For nearly two decades, Nikki Smith’s photography has appeared on magazine covers; in Climbing, Rock and Ice, and Alpinist; as well as in ads, catalogs and websites for many climbing companies. She’s written five guidebooks, established more than 150 roped first ascents on rock and ice throughout Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming, and traveled from Mongolia to Madagascar. Among these things and many others, Nikki is a wife, a sister, a Mountain Hardwear ambassador, a cook, a cocktail-maker—and she happens to be transgender.
You may have seen her featured in Outside Magazine earlier this year. The eleven-page article, “Being Nikki Smith” generated so much traction that it was released early to an online audience and shared rapidly within the outdoor and climbing communities. Shortly before its release, she was featured as one of “8 Women Who are Changing the Climbing Community.” Most recently, the She Explores Podcast sat down with Nikki for an interview on the constants we carry throughout our lives and how creativity and curiosity help us stay true to those constants. Listen here.
Undoubtedly, Nikki’s story is making headlines and making noise for LGBTQIA+ people within the outdoor realm and beyond. We feel compelled to amplify that story.
As we look ahead to the San Francisco Pride Parade where we’ll walk alongside Nikki, we wanted to give Nikki the space to talk about what this moment means to her…
This is your third Pride but your second one out publicly. What’re you most excited about?
I’ve been to two Prides in Salt Lake so far. The first one in 2018, I wasn’t out publicly, so it was a little awkward. This year’s was great. I didn’t have to hide, and it was amazing to see everyone out there supporting one another.
For San Francisco’s Pride, I’m excited to see one of the largest Pride Parades in the world. It’s especially important this year, as it’s the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. The rioting at Stonewall led to today’s current movement for LGBTQIA+ rights as well as the annual Pride protest/celebration by and for our community. Being a part of something this big is an overwhelming feeling. The displays of Pride flags, the openness of the community, and the support of so many allies in such a visible manner is amazing, and I can’t wait to see it!
Where does your sense of responsibility to both the climbing/outdoor and LGBTQIA+ communities come from?
I feel a responsibility to anyone who doesn’t see themselves in the outdoors. Not seeing others like me made me feel like I didn’t belong in the climbing and outdoor community and it made my transition and coming out much more difficult. It took me to a place that almost cost me my life. I know how much of a difference representation and inclusion can make to someone wanting to spend time in the outdoors, but to also help change the culture to be more welcoming. At the same time, I didn’t do enough to try to change that earlier. I was too afraid to vocally advocate for the LGBTQIA+ community in fear that people would find out who I really was. I didn’t do enough to ensure that the guidebooks I produced and photos I took showed others who were marginalized in the outdoors. Now I have a platform to try to change things, and I want to use it to make things better for everyone.
How is your story about you, and not about you?
My story includes me but so many others. My wife, family, friends, etc. are all affected. A transition story is usually told through the trans person’s experience, but my wife has gone through a huge transition herself in order for me to be where I am today. I’ve always been trans/queer, but she has had to embrace that as her identity as well in order to stay with the person she loves.
Because transgender stories haven’t been told that much in popular media, my story is a representation of all trans people. That is great in many ways as it’s introducing new ideas to people. It’s showing others that they are not alone. That they can have a future, that they can be accepted in their community, but it can also be problematic. My experience is very privileged. I benefit from white and other privileges. While I and so many others do face risks associated with being transgender, the reality is, I’m quite safe compared to trans women of color, especially black trans women. I have a wife and family who support me. A network of friends and supporters. I live in a safe, middle-class neighborhood. I was able to build savings I could draw on to afford to have procedures that are out of reach for so many trans people. I have the chance to try to rebuild our savings. Because of this, I’m able to have other privileges. Pretty privilege and at least in photos, passing privilege, both of which help to keep me safer and more accepted in daily life. I have access to health care, while it doesn’t pay for much, it still helps. Many others don’t have these privileges.
I bring all this up because my story isn’t just about me. I don’t want people to assume that all trans people have similar experiences. I’m probably in the top 10% of best possible outcomes. I alone am no more representative of the trans experience than one American is representative of an entire nation. We share some commonalities, but as with anything in life, we and our experiences are so beautifully diverse.
You’ve always been Nikki. How does it feel to share her with the climbing world?
It’s amazing! I don’t have to hide anything. I can share who I really am with those around me.
I’m no longer completely alone and lonely in a room full of people. I can see a future again, and I love who and what I see there. I get to wake up every day and see myself in the mirror. When people compliment me for something I’ve achieved, they are complimenting me, not a character I had to play. When people hate me, at least they are hating the real me.
Sharing has also led to some amazing gifts. When I was coming out to friends and family, I was sharing something very vulnerable, and in turn, many of them did the same. I know my friends and family so much better now. They trusted me by sharing their own struggles and insecurities. People I don’t know have reached out to let me know how my story has affected them or someone in their life. So many trans and queer folks have reached out after finding out they are not alone. They see how I and so many others who are out have been embraced, and hopefully, they will be even more emboldened to reveal themselves. It’s a chain reaction that is rapidly increasing.
Self-love is a revolutionary act, but revolutions can’t be effective without support.
We second that, Nikki!
To us, being an ally means more than just waving a rainbow flag once a year—it’s about showing up for their people and giving them a platform to be seen all year round. We’re excited to stand beside Nikki at this year’s Parade, and we’re even more excited for what we’ll create together in the future.