This feature originally appeared in the November issue of TransWorld SNOWboarding. Subscribe here.


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 both enlightening and troubling, but also gives me hope for a more inclusive future that begins with discussion. — Taylor Boyd

Mike guiding a group of backcountry enthusiasts seeking knowledge on how to travel safely out of bounds. PHOTO: Mitchell Quiring

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.

Whether and/or how to tell his students about his sexual orientation is something Mike has struggled with. Here, he guides a group through Rocky Mountain National Park via splitboard. PHOTO: Ansel Luchau

Have you ever felt someone in your line of work act differently towards you upon finding out that you were 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?"

There is an inherent element of masculinity in the outdoor industry, and it seems this sometimes has an adverse effect on its level of acceptance of those outside the perceived norm. PHOTO: Mitchell Quiring

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.

avalanche class

Mike’s line of work saves lives, educating snowboarders on how to mitigate risk in an inherently dangerous activity. PHOTO: Ansel Luchau

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.

Bortnowski in a pit dug to examine snow layers in order to better understand conditions in terms of stability and safety. PHOTO: Mitchell Quiring

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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