Celebrating LBGTQ Explorers

Cason Crane and Silvia Vasquez-Lavado on Denali

In 1981, the all-male Explorers Club defied 75 years of tradition and voted to lift its ban on women. Forty years later, under the leadership of president Richard Weise, the club created a Diversity and Inclusion initiative. Last night, they launched a virtual lecture series featuring LGBTQ explorers. Although Weise admitted that when the Explorers Club talked about diversity, he never thought of the LGBTQ community, it was clear that he is a sincere advocate for inclusion. He embraces organizational change. After all, the LGBTQ community is resilient. As Weise says:

“Explorers adapt to changing environments.”

Ben Ragen, who blogs about queer scientists in the field, notes that these scientists must first decide whether to be openly gay. Often it depends on the country where they work. In some countries, homosexuality is punishable by death.

Panelist and mountaineer, Silvia Vasquez-Lavado, is careful about her surroundings:

“Being an explorer gives you a lot of insight to avoid positions of danger.”

Panelist and anthropologist David Harrison admitted that when he was working in Russia, he did not disclose his sexual identity:

“I had to have a fictional girlfriend and show her picture to people.”

Another panelist, 27-year-old mountaineer Cason Crane, said that when he was on his second ascent of Denali, at age 19, he was with a group of climbers who said “really nasty” things about him. They asked what climbing has to do with being gay. Crane’s response:

"It is a way to be a role model for young people, so they know they can climb mountains."

His first ascent of Denali, at age 18, was a different story. Panelist Silvia Vasquez-Lavado was on that expedition. She carried a tiny Pride flag on the Denali ascent and was surprised when she saw Crane’s tent draped with a huge Pride flag. It was the first—and only—time she has met an openly gay person on a climb. Crane inspired her to be more openly gay. Vasquez-Lavado is the first openly gay woman to climb the Seven Summits, and Crane is the first openly gay man to climb the highest mountains of each continent.

The Explorers Club Promotion for the Event featuring anthropologist and linguist K. David Harrison, alpinist and mountaineer Silvia Vasquez-Lavado, and mountaineer Cason Crane

Celebrating LBGTQ Explorers

Crane congratulated the Explorers Club on its inclusion initiative:

It’s fantastic that the Explorers Club is taking on new steps to encourage diversity and inclusion amongst its members and, importantly, in the broader community. Exploration has historically had many negative connotations—associations with colonialism, white supremacy, and exploitation of indigenous people, among others. That history can’t be ignored, and so it’s critical that these sorts of proactive steps are taken to address that and chart a new, more inclusive path.

President Richard Weise admitted that the Explorers Club’s image is “pale male” even though half of its members are women. Anthropologist/linguist Harrison noted that gay people have a unique understanding of the word “community.”

We belong to a global community we did not ask to join but are automatically a member of.

Most gay people have experienced rejection, and from an early age, they sense when people disapprove of their actions. These experiences make them more sensitive, adaptable, and empathic.

When president Weise asked what the club’s leaders can do in the face of member’s apathy about promoting inclusion, Harrison replied:

No one gets credit for affirming us. You need to be an ally.

Crane agreed:

Anyone watching this will know that the Explorers Club does not just tolerate LGBT but embraces them.

He reminded Weise that diversity-themed events are not political, like the club’s issues in its early years, such as colonization. “We are not responsible for that history,” said Crane. Unlike white supremacy, the organization’s “steps to demonstrate its commitment to broadening our perspectives” is not political.

The Explorer Club Discovers Women

Although today the Explorers Club is celebrating LGBTQ explorers, it did not admit women until 1981. Carl Sagan, who understood true inclusion, urged his fellow explorers to lift the ban on women. In a letter to his colleagues, Sagan tried to convince the members that it was time for a change.

“When our organization was founded in 1905, men were preventing women from voting and from pursuing many occupations for which they are clearly suited. In the popular mind, exploration was not what women did. Even so, women had played a significant but unheralded role in the history of exploration.”

Sagan acknowledged the importance of traditions, but he argued that the Explorers Club’s

ban on women members was an “accident of the epoch in which it was institutionalized.” To prove that women were worthy of membership, he pointed to the archeological discoveries of Mary Leakey, the ground-breaking primate studies by Jane Goodall, and the undersea depth record of Sylvia Sylvia Earle. These women were at the forefront of exploration.

“If membership in The Explorers Club is restricted to men, the loss will be ours.” Sagan wrote.

He asserted that the club’s primary purpose was not “to promote male bonding or to serve as a social club—although there is certainly room for both.” The primary purpose was “the conquest of the unknown and the advancement of knowledge,” a goal that can be met by all members of the human race, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.

After much discussion, the board of directors agreed to hold a vote on the admission of

women. The issue was divisive. Although the club’s president, Charles Brush, urged members to vote for change, he did not expect a favorable vote. John W. Flint, who sat on the board of directors, told a reporter:

“You have no idea how strongly some men feel about this.” Another member said, “even a single female would destroy the quality (camaraderie) for which the organization exists.”

On April 12, 1981, the ballots were counted. The members lifted the ban by a vote of 753-618.

The club’s officers were stunned. They predicted that 300 members would immediately resign in protest.

Reporters praised the news. The headline of The New York Times read: “The Explorers

Club Discovers Women.” The New York Daily News announced:

“The walls of another male bastion have crumbled.”

The editors were surprised the change took so long given that Osa Johnson, Amelia Earhart, and Margaret Mead had obviously met all of the qualifications for membership except gender. As to the three hundred members rumored to quit the club in protest, the editors joked: “We don’t know where they will go—unless perhaps it will be the Museum of Natural History, where they would make excellent additions to the fossil collection.”

When Kathryn Sullivan, the first woman to walk in space, received her invitation to be one of the first women to join the Explorers Club, she thought,

“Maybe I’ll go meet these guys who are on the verge of figuring out there are these 50 percent other people in the world.”

But first, she joined the Society of Woman Geographers.

Still in the Dark Ages: The Adventurers Club

Congratulations to the Explorers Club for including women and celebrating its LGBTQ members. But another organization needs to join the 21st century: The Adventurers Club.

Founded in 1922, the all-male Los Angeles Adventurers’ Club does not admit women. In 1995 and 2014, the members voted against opening the club to women. Scuba diver Ken Lee opposed the inclusion of women because he values the all-male camaraderie:

“We can let our hair down on men’s only nights and use different language than we would when ladies are present.”

The Adventures Club, photo by Erin Johnson

He believes that the dynamic would be different if the club admitted women.

Andrea Donnellan, a geophysicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, regularly attended the club on the monthly Ladies’ Night.. In 2014, Marc Weitz tried to get the club to admit women as he thought Donnellan would be a good member. The proposal failed, 32-30, a majority, but not enough under the two-thirds vote the bylaws require. Donnellan felt profoundly disappointed.

Once, after the vote was taken, she mistakenly visited the club during a men-only night. Club members turned her away at the door.

She has not been able to overcome this feeling of rejection and has not visited the club since then.

Now it’s time for the Adventurer’s Club to follow in the footsteps of The Explorers Club embrace women and LBGTQ explorers.

Other articles in this series include:

Banned from the All-Male Explorers Club

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