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Offensive route names and how language in climbing culture can be hurtful

The following was written by Squamish climber Michelle LeBlanc and first appeared in Gripped's February/March 2021 issue

Over the last year or so, I have been quietly reading the heated dialogue on social media related to offensive and inappropriate route names in the climbing sphere.

If someone had asked me whether climbing route names can be harmful to a person’s sense of self-worth even just a few years ago, I would have said: “words don’t carry a significant weight or meaning, no biggie. What really matters is the choice a person gives to the meaning behind those words, terminology, slang, etc.” After all, I have been living with my own semi-comfortable level of openness as a lesbian/bisexual woman. I can’t even quite identify with one exact term because I have previously dated men. Would I date another man in the future? Who knows. Technically, that would make me bisexual, but I have mostly been in longer relationships with women. And I have also never been in love with a guy. Where does that put me as a label then? It gets confusing, I know.

Despite the confusion of these “labels,” I had never previously considered the individual weight I had placed on my own sexuality and how that had affected my own self-worth, confidence and, ultimately, my mental health.

The main argument when it comes to keeping offensive route names has been (mostly) argued by white, heterosexual men who probably have spent many hours cleaning, developing and seeking out these first ascents. While I have never personally developed routes or boulder problems, I have many friends who have, and I can appreciate the hard work, grind and dedication required. What I noticed within the conversation though, was that very few (self-identified) minorities had spoken up on the topic – or the ones who had ended up being attacked or told that they were too “sensitive” – that if a route name is offensive, then don’t go climb it, don’t take offense to the route name since it’s an inside joke, etc.

What does this say about today’s rock climbing culture?

Since 2007 or 2008, rock climbing has been a pretty integral part of my life. It has given me a sense of identity as part of a community of socially outcast misfits, adventurers, dreamers and liberal-minded athletes. It has made my body strong, but my mind stronger. It pushed me to travel to exciting destinations, to seek adventure and I have met some of my best friends through the climbing community. For all of these things, I am forever grateful and I know that climbing will continue being a super important part of my life in one way or another even as I get older.

In 2015, I wrote and published an article about being a gay climber for Gripped magazine. It was light-hearted – I shared the personal story of a short-lived climbing trip romance, and I spoke about rock climbers as being an inclusive community that I felt proud to be a part of. This hasn’t changed. But I now recognize that I was pushing my sexuality as something that doesn’t totally matter to my identity in my first article.

Offensive words or terms, even if used in a light-hearted and harmless context, can have a profound effect on an individual’s own perception and that is what I want to communicate with this article.

When I came out to my family and a couple of close friends at age 20, it was in the early 2000s. I wasn’t living in a bustling metropolitan city – I grew up in Fredericton, N.B. At the time, there were hardly any openly gay people at my university, in the community, stars in movies, on TV or especially in professional sports. What I do remember, though, was that it was an extremely uncomfortable period of my life that lasted almost a decade. I didn’t belong to a gay community and I often used many homophobic slurs in university, where I played varsity hockey. This was a tactic to protect myself in a way; I did not want anyone to know that I was secretly dating a woman at university. In fact, my entire team used these terms often, and in such a casual, matter-of-fact way. Negative connotations, gossip, jokes and slurs were shared much like a post-game beer: “Gross, what a dyke,” “I am never showering with, did you see her checking out after the game?,” “I heard that is a rug muncher. Look at how butch she is,” etc.

The level of discomfort that I felt with those words at the time was so visceral that I would spend much of my weekends partying and binge drinking until I blacked out. I would make out with guys at the bar in front of my teammates. The last thing that I wanted at the time was to feel isolated from my own team. I had worked my ass off training to play varsity hockey, but I never felt strong enough to be comfortable in my own skin.

The blackout drinking eventually turned to many moments of regret and subsequently a strong sense of self-hate and disgust. I just wanted to be normal, and “normal” in New Brunswick means that you will: get married, buy a house, have two kids and a dog/cat.

From my experience, I recognize that this pull toward normalcy can be so harmful when you are surrounded by words or terms that you don’t want to identify with because of their negative connotations and the subsequent likelihood of feeling isolated. On many occasions during my 20s, I did not correct people when they assumed that my “partner” was male. I was rarely upfront about being in relationships with women and distinctly remember flat-out lying about it on many occasions up until a few years ago.

When I think about all of this now, it is no wonder that I so often felt such a strong sense of loneliness, isolation, hatred toward my own self and the actions that I took to “fit in” for almost a whole decade. These feelings created really shitty waves of internalized self-hate that I honestly wish no one had to ever go through. But that isn’t the reality, even in today’s landscape.

With so much overwhelming push for equality, inclusivity and sensitivity in the climbing community, the outdoor recreation community, and the world at large, please consider my personal backstory as a subtle reminder that words can actually cause individual emotional and physical harm. Not every minority (visible or invisible) has the luxury of growing up in an open-minded community with visibility and representation for their identity.

Each personal experience or struggle has its own set of background values that may help or hinder identity and the label we attach to it.

Without sounding too hyper-sensitive, I think that individual comfort is a subjective term that is defined by the ability to be authentic in who you really are while having the opportunity to do so. If you are constantly fighting back against terms that you hate – that hate can be internalized and cause damage to your own self-worth.

So, while many (offensive) climbing route names are likely the end result of a funny story, inside joke or harmless banter between friends, I would ask you to consider how isolating or shitty it can make someone else feel. Currently (and luckily), I am much more comfortable with who I am, and I don’t personally take offense to climbing route names very often. Aside from being a climber, I have become an avid trail runner, a moderate skier, a nerdy academic/researcher, a decent cook, a so-so guitar player and a coffee enthusiast, among many other things. But, among all those things, I am (primarily) a lesbian. I have previously hated myself for many years and I wish that the weight of my sexuality had not impacted my life as it had in the past, and for such a long period of time.

If any insight can be shed by sharing my own experience so that people understand why words or terms can be harmful to minority groups, then I will consider this a tough but well-fought victory.

Michelle LeBlanc Photo by Jake Scharfman