Inclusivity at the climbing wall: An interview with SLAQC
By Mekenna Malan | May 18th, 2022
Photo by Lani Gailey
Salt Lake Area Queer Climbers (SLAQC) brings together LGBTQ+ climbers across the Wasatch Front and plays a crucial role in fostering a safe, inclusive space for northern Utah's queer outdoor community.
We sat down with Matt Kastellec and Leandra Hernandez—two of the co-organizers of SLAQC along with Rue Zheng—to chat about the group's formation, SLAQC's growing presence in Ogden, what climbing means to them, and more. Learn more through the interview below, and find information about future meetups by following along with SLAQC on social media.
Matt and Leandra, it's a pleasure to chat with you. Let's start at the beginning: How was SLAQC formed, and how did you play a part in that?
Matt: SLAQC was actually formed a number of years ago by a person named Chris Doman. They had moved back to Utah after attending events like HomoClimbtastic, which is a meetup of groups like SLAQC from all over the country. When they came here, they wanted to start something like that. They founded SLAQC and tried to keep it up, but the group was dormant by the time I moved out here in November of 2019 from New York City.
I'd been involved with CRUX Climbing, which is basically the SLAQC equivalent for the New York area, so I knew I wanted to get involved. I reached out to Chris on Facebook and we started to get things going again in the winter of 2020. After a couple of meetups, the gym shut down—and the world shut down—in March 2020, and we put everything on pause. Chris moved to Hawaii. It was just me for a bit, and everything was on hold until vaccines became more widely available and it felt safer to gather as a community. In June of 2021, The Front reached out and we got a conversation going about doing a Pride event. In reaching out to some mutual friends, our other co-organizer Rue Zheng came on board and we planned that event together. At the event, we asked Lea to join us. It sort of took off from there.
Before the pandemic, we had maybe 5-10 people show up and we were ecstatic. In June of 2021, with more help from The Front and more intentionality on our end, we got like close to 50 people. It was super exciting. They all asked us, "So we're coming back next week, right?" We were thinking of maybe holding monthly events or meetups, but everyone wanted to come back sooner. We've done weekly meetups almost every week since June of 2021. We're now planning our one year anniversary party with The Front this coming June.
How do you feel SLAQC has been received in the climbing community and the broader community in general?
Matt: I would say there is a clear distinction in my mind of the support post-May of 2020 and the murder of George Floyd. The public—and the climbing public, in particular—was more willing to make or support spaces like SLAQC. Around that same time is when Color the Wasatch, a group similar to SLAQC but for climbers of color, was formed. Suddenly, there was a lot more appetite from gyms to support these spaces and throw their weight and resources behind them. That's made a big difference in our ability to pull off events and let people know we exist. At the same time, there are still plenty of things to solve. There have been some recent articles—like in Outside Magazine, for example—about the importance of affinity spaces, and the comments section was just absurd. Bias, racism, homophobia, etc. Some of it is more subtle erasure, like, "Why can't people just be climbers?" or like, "We're all just climbers, why do you need a separate space?" And it's hard to explain to them that it's because of people like that, who are leaving those comments. Maybe there's a world in which there isn't a need for our groups, but it's not the world we live in now.
Leandra: Going back to the vision, mission, and the goals of SLAQC—of course, meetups are a big part of the representation and community outreach. But we also do so much more than just that. We partner with local organizations to participate in mutual gear aid and mutual funding for queer and BIPOC communities. We also have very active voices with the gyms and the community when it comes to things like gender-inclusive bathrooms, gender and identity when it comes to climbing competitions, and things of that nature. It's about trying to help make the spaces safer and braver, and more accessible, too.
SLAQC has recently expanded to have a regular presence in Ogden. How did that come about?
Matt: A friend and regular at the Salt Lake meetups, Patrick Ramsay, recently moved to Ogden. He thought it'd be great for us to start serving the community that exists up there. Before that, I had never been to The Front in Ogden. It's a unique space compared to the other gyms, and Ogden has got its own vibe. And once again, it was member-driven. We co-hosted an event with Utah Rainbow Hikers, which has a lot of folks based in Ogden. In having conversations with them, it was interesting to talk about how, as close as the communities are geographically, they're also worlds apart in some ways culturally. They talked about how meaningful it is for people based north of Salt Lake to have a space that is created for them, promoting visibility and providing access to things like hiking or climbing—things that are in many ways ingrained in Utah culture, but not quite for everybody. The Ogden meetups might have a more casual setup than our typical climb nights, there might not be name tags or flags, but the essence is still the same. And based off what we've heard, there's definitely a need for that type of programming within Ogden's climbing space.
"[Our friends at Utah Rainbow Hikers] talked about how meaningful it is for people based north of Salt Lake to have a space that is created for them, promoting visibility and providing access to things like hiking or climbing—things that are in many ways ingrained in Utah culture, but not quite for everybody." - Matt
What has climbing meant to you throughout your life?
Leandra: I first started climbing seriously in 2014 when I was living in San Diego. As someone who played team sports my entire life and was fairly athletic, when I got into climbing, I was like, "This is hard, why do people do this?" I struggled to find the community aspect of climbing as well, because it can be so individualistic and structured around things like grade chasing and things of that nature. When I first moved to Salt Lake City in 2019, I didn't know anyone here and was really struggling to find a community. Climbing has always been something that has been really freeing for me and very inviting and enjoyable, but also something that's really hard when it came to finding communities—whether that be BIPOC climbers or queer climbers—because I am also Latina. If we're being honest, outdoor spaces can be scary or violent depending on who you're with, who's around, and the way certain conversations play out. For me, SLAQC has been a saving grace in terms of not only having a place for the community to show up and climb in a comfortable, safe way, but the queer joy that comes from it really did reinvigorate climbing for me.
