Tuesday 7 April 2020

80 More Gays Around the World: Part 9) Reaching the Heights

Last time on “80 More Gays”: The Phrygian goddess known to the Romans as 22) Cybele was originally an intersex deity called 23) Agdistis, whose male organs were severed and miraculously produced the almond tree which, though a symbol of divine favour, is the source of cyanide, the poison 24) John Menlove Edwards (1910-1958) took to take his own life.

Why would a seemingly successful man like 24) John Menlove Edwards take his own life with cyanide? It is true that insecurities about his homosexuality, which was only revealed after his death, could have been a factor but we’ll never know for sure.

His family would have liked him to have gone on to Edinburgh University to study medicine. Instead John enrolled in Liverpool University so that he could be near his ailing father. It was while there that John was introduced to climbing. He surprised experienced climbers by tackling any climb seemingly effortlessly. Very often he was the first to tackle climbs which others had thought too difficult or un-climbable. In his first two years John had pioneered 14 new climbs in Snowdonia in north Wales, his favourite climbing region.

John Menlove Edwards was also a successful psychiatrist. He set up a private practice and during World War II he become a conscientious objector and took up prestigious posts at the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children and the Tavistock Clinic. By the end of the war John was developing a lack of self-assurance in his professional life, often feeling that senior medical officials dismissed his work and research.

There isn’t enough space to go into any detail about his many non-climbing exploits. His swimming and rowing adventures alone could fill one article. He would easily have become an Olympian (probably reluctantly) if climbing had been introduced into the games before Tokyo 2020, though his style of climbing was different – he preferred natural rocks to the man-designed walls of modern competitive sport climbing.

However, there was a chance there could have been an lgbt climber at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics because one of the most successful female climbers in the USA, 25) Alex Johnson (b.1989), had been in training for the event.

Qualification for Tokyo 2020 was well under way when the games were postponed. Alex was one of many known lgbt athletes who had already competed in a qualifying event. The first event for climbers was the World Combined Championships in Hachioji, Japan, in August 2019. Alex finished in a disappointing 49th position, though 5th in the women’s US team. This wasn’t high enough for her to gain Olympic qualification. Alex didn’t qualify for the next two qualification events and it looks like her chance at the Olympics have slipped away.

While this is disappointing, Alex already has many championship titles to her name. She is a 5-times US national champion, and 2-times Pan-American champion and 2-times climbing World Cup gold medallist. Even while training for Tokyo 2020 Alex gained a new title – the 2019 top-ranked US female in bouldering.

Alex Johnson, had she qualified, would not have been the first lgbt Olympic climber, nor the first lgbt Olympic climbing champion. That honour goes to 26) George Mallory (1886-1924), who was awarded a gold medal in alpinism (mountaineering) for his participation in the first (failed) attempt to reach the top of Mount Everest in 1922. Sadly, when the medal were awarded during the closing ceremony of the first Winter Olympic in 1924 Mallory was already on his way back to Everest for another attempt. The deputy leader of the 1922 expedition received the medals on behalf of the whole team. Sadly, George Mallory was killed on the 1924 expedition and never got to see his medal.

Today, even with advancements in climbing technology and support, reaching the top of Mount Everest is regarded as the ultimate personal challenge. Several lgbt climbers have reached the “top of the world”. The first Peruvian woman to do so was 27) Silvia Vasquez-Lavado (b.1974).

Silvia Vasquez-Lavado also holds the record of being the first openly lesbian climber to complete the Seven Summits, the highest mountains on the seven continents. Just to make sure, she climbed both of the mountains debated as the highest in Oceania, making eight summits in total.

Silvia was born during one of the most violent periods in Peru’s history. It was also troubling for her personally because she was subjected to sexual abuse in her childhood. After confiding in her parents Silva escaped by being sent away to study in the USA.

In 2005 Silvia and her mother were on a mountain retreat in Peru when Silvia had an epiphany. By climbing mountains she could climb above her painful memories and have some measure of healing. Just two months later she was at Everest base camp ready to start her challenge. To begin with she chose to climb a smaller neighbouring peak and pledged to come back to Everest after she had gained more experience. That pledge was fulfilled in May 2018 after she had climbed six of the other Seven Summits.
Everest from the north (Lance Trumbull: EverestPeaceProject.org)
Silvia’s childhood abuse inspired her to create an organisation in 2014 called Courageous Girls, a charity which offers help and support for other female abuse victims. Her climbs since then were dedicated to them.

Silvia is one of many abuse victims who have turned their experiences into increasing awareness and support to others. Another is lesbian author 28) Dorothy Allison (b.1949).

Next time on “80 More Gays”: We win awards, open bookstores, go on parade, and be radical.

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