Photography by M. Sharkey
As a model, actor, writer, and social media hotshot, Max Emerson (or @maxisms, as he's known to his 150,000-plus Instagram followers) is always traveling, and when he swings by New York, he never passes up a visit to Brooklyn Boulders. "I haven't seen a gym that comprehensive since I went to China," Emerson, 26, says, "and they go big with everything out there." For Emerson, this epic climbing haven -- a 22,000-square-foot facility with sister sites in Chicago, Somerville, and, just this year, New York's Queensbridge -- is "a playground" of inclusion and ever-changing physical challenges. And he isn't the only queer climber who finds solace in his pursuit: When you're part of a minority where it can sometimes feel like you against the world, there's a great, symbolic thrill to the battle of you against the wall.
Pictured above: Amos Massey III
Brooklyn Boulders member Amos Massey III, 30, grew up in a small town in Florida near Tampa Bay -- the rare black "effeminate male" in a predominantly white school. "I think right now there's a giant, 100-foot Confederate flag hanging along the main highway," he says, "and that pretty much paints a picture of how my childhood was." Massey largely avoided team sports because of their trademark machismo (for related reasons, he's not a fan of the muscle-body intimidation of traditional gyms), but he always loved being outside and getting dirty. He still loves the grit of the climb, hitting Brooklyn Boulders three to four times a week.
In fact, climbing has permeated nearly every aspect of Massey's life. Along with acupuncture and chiropractor visits, scaling the walls is an exercise that helps him manage the scoliosis he was diagnosed with at 15. It's made its way into the products he designs for his new Web store, AmosTheThird
.com (his side gig when he's not serving as assistant auction manager at Housing Works). The site offers handmade jewelry alongside wallpaper featuring climbing-wall holds. And like an AA member who checks into a hotel and then finds his nearest meeting spot, Massey, when he travels, sniffs out the closest climbing gym. "I do it because I can't not do it," he says. "You're always thinking about a problem you couldn't solve the day before -- something unfinished you need to accomplish."
Pictured above: James Cobb
For James Cobb, 29, a tech guru and military vet who served from 2006 to 2011, the biggest obstacle, for a while, was basic everyday life. Having spent two years of duty in Korea, Cobb, though not on the front lines, began to feel the weight of certain warfare consequences ("You're helping to make decisions that affect a lot of people," he says), and his return to the states, in Santa Barbara, Calif., was a transition on many levels. "I was trying to shift from a regimented environment to a carefree civilian lifestyle," he says, "and right before I got out of the military, I came out to my very religious family as being an atheist and bisexual. I didn't have many people to talk to, so I dealt with it the only way I really knew how, which was to exercise."
A friend turned Cobb on to a Santa Barbara climbing gym, and he immediately took to the sport's requirement to "be in the moment" and "focus on a very specific task." When a job led Cobb to Boston, he soon found his way to Brooklyn Boulders' Somerville campus. When another job brought him to New York last summer, he simply transferred his membership.
Along the way, he dated men and women, sometimes at the same time, and he's currently in a monogamous relationship with a girlfriend. When he needs to decompress, he knows where to go. "At a regular gym, I would just work out and talk to someone from time to time," he says, "but at Brooklyn Boulders I eventually felt comfortable expressing certain issues I was having outside of climbing. It builds friendships."
For a single guy like Emerson (whose hangups about his thousands of shirtless, "narcisstic selfies" have been tempered by youths' embrace of his coming-out memoir, Hot Sissy), it can also spark relationships.
"Not so much a gym, but a sports club like this, is a great way to meet a wholesome type of dude," he says. "You can get to know someone so well when you're engaged in that kind of activity." Moreover, he says, climbing is inherently pro-equality. "It's the most practical of workouts. Everyone's body is so much more natural, and there's a reason for the movements. Guys can do it. Girls can do it. It doesn't discriminate."