Artist Stephen Milner is laughing nervously as we look upon his latest creation. We’re masked up in typical pandemic fashion, standing in a hot San Diego garage that’s served as Milner’s studio this summer.
I’d imagine the nervous laughter is a regular occurrence for the 29-year-old, given the provocative nature of his work, which explores themes like queer identity and toxic masculinity in a world not known to do so—the surf world.
Between us sits a large sheet of plywood resting on a pair of sawhorses. The wood’s surface is printed with a very-Instagrammable beach scene, the golden rays of a setting sun dancing off the surface of the water. Where the sun should be, however, Milner’s cut a circle out of the wood and replaced it with, well, a glory hole.
“I’m thinking I’ll probably write ‘locals only’ on it,” Milner says, surely smirking under his mask.
By the time you read this, the installation likely will have gone up (and been torn down in a moral panic, if we’re being honest) along some of surfing’s most hallowed ground—the Malibu wall.
Subtlety, as you might have deduced by now, isn’t really Milner’s thing. He’s a natural-born shit stirrer, and a talented one at that, specializing in this kind of mischievous dance with cultural critique and tongue-in-cheek.
Milner holds a master’s degree in fine art from the University of Oregon, where he worked in
sculpture, photography, video and installation. As a lifelong surfer from Long Island, New York, it was only a matter of time before his work exploring queer identity connected to his experience with surf culture. It started with Milner painting Beach Boys lyrics with all the gender pronouns switched around. He then made nude sculptures à la Michelangelo using Mr. Zog’s Sex Wax. And most recently he created a book splicing up found photographs from old surf magazines and similarly beachy images from gay publications, creating a kind of alternative, queer visual surf history.
In the fine art world, this would be seen as pretty low-stakes stuff. Edgy, sure, but no one is going to tear anything off a gallery wall in outrage. When Milner’s work started making its way into surfy circles, however, all bets were off.
“Even though I started making work based on surfing, surfers were never my intended audience,” says Milner, “because I knew I would get the reactions I’m getting now.”
“Part of my coming out process was finding worth in myself. I didn’t have that for a very long time.”—Cori Schumacher
Milner and I are having this conversation about a week after SURFER published an online interview about his book project. In the SURFER article, Milner opened up about his upbringing, feeling unable to come out to his surf friends, and why he thought it was important to challenge homophobia and toxic masculinity in surfing.
The conversation was nuanced, but the reactions from other surfers on social media were anything but. From “Brokeback Mountain” jokes to comments like “Queer surfers are kooks” to claims of “the media shoving gay culture down [our] throat”, it was a bit of a dumpster fire. Milner wasn’t shocked—he knows surf culture, after all—but it did give him some pause.
“I know that my artwork isn’t going to be for everyone, and I want to have difficult conversations through my art.” Milner says. “But I’m a sensitive person as well. When those comments first started happening, it was hard. I reached out to a friend who does this kind of work as well and asked, ‘Am I doing the right thing here? Do you ever have these conversations around your work?’ And he goes, ‘No, dude, I’m strictly in the art world and your work is now floating into the surf world, and you’re going to have to deal with that.’”
As a queer artist in the surf world, Milner may be in a position of particular exposure to surf culture’s homophobia. But the truth is that every LGBTQ+ surfer deals with it on some level.
The ocean may not judge based on sexuality or gender identity, but many surfers do. Surf culture reflects our demographics to an extent, and most surfers—certainly those with the most influence in the culture—likely live in homogenous, affluent, socially-conservative coastal enclaves. But surf culture seems to skew even more regressive on LGBTQ+ issues than our demographics would suggest.
While today you aren’t as likely to hear the once-constant homophobic slurs in beachside
parking lots, the problem persists in different forms. It’s not hard to find. Just poke around on social media for a bit and you might see Stab’s Instagram post about renaming the “sex change” skateboard trick the “Caitlyn Jenner” in surfing. Or maybe you’ll find the post on a San Diego surf shop’s page where Kelly Slater calls a shaper he’s feuding with “sexually confused”. It’s not the same as barking slurs in the lineup—which still happens, too—but it has a similar effect in signaling to others who is and isn’t welcome in surfing.
But surf culture is changing—both passively, as the world changes and surfing is begrudgingly pulled with it, and actively, through the efforts of young queer surfers like Milner. How quickly it does, however, has much more to do with straight, cisgender surfers than it does with members of LGBTQ+ surf community.
“I want to see more people feeling comfortable coming out in surfing,” says Milner. “I hope this
conversation just keeps going until people feel uncomfortable to actually reach out and say bigotry and harsh words toward anyone who’s different from them. You may think there’s no place for different people in surfing, but you’re wrong.”
Cori Schumacher greets me at a park overlooking a tranquil lagoon framed by spindly reeds. We’re not far from the SURFER offices, but I’ve never once noticed this oddly-Zen corner of Carlsbad’s suburban sprawl. Schumacher would know all the good spots in this city, though, considering she literally runs the place.
