When we’re born, a doctor proclaims that we are male or female, based on what our bodies look like. But some people’s gender identity is just different from what was initially expected at birth. Halcy wrote in March of 2018: “Dirtbagging has been an integral part of my climbing experience. Two months after I learned to climb, I packed up into my vehicle and took to the road. But things changed when I came out as transgender.”
In March of 2018, Halcy wrote to me: “Two months after I first learned to climb, I packed up into my vehicle and took to the road. But that changed when I came out as transgender. The world became a more dangerous place for me and I didn’t feel safe climbing with whoever happens to be at the crag. While living authentically is totally worth it, it is hard to lose how you fell in love with climbing and find new ways of enjoying it.”
This episode is brought to you by Deuter, Evo Hemp, Dirtbag Climbers, and BioLite. Music by: “Jazzy Frenchy”, “Funky Suspense”, and “Funny Song” by bensound.com, “Ichill” by Kakurenbo, “March of the Mind” by Kevin MacLeod, “Bloom” by Jahzzar, “Arboles”, “Flutterbee”, and “Pives and Flarinet” by Podington Bear.
(KATHY KARLO): This podcast is sponsored by Deuter, one of the leading backpack brands that will help you hit the trails with confidence and comfort, but most importantly–your snacks. Deuter is known for fit, comfort, and ventilation. Stay tuned for a new line of women’s climbing packs, coming out any day. I can’t tell you which one, but stay tuned for more about Gravity SL line–made by women, for women.
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– When we’re born, a doctor proclaims that we are male or female, based on what our bodies look like. Most people labeled male at birth turn out to identify as men and most people who are labeled female grow up to be women. But, some people’s gender identity–their innate knowledge of who they are–is just different from what we initially expected at birth. Most of these people describe themselves as transgender.
And transgender people come from all regions, every racial and ethnic background, from every faith community. Transgender people are your classmates, your co-workers, neighbors, and friends. With approximately 1.4 million transgender adults in the US–and millions more around the world–chances are that you’ve probably met a transgender person. Everyone has a gender identity, but for so many of us, we don’t even think about what gender identity is because it automatically matches our sex at birth.
My friend Halcy and I talk about what it’s like to be a transgender woman in the climbing and outdoor industry. In March of 2018, Halcy wrote to me: “Dirtbagging has been an integral part of my climbing experience. Two months after I learned to climb, I packed up into my vehicle and took to the road. But that changed when I came out as transgender. The world became a more dangerous place for me and I didn’t feel safe climbing with whoever happens to be at the crag.”
Please note that there is brief discussion about depression and suicide in this episode.
(HALCY WEBSTER): My name is Halcy Webster. I am a trans woman and I’ve been climbing for several years but I came out as trans a little bit more recently.
(KK): I asked Halcy if people treated her differently now, after transition.
(HW): Uh, yeah. (laughs) Yes. Yes, life is very, very different. Yeah, climbing, I’m having people telling me, “Yeah, for this next part, use your hands and your feet!” Like, it’s not like that’s any useful advice!
(KK): That actually happens—you get unwarranted advice?
(HW): Yeah! It was kind of funny, that guy who told me that, he said that he was a Stone Master from Yosemite and all that stuff. And it’s like, this is something that happens, you know, regardless of what type of people you’re climbing with: people who really know what they’re doing, people who don’t know what they’re doing—everybody has an opinion on what you should do.
(KK): Can you, in your own words, explain what a transgender woman is?
(HW): Sure. So, a transgender woman is a woman, first off, but what’s a little bit different about them is that at birth, the doctors assign them male. And that’s basically the only difference between a trans woman and a cis woman, or cis being “not trans”.
It wasn’t a singular event that I can point to, I was like, “Yup! That’s the moment I knew.” Although, I will say that once I found out that transgender was a thing that actually exists and there was a word for us, like, “Oh! That’s what I am.”
