I am and after that, if at all, for my sexuality.
The air in the climbing gym is always thick with chalk. I work there, I train there, I know people there. For all intents and purposes, I belong there. And yet I hear things like, “I’ll suck your dick if you stick this move.” Not an overtly homophobic thing to say, but when I’m there climbing with those people, it brings me out of that space and reminds me that I’m not quite like them. I’m not able to make comments about male intimacy and have them land as jokes. If it makes any difference, the guy climbing didn’t stick the move, and the other definitely didn’t suck his dick.
Scenes like this are not uncommon in the outdoor spaces at Colorado College. While in Moab on a climbing trip with a couple of friends, we were at the base of a climb and the two people I was with were trading attempts at sending it. There’s a certain amount of pride associated with climbing; it’s a race to prove strength, which they believe translates to masculinity, as if the two are inextricably tied. The words “that’s gay” came out of one of their mouths. I don’t remember the context. I don’t remember what he thought was gay. In truth, the only gay part of the trip was me. Those words don’t get tossed around as freely as they once did. I haven’t heard the words in passing like I did in middle school and early high school. People would often slip up around me like when a friend my sophomore year of high school playfully said, “you’re homo,” before he quickly realized what he had said and apologized. Another instance more recent was a friend saying, “fag.” Although both of these friends had no mal-intent and quickly apologized, these memories stick with me. Invasions of comfort. Reminders that I’m not like them. It was only when this friend in Moab said “that’s gay” that I realized he didn’t know my sexuality.
“That’s gay, and I know that’s not the politically correct thing to say anymore, but this is the desert, we’re three dudes in the desert. I’ll try to curb my incorrectness on campus, but out here …”
I see, I thought, He doesn’t know I’m gay. And I sure as shit won’t tell him, I’d rather get on with the climbing than bring that up out here.
I still see that climber around, but the trip ended any chance of us becoming friends outside of climbing. He became too focused on climbing hard and not focused enough on the people he was climbing with. I became too aware of our differences.
In all honesty, I don’t know how many people that occupy the outdoor spaces on campus know that I’m gay. It’s something that I want people to know, but I don’t want to tell them. I’ve had to come out in every new space I’ve entered because of how I appear to the world, and sometimes it feels better to not come out right away. It feels better to keep quiet about my sexuality for a time in those spaces because it means I can hold onto that feeling of belonging. But I don’t want silence to be what makes me feel most comfortable, and that’s why it needs to change. In fact, I feel most comfortable around climbers. I speak their language. I understand them. But for every hour I spend as a climber, I spend an hour being reminded that I don’t fully fit in there.
I even cancelled my Seventh Block Break plans last year, because I didn’t want to spend the weekend in the desert with people I considered my closest friends but who make me feel uncomfortable. For as much as I love the desert, males feel pressure to assert their toxic masculinity in these spaces, and it disgusts me. I stayed home drinking and watching movies with my roommate instead.
Being at CC, I’ve realized that my sexuality feels at odds with my passion for climbing, so in order to better understand my role as a queer man in the outdoor community, I felt like I needed to engage with the queer community.
This past spring, I walked into a queer space on campus. I was nervous. So nervous that shortly before I walked up the steps, I texted my roommate: I don’t know how this is going to go. I’m actually super nervous, can we talk after if this doesn’t go well? The only image I had of the queer community up to that point were the people in my high school that were queer and flaunted their queerness as the defining feature of their personalities, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but that openness made me feel out of place. I built my life around the idea that being queer wasn’t at the forefront of my identity; that many things like my interest in sports, film, and literature preceded my queerness. In the years since high school, I’ve come to realize that I had repressed my sexual orientation and had never given myself the opportunity to figure out how my queerness informed other parts of my identity.
Associating myself with the queer community felt like a defeat. For a long time, I wanted to keep my queerness hidden to fit into the way the world treats me: as a straight, white male. I recognize that I am white and male, and for the purposes of saving myself from homophobic conversations I didn’t want to have in high school and in many spaces since, I exploit those first. However, on that night last semester when I walked up the stairs of a house I wasn’t aware existed, I knew I needed to try. I knew that in order to reconcile the gap between my appearance and my sexuality, I needed to reach out to the queer community.
I entered the house that night and had no idea where to go. No idea who I should look for, where we were supposed to meet, or what we were going to do. I felt lost. I realized too late that I was wearing “straight clothes”—khaki pants, plaid flannel, Osprey trucker hat. I also hadn’t shaved in about a week, so my beard felt and probably looked unruly. I wished I had just worn a t-shirt, I wished I’d showered and put on deodorant. But there I was, a straight-passing gay man looking for answers.
