Eleven thousand, two hundred and forty feet, 11 glaciers and 150 inches of annual snow precipitation. These are the numbers four LGBTQ+ athletes faced on their attempt to summit Oregon’s Mount Hood.
Taylor Feldman, Shanita King, Stacey Rice and Ryan Stee share their diverse experiences as queer athletes in the world of outdoor recreation in “Who’s on Top?” a feature documentary directed by Taiwanese American filmmaker Devin Fei-Fan Tau and narrated by George Takei. The film was released on several streaming services on May 18, coincidentally the 41st anniversary of Mount St. Helens’ 1980 eruption. The team practiced climbing on the 8,365-foot-high Washington volcano prior to their attempt on Mount Hood.
In many ways, the athletes’ journey to the top of Mount Hood parallels the struggles they faced when coming out as LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning, with the + denoting everything along the gender and sexuality spectrum).
“Coming out and climbing Mount Hood are incredibly similar,” Rice says in the film’s trailer. Rice identifies as a transgender woman. “In the fact that they’re both pretty hard climbs,” Rice says.
Even when you reach the “summit” of fully coming out to your community, Tau says, you have to continue climbing down that metaphorical mountain. The process of having people — strangers on the street or the outdoor recreation community — consistently acknowledge a person’s LGBTQ+ identity is an ongoing process.
“Part of it is because of a visibility issue, part of it is an identity issue and part of it is self respect,” Tau said.
The athletes, and Tau himself, grapple with these issues during their climb. Tau, who lives in Portland with his husband and Australian labradoodle, spent months on the film. But the journey of self-realization that allowed him to take on the project took much longer than that.
“Growing up as a closeted, gay, Asian immigrant, I don’t think … I allowed myself to realize who I really was,” he said.
That uncertainty led Tau through a spectrum of career paths, first in the world of business and finance, and then fashion and apparel merchandising. At age 40, on a service trip in Cambodia, Tau met and served with a group of artists who helped him realize his passion for filmmaking. Upon returning to the U.S. and completing a community college course in video production, Tau says he finally gained the technical skills to tell the stories he had bottled up inside.
Tau’s storytelling in “Who’s on Top?” reveals not only the intense physical strain the athletes and filming crew faced, but their emotional and psychological struggles. With each passing hour they progressed up the mountain, ice, snow and steep cliffs tested their will to continue. At one point, Tau himself, who journeyed to Mount Hood along with the athletes, had to turn back during the climb. He deliberated for about 15 minutes on the mountainside, he said. What was the point of filming if they couldn’t reach the top?
“I thought summiting was going to be the end-all-be-all and what’s going to make it worthwhile,” Tau said. “It was realizing that that wasn’t how I was going to measure my success and shifting that framework. That’s what allowed me to actually say, ‘Hey, I’m going to go down and it’s going to be OK.’ ”
The athletes’ transformative experiences documented in the film not only allow them to come to terms with their own diverse identities. They also create an inclusive space for LGBTQ+ people who are traditionally underrepresented in the outdoor recreation industry, which has predominantly featured the experiences of white, heteronormative and able-bodied people. But Tau says he isn’t exactly telling a new story.
“[LGBTQ+] voices have been around for a long time,” he said. “Now, we have an opportunity to have it be heard.”
Tau hopes to deliver two messages. First, he wants to reaffirm and reassure people in the LGBTQ+ community of their validity. For those in the world of outdoor recreation, the film shows at least four other people with whom they can relate.
To everyone else, Tau has a simple request.
“We need your help,” he said. “We need you to be real allies.”
Allyship doesn’t have to be as direct as marching in a pride parade, Tau continued, adding that that can come off as performative. Meaningful actions can happen on a smaller personal scale. That could mean reaching out to an LGBTQ+ neighbor and inviting them to share their perspectives. Tau hopes this film can nudge people in that direction.
“Maybe it’s just having this conversation, this introspection like, ‘Hey, I don’t have any LGBTQ friends,’ or ‘My neighbor’s LGBTQ but I never talked to them,’ ” Tau said. “… what an amazing opportunity to [say], ‘Because I watched this documentary, I’d love to see if I can have a conversation with you, to understand, to be a better advocate and ally.”