(KK): You’re listening to For the Love of Climbing Podcast. This is not a climbing podcast. Well, sorta. This is a funny, sad, and somewhat uncomfortable podcast about choosing vulnerability and talking openly about our pain. This podcast is sponsored by Dirtbag Climbers. Here’s the show.
(HW): In my teens, when I was studying gene expression and genetic indicators and stuff like that and I thought, “Oh, what’s this trans thing? I don’t know about this.” So, I was just reading more about it, trying to expand my knowledge and then I realized that there’s a lot of similarities that I felt. I think one of the big things was when people would make stereotypes and generalizations about genders, in my mind, it always kind of triggered this thing—like, “Oh, wait. That’s not accurate because I don’t fit in there. That doesn’t describe me.” That was kind of one of the things that started tipping me off earlier. And I do remember just as a younger child being told, “Don’t stand like that. Don’t put your hand like that. That’s how girls do.”
Once I found out there was a name for this, that I’m not alone, that I’m not just some messed up person, that there are things you can do to feel better—it was a mix of emotions. One was relief—that I wasn’t alone. But then also, fear because I knew just right off the bat that, “Oh, this is not going to go well with my family. I lived a pretty sheltered life (laughs). I grew up in Michigan, kind of on the border of Michigan and Ohio, with a large family. I’ve got five sisters and one brother. So, my family is very loving but also extremely conservative. And so, with me being trans that certainly makes things a bit more interesting.
For like, twenty years, women in my family were not allowed to wear pants. That’s how conservative my family was. As a younger child, whenever I expressed any femininity, that was sharply rebuked. And I was homeschooled; all social interactions were focused either on family or on church. Now that I’m here looking back on it, part of the reasoning was if you control somebody’s social interactions, that’s really good leverage on controlling that person. And so, just kind of the specter of losing everyone you love is a huge motivator to act in accordance with what you’re told.
(KK): Coming out to your parents as homosexual, which refers to your sexual preference in partners, can be one thing. And not that one is easier or harder than the other, but coming out as a transgender person seems to be taking a lot longer to become “mainstream”. (I used air quotes, even though you can’t see them.) Regardless, coming out is exhausting—but how else will people know if you don’t tell them?
(HW): I come from a large family: five sisters and one older brother. Very close with my siblings, with my older brother and then my sister. Yeah, I was very close with those two in particular. My sister was the first one I talked to about this, just ‘cause I trusted her the most and I figured, if anybody in my family is going to be accepting, it’s gonna be her. And she wasn’t. She didn’t speak to me for several months. So, when your best hope doesn’t go well—that’s not very encouraging.
My older brother, I mean—he wants what’s best for me, but he thinks that he knows what is best for me. That’s kind of hard because his vision of what’s best for me is different than my vision of what’s best for me. Yeah, it’s definitely caused a strain on our relationship as well (laughs and sighs).
So, yeah. So, my family being as they are: they’re very involved in church—my dad is a church leader and so, they started to include some of his church friends in on this stuff without my knowledge or consent—like giving my contact information to his church friends so that they could contact me and try to change me. Those conversations really didn’t go well. Kind of one thing that struck me about conservatism and my family and just kind of a lot of my background is disregard for the concept of consent.
Kind of ever since then I’ve been receiving phone calls with the area code from my hometown area. I’ve considered changing my phone number—changing all ways of contacting me. To even think about that, to think that I’m going to completely cut off everyone that I’ve ever loved—that’s just a hard thing to even think about. And I’ve got family members with declining health and if I cut off my family then I will lose out. It would be really great if I could see my grandparents before they die.
A lot of people don’t have very good family relations, but I just wish that I could actually interact with my family, that I could talk with them, and that I don’t have to literally hide from them. That’d be nice. Being a transgender woman, it in of itself is not a huge burden. The difficulties come from people. The hardest thing has been my family. It’s been losing people that I care about. It’s dealing with bureaucracy to get the medical care that I need and the legal representation that I need. All of the difficulties—they’re artificially created by other people.