City Council Member Schumacher represents Carlsbad’s 1st District, which contains this park, a long stretch of beach (the surf could be better) and many thousands of residents. But before she occupied Carlsbad’s halls of power, she was on the outside of pro surfing’s, pushing its institutions to evolve on social issues.
Tyler Wright’s coming out was nothing like Brian Anderson’s—it was subtle, natural, just a small piece of a bigger story, which is of course how human beings tend to view their sexual orientation.
Raised in San Diego by surf-obsessed parents, Schumacher epitomized the Southern California super grom, seldom seen out of a wetsuit on weekends, always sparring for a podium spot at local events, with piles of plastic trophies back home to show for it. For someone who’d later be cast as an outsider in the surf world, Schumacher’s upbringing looked less like Erik Logan’s and more like Kolohe Andino’s.
Schumacher’s parents placed a lot of pressure on her to perform, but that wasn’t the biggest burden she felt at the time. She was gay—a fact that she couldn’t tell her family, who were both deeply religious and deeply immersed in a homophobic surfing culture.
This was the 1980s, a time when most surf brands used bikini-clad models as lusty props for male team riders to pose with in magazine ads. Actual female surfers, on the other hand, didn’t get much play unless they could also be cast as one of those lusty objects. Or, as Shumacher puts it: “Male surfers in the ‘80s were basically presented as rock stars, and at the same time, athletic female surfers were being castigated as lesbians.”
Her parents told her that those women were holding back women’s surfing as a whole, the implication being that if they just made themselves more desirable from the surf industry’s male, heterosexual perspective, it would lead to more opportunity for all women in surfing.
“If I wanted to be a part of the problem, then I would end up being a lesbian,” says Schumacher of her parent’s worldview. “When I first started to feel as though maybe that was the case for me, I distanced myself from that feeling a lot, which led to internal fragmentation that was a pretty serious mental issue for me when I was growing up.”
When Schumacher qualified for the 1995 ASP Women’s World Tour, she remembers the judges
telling her to smile more, wear her hair long and avoid hanging with certain female surfers if she wanted to succeed. By 1998, she’d soured on surf culture and surf competition altogether, quit both and left for San Francisco to attend college and try to learn to accept herself.
Of the few pro surfers to publicly come out as members of the LGBTQ+ community, almost all waited years after their careers ended to do so. Peter Drouyn, the inventor of the man-on-man competitive format, transitioned from male to female in 2013, becoming Westerly Windina some 40 years after his ‘70s heyday (he then transitioned back to Drouyn in 2017). Australia’s take-no-shit charger Jodie Cooper came out in 1997, 4 years after her departure from the Women’s World Tour. And heavily-tattooed headbanger Matt Branson came out in a Stab magazine article in 2007, more than 15 years after his World Tour departure.
“It was fucking incredibly hard,” Branson told journalist Fred Pawle. “You always felt like you
were lying. You always felt like you were putting on a charade. As a young person growing up, to have that charade, it can fuck with you because you can’t grow as a person.”
“I read this SURFER interview with Keala Kennelly and it was very vague—she was only kind of hinting at being gay—but it was enough for me to be like, ‘OK, this is alright.’”—Hayley Gordon
Living that double life amid the Tour’s macho, competitive culture was too much for Branson to bear. He left competition in 1991 not only so he could be his full self, but also so he could escape the constant fear of someone finding out his secret and ending his career for him.
Those fears weren’t unfounded. Just 3 years before Branson left the Tour, SURFER ran a profile
on cosmic-philosopher-competitor Cheyne Horan, who was living in the hills above Byron Bay in a communal group of male friends. In the article, writer Matt George essentially suggested that Horan was gay (he wasn’t). But the mere implication was enough—the fallout for Horan was instantaneous.
“The magazines, yeah, because they thought I was gay, a lot of them pulled the plug on me,”
Horan told Matt Warshaw in a follow-up piece for SURFER 2 years later. “l got so little attention in the surf media after that. Seriously, a lot of people fucking pulled the plug on me, and all the time I was thinking, ‘We’re just one group, all of us, and we’ve got to accept each other. If someone’s sexuality is different from yours, so what? So fucking what? Don’t pull the plug on people ‘cause of that. Look at what they’re really about, not who they’re sleeping with.’”
Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be the last time a harmful suggestion was made about a pro surfer’s sexuality in the media. In 2002, Matt George (yep, again) penned another profile for SURFER suggesting that a pro was gay (they were). It was Hawaiian World Tour surfer Keala Kennelly.
“At the time, it made me feel like, ‘Frick, maybe I just really need to hide myself more, you know?” Kennelly said in the brilliant 2014 documentary “Out in the Line-Up”. “My parents had a really bad reaction to it, because I wasn’t out to them at the time. The surfing industry, I don’t think [it] was ready for it. It was tough.”
Kennelly’s career didn’t end—she went on to redefine herself as one of the most fearless surfers of all time, earning nearly every big-wave accolade surfing has—but she’s said in interviews since that she believes it did affect her status in the industry.
