Dressed in a yellow leopard-printed bodysuit and a colorful skirt, Bambi Banks climbed a 50-foot wall while lip-synching to "The Climb" by Miley Cyrus. The crowd below cheered as Banks reached the top, let go, and gracefully rappelled down.
A climbing gym in Chicago might seem like an unlikely place for a drag performance, but in the spirit of Pride month, Brooklyn Boulders Chicago earlier this June hosted its second annual Out to Climb event to celebrate the LGBTQ community.
To many of the drag artists who attended, the evening wasn’t just an opportunity to try a new sport but a chance to reach a wider audience and expand their communal space.
"Queer culture is so embedded in the nightlife, and a lot of youth don't get to do that because Chicago [clubs are] 21 and up, like, straight across, so a lot of them don't get to experience gay spaces," said Banks, who’d never climbed before. "Events like this get us meeting some of our younger fans and followers . . . and let them know that there are people out there and you do have spaces to, like, express yourself even in public." The climb-off, where drag artists of different climbing skill levels raced to the top of the wall while the audience below pledged money, was at the center of the event, a benefit for the Howard Brown Health Center, which has clinics serving the LGBTQ community throughout Chicago.
"We post these signs on our door that say that we're a welcoming place, that we value everyone based on their color and their gender identity," said Claire Bao, Brooklyn Boulders Chicago's marketing manager. "We take these steps to be as inclusive as we can in our space, to have a gender-neutral bathroom, but what does that mean if we’re not celebrating it and activating it, right?"
A monthly climbing meet-up for the LGBTQ community is in the works, said Bao.
Events like Out to Climb "are definitely important to bring together, of course, the queer community, because obviously a lot of times we feel like a lot of queer people and LGBTQ people only have the spaces that are designated to them, maybe in nightlife and different things like that," said Denali, one of the drag queens who climbed that night. "But it's really important to also have activities for them to do."