(KK): Today, the youth are starting to reject this binary way of thinking that we’re all so used to and challenging their adult counterparts to keep up. This is so different from Halcy’s early years.
(HW): That I don’t belong is the most accurate way to say it, but it’s not just that I don’t belong in social circles. It’s like I felt like I didn’t belong in the world. It got pretty bad, and then I tried to ignore it and that only further declined my mental health. I felt very stuck. The only people that I had in my life were family and church. Even though I was an adult, I didn’t feel like I had a whole lot of freedom. And so, I felt that I couldn’t do anything to move forward towards transition.
I’ve always been super outdoorsy, always loved just spending time in nature, going camping, going backpacking, canoeing, and kayaking. And so, then around this time in my life, I thought, “Well, I’ve got a whole lot of crap going on in my life. Climbing was something that really appealed to me, and that’s something that I can do. That’s something that I can make some forward progress on.
(KK): And, like any new climber, Halcy started obsessing. She began watching climbing videos, watching climber’s movement, buying gear, building a rack. And then, Halcy took her first ever climbing trip to one of the sport climbing meccas in the southeast.
(HW): My first time climbing was down in Red River Gorge. I made a trip down there. So, then I figured that I can’t pursue climbing here in Michigan; I have to go west for that.
Two months after I first learned to climb, I hit the road. And it was very good for me. I mean, the physical side of it releases a whole bunch of good chemicals in your brain that are really good. So, in just that alone, made a difference but then also having more freedom—feeling like I didn’t have family members checking in on me, looking over my shoulder, free to think. And life on the road is just the best way to be free. It felt so good.
That’s how I met you, Kathy. It was in Ten Sleep and you had an incredible impact on me. I saw you and just kind of how bold you were, and it was obvious that you faced fear, but then, it was also obvious that you didn’t let fear stop you and that was really inspiring. And then, also to see that there’s a woman climber rocking it and living on the road like me and—just everything about our time together was very inspiring.
(KK): I’m not crying.
(HW): It was obvious that returning is not a sustainable solution for me—that I would have to leave my family again. So, I was planning on leaving that spring. Two weeks before I was heading out, I was bouldering in the gym (‘cause I wanted to stay in shape through the winter) and then I took a really bad fall and just totally messed up my leg. I tore my ACL and my meniscus and fractured my femur and had several other partial ligament tears. Yeah, it was—it was really bad. That canceled my plans to go live on the road (small laugh).
(KK): It’s tough to spend an entire summer basically lying on your back, looking at the ceiling, and feeling more stuck than ever felt before. It’s really hard when you have a plan to get out—and then, it’s yanked from underneath you.
(HW): And then also, I’d lost all of my previous coping mechanisms. Before, to make myself feel better, I would go running or go climbing or do something physical and I couldn’t do that anymore.
(KK): But Halcy did recover and in 2017, she finally made it out of Michigan.
(HW): Early spring, late winter—I finally made it out. That time I spent lying on my back waiting for my knee to heal, I had a lot of time to think. I came to to the conclusion that I don’t have a choice on if I’m going to transition or not. If I’m going to live—I’m going to need to transition. I started that as soon as I could and—that wasn’t soon enough because again, like I said, bureaucracy and dealing with people and all that stuff. But here I am now. I mean, this is the best life has ever been for me. This is the best I’ve ever lived—because I get to actually be me, and that’s an amazing thing to be able to do.
So, probably one of the biggest things that I’ve learned from rock climbing that applies to other areas is to rationalize fear. I get scared a lot when I climb, but I’ve learned to say, “Ok—is this fear something rational or is this irrational?” I look at my system: I’ve got a rope. I’ve got my quickdraw (at my knees!) Ok, this is an irrational fear—I’m going to ignore it. But then, also recognizing that, “Oh ok, no. This is actually a dangerous situation here.” So, kind of learning to differentiate between what is a rational fear and what’s an irrational fear is an invaluable tool that I have gained from climbing. And it’s definitely helped me with transitioning, just dealing with these fears and letting the rational ones not control me, but inform me—and just pushing past the irrational ones.