By 2011, Schumacher was done with the surf industry entirely. After her stint in San Francisco in 1998, she had returned to surfing and won back-to-back world longboarding titles in 2000 and 2001. She then took another hiatus and became an LGBTQ+ rights and anti-war activist before returning to competitive surfing one last time with an entirely different perspective. She rejected sponsorships, wanting to win a longboarding title completely for herself—and in 2010, she did.
Rather than try to defend her title in 2011, Schumacher boycotted the Tour altogether, citing human rights violations in China, which was set to host the World Championships. When she was approached for a New York Times article about her decision, she decided it was as good a time as any to finally come out.
“Part of my coming out process was finding worth in myself,” says Schumacher. “I didn’t have that for a very long time, and I knew that other women on Tour were going through that as well. So while at some point in my life I wasn’t willing to defend myself and have healthy boundaries for myself, I was able to get to a point where I was 100-percent committed to ensuring that I would do my best so that other young surfers, women and men alike, would not have to go through the type of pain that I went through.”
The Times article was a mic drop of sorts, effectively ending Schumacher’s professional surfing career and starting a new path that would eventually lead to Carlsbad City Hall. In the years since, she’s seen surf culture progress in fits and starts, with more conversation and awareness of LGBTQ+ issues popping up around the edges, without much happening at the cultural core.
According to Schumacher, we haven’t reached “critical mass”. Not yet, at least. But that might all be about to change.
Skateboarding has been here before. Usually we say that when debating what to call a trick landed by someone on Maui. But in this case, the progression we’re talking about is cultural, not technical.
From the outside, skateboarding has long seemed more inclusive than surfing. After all, skating isn’t relegated to coastal suburbia like surfing often is, but it instead thrives in some of the biggest, most culturally-diverse cities in the world. It also has a much lower barrier to entry, with a brand-new skateboard setup running about $100 compared to the bank-account destroying cost of a fresh surfboard and wetsuit. But like surfing, skateboarding has historically been a male-dominated, hyper-masculine space, and all of its diversity and ease of access didn’t inherently equate to a culture that welcomed LGBTQ+ community.
“As much as the majority of skaters believed and knew they were open minded, there weren’t any real conversations taking place about it,” says Jaime Owens, editor-in-chief of TransWorld
SKATEboarding. “There’s a history of misogyny, and there was a lot of anti-gay slang and that sort of thing. When it came to sexual orientation, it just wasn’t really talked about in an open way.”
Homophobia was ingrained in the slang, much like it was in surfing’s. It manifested at the industry level when queer skaters got passed over for sponsorships. And sometimes it was laid bare by horrible acts of violence from members of the skate community. Skateboarding progenitor Jay Adams was part of a group that stomped a gay man to death in Hollywood in 1982, with Adams serving a 6-month sentence for felony assault. In 1993, pro skater Josh Swindell beat a gay man named Keith Ogden to death after Ogden got in a fight with Danny Way, another famed pro. Swindell spent nearly 20 years in prison for second-degree murder.
For a long time, skateboarding evolved on LGBTQ+ issues much like surfing did—very slowly, lagging behind mainstream culture, but inching forward nonetheless. In 2016, however, that all changed.
In a short documentary by Vice Sports, after an opening montage of skate clips and industry legends pumping him up as the embodiment masculinity in skateboarding (one pro calls him “the most manliest figure I’ve ever seen”), pro skater Brian Anderson looks directly to camera and says “we are here to talk about the fact that I am gay.”
Like surf culture, skate culture has traditionally put a lot of stock into what is “gnarly”, what is “burly”, what is “manly”, and Anderson’s fearless approach embodies those things for many skaters. Because the 6-foot tall, deep-voiced, heavily-tattooed Anderson was also a stark contrast from the gay stereotypes many skaters held in their minds, perhaps no other pro could have come out with greater impact. And the impact was great.
“It feels like there’s been an awakening since Brian Anderson came out,” says Owens. “Things just exploded with the dialogue in skateboarding and it was great. You had other veteran pro skaters finally feeling comfortable to come out and all these current LGBTQ skaters feeling more accepted by the skate community because the response was overwhelmingly positive. It’s completely changed skateboarding for the better.”
The next year saw the founding of Unity, a skate company promoting LGBTQ+ inclusivity in skateboarding, as well as the print publication of Skateism, an alternative skate mag focused on activism and LGBTQ+ issues. More pros and industry insiders came out and queer skate meet-ups started popping up across the country. Earlier this year, the late skate icon Jeff Grosso—who admitted to using homophobic language frequently in his younger years—created a powerful episode of his Vans “Loveletters” series elevating the stories of queer skaters.
Anderson, Unity, Skateism, Grosso and the rest didn’t end homophobia and transphobia in skateboarding, of course. But they helped change the conversation around those issues in skate culture. Can the same happen in surfing?