In the living room of the house, three sets of eyes turned on me, and looked me up and down. Someone finally said, “Hi, can we help you?”
“I hope so,” I said, “I’m here for the group?” I won’t name the group. I will say however that I found it on a list of queer resources on campus that described the group as an established, weekly gathering for members of the queer community. I hoped it would be open and welcoming to all.
“For the group?” they said.
“Yeah, is this the right place?”
It felt like I had walked into a queer shrine and dragged mud all over the floor.
As we did introductions, one of the get-to-know-you things was to ask everyone the gayest thing they did over spring break. I said, “Tinder in Kentucky.” I felt them trying to figure out if I meant gay Tinder or straight Tinder, or God forbid, both Tinders. I felt them flinch with the understanding that they weren’t going to get it out of me that easy. In all honesty, that was my best answer. I spent my spring break climbing with friends. I didn’t go to any gay bars (not that there are many in Kentucky) nor did I do anything that I could point to and say, “Yes. That’s a very gay thing I did.” So I said the only gay-esque thing I could think of: the 10 minutes I spent swiping on Tinder while eating pizza in a climber’s bar.
I felt their uneasiness as they figured they might actually have to ask me how I identify. They didn’t want to ask, “Are you gay?” because I might not be. But they wanted to know. And if I wasn’t, they needed to know why I was there. But to be honest, I also needed to know why I was there.
I wanted someone to tell me how to fit into this straight-passing body. I wanted someone to tell me that it would all be alright and that someday my gayness and apparent straightness would just be.
I sat through an hour or so of conversation, trying my hardest to be gay enough for them without losing sense of myself. In truth, I do that every day. Every day, I look in the mirror, or in my dresser, or catch my reflection in the window of a building, and I hear a voice in the back of my head asking, “Are you too gay right now? Wait, are you too straight? That girl you just passed definitely felt uncomfortable next to you. Don’t look this girl in the eye, don’t smile, don’t let her think you’re checking her out.” It’s constant. But as I sat in that living room listening to people talk about being gay, how gay they are, asking me if Tinder in Kentucky is as repressed as it sounds (it is). For the first time in my life, I had to worry about not being gay enough.
It didn’t feel good to be pressured into forcing my gayness to the forefront of my personal expression. I wanted to talk about sexuality in the context of what it means to be me, not in how it makes me me.
Toward the end of the meeting, they invited me to go to queer prom that weekend. I said I’d think about it, and I meant that, but I very quickly I decided not to go. Not for lack of wanting to familiarize myself with CC’s queer community, but because of the looks on their faces when I walked in and told them I was there for the meeting. I don’t think I will ever enter a queer space unquestioned. I have to prove my queerness.
When I left the house, I texted my roommate: It didn’t go terribly, I think I’m alright, I won’t go back but I’m not super upset.
My roommate is straight. His girlfriend has stayed at our house many times. We’ve hiked mountains together. We’ve camped in the desert together. We’ve cooked together, eaten together, smoked together. I’ve cried on his shoulder. We’ve lived together and done all of that without judgement, without needing to point out our differences. I can tell him about the guy I’m interested in without needing to defend myself or remind him I’m gay. My sexuality doesn’t come up because it just is with him. It’s why we get along, because he sees me first as a friend and only peripherally as gay. He sees me how I see myself, and how I want outdoor spaces to see me. He is an example of the masculinity and type of friendship those spaces need, because the climbing community must recognize that people bring other identities into the gym or to the crags. Climbers need to treat other climbers first as people and then as climbers and look past the power screams and the try-hard faces. Around campfires in the desert, beers in hand, tired and excited, when their toxic masculinity starts to surface, an acceptance needs to also surface, an acceptance of differences and values.
Partly, I need to change how I approach the climbing community. It starts with an openness and willingness to bring my queerness into those spaces. I walked into that group with the hopes that I could reconcile my straight-passing body with my sexuality. But I didn’t find answers there. And that’s fine. I found answers from my roommate and other friends like him. Through those people, I figured out how I could be both straight-passing and gay. But there remains a barrier. When I walk into a climbing space on campus, I revert back to separating those parts of my identity. To change how people approach me in those spaces, I need to walk into them comfortable being gay and being a climber.
In short, we need to climb with friends instead of being friends with climbers.
Recently, Outdoor Education started planning a retreat for members of the Outdoor Education community aimed specifically at having a conversation about sexuality in the outdoors at CC. As I write this, it is still in its early stages and the details haven’t been finalized, but it is a step in the right direction. I am excited that Outdoor Education realizes the need to have this discussion and is willing to expand its reach to include people like me, people that want to exist fully and openly in all spaces.
Bad Issue | December 2018