(KK): Not all fears are irrational, though. And living without fear of discrimination and violence and being supported and affirmed in being who you are is something that I think a lot of us take for granted. And, for as many people who are kind and compassionate and open about gender diversity, there are just as many people who aren’t.
Last year, in 2017, at least twenty-eight transgender deaths were tracked in the US. Most involve clear anti-transgender bias. Being fired or denied a job, facing harassment, homelessness or living in severe poverty, or being denied critical medical care—these are just some of the existing barriers that the intersections of things like racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia can create. In 2018, there have been at least twenty-one transgender lives taken by fatal violence.
(HW): My sense of trust has really been damaged. Definitely kind of developed some trust issues there. And (trails off) just, there’s so much more to be afraid of, it feels like.
(KK): I think it’s hard for a lot of people to understand that fear, you know, just that constant threat of attack if you don’t experience it, and you have no way of experiencing it.
(HW): I take much more consideration onto which environments I put myself in. I lost my job over transitioning, all of my family members, everybody I knew in my hometown. And so, just kind of seeing all of those things, I don’t want to give anybody the opportunity to treat me like that again. So, I generally avoid situations where I think that there’s a chance for things to go negatively.
(KK): Did you have preconceived ideas before you transitioned or while you were transitioning about what the climbing community might be like, coming back to it?
(HW): I found some great climbers that I absolutely adore and just love spending time with, and a lot of that’s through an organization that I’m a part of now called the Alpenglow Collective. And so, it’s kind of a community building platform for women and trans people. I wouldn’t either condemn or praise the climbing community as a whole for how it treats trans people because the climbing community is too diverse for that. But I will say that it only takes one negative person to alter your life in a terrible way, regardless of how many positive people you meet. That definitely had an impact on kind of the caution I’ve taken with getting back into the climbing community.
(KK): Because she chose to live openly as a transgender woman, Halcy lost a lot in a short period of time. She lost all of her family, all of her friends and social life, and her job that allowed her to work from the road. And yet
(HW): It pales in comparison to how much I’ve gained from actually being able to live. I’ve climbed with people who, some of them know that I’m trans, some of them probably know. But, I mean, it just hasn’t been an important point of discussion. I mean, it doesn’t really matter that I’m trans. They treat me as a climbing partner and as a friend and that’s really great—just to feel accepted and to feel kind of somewhat normal. So much of my life has not been normal and so, to kind of get a little sense of that is very nice.
I don’t think that if somebody is close-minded, there’s a whole lot we can do to change that. In order for somebody to learn, they have to want to learn. So, that first step of wanting to learn is up to the individual. We can’t make somebody want to learn. What we can do is provide them with information—educate them. Talk about how gender is a social construct or just talking about the experiences of people and just letting them know that there’s more to the world than they’ve seen and that they know—that they’ve seen a very small perspective of what can exist in the world and that they should consider things that they haven’t considered before and that they should listen to people they haven’t listened to before. There is so much out there to learn. So, yeah just encouraging a culture of continued learning.
(KK): You know, I’ve definitely realized over the years that being a passive bystander can actually be more harmful than anything. And so, what do you think some things that we can do to aid in transgender visibility and help create safe environments are, based on your own personal experience?
(HW): I mean one is, when you see transphobia or anything like that, I mean—calling it out. It’s far more difficult for me to call it out because, in doing so, then I’m opening myself up to attack to from that person. And so, having a cisgender person who can kind of call them out without fear of being attacked for their gender—that’s a very appreciated thing. And also, just one example of really good allyship was, again with Alpenglow Collective. Our organization was asked to speak on a panel and so, the leader of our organization was the one who that was asked and she asked them if they had any trans people speaking at this panel. And they said they didn’t. And she’s like, “Well, then you need to get a trans person’s perspective.” And so then, she suggested that they talk to me. And so, kind of making sure that trans people’s voices are represented. So, sometimes the act of action that allies can take is being quiet. But not just being quiet—but being quiet to make a space for additional voices.