Back in May, surfing saw its own top pro publicly come out (this time completely of her own accord). In an episode of “60 Minutes” in Australia, during an interview about her agonizing battle with post-viral syndrome that saw her miss a year of World Tour competition, two-time World Champion Tyler Wright opened up about falling in love and being nursed back to health by female musician Alex Lynn. Wright’s coming out was nothing like Brian Anderson’s—it was subtle, natural, just a small piece of a bigger story, which is of course how human beings tend to view their sexual orientation. It was so subtle, in fact, that most straight surfers probably didn’t think much of it. But the signal it sent to young queer surfers around the world was immensely important.
Historically, the lack of queer representation in elite competition, magazines, surf films and surf brand marketing has allowed homophobia to go unchallenged, resulting in a surf space that doesn’t look particularly welcoming for queer youth. While some straight surfers may think discussions of sexual orientation are inappropriate in public discourse, those discussions can feel like a lifeline for surfers wondering if they actually have a place in this culture.
“I remember I was a youngin’, maybe like 18, and I was still trying to figure myself out at the time,” says Hayley Gordon, a San Diego surfer and filmmaker. “And I read this SURFER interview with Keala Kennelly and it was very vague—she was only kind of hinting at being gay—but it was enough for me to be like, ‘OK, this is alright.’ When you see that, you don’t feel like you’re on an island by yourself. People need to see themselves represented.”
For young queer surfers today, seeing that fundamental part of themselves reflected back at them by a World Tour surfer like Tyler Wright could be life changing. But whether or not Wright’s coming out will cause a chain reaction through surf culture, as Anderson’s did in skate culture, remains to be seen.
“Surfing is definitely a totally different animal,” says gay Long Beach surfer and former pro skater Amy Caron. “I can’t see Roxy doing what Nike did with Leo Baker, sponsoring a gender-fluid pro athlete and making a totally gender fluid product line around them. I don’t think that surf brands would take that risk, a) because it’s scary to them and they’re probably not educated enough on the topic. And b) because they feel like they don’t need to. Their demographic is very closed-minded, and sex appeal and the male gaze are probably very effective there.”
Whether or not that actually is effective in 2020, however, is up for debate. The last decade in the surf industry has resembled a star collapsing on itself and becoming a black hole, with former megabrands like Quiksilver and Billabong contracting and merging together. Overtly sexual, objectifying imagery has mostly disappeared from surf brand marketing, but for many brands it can be hard to find much value in what’s replaced it. Perhaps if big surf brands decided to market to more than just young, white, straight men, it would lead to not only a more inclusive culture, but a more financially-robust industry.
“I think if all the surf brands did a LGBTQ campaign—and if it was on point and actually true to that community—people would be like, ‘Oh, that’s rad,’” says Damien Fahrenfort, a former pro surfer and Quiksilver employee who now runs a creative agency in Los Angeles. “They would embrace it. And the 20 or 50 people that don’t like it, so what? You don’t want their business anyway. I think the surf brands need to stand for something.”
Fahrenfort agrees that a big part of the surf industry’s reticence to embrace the LGBTQ+ community likely has a lot to do with where it’s seated in the socially-conservative, suburban sprawl of Orange County. And while some surf brands like Vans—which has created products featuring the rainbow flag and is currently working on a surf capsule with dual-gender clothing—are already thinking about the LGBTQ+ surf community, the vast majority are not.
But just like in skateboarding, the shifts happening in surf culture are as much from the grassroots up as they are from the top down. Thomas Castets, the filmmaker behind “Out in the Line-Up”, started working toward building a connected LGBTQ+ surf community a decade ago when he founded The fledgling online community was able to organize local surf meet-ups, plan trips abroad and march as a group with Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade. “Out in the Line-Up” beautifully documented this movement and gave the LGBTQ+ surf community more visibility than ever before. Today, boasts thousands of members from nearly 80 countries.
Social media has of course also helped queer surfers connect at the grassroots level and elevate their voices. English surfer Frazer Riley recently started an Instagram page called Queer Surf Club to “create inclusive surfing, not make surfing inclusive.” The idea struck after an anxiety-ridden surf trip with his partner to Morocco, where same-sex relationships are technically illegal and punishable by up to 3 years in prison (Riley and his boyfriend realized this a few days before the trip, but decided to pull the trigger anyway and pretend to just be friends because, well, pointbreaks).
“We know that it’s important to have a space for queer surfers to be together,” says Riley about his decision to start Queer Surf Club. “We also know that allyship is so important for people who are straight and want to understand or support the cause. And they both need each other to really make this movement happen.”
With the overwhelmingly-positive response of the skate community, some may think that Brian Anderson picked the perfect time to come out. But the truth is that it was just the perfect time for all of the straight people in skateboarding to hear and accept it. For Anderson himself, who came out at age 40, he’d probably have preferred to be a part of a culture where he felt comfortable being himself all along. And perhaps that’s the biggest lesson that surfing can take from skating: it’s not the responsibility of one person to come out and spark a cultural awakening as much as it is the responsibility of the culture to show that it’s ready to wake up.
