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GAME CHANGERS: Stonewall Climbing founder Bryan Yamasaki embraces diversity

Sports, music lover plans national outreach survey in March

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Bryan Yamasak, gay news, Washington Blade
Bryan Yamasaki says his passion for climbing grew out of ennui with the local gay bar scene. (Photo courtesy Yamasaki)

This week in the Blade’s Game Changers series, we meet a gay athlete who has been on a mission to create a more inclusive environment among local queer climbers.

Bryan Yamasaki launched Stonewall Climbing in 2017 along with Brinda Dass in a league format with two seasons per year. There were already climbing groups in existence, but he was looking to expand the definition of a safe space.

“Even though they were LGBTQ-based groups in existence, I didn’t consider them safe spaces. There was ageism, racism and sexism. In the LGBTQ climbing community, we weren’t exposed to people who weren’t gay men,” Yamasaki says. “The LGBTQ community is constantly changing and there are people who we haven’t seen or heard yet. It is an ongoing evolution.”

Yamasaki grew up in Gaithersburg and was more focused on music than sports. He played piano and was in the marching band in high school where he played trombone, baritone horn and tuba.

He ran cross country in high school and picked up fencing in college along with playing in the Ohio University Marching Band.

When he returned to the D.C. area after graduation, he grew tired of the bar scene and wanted to find a healthy lifestyle. A quick search of trust-building activities brought up climbing.

“In my first climb I got halfway up the wall and had a bridesmaid moment,” Yamasaki says. “It was like walking a plank and it felt symbolic that it was just me out there by myself.”

Within a year, he stepped into a leadership position and began recruiting people. The climbing touchstones are self-reliance, learning from failure and using physical activity to improve self-confidence.

Yamasaki says the model being built still needs work and he continues to look for pockets of queer climbers. In March he will launch a national survey with hopes of connecting with people from the deep South to the Pacific Northwest.

“I recently traveled to Tennessee and Oregon for climbing events and the first thing I do when I visit a new city is find the local LGBTQ community center,” Yamasaki says. “I am interested in communities that create safe spaces and learning how I can use that information to make climbing available to more people.”

Sport climbing is growing at a fast pace and will be included in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics this summer. There is no queer national governing body, but Yamasaki hopes that will happen eventually along with a national tournament.

“This journey started with feeling alone, being alone and wanting to raise my self-awareness. Embracing the queer climbing community has exposed me to other people who are like me,” Yamasaki says. “That self-awareness has led to me asking what is missing from this picture and how do I actively change it. I am willingly putting myself out there because I know there are more people who need to be seen.”

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Brittney Griner and wife celebrate birth of their son

Cherelle Griner gave birth to healthy baby boy earlier this month

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Brittney Griner (Screen capture via Instagram)

It’s a boy for Brittney and Cherelle Griner. The Phoenix Mercury center revealed the news in interviews with CBS Sports and NBC News. 

“Every minute I feel like he’s popping into my head, said Griner. “Literally everything revolves around him. And I love it.”

The couple officially welcomed the baby boy on July 8. He weighs 7 pounds, 8 ounces.

“That’s my man. He is amazing,” Griner told CBS Sports. “They said as soon as you see them, everything that you thought mattered just goes out the window. That’s literally what happened.” 

Griner, 33, corrected the CBS News correspondent who said, “You’re about to be a mom!” She told her Cherelle, 33, had already delivered the baby and that she preferred to be called,“Pops.” 

Griner told NBC News correspondent Liz Kreutz they chose to name their newborn son, “Bash.” 

The WNBA star said she is Bash’s biggest fan and is constantly taking photos of him. “My whole phone has turned into him now,” Griner told CBS Sports.

The baby comes as Griner gets set to play in Saturday’s WNBA All-Star Game and then head to Paris with Team USA to compete for their 8th straight gold medal at the Summer Olympic Games. 

“It kind of sucks because I have to leave, but at the same time, he will understand,” said Griner. 

Her time in Paris will mark the first time since the basketball star was released from a Russian gulag, where she was held on drug charges for nearly 10 months in 2022.

“BG is locked in and ready to go,” Griner told NBC News on Friday. “I’m happy, I’m in a great place. I’m representing my country, the country that fought for me to come back. I’m gonna represent it well.”

Griner also spoke with NBC News about her hopes the U.S. can win the freedom of imprisoned Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who was sentenced to 16 years in a Russian maximum security prison on Friday. 

“We have to get him back,” she said. 

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High hurdler Trey Cunningham comes out as gay

Florida State University alum grew up in Ala.

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Trey Cunningham (Photo courtesy of Cunningham's Instagram page)

He didn’t get to punch his ticket to the Olympics this summer but Trey Cunningham, 26, one of the world’s best high hurdlers, is in the news for a far more personal reason: He publicly came out as gay. 

“We say our goals out loud,” Cunningham told the New York Times Monday, explaining a technique he has relied upon in his training as an elite athlete. “If there’s something we want to achieve, we say it. Putting something in words makes it real.”

His sexuality isn’t exactly a secret. Cunningham came out to his parents and friends by phone five years ago at age 20. 

“It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done,” he told the Times, recalling that he found himself dripping with sweat as he waited for the ringing to end and for the calls to be connected. 

Cunningham revealed to the newspaper that he got the sense that at least some of his friends were not at all surprised by this news, and had been “waiting for me,” he said. “I was really lucky to have a group of people who did not care.”

He was in college then, starting to “explore the idea” of his sexual attraction. 

“It took me awhile to know it felt right,” he said. 

