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SLAQC Lifts Up Salt Lake's Queer Community

Meet The Utah Group Connecting LGBTQIA+ Climbers

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.

Salt Lake Area Queer Climbers (SLAQC, pronounced “slack”) was founded in 2015 by Chris Doman, with the mission to “build community, empower LGBTQIA+ individuals in the sport of rock climbing, and create a more inclusive environment in the rock climbing community as a whole.” Temporarily on hiatus during the pandemic, SLAQC returned in 2021 hard at work to expand their mission and establish a lasting, impactful organization for years to come.

In addition to hosting weekly climbing events, SLAQC raises visibility for its community within the climbing industry by partnering with brands who share their mission, advocates for increased access to climbing with gym partners, and promotes queer-owned businesses. More broadly, the group creates a space for queer climbers to come together and climb in a supportive environment. 

We sat down with each of the three co-organizing members of this peer-led group to chat about their work with the organization. Read on for our conversations with Matt Kastellec (he/him/his), Leandra Hernández (she/her/ella), and Rue Zheng (they/them).

Matt’s climbing career began back on the East Coast, where he’d climb with his uncle as a child. The pandemic put a hold on climbing for him, but he still found his way outside via hiking and biking in nearby Antelope Island or at Desolation Lake.

“Climbing helps center me, and deepens my relationship
with the outdoors.”

What role did climbing play for you as you grew up—and how has its meaning for you changed over time?

Even before I could articulate the difference of being queer, me and all of my peers knew I was different, so I mostly shied away from anything athletic. Climbing was different both because it was in a non-judgmental space where I learned from my uncle, and because there is something very simple about it just being your body and the rock. No winners or losers, no teammates to blame or be blamed by. It was something I actually felt good at. 

In many ways, that appeal hasn’t changed, but I’ve definitely become more aware of how climbing helps center me, and deepens my relationship with the outdoors.

Tell us about the climbing scene in NYC.

There has been an explosion of gyms in the city in the past 10 years, even more so in the last three. I grew up going to Chelsea Piers, which is one of the longest-running indoor walls in NYC that I know of. 

There are also boulders in Central Park—Rat Rock is probably the most famous and most popular. I mostly took the type of day trips that are typical for NYC climbers—to Peterskill/the Gunks (New York), an area called Powerlinez (New Jersey), or Birdsboro Quarry (Pennsylvania). Longer weekends were spent in Rumney (New Hampshire), and then the occasional trip down to the New River or Red River gorges.

What are some of the challenges and highlights of relaunching SLAQC after the hiatus during COVID?

It was a huge highlight to come back after a year-plus off and have our biggest event ever celebrating Pride! Seeing 50+ folks experience the joy of climbing together was special.

Leandra (she/her/ella) is an assistant professor of applied communication at Utah Valley University. Originally from Houston, Texas, she moved to Utah from Japan (where her husband was stationed), and has loved every minute she’s spent living near Utah’s Wasatch Mountains. She is passionate about fostering inclusive spaces for LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC climbers and is also a member of the JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion) Committee for the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance.

 “My identity informs my teaching, my activism, and my climbing.
It’s one of the main reasons that I wanted to get involved with SLAQC.”

How does your racial identity intersect with your queer identity and your identity as a climber?

Intersectionality is the name of my game. As a Mexican-American woman and a pansexual woman, I can’t separate the different parts of myself that make me who I am. My identity informs my teaching, my activism, and my climbing. It’s one of the main reasons that I wanted to get involved with SLAQC. I’m particularly jazzed about mentoring young queer climbers of color who are just now entering the wonderful world of climbing.

Tell us about the climbing culture in Japan.

Let me just say this—Japanese climbers are STRONG AS HECK. My husband and I were able to climb in Otake and Tokyo, and I was constantly amazed by the supportive climbing culture (they welcomed us everywhere, even though we spoke very little Japanese), the incredible route-setting, and the sheer strength of Japanese climbers. Shout-out to Junji, owner of Spooky Climbing in Otake—thank you for being our climbing home when we were in Japan!

What are some of the challenges and highlights of being a co-organizer and co-facilitator for SLACQ?

SLACQ provides a queer home space for me and a connection with other queer climbers. I love my co-facilitators and I love our community. One of the challenges is figuring out how to have events where everyone can connect while being cognizant of our community’s diverse neuro abilities and preferences. Some of our members have let us know that the events can be a bit overwhelming, so we’ve started holding smaller, more informal weekly meetups.

Rue Zheng is a medical and sports massage therapist and organizer for SLAQC. As a Chinese-American growing up in Kansas, they know what it’s like to feel like an outlier in their community, so they’re well aware of the benefits of a community like SLAQC. They stopped in Salt Lake City in August of 2020 during a trip to the Tetons and immediately felt at home, moving here permanently in January of 2021. A few days later they were already hitting the local crags.

“Representation is important, but it’s not enough for a company or organization to look diverse—it structurally needs to be diverse.”

How does your racial identity intersect with your queer identity and your identity as a climber?

I’ve made some of my closest friends through SLAQC and BIPOC at the Front meetups. It wasn’t until we combined our groups for a climb night last month that I felt a sense of true belonging. Intentional groups for queer climbers of color are so important because we don’t often have spaces that we truly feel like we are safe to be ourselves in. When I’ve been in BIPOC spaces, it’s an incredible energy and feeling of safety I don’t experience elsewhere. However, when it is still a cis-heteronormative space, I typically get misgendered and feel like an outlier. On the other hand, queer groups typically center white, cis gay men, and trans and non-binary people of color often feel othered or excluded. 

The truth is, when I was younger, I didn’t ever think I would get to climb outdoors. So many of us queer people of color are taught that climbing isn’t meant for us. By creating spaces for other queer people to be themselves, I’ve created space for myself. I hope folks walk into a space where all the things that they have been taught made them different, are what connect them to everyone else.

How can the outdoor community become a more welcoming place for the AAPI community?

It’s necessary to address why people of color feel unwelcome in the first place. Representation is important, but it’s not enough for a company or organization to look diverse—it structurally needs to be diverse. What makes me feel welcome is seeing people who hold a range of different racial and gender identities in management positions, in the decision-making, in advertisements, and in the culture-setting of a company or organization.

What are some of the challenges and highlights of being an organizer for SLACQ?

One of the challenges is finding ways to make climbing more accessible to our community. Not everyone can afford a membership or day pass to the gym. For our bigger events, we’ve been grateful that members are donating their buddy passes. It’s incredible to see how much our queer community shows up for one another. 

One of my favorite things is the lifelong friendships I’ve made. I love to hear about the friendships people have made through our meetups and how it has impacted their lives. It’s really special to create queer spaces for people to connect over climbing, and to have people show up week after week.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.


Our thanks to The Front in Salt Lake City for their help in telling this story.
Learn more about The Front on their website and @thefrontclimbing.