It’s strange how disconnected surf culture can feel from the actual act of surfing. Surf culture can feel rigid, stifling and regressive, while the act of riding waves is improvisational, liberating and adventurous. Scrolling through the comment sections of surf sites and social feeds can send you into a mental tailspin, but paddling out on even the most lackluster day is usually somewhat therapeutic.
Perhaps the act of surfing, then, is especially valuable to LGBTQ+ youth who often experience unique anxieties and trauma because of their identity. According to a national survey of over 40,000 LGBTQ+ youth this year by The Trevor Project—a non-profit focusing on suicide prevention—40 percent of respondents seriously considered attempting suicide in the past 12 months. Sixty-eight percent reported symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder and 48 percent said they engaged in self-harm. One third said they’d been threatened or harmed in their lifetime due to their LGBTQ+ identity, and many of these numbers are even higher among transgender and non-binary youth.
But surfing can be even more than a reprieve from land-based anxieties—it can also be a way for LGBTQ+ surfers to actively work out and express their identity.
Johnny Cappetta grew up with three brothers in a house with “very little room for femininity.” After moving to the funky beach town of Encinitas, California at age 12, Cappetta spent their teenage years sliding the equally funky reefs and beach breaks nearby. They had always felt different from their peers, but it wasn’t until after college, when Cappetta was living on their own and working in a boatyard in Maine, that they realized that difference was gender dysphoria—when your gender identity doesn’t match the one you were assigned at birth.
At first, Cappetta wasn’t entirely sure what to do with that information, but the act of surfing helped pull things into focus.
“I was watching a Morgan Maassen video of Travers Adler surfing, and in the video he’s shredding, but he’s also flailing around in this really interesting way,” remembers Cappetta. “It looked so different from anything I’d ever seen in surfing, and seeing that made me realize that if you feel different, you can surf different. So when I came back to California after uncovering my gender dysphoria, surfing was a huge part of letting me actualize that. I was unemployed and living at home and surfing in the middle of the day with nobody out, just trying to see if I could surf like I felt for the first time.”
With each session, Cappetta tried to unlearn whatever definition of “good surfing” they’d absorbed through surf culture, instead focusing on what felt good—what was a true expression of the self. “It makes it closer to art, right?” they ask rhetorically. It was so satisfying that Cappetta found themselves sometimes surfing for 6 hours straight even in meager conditions.
Cappetta, who now identifies as non-binary gender fluid, took what they learned (and unlearned) from the lineup back onto land, feeling more comfortable wearing different clothing and makeup to present more feminine when they chose to. For the first few years, deciding how they wanted to present to the world was a point of some inner conflict, but now they float between modes of gender expression more easily.
“If I have to run out and get eggs, I just put on whatever’s around,” Cappetta says. “I don’t think
about it that much for small things. But sometimes it’s definitely a really conscious choice to fem it up. I make a really special point about doing it when I go surfing, because I want to help open space for that. I want to be in the parking lot and have surfers look and be like, ‘Oh shit, trans people surf? Queer people surf?’ I want to make them to see that and scratch their heads.”
Cappetta lives in New York these days, trading Encinitas funk for Long Island sandbars. Along with Momo Otani-Hudes, they’ve started an Instagram page called Benny’s Surf Collective to elevate stories of queer surfers and surfers of color, and to organize surf meet-ups. A first run of their new surf zine, “Sunburn”, has shipped to readers in exchange for a $5-or-more donation to non-profits supporting queer causes, among others.
As for the broader surf culture, Cappetta finds it often antagonizing, with surf brands and media either ignoring LGBTQ+ surfers entirely, or keyboard bigots writing barbed comments whenever queer surfers are given a platform. “At this point, most of my consumption of surf media falls under the rubric of research,” Cappetta says.
What many queer surfers find most frustrating about voices of intolerance in surfing is that the fact that they’re queer has literally no impact whatsoever on the lives or surf experiences of anyone else. “We’re not threatening your masculinity. We’re not threatening your sexuality. We’re not threatening your gender,” Cappetta says. “There’s no antagonism here. We’re just trying to be seen and we’re going to keep surfing either way.”
Surf culture may be resistant to change, but change isn’t impossible, and Cappetta’s story would serve as a good blueprint for how to think about creating real change in surfing. Learning is good, sure, but perhaps unlearning is just as important. Because ditching the arbitrary norms of surf culture would allow something more inclusive and dynamic to take their place—something that might actually reflect the act of surfing itself.
This gay pro surfer came out to his „mates“ when a grocery clerk hit on him
Gay professional surfer Craig Butler once bullied kids during his youth. It’s one of his biggest regrets. Now he is trying to change how people look at gay men in sports like surfing.
Caught Inside: The taboo of being a gay surfer
It’s a national sport that close to 2.7 million Australian’s enjoy yet if you head down to a beach chances are you won’t meet many openly gay surfers.
