MIKE BORT­NOWSKI

On Snow­board­ing’s Ho­mo­gene­ity

Transworld Snowboarding - - CONTENTS - PER­SPEC­TIVES // WORDS TAYLOR BOYD

I think most snow­board­ers like to view our cul­ture as pro­gres­sive—a com­mu­nity of artists more than a group of jocks. I do. But how ac­cept­ing of di­ver­sity is snow­board­ing, ac­tu­ally? Last year, in an ef­fort to re­fresh my avalanche ed­u­ca­tion, I was in­tro­duced to Mike Bort­nowski, a guide knowl­edge­able beyond his 24 years, who helped me con­tinue on the never-end­ing path that is the pur­suit of back­coun­try knowl­edge. With this ques­tion of the snow­board com­mu­nity’s level of di­ver­sity ac­cep­tance re­cently on my mind, I called Mike. He’s gay. I was cu­ri­ous how that has af­fected his ex­pe­ri­ence within the out­door in­dus­try and as a snow­boarder. What he had to say was en­light­en­ing and trou­bling, but also gives me hope for a more in­clu­sive fu­ture that be­gins with dis­cus­sion.

How did you get into guid­ing?

I think the be­gin­ning was just a fas­ci­na­tion with be­ing out­side. I learned to snow­board when I was 13, at a tiny lit­tle re­sort in Wis­con­sin. I loved the speed you could achieve—the lack of grav­ity, go­ing off of a small roll, or a jump, or what­ever. It was ex­hil­a­rat­ing; it was fun. That got me into watch­ing snow­board movies of these pro rid­ers, and that even­tu­ally led me out West. See­ing the size of the moun­tains and rid­ing pow­der for the first time, I re­al­ized there was a lot more to this. I started work­ing as a trip leader for the out­door pro­gram at School of Mines in Colorado. Then I re­al­ized that there are peo­ple who do this for a liv­ing, guid­ing specif­i­cally. Snow­board­ing was def­i­nitely the gate­way drug, if you will, for the out­doors and led me to climb­ing and moun­taineer­ing, just be­ing in the moun­tains, sum­mer and win­ter. Through ex­plor­ing those other dis­ci­plines, I re­al­ized that guid­ing could be a thing. Engi­neer­ing wasn’t some­thing I was as pas­sion­ate about as I had ini­tially thought, so in 2014, I with­drew from school. I had the qual­i­fi­ca­tions to sign up for an AIARE in­struc­tor train­ing course, so I spent my 21st Birth­day in Jackson Hole get­ting cer­ti­fied.

That’s young to be guid­ing and teach­ing avalanche ed­u­ca­tion. What would you say is the most re­ward­ing as­pect of guid­ing, for you?

For me, it’s see­ing peo­ple re­al­ize that they are ca­pa­ble of more than what they thought. That’s why I got into it. With a lit­tle bit of coach­ing, they’re able to do so much more and gain more con­fi­dence in them­selves and their craft.

Have you ever felt some­one in your line of work act dif­fer­ently to­ward you upon find­ing out that you are gay, clients or co­work­ers?

Not overtly. The most dis­heart­en­ing is ac­tu­ally clients. I think if any­thing, it’s ac­tu­ally al­lowed me to be­come closer with some of my co­work­ers be­cause I can be more au­then­tic. How­ever, to some, I have sensed—not ex­plic­itly, not overtly, but qui­etly—just that you’re lesser. Maybe you’re lesser of a moun­tain guide be­cause you’re not as mas­cu­line. You’re not this sym­bol of for­ti­tude and strength any­more, be­cause you’re gay. I have felt that, but from a very small per­cent­age of other guides. I think I’ve felt it more from clients. This is some­thing I’ve al­ways strug­gled with: how do I in­tro­duce my­self as an openly gay man? Be­cause when I haven’t men­tioned that up front, I some­times de­velop rap­port with some­one and later on, when they find out that I am gay, all of a sud­den they get un­com­fort­able. I’ve felt a dis­tance af­ter that, and that sucks. With other stu­dents, it’s the op­po­site. I guess it’s po­lar­iz­ing. Every­body has an opin­ion about it, whether they re­al­ize it or not.

