In 2008, at age 15, he and his mother climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in Kenya, one of the seven.
“I thought it was the coolest thing in the world,” he said of the experience. “I was on the top of the world. It was also, for me, a spiritual experience; I had never felt so close to God.”
The idea of climbing more mountains began to percolate, and at his mother’s suggestion, he began to figure out the logistics of how to pursue his dream.
“Climbing the seven summits was definitely not at the top of my list, even though I had decided to defer going to college for one year.” Then last December, Cason was in New Zealand with his family on a biking and hiking trip.
“New Zealand was the home of Sir Edmund Hilary, the first man to climb Mt. Everest, and you cannot help but feel his presence when you are in that country,” Cason said.
At the end of the excursion, he and his mother joined a private training course, where the ethos of training was about “when not if everyone in the group was going to climb all seven of the highest peaks in the world.”
Cason was haunted, however, by the thought that climbing these summits was “exceptionally selfish,” when it came to both time and cost.
“I thought it was a project that was all about me.”
Then he thought of how he could turn the mountain challenge into a project for “giving back.” He struggled to find an appropriate cause and asked the training director if she knew if an openly gay man had ever succeeded in climbing the seven summits. (Only about 300 people in mountaineering history have ever succeeded in accomplishing this demanding goal.) When she said she had never heard of one, Cason remembered The Trevor Project—and everything clicked into place.
“I think that my attempt to become the first gay person to climb the seven summits and raise funds and awareness for the Trevor Project will help more LGBTQ teens not feel hopeless and choose suicide. … My message to other gays teens, as I climb these seven mountains, is, ‘What is your Everest? You can find and achieve it.”
“And by achieve it,” Cason adds, “I don’t necessarily mean make it to the ‘summit’—that’s not a realistic goal for all of us. I mean that just by seeking to overcome adversity in our lives we are already succeeding. It’s the journey that counts and embracing the challenge that matters.”
In March, Cason checked a second peak off his list: Aconcagua, in South America; this summer he will climb Mt. Elbrus in Russia, Denali (McKinley) in Alaska, and then the Carstensz Pyramid in Indonesia. Mt. Everest is scheduled for next spring.
Cason’s energy, determination, and belief in himself and his cause fill me with confidence. I think he can and will indeed “climb every mountain,” to use the words from The Sound of Music, and also raise the significant funds for The Trevor Project.
As we, as a nation, weigh the Dharun Ravi sentence handed down this past Monday, it is worthwhile to read these words of insight that Cason wrote and spoke at 16 to his peers in an English class:
“Today all I ask is for you to try to understand life through someone else’s eyes—through the eyes of anyone and everyone who is different from you. I invite you to reflect on the choices and judgments that you make. I implore you to reconsider any pre-existing biases or prejudices. Not everyone or everything is as it appears on the outside, so take the time to look within.”
I am only sorry that Tyler’s and Cason’s lives didn’t intersect somehow and sooner. I asked Cason what he might have said to him had he met him. He said, “Embrace and celebrate who you are and your uniqueness. Realize that we each bring something unique and amazing to this world, and it would not be the same without your contribution.”
Even in death and life, these two fine young gay men inspire us to be better people.