David Wakefield is a former competitive surfer and state surfing champion. Dave knew he was gay from his early teens but didn’t feel like he could come out to the surfing community.
„No one else that surfed was gay or I didn’t see anybody else that was openly gay,“ says Dave. „So I kind of felt that there were two worlds – there was the gay world and there was the surfing world and I was completely connected to the surfing world so I couldn’t see how the two would merge at all.“
When Dave was growing there was a lot of negativity towards homosexuality in the community – so he made the decision to keep his secret from the surfing community.
„It was a really different world back then and people thought differently about the idea of people being gay,“ says Dave. „There was an enormous amount of shame involved in what I thought was a weakness in me.“
David Wakefield knew he was gay from his early teens. Source: The Feed
After many years in the closet Dave decided to look for other surfers who were gay. He came across – an online community for gay surfers. It was on the Gay Surfers website that Dave found a community of people who gave him the confidence to be himself.
„I think one of the reasons it took me so long to come out [was] because I didn’t know quite how to or what way I wanted to do it,“ says Dave. „Prior to that, I didn’t know in which environment I should come out or how I should do it.“
„I think everybody’s experience of surfing and sexuality is different also according to where they live. Somebody who lives on the other side of the world will have a very different experience as a surfer around sexuality than I do…“
Thomas Castets is the founder of and has recently finished a documentary ‚OUT in the line-up‘ where he travelled around the world with Dave talking to other gay surfers.
Thomas says there is a clear taboo against gay surfers coming out because they are afraid of how fellow surfers will treat them.
„I didn’t even really know there was a taboo when I started the film,“ says Thomas. „As we made the film, we realised how deep the taboo was and how important it was to uncover it.“
„There seems to be one thing in common to all the gay surfers is the fear of being discriminated against.“
„They didn’t all experience homophobia necessarily but they all had preferred to keep quiet about their sexuality in the line-up.“
Adam George grew up in a Christian home where being gay wasn’t the accepted thing. Right through his teens Adam says he kept his sexuality private and had to ‚learn‘ to be with girls. He even at one time had a serious girlfriend but he always felt something was missing.
Adam also loved to surf and had a strong group of friends that he surfed with on a regular basis. But when he hit his early 20s Adam says he had to make a decision regarding his sexuality – and that decision cost him some friends.
„There was just something there that wasn’t right and I think I was about 20 when I came out,“ says Adam. „I had a strong group of mates… I did that thing where I sort of pushed them away and I guess it’s just that human thing of like fear of judgement really.“
„It’s easy to control it yourself so if I was to push them away I’m in control of the situation you know.“
Adam George says you have to have a thick skin in the surfing world. Source: The Feed
Adam’s first relationship after he came out was with his best friend. He says they had a reputation in his local community because not many surfers were openly gay.
„I guess we became like pretty well known around here ‚cause no one had really done that before around here,“ says Adam. „We lived together, went to the beach and surfed and did the same shit as everyone else and people had respect for that. People respected what we did.“
According to Adam and Thomas there’s also an issue with the language used by other surfers. Adam says it’s something that might take some time to change.
“There’s a lot of sledging out in surfing, like you’ve got to have thick skin,“ says Adam. „The word faggot has just been a derogatory term for, I guess, what we would call a loser.“
„It’s sad in a sense because… where it’s come from is calling gay people losers.“
„When you’re out in the water and someone comes up to you and they ask you a question… there is an understanding that you’re straight.“
Thomas says part of the problem is that the default assumption by many surfers that everyone is straight which makes it difficult for gay surfers to feel comfortable coming out.
„At the moment, it’s just expected that everyone is straight,“ says Thomas. „When you’re out in the water and someone comes up to you and they ask you a question… there is an understanding that you’re straight.“
The difficulties with being a gay surfer even extend much higher than the amateur surfing ranks. There have never been any openly gay surfers competing on the professional tour – with only a handful of retired professionals deciding to come out.
But despite the lack of openly gay surfers – Dave is hoping that one day the surfing community will see more pro surfers come out while competing.
„I hope that surfer, when they come out, will be sponsored and retain their sponsorships,“ says Dave. „I hope that everything is based around skilled level and passion and drive and commitment rather than sexuality.“
„Let’s celebrate the diversity in surfing… it’s a huge thing the ocean and it can accommodate all of humanity.“
Caught on camera: the homophobic world of surfing
Within two weeks, 300 people had got in touch. Now his website, , is a thriving social network with almost 6,000 members, ranging from former world champions to people living in villages in West Africa. And as the membership grew – to include many who thought they were only gay surfer in the world – so did the stories. Surfers, including many professional ones, were writing to Castets to explain how they had felt compelled to keep their sexuality secret, faced homophobia in the sport or struggled in the surf industry as a result of coming out.
Last year Thomas, along with Australian former state champion surfer David Wakefield – who chose not to pursue a surfing career out of a fear of being “found out” as gay – decided to go on a trip around the world to meet some of them. Their journey – captured in award-winning documentary Out in the Line-up, which premieres in the UK this week – sheds a light on the experiences of gay surfers around the world as it seeks to understand why the sport continues to struggle to be open about the issue.