Do you think it would be eas­ier for some­one who iden­ti­fies as a snow­boarder, who knows they’re gay, to feel com­fort­able com­ing out if there was a role model they could look up to?

Yes, I do, be­cause I know how shocked and thrilled I was when Gus [Ken­wor­thy] came out. Even though he wasn’t a snow­boarder, it was this first big, vis­i­ble voice in snows­ports that kind of bridged two worlds that didn’t nec­es­sar­ily co­ex­ist. And even last year, it was my first time ever at­tend­ing Breck Gay Ski Week, and I ran into some folks who could re­ally ski and snow­board and hap­pen to be gay. I was like, “Whoa, there are ac­tu­ally other pro­fes­sion­als in this in­dus­try that hap­pen to be part of the LGBT spec­trum. I think that vis­i­bil­ity was re­ally im­por­tant for me, be­cause it’s a su­per unique po­si­tion to be in. If there are main­stream snow­board­ers, and if there are main­stream gay peo­ple, I’m nei­ther. It’s a hard niche to find your­self in some­times. It’s just a big, di­verse world out there, and it’s cool to see peo­ple in very niche ar­eas that you can re­late to. I think we all won­der, “What other folks are like me in this walk of life?”

Yeah, it’s much dif­fer­ent in com­par­i­son to cer­tain niche com­mu­ni­ties, like the­ater for in­stance. If you’re in­volved in that, you know some­one who’s gay.

100%, you know some­one who’s gay.

You brought up mas­culin­ity, and that’s some­thing I wanted to men­tion. Do you think that in­her­ent as­pect of our cul­ture and in­dus­try has some­thing to do with a lack of openly gay snow­board­ers?

I re­ally do. I think there’s some­thing to that. You know, it’s in­ter­est­ing, this con­cept of mas­culin­ity and how we de­fine it nowa­days. Tra­di­tion­ally, I feel like mas­culin­ity can be con­fused with het­eronor­ma­tiv­ity, or even ho­mo­pho­bia.

Right. There can be this thought that be­ing ma­cho and ag­gro is be­ing straight.

To­tally, cor­rect. I’ve talked about this with some of the guides at Colorado Moun­tain School, on what it’s like to be in my shoes. How do I sup­port my own com­mu­nity and sup­port peo­ple that might be in my shoes but not rub it in some­one’s face. How do I not make it sound like, “Hi, my name is Mike. I’m gay; I’m go­ing to be your guide.” I’m not try­ing to rub this in any­one’s face, but it comes off that way to peo­ple that may not un­der­stand. And I think a lot of Gus’ crit­i­cisms are a tes­ta­ment to that. Yeah, he might be over­play­ing it a lit­tle, for his own ca­reer goals and gains. How­ever, what he’s do­ing is also an im­por­tant ser­vice to his com­mu­nity, which may be mis­un­der­stood by oth­ers. As a mem­ber of the LGBT com­mu­nity, how are you go­ing to rep­re­sent your­self to this snows­ports com­mu­nity? Are you go­ing to be out and open, and very loud about it? Are you go­ing to be sub­tle but make the cor­rec­tion if any­body as­sumes you’re one way or the other? Or do you just not bring it up at all, and is that in your best in­ter­est?

In your ex­pe­ri­ence, how tol­er­ant, or maybe ac­cept­ing is a bet­ter word, would you say the snow­board com­mu­nity is?

I think back­coun­try snow­board­ers tend to be more pro­gres­sive in their view­points as a whole, with en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism and ev­ery­thing else. Age is a fac­tor as well. But I think that’s chang­ing. I think in you and I’s gen­er­a­tion, grow­ing up, it was worse than it is now. At least that’s what I gather from hear­ing sto­ries from my younger sis­ter about what high school is like to­day. But un­til it be­comes more vis­i­ble and more com­mon­place, I think it’s just some­thing that peo­ple are go­ing to have to re­main mind­ful about. I do think the first word you chose is bet­ter than the sec­ond one. On the whole, I think I’ve ex­pe­ri­enced more tol­er­ance than ac­cep­tance.

