From the bay to the surrounding mountains, foothills and lakes, one of the biggest draws of Bellingham is its access to a variety of outdoor recreation options.
However, joining in on the fun can be intimidating if you don’t see yourself represented in the groups that participate in these adventures.
That’s why organizations like Queer Mountaineers started. The group creates intentional safe spaces for the LGBTQ+ community to gather and bond over activities they love and try new things.
The first Friday of every month, Queer Mountaineers hosts a Queer Climb Night at Vital Climbing Gym Bellingham, where LGBTQ+ climbers of all ability levels can come together to rock climb and socialize.
“It’s a lot of people’s first time climbing ever, and they come to our climb night because they feel like they’re in a safe space and they can try something new within their community,” said Sarina Pizzala, co-founder of Queer Mountaineers. “That’s really special.”
Queer climbers can chalk up their hands and fasten their harnesses for a reduced rate, usually 50% off, which makes going to the climbing gym more accessible.
“Climbing, and climbing gyms specifically, can be intimidating, especially for historically marginalized or underrepresented communities,” said Chris Charles, the general manager at Vital. “Our hope is that these events introduce climbing to folks who otherwise wouldn’t feel comfortable coming in and giving climbing a shot.”
Queer Mountaineers are doing work to lower the barriers that have historically been around climbing and other outdoor activities, Charles said.
Queer Climb Nights were the first event the Queer Mountaineers hosted when their organization formed in September 2022. They started in Seattle with the Seattle Bouldering Project and expanded the event across gyms in Washington and Oregon.
Queer Mountaineers' Bellingham chapter is just getting started, and it’s looking for volunteers so it can expand its events to include more hikes, Mount Baker ski meetups and more.
“Being queer, you’re not often born into a queer family, so there’s a lot about intentionally creating community,” said Knick Adman, the director of Queer Mountaineers. “I think groups like ours help people find others who are interested in similar things so they can create that community.”
Adman, who grew up in Seattle, got involved with the Queer Mountaineers to support the intersection between queerness and the outdoors.
“I was thinking this place is so outdoorsy and so queer, why don’t we have more groups like this?” Adman said.
Making climbing a more inclusive and accessible sport for queer people is something Western Washington University student Joey Godici achieved when they helped start the nonbinary category for competitive collegiate climbing.
After joining the climbing team their first year at Western, Godici, who identifies as nonbinary, was faced with two categories to compete in: men’s and women’s.
Godici felt most comfortable competing in the women’s category, and there were times at certain schools they were questioned over that. They realized they didn’t want that to be their competitive climbing experience.
“Working so hard to build up my strength and my confidence to compete and then being questioned about my gender identity while I’m already worried about competing well, it was frustrating,” Godici said.
After the season ended, Godici collected signatures and letters from people in their community and got in contact with NC3, which is in charge of the collegiate climbing leagues in the Pacific Northwest, to find a solution.
After meeting on Zoom with NC3’s school directors a few times and trying out a few categories, they finalized three categories for the 2023 climbing season: men’s, women’s and nonbinary.
“I saw a lot of community that I was a part of that I hadn’t seen before,” said Godici, who competed in the nonbinary category in the 2023 climbing season. “It was a really special spotlight that I hadn’t seen in competing before.”
Fostering queer community through a love of the outdoors can be a life-changing experience.
20 years ago, Kyle Sheeley founded OutKayaking, a queer kayaking club, out of a need and desire to find other LGBTQ+ outdoor enthusiasts after his partner of 12 years died from cancer.
Sheeley’s partner was his first queer relationship, and after he died, Sheeley realized he didn’t have the skill set to find his own LGBTQ+ community. He recalled the 90s as a time when being out and proud wasn’t an option.
“I suddenly realized, I was a 40-year-old single dude trying to figure out what to do,” Sheeley said. “I just kept going to the bar scene and I found it wasn’t comfortable.”
Trying to find other queer outdoor enthusiasts, Sheeley spent a couple of years heading out into the wilderness on his own around Portland, Oregon, where he lived at the time. He thought if he kept kayaking and camping, he would eventually cross paths with someone like him, but strangely, it never happened.
During a conversation with his dad, Sheeley shared his story. His dad told him, “If you can’t find it, then make it.”
Sheeley started posting advertisements for his kayaking trips in several publications, including Portland newspapers, and built his own website from scratch. Quickly, a dozen or so people began turning up to his trips, and it kept growing.
Sheeley would post two trips per month year-round, one for beginners to offer help getting them into the sport and one for advanced paddlers.
Currently, over 800 people are a part of OutKayaking, and events range from the waters of Washington, Oregon, Canada and beyond.
Nature and outdoor recreation mean something different for everyone, whether it’s community building, making fun memories or healing from tragedy.
“When you’re outdoors, you can just be yourself,” said Adman.
Maria Kallerson (she/her) is a fifth-year creative writing major, journalism news-ed minor and film studies minor at Western. She enjoys hiking in the Cascades, live music, photography, writing short stories and reading. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.