Among the stories heard are that of former competitive surfer Susie Hernandez, whose fellow surfers and roommates moved out after finding out she was gay. And Robbins Thompson, who was a pro surfer in the 90s but dropped out of a tour after finding the word “fag” spray-painted on his car. It also touches on the tragic case of Ben Roper, a young gay surfer from one of Sydney’s infamous surf gangs, the Bra Boys, who killed himself last year.
“Surfing is still locked in its old stereotypes from the 60s,” says Castets, describing the tanned, blond, ripped, definitely heterosexual nomad most of us still imagine when we think of a surfer. “There’s not much room for the individual in surfing.”
One surfer who struggled to reconcile herself with this conformist image is Keala Kennelly, a talented pro surfer (as well as a DJ and actor) from the Hawaiian island of Kauai, who caught the attention of sponsors aged just 17. At the time, she felt unable to admit that she was gay.
“I have seen so many talented female surfers come and go because they didn’t have the support from the surfing industry due to the fact that they were either gay, suspected of being gay, not feminine enough or they simply did not fit the image that brands believe sells product,” she says.
Kennelly felt she had no choice but to suppress her sexuality if she wanted a successful career. “I lived in fear,” she says. “Even though I knew I liked women, I wouldn’t act on it. I slept with boys instead. Years passed; I kept up the facade. I had become one of the top pro surfers in the world, as I had always dreamed, but my happiness was overshadowed by this dark secret I was keeping. I suffered in silence to keep the surfing industry happy, to keep my sponsors happy.”
Eventually, she reached a point when she could no longer take the pressure of hiding her sexuality, and she slowly began to tell people the truth. While she finally felt “free”, she also feels her career was affected. “To come out as gay in the surfing industry is to step out of the bounds of what is considered ‘marketable’, so I suffered the consequences of that,” she says.
For Ian Thomson, who directed the documentary and is himself gay and a surfer, it is not just the professional aspect of surfing that can feel very hostile to a gay person. “You hear a lot of homophobic banter out there,” he says. “These days, it’s all about intimidating others to get the best waves. The way a lot of the guys do that is by putting other people down, and homophobic slurs are part of that. If you are gay, it is very confronting. And you get this message that if in any way I show my true self – my homosexuality – I’m just gonna get massacred out here.”
The issue of homosexuality and surfing draws in a lot of wider problems the sport has with diversity in general – something that seems at odds with the easy-going, counterculture lifestyle many feel it represents. There is still yet to be an openly gay male pro surfer at the elite level who is currently on tour – despite the fact that more traditional sports, such as football, rugby and boxing, have had successful athletes come out.
“There are a lot of reasons why surfing has this problem,” says Castets. “One cause is that surfing is, unfortunately, primarily a male-dominated sport. And when you have all these men travelling together, hunting for waves, there is an element to the psychology that is about making sure there is no ambiguity between the men. To prove your heterosexuality, you need to prove your skills in the water. And another cause is just that there have never really been any gay surfers out there, so I would just call that ignorance and a lack of visibility.”
The marketing of surfing is also markedly heterosexual. It is dominated by white men, and female surfers are frequently objectified – an issue that came to the fore last September, when sports clothing brand Roxy ran an advert for a surf competition featuring seductive shots of surfer Stephanie Gilmore’s body, without any footage of her actually surfing. As Kennelly says, female surfers are required to be “straight, young, feminine, pretty … oh yeah, and a talented surfer”.
Thomson and Castets struggled to get the voice of contemporary, mainstream surfing in the documentary. They made repeated attempts to contact star surfer Kelly Slater – who has spoken in the past about suicide awareness, and showed support for the charity Surfers Against Suicide – but were unsuccessful. Not one straight professional surfer they approached was prepared to speak publicly about the issue on film.
Leading surf organisations responded with equal aversion. Surfing AustraliaAssociation of Surfing Professionals agreed to go on film, but then withdrew permission to run the interview at late notice. “That’s when we realised it was a real taboo,” says Thomson. “They just don’t want to know about it and they don’t want to talk about it. But then in their backyards there are people killing themselves, people suffering from depression, surfers having great careers cut short by what’s going on. So that ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ mentality, which ultimately didn’t work for the US military, cannot work in the future for surfing either.”
The aim of the film – which has been shortlisted to be used as part of the education programme in Australian high schools – is not simply to challenge homophobia in surfing, but also to help redefine and modernise the image of homosexuality in general.
“The media is still picturing gay people as living in the city, wearing the same clothes, going to parties …” says Castets, who feels that the perception of gay culture – in a similar way to surfing – hasn’t evolved much since the 80s. “I thought if we were able to make this film, we would be able to change that stereotype and show a new image of what it is to be gay in 2014. It goes beyond just gay surfers. It is a story about being able to live your life the way you are, without being bound by the stereotypes of the subculture.”