Within sports in gen­eral, there seem to be more openly gay women than men. In snow­board­ing, for in­stance, there are openly gay fe­male pro snow­board­ers, but no men I’m aware of.

I think that just goes back to that mas­culin­ity con­cept. It’s more so­cially ac­cept­able to be mas­cu­line than fem­i­nine. That’s slowly chang­ing, how­ever. But yeah, I think you’re spot on. Have you en­coun­tered other snow­board­ers, who are also gay, who have taken it beyond a hobby?

This has to be a one-in-a-mil­lion chance, but one of my co­work­ers—he is fully in­ter­na­tion­ally cer­ti­fied and no longer works in guid­ing. I think there are ar­gu­ments that could be made as to the rea­sons why, and whether that has any­thing to do with his sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion. His de­ci­sion was to pur­sue a to­tally dif­fer­ent ca­reer path. It’s an in­ter­est­ing ob­ser­va­tion that I’ve had in my own life. I have not met a sin­gle [openly gay male] out­side of gay-ori­ented events. Re­cre­ation­al­ists and friends, yeah. I have a de­cent amount of gay friends who ski and snow­board—a lot of them at a much lower level than my­self, so I typ­i­cally I go rid­ing with my straight friends be­cause they can keep up.

If a cer­tain per­cent­age of the greater pop­u­la­tion is gay, you would think that within the snow­board in­dus­try, even if that per­cent­age is slightly less, there has to be more than this num­ber of zero, pretty much.

And how many will never come out and will grap­ple with their ori­en­ta­tion be­cause they don’t feel com­fort­able enough in that en­vi­ron­ment to do so? I’m still a firm be­liever that it took me this long to come out be­cause I played three var­sity sports for four years of high school, and locker room talk and ev­ery­thing that I was ac­cus­tomed to hear­ing and see­ing, just kind of be­came in­grained, and I couldn’t be gay. It wasn’t an op­tion for me to be gay, be­cause that was to be lesser, and I couldn’t be lesser.

Wow, that’s crazy to hear it like that. We like to think of our­selves in snow­board­ing as this cre­ative, ac­cept­ing en­deavor and cul­ture, but I think the re­al­ity may not be quite as pretty as it’s of­ten painted, in that re­gard.

Yeah, and you know, to be fair, a lot of this isn’t pointed. It isn’t di­rected. It’s dif­fused. It’s of­ten an un­con­scious thing peo­ple don’t re­al­ize that they do. But as I said, the more vis­i­bil­ity, the more we talk about it, the more peo­ple just be­come aware of these bi­ases that they may have and what they can mean, the bet­ter— with­out stoop­ing too much to how of­fended every­body gets over ev­ery­thing nowa­days, be­cause I feel like that’s a dis­ser­vice to all of us as well. I think it’s im­por­tant to know and un­der­stand that most peo­ple aren’t do­ing this on pur­pose. How­ever, it is your re­spon­si­bil­ity to un­der­stand how your can af­fect oth­ers. And if there aren’t oth­ers to share that per­spec­tive with, then you’ll never know. You’ll never know that what you’re say­ing and how you’re act­ing could be af­fect­ing some­body for years down the road, in the most pow­er­ful way pos­si­ble— un­til they find dif­fer­ent role mod­els in their life, un­til they kind of lose them­selves and find them­selves again, if you will, and have these dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives.

I think we’d both agree that the moun­tains can be a uni­fier. How would you de­scribe your re­la­tion­ship with them?

Deeply hum­bled, re­spect­ful, mes­mer­ized. Fas­ci­nated but cau­tious. I al­ways want to in­dulge more.

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