I began surfing when my son was age 11 and wanted to learn to surf. His mother was not keen on the idea of him venturing into the ocean alone, so yours truly was recruited/directed to start relearning to surf at age 45 after not paddling out on a surf board since I was about 22. Both of us came to love surfing and my son got to be pretty good as did two of his boy cousins (both of my daughters ultimately learned to surf as well). My son and I and his friends had many wonderful "boys surf trips" to Hatteras Island over the years driving down in a huge Ford Crown Victoria Country Squire wagon that could easily handle six or more surf boards plus my son and at least 3 of his friends.
Surfing is wonderful for a number of reasons: it's great exercise, it's a great form of stress release - something I needed desperately in my closeted years - and it is a wonderful way to enjoy nature and the ocean. The draw back is that surfing culture tends to be kind of macho and not what one would describe as gay friendly, especially at the professional surfer level. My blogosphere friend Thomas Castets of Australia decided that this mindset need to change and launched his website gaysurfers.net which I have written about before. I signed up early on and now the organization as a documentary entitled "Out in the Line Up" which looks at gays and surfing (I am purchasing a copy) . The Guardian has a piece on the organization. Here are highlights:
When Thomas Castets sat down at his computer in Sydney four years ago and began writing a blog, he had one modest aim. “I thought it would be nice if I could find at least one other gay surfer out there,” he says. “And find out if they had some time to surf with me.”
Within two weeks, 300 people had got in touch. Now his website, gaysurfers.net, 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.”
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”.
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 Australia declined to comment, while the Association 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.”
“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.”
Kudos to Thomas and those who worked on this important film!!