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Professional Out In The Lineup, and everything has come up roses ever since. Not only have the reactions of his friends, family and fellow surfers been amazingly positive, but he reports he has since secured a sponsor in popular surfwear company O’Neill.
We caught up with Butler last week as he surfed the waves in Taiwan.
I was afraid that people would think differently about me, that the Craig that people have known for years would no longer be and that the new me that they would learn to know about would ruin all of the respect and accomplishments I’ve achieved over the years.
I’ve tried so hard since I was a kid to be liked and to try to build a name for myself as a surfer. I thought that if people found out that I was gay that they would no longer want to be associated with me and would think of me as just another stereotype.
I was surprisingly shocked that I did not get a single negative reaction.
All the locals at home know that I’m gay, and they’re not afraid to give me some harmless playful stick about it in the water. I like it that way, as I’m usually the one to instigate it. As a mate of mine that I do a bit of traveling with for surf put it, „If someone stops liking you for being gay, then what kind of messages does that breath about that person?“ That is very true. I can’t think of a single person who would want to hang around with a person who doesn’t like someone for being LGBT. I only found that out after I came out.
There’s a lot of love and equality in present-day Ireland. The dark days that our parents and grandparents grew up in are long gone. The Catholic Church no longer has a strong hold on everyone. People are no longer shamed and locked away in a closet. There was a landslide vote for same-sex marriage last spring In Ireland. Unfortunately I wasn’t at home to vote, but it was really cool to see people — surfers, non-surfers, young and old — going out and voting „Yes“ and urging people to do the same. I think everyone was happy in some way that they could be a part of a better future.
The best reaction that I got was singly one of the most memorable moments of my life. It happened earlier this year while traveling in New Zealand with a group of childhood friends.
At the time there were only three of us. The other two lads are big into their women. One of my mates has known that I am gay since school, and my other mate I’ve gone to great lengths to hide to him the fact that I’m gay. He’s a really good guy, but I just thought that because we had such a great friendship and that we spend a lot of time traveling and camping together on surf trips that he would no longer want to be a part of that and try to distance himself.
In Gisborne we would go into the local supermarket two or three times a day for breakfast, lunch and dinner. While going to this supermarket, this local girl working there started to get acquainted with me and started full-on flirting with me every time I would go in.
One day she gave me her number and told me to ring her that night to go back to her place. My mates were delighted. I was not. All day the lads where telling me to go and asking, „what’s there to think about?“ I was planning on faking meeting up with her and going and waiting it out somewhere. Throughout the day I was getting unhappier and unhappier about it, and the lads could tell.
That night we got on the beer and I said enough is enough and turned to mate and said to him „man, I’m sorry, I’m gay.“ I thought that I had made a huge mistake at that point until he got the biggest smile and started saying „really?“. At that point I had never met someone who was so happy for me. He was happy because it was a huge weight off my shoulders.
We did a lot of laughing that night. It truly was a huge weight lifted off my shoulders.
I wouldn’t change it for the world. I spent a lot of my young teen years feeling like a complete loner and a total outcast because I am gay. It led to a lot of issues in school.
I spent years thinking a lot about how much easier it would be if I was dead. I would cut myself, not just because I felt like it would ease a lot of pain but also so on the off chance someone would notice me in my early school days. Depression wouldn’t be my greatest friend at the best of times, and battling with coming to terms with my sexuality and wanting to be liked didn’t help this.
I went from being bullied to being the bully as a youngster and it’s still something that I regret to this day and beg those who I bullied for their forgiveness. I thought that if I picked on others then somehow people would see me as tough and never question my sexuality. I’m still ashamed. The thought of putting another youngster who was also dealing with themselves through torment still eats me up inside, even though that was a long time ago.
When I finished school and I came out to my friends, I was able to finally relax and the kids who I would label the „cool kids“ started to like me for being me. That has formed into strong relationships and helped mould me into the person I am today.
I am the person I am today because I came out. Even though I still battle demons I wait until I’m in the water on a wave to lash out instead of going after myself or others. People finally like me for me, and I have a feeling that coming out and being true to myself has something to do with that.
The best part has been people’s reactions to finding out I’m gay and being able to break a stereotype of gay people, especially when surfing.
I’m in Taiwan at the moment for a surfing competition trying to qualify for the world tour, and I was surfing up the coast the other day with some well-known pros. The surf was big as it was a swell coming off a typhoon hitting the north of Taiwan. I took off on a big one and had a big drop. I bottom turned and stood up in the barrel and came out. When I came in, I was chatting with one of the pros and he was laughing and said he had seen the film that I am in talking about being gay.
„I had no idea gay dudes liked to pull into bombs,“ he said. It’s probably the best compliment I’ve ever had coming from this surfer.
There is of course other surfers better than I am out there and who can surf bigger waves than I can. Some of them are still in the closet. But can you imagine what kind of impact they could have by coming out and turning heads by charging hard.
#HELIX: ANGEL RIVERA AND SHANE…
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