Matt: My situation is slightly more rare, though maybe not so much in Utah, as I started climbing as a kid. My uncle lived in Virginia and was a member of what I'd call one of the earliest generations of climbers. He took me and my brothers out to climb when we were kids. Out of my siblings, I was the one that really grasped onto it. I was the kind of person who really did not enjoy team sports. I think a lot of it was due to the way masculinity is perpetuated in very specific ways in team sports, even when you're in elementary school. Having a sport that was really just about me and my body on the wall, or me and my belayer, was something that felt really freeing. I wasn't good at ball sports, but I was good at rock climbing. While living in New York City, I went through a terrible breakup and was looking for ways to reconnect with the queer community more broadly. I found climbing through that search because I found Crux Climbing and got re-hooked on everything. It was shocking to me how much my body remembered through muscle memory.
My relationship to climbing is a way for me to build community. Re-launching SLAQC was completely selfish. It's always funny when people thank me or thank us, because I'm like, "You're welcome, and also, this was for me." I wanted to help make the space I knew I needed. That's what keeps me energized and engaged today, even as my actual climbing skill and practice waxes and wanes on the season. Knowing that I can just go to a SLAQC meetup and be amongst my people is is always good to know.
"For me, SLAQC has been a saving grace in terms of not only having a place for the community to show up and climb in a comfortable, safe way, but the queer joy that comes from it really did reinvigorate climbing for me." - Leandra
What could the outdoor community do to make the outdoors and outdoor activities a more welcoming place for LGBTQ+ and BIPOC communities?
Matt: There are a couple of things, and some of this is reflected in the work we try to do. There are still a lot of things that are really toxic about the culture of climbing—and the outdoors in general—in terms of the way knowledge is gained and kept. Knowledge is withheld and distributed in informal ways that don't allow people to access it. That ends up reinforcing the stories we hear about who belongs outside. That's why, for example, we launched our mentorship program. We know there is knowledge within our community that's just waiting to be unleashed and shared, but people don't have access to it.
The same applies to how people feel welcomed or not in spaces. That comes down to, are your pronouns respected? Is your name pronounced properly? Are you stared at because your gender does not meet someone's expectation of what gender is, or your skin color is not what someone expects of someone climbing? Or your hair texture? Anything, right—all of those things that sound really simple add up to a culture. Like Lea was saying, you can get to a crag and it's not the rock that feels unsafe, it's the people around you that make you feel unsafe. To access outside spaces, you're often moving through more rural communities that have more complicated relationships to marginalized people. That's not to say that all rural communities are a monolith, but it is often a consideration. There was a queer couple that was murdered outside of Moab within the last year. Those are things that are impossible to extricate from the sport of climbing.
Leandra: The physical space itself is something we think about all the time. To some people this might sound trite, but for some of us, it's like, "Do I feel safe enough stopping at a gas station in this small town outside of this crag? Would I want to be heard speaking Spanish in this gas station for fear of something?" One of the best parts of SLAQC is the opportunity for us to explore these spaces together and in larger groups—not just from a representation perspective, but also from a safety and comfort perspective— especially when so many of our climbers in our community would have never gotten outside to begin with. And maybe that's because of information that's been gate-kept or because they quite literally don't even know how to get started. The access and accessibility part is so huge, which is why in addition to the mentorship program, we also started a guidebook lending library that we're constantly adding to in hopes that folks can take advantage of that. Borrow a guidebook and a crash pad or two from the SLAQC stock, and then hopefully get out there and feel empowered.
Photo by Lani Gailey
Do you have a favorite local crag?
Leandra: I haven't climbed a ton in Utah yet, but I think one of my favorite places to go is Joe's Valley. I really enjoy bouldering more than ropes at the moment—it's my current flavor. For me, Joe's Valley is kind of this endless wonderland of different types of problems.
Matt: I've been to a couple of different rope crags in Big Cottonwood—I probably haven't been to any one of them enough to call it my favorite, but coming from New York, I love being able to drive 15 minutes and be at a crag with any number of routes that feel within my grade and are safely bolted. I don't have a favorite yet because I still take every chance to try somewhere new, and I haven't run out of places—I probably won't.
Matt: I wanted to live in a place that I could have access to the sport that I love, but that also had a queer community that I felt could support me and have some energy behind it. There are organizations here that have existed a long time, like QUAC (Queer Utah Aquatic Club) and so many others. We now have the Under the Umbrella bookstore. There's queer ballet, queer and trans yoga—all of these different groups. I was looking for a place that I could get outdoors, that had a great community with something to offer me, and that I had something to offer back.
Leandra: My partner was in the military for 10 years. At the end of the 10th year, we were finally at a point where we could actually choose where we wanted to live. I had been an adjunct professor at several different places and I remember thinking to myself that I wanted to land a full-time tenure track in the west. I'm from Texas—we don't really have mountains there. The very first place I got an offer from was at Utah Valley University, and I couldn't have been more thrilled. My dean was like, "Okay, you're not part of any of the dominant cultures here." She put it very bluntly. She asked if I was sure I wanted to stay here. And I was like, "See that mountain range? I'm not going anywhere." I moved here because the school was incredible and my colleagues were incredible, but also because I wanted to climb and be in a space with really good access. I wanted to not only find communities but play a role in developing them, too. We've now been here almost three years. It's interesting to me how folks who aren't from Utah have certain predispositions about the state. When everyone says, "Why did you want to live in Utah? Isn't it a peculiar place?" I'm like, "Just come check it out, you might be surprised."