His high school years in Winfield, Ala., were a time for friends and fun, dreaming of playing pro basketball with the Boston Celtics before discovering he enjoyed “flinging myself at solid objects at high speed,” he said. It was not a place conducive to dating other boys. 

Cunningham recalled his hometown as “rural, quite conservative, quite religious: The sort of place where you did not want to be the gay kid at school,” he told the paper. “So, I had certain expectations of what my life would look like, and it took me a little while to get my head around it, looking different to that.”

So, it was not a surprise that his parents gave him some “pushback” — in his words — when he called them with the news five years ago. 

“They had certain expectations for their little boy, for what his life would be like, and that’s OK,” he told the Times. “I gave them a 5-year grace period. I had to take my time. They could take theirs, too.” 

Cunningham drew a parallel between his own process and theirs. “What was true for me was also true for my parents,” said the world-class sprinter. 

And he is world-class, even if he’ll be watching the Summer Games instead of competing in them. As the Times reported, Cunningham is ranked 11th in the world. In 2022, he won the silver medal in high hurdles at the world championships in Eugene, Ore., and last month he placed ninth in the 110-meter hurdles at the U.S. Olympic trials. 

“If you do well in the U.S. trials, you know you have a good shot at a medal,” he said.

Following his disappointing finish in what he described as a “stacked field” of competitors, he is coming out as gay in an interview with a journalist now because everyone who he feels needs to know has known for some time, he said. Also, he recognizes that being out is still rare. 

“There are lots of people who are in this weird space,” said Cunningham. “They’re not out. But it is kind of understood.”

What he hopes is that both sports and the wider world will someday get to a place where “people do not have to ‘come out,” he said, where people can “just get on with being them.”

In addition to being an elite athlete, Cunningham has a Master of Science degree from Florida State University, a deal with Adidas and — with his scruffy square jaw and pouty lips — he is a sought-after Ford model.

He said in the interview that he realized coming out comes with practical and potentially financial considerations: Competing in countries where being gay is a crime, like Qatar. Although he doesn’t think hiding his sexuality inhibited his performance or that some great weight is now lifted, he believes being public about it has value.

There are times, Cunningham said, when it pays to say something out loud, to make things real. This is that time. 

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Transgender nonbinary runner Nikki Hiltz makes Team USA

‘Woke up an Olympian’

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(Screenshot)

They ran like the wind, broke the tape at the finish line, and clutched their chest with the broadest smile on their face. Then Nikki Hiltz collapsed to the track, having set a new record in the 1,500-meter race at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials and earned a spot on Team USA. 

As the realization sank in that they would be representing the U.S. in Paris as an out transgender nonbinary athlete, what the Paris-bound Olympian did next was to scribble a message of LGBTQ representation on the last day of Pride Month, writing with a red marker upon the glass of the camera that records each athlete’s signature on a whiteboard: 

“I ❤️ the gays,” they wrote, and above it, they signed their first name. 

Hiltz, 29, finished the race on Sunday at the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field in first-place with a final time of 3:55:33, breaking third-place finisher Elle St. Pierre’s 2021 record of 3:58:03. 

Hiltz credited St. Pierre, the top-finishing American and third-place finisher in the women’s 1,500 at the Tokyo Olympics, with motivated them and the other competitors to race faster. With a first lap time of 61 seconds, St. Pierre led the race for the majority of its duration. St. Pierre and Emily Mackay, who placed second, also both earned spots in the Paris Olympics.

“If someone would have told me this morning that 3:56 doesn’t make the team, I don’t want to know that. I’m just in the race to run it and race it and that’s what I did,” Hiltz said after the race. The Santa Cruz native who came out in 2021 as trans nonbinary told NBC Sports that the accomplishment is “bigger than just me.”

“I wanted to run this for my community,” Hiltz said, “All of the LGBT folks, yeah, you guys brought me home that last hundred. I could just feel the love and support.” 

On Monday, Hiltz reflected on the race and how they became an Olympian in a post on Instagram.

“Woke up an Olympian. 🥹 Yesterday afternoon in Eugene Oregon a childhood dream of mine came true. I’m not sure when this will fully sink in … All I know is today I’m waking up just so grateful for my people, overwhelmed by all the love and support, and filled with joy that I get to race people I deeply love and respect around a track for a living. 🙏”

Hiltz also shared a photo with their girlfriend, runner Emma Gee, and captioned it: “Remember in Inside Out 2 when Joy says “maybe this is what happens when you grow up … you feel less joy”? Yeah I actually have no idea what she’s talking about. 🎈🌈🤠🦅🥐🇫🇷”

They shared photos in their new Team USA garb, too. 

While they will be the first out trans nonbinary member of the U.S. track and field team, Hiltz will not be the first nonbinary Olympian. That honor goes to Quinn, who played soccer for Canada in Tokyo and holds the record as the only nonbinary athlete to have won a gold medal. So far. 

Many of the posts by Hiltz, Team USA and others have been trolled by bigots and ignoramuses who have mistaken them for a trans woman who was presumed to be male at birth and transitioned genders. Right-wing outlets and anti-trans activist Riley Gaines have commented on their victory and questioned their gender identity and decision to compete against cisgender women. 

But in the spirit of the late Marsha P. Johnson, who famously said the “P” stood for “pay no mind” to the haters, Hiltz shared a photo of a handwritten motivational note to themself, which ends: “I saw a quote online the other week that said, ‘respect everybody, fear nobody,’ and that’s exactly how I’m going to approach this final. I can do this.” 

And they did. 

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