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From Snowboard Instructor To LGBTQ+ Therapist

Meet Michelle Anklan, our first OUTdoors Spotlight

Backcountry partners with the Utah Pride Center (UPC) to support our local LGBTQ+ community and raise awareness about the UPC’s work toward advancing mental health and inclusivity in the backcountry and beyond. In our OUTdoors Spotlight series, we’re sharing the stories of LGBTQ+ outdoor athletes.

Michelle Anklan (she/they) was a snowboard instructor for 15 years in Minnesota, Colorado, and Utah, has guided canoe trips in Boundary Waters, MN, and also gets out to climb in her spare time. A snowboarding injury in 2013 put her on a very long road to recovery, but also catalyzed the social work she’s currently doing with the Utah Pride Center, where she’s been since March 2020.

Tell us a little about your experience with the Utah Pride Center. What inspired you to join? What type of work do you do?

I’ve always tried to find ways to make a living doing things I love and care about, and the Utah Pride Center’s work aligns well with my values. Their mission fits with my favorite therapeutic modality, feminist therapy, which recognizes that our individual experiences in therapy occur within a larger system of power through politics, economics, socialization, education, race, religion, ability, etc. I started in March 2020 as a mental health therapist seeing individual clients and leading group therapy, but I try to balance this work with personal passion projects like community organizing. 

Would you tell us more about the groups and organizations that UPC partners with, like Desert Song, SOS, and the Brighton LGBTQ+ ski day?

Desert Song is a wilderness therapy inspired company that aims to make the outdoors more accessible to all. We had a blast on our queer women’s camping trip they recently facilitated for UPC. 

SOS (Snowsports Outreach Society) teaches life skills and values through snowboarding mentorships for marginalized youth. I volunteered with them for three years in Colorado, and we’re working on a UPC/SOS collaboration for next winter, so stay tuned!

Brighton has such a fun vibe—our #PrideMountainRide day was a first-ever for both UPC and Brighton and we’re already stoked for next year’s! Woodward Park City has also hosted Seen Snowboarding meetups, so we’re excited to expand the queer freestyle scene next season. 

Are there any parallels you can draw between working with the UPC and your time working in wilderness therapy?

The bathrooms in both settings are gender-inclusive! Freedom for self-expression and authenticity as well—when you spend eight days (or 10-12 weeks for students) at a time in the wilderness, you tend to stop caring so much about how you look. Similarly, the Pride Center is very affirming of diversity in expression and that’s something I appreciate in a workplace and community.  

What are some of the hurdles you see in terms of LGBTQ+ accessibility in the outdoors? What changes do you hope to realize through your work?

Financial barriers are definitely a gatekeeper—LGBTQ+ people tend to be lower on the socioeconomic scale, which makes getting gear or even time off work difficult. Lack of representation is another big one—when you don’t see yourself reflected in a population, it can be hard to feel welcomed. A lot of public land in Utah is in rural areas that tend to be more conservative (and have lots of political signs prominently indicating that) so driving through those places can be uncomfortable or even dangerous for queer people and people of colorç.  

What are some examples of infrastructure that increases LGBTQ+ access?

I really like the single-stall pit toilets that are at the bottom of most trailheads. The binary-gendered ones can be problematic. We encountered some bathroom policing by a Park Ranger down in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument during our queer women’s camping trip. Caro of Desert Song posted on social media about it, which resulted in conversations with the higher-ups. They’ve been quite affirming and apologetic and unequivocally stated that discrimination is not tolerated within their organization. We’re having a round table discussion with representatives from the Utah Bureau of Land Management this month on ways to increase representation and access for queer people and other marginalized groups. It’s cool to be able to use our platform for change and further conversations around inclusive access.

“I’ve realized how important it is to honor all parts of your identity and see yourself holistically.”

Alongside the issue of access, you’ve mentioned that athletics, in general, tends to be a hetero- and cisnormative environment. How has this affected you personally?

I grew up doing gymnastics and didn’t know any out queer people (let alone gymnasts) until college, so I didn’t even start to question my own sexuality until I was in my twenties. Getting back into the gymnastics world as a coach, I was hesitant to share my identity with the athletes due to what I now recognize as internalized homophobia. Being in a sport where girls and women have been/are sexualized, I worried my queer identity would make gymnasts or their parents uncomfortable.

There are many straight male coaches in gymnastics, and in the past few years, there has been a huge reckoning of the physical, mental, emotional, and sexual abuse by coaches. Statistically speaking, it’s way more likely that a straight, cisgender male would be a perpetrator of abuse rather than a queer woman, but I wasn’t in a place where I was able to unpack all of that. I talked about going to Pride events and had a rainbow sticker on my crutches so I hoped everyone knew I was at least an ally, but I wish I could go back in time and be open. I’m sure there were gymnasts who were processing their own identities and I wish I could have been a proud and out role model for them at the time.

You have quite the impressive outdoor resume, including teaching snowboarding, guiding canoe trips, and winter camping. What are your top three memories from your adventures?

  1. Paddling and portaging 150 miles from Ely, Minnesota to Atikokan, Ontario 
  2. Finally leading an all-girls group after wanting to work with that population for over a decade 
  3. My first time hitting a jump after my knee injury–there were definitely lots of tears of gratitude and relief after years of wondering whether I’d ever be able to walk again, let alone snowboard 

 Your snowboarding injury put you on crutches for over two years. That sounds incredibly painful and frustrating—especially given your love for being active. What was your recovery process like, both physically and mentally?

The mental aspects of recovery were way more challenging than the physical. I wanted to do everything I could to make things go faster and had to really force myself to rest. One of the hardest parts of recovery was that I’d always identified as an athlete, and I felt like I’d lost a big part of myself. I think many athletes experience that sense of grief at the end of their athletic careers, and I’ve realized how important it is to honor all parts of your identity and see yourself holistically—there is so much more to me than an athlete or a queer person. Also, if you’re ever looking for a good deed, brush the snow off a car parked in the handicap spot.  

“Lack of representation is another [barrier]—
when you don’t see yourself reflected in a population, it can be hard to feel welcomed or accepted.”

AND, you pole dance! Is this something you’ve been doing for years or a recent pursuit?

I started doing pole after my knee injury as I was exploring ways to stay active without needing to put weight on my leg. I fell in love right away with being able to get in the air, get upside down, and feel powerful. The pole community is so affirming and encouraging!  

What are your three favorite things in your gear closet?

  1. My daypack because I literally can’t do anything without sunscreen, chapstick, water, and snacks  
  2. Helmet(s) 
  3. Crocs! My adventure strap is always down 
  4. Sea To Summit Comfort Plus Insulated sleeping pad 

Is there anything else you’d like our community to know?

Black lives matter, and the I in LGBTQIA+ stands for intersex! I also hope that if you read this, you’ll look UPC up and join in one of our many events so we can get OUTside with pride together! 

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