I would say that a really big misconception that I’d want to eliminate is the idea that a trans woman becomes a woman. No, I mean—a trans woman has always been a woman it’s just that she’s had to hide who she was for a period of her life. I’ve been really tempted just the thought of, “Ok. So, what if I tried to make sure that nobody knew I was trans?” And just everybody that met me would think that I’m cisgender and I wouldn’t correct them and just kind of go along with that. And I mean, that’s really appealing—that idea of normalcy and just leaving behind parts that have caused so much grief in my life. The thought of being able to escape is very tempting. If I did that, then I would be silencing myself and not lending my voice to an important issue.
When I was first figuring out gender and all of this stuff, it would have been so nice to have a trans person, particularly in climbing, that I could look up to and see that, “Oh. It’s ok to be a trans climber.” And that there is hope for a good life. I didn’t have that. (pause) I want to send out that message to other trans people who are scared. I want them to know that: things will be tough. I won’t lie to you and say that it will be easy, but I will tell you that it will be worth it and that you can get through it.
I am now on the executive team of Alpenglow Collective
(KK): Shout out to Emily!
(HW): and that’s been hugely impactful for me. Just connecting me with amazing people and getting to do wonderful things and make a positive impact on the world—and doing it all through climbing. I mean, (laughs) what better thing could there be? It’s something I do just because I love it so much—calming my mind, making my body stronger, and developing relationships with really awesome people. And I’ve got climbing to thank for all of that. Climbing has changed my life and it will continue to do so. I hope that I can continue to climb for many more years.
(KK): Some things we can all do to be better allies that I’ve learned: if you don’t know what pronouns to use, listen first. Challenge anti-transgender remarks in public spaces, including on social media. Set inclusive tones. Don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t know something. It’s always better to admit you don’t know something than to make assumptions or say something that may be incorrect or hurtful. Being an ally is a sustained and persistent pattern of action.
(HW): I am very excited about where the community is heading. I don’t think that most people are intentionally malicious—I don’t think that most people want to hurt people—but just because of their lack of awareness and their ignorance, they do end up hurting people. And that does not excuse their behavior but to me, it feels me with hope because I can’t change it if somebody intentionally wants to be hurtful, but I can do something about it if somebody doesn’t want to be hurtful but just doesn’t know. We can change people who just aren’t aware—that’s a thing that can change and to me, that’s so encouraging and so hopeful.
And I think that there’s a lot of conversations going on right now about people of color, the LGBTQ community, women, and so many important people that have been excluded. There are conversations now about that that didn’t exist before. And I think that we have definitely come a long ways, but I still think we have a long ways to go—and we will probably will always have a long ways to go. The point isn’t to be perfect. The point is to be better. I think as long as we keep that forward progress—that’s really all that matters. And I do see that forward progress happening, and it does fill me with hope.
(KK): If you are a transgender person in crisis, there are so many resources available. Check out The Trevor Project, which is open 24/7, 365 days a year at 866-4-U-TREVOR. There’s even a list of international resources at http://www.thetrevorproject.org.
You can call the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 and if you are having thoughts of depression and suicide, please—reach out to the The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK. You are not alone. And just keep talking about how to challenge the beliefs of close-minded people in constructive ways. We can’t force everyone to be supportive, but we can give them the tools to learn and try to understand. Acceptance doesn’t always require understanding, but understanding will often follow acceptance.
(KK): You’re listening to For the Love of Climbing Podcast.
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(FEMALE VOICE): I am calling ‘cause I am making the long drive up towards Washington right now, ’cause I’m gonna go spend some time in Squamish. But I listened to your podcast and you weren’t lying—I literally cried the entire time. The entire time! (laughs) I wanted to call and just, first off, tell you how moved I was by it and just how I wish there were more podcasts for me to listen to today. (laughs) I have a long drive! But also, just talk about it and how moved I was. It brought up so many thoughts! It was so good and I just wanted to share how moved I was.
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