After unsuccessfully searching for like-minded surfers, Ian Thomson founded the web site GaySurfers.net in 2010 as a place where people could share their passion for surfing, plan surf trips, and prove that people enjoyed the sport other than the chiseled, straight, white models who show up in surfing ads. Frustrated with the homophobia and intolerance he encountered in the surfing community, Thomson eventually put together the documentary Out in the Line-Up (trailer below) to shine light on a subject still considered taboo by surfers.
We spoke with Thomson as his film was about to screen at the San Diego Surf Film Festival.
1. Why did you make this film?
I decided to make this film together with the producer Thomas Castets, because through my own experience in surfing, and also through the many anecdotes we heard through members of Thomas’ website, it seemed that gay people in surfing were invisible. Many of them described a sense of being on the outer of both the surfing and the gay communities. They felt very isolated. Through the many stories we heard, it seemed that more openness and transparency could improve the situation for young gay people in extending the definition of what it is to be gay, and also to broaden the perceptions of what it is to be a surfer within the surfing community.
2. How would you characterize the surfing culture’s attitude toward gay surfers? Did your view on that change between the beginning of your work on the film and now?
Initially, our research indicated that the surfing community simply did not want to know about or deal with homosexuality in surfing. There seemed to be a “don’t ask, don’t tell” sort of mentality. Of course one could ask what does homosexuality have to do with surfing, but surfing is more than just a sport, it is a lifestyle that is also part of our broader social makeup, and it is here that issues around intolerance, discrimination, depression, and even suicide started to emerge. And then the question of what can surfing and surfers do to make all people feel included started to arise – and that a positive discussion around this can have far reaching social implications. The process of making this film has been a conversation starter within the surfing community, and even as we were making it we started to see some doors being opened.
3. Can you give me some examples of what those doors are?
We noticed particularly when we were interviewing people from the surfing establishment, that by having the conversation with us about this topic, they were realising that the lack of thought leadership and guidelines within the organisations of surfing are really something that need to be addressed. Even though the ASP pulled out their interview from the doco, I think the processes that it has started will ultimately lead to some positive outcomes.
Another example is the blog comments that we started to get when we initially released the trailer. There were still quite a few aggressive, homophobic opinions being expressed, but that activated other surfers to speak up and take a more positive position. It was of course however very disappointing for us, that after many attempts we could not get a current straight pro surfer or a sponsor to speak openly on camera about this issue. Some said they were concerned that they would be thought of as being gay, sponsors were concerned about giving the wrong impression about their brand. But on a brighter note, NIKE has been running an annual conference about homosexuality in sport, and we were lucky enough to be part of that. They offered to sponsor an out athlete in one of the major American sports. It is a shame that no brand is courageous enough to do this in surfing.
4. Why should gay surfers be open about their sexuality? Can’t they just surf?
Most of the people we interviewed for the documentary said that keeping part of themselves secret from their surf buddies and surfing community became a terrible psychological burden. Some became depressed, withdrew, or even contemplated suicide. As ex-pro Robbins Thompson explains “being out in surfing doesn’t mean having to wear a pink wetsuit. It is about being about being able to be yourself and be accepted for that by others in your surfing community for who you truly are.” Interestingly, some of the surfers we spoke to even mentioned being able to surf better when they didn’t feel that they had to constantly hide some part of themselves.
5. Surfing, at least as conveyed by mainstream media, is often associated with a laid back, carefree lifestyle, so why is it difficult for gay and lesbian surfers to come out publicly?
It is true that the roots of surfing are often associated with being very connected with nature, being alternative, and even counterculture. But it seems with the increasing commercialization of the sport of surfing over the past 30 years, marketing interests are driving the agenda. Suddenly brands are dictating to surfers how they are to behave and appear, in order to sell product to the broadest possible audience. So being individual, or different, or representing a minority, has meant it has been almost impossible to maintain sponsorship. It does however seem that times are changing, particularly with the younger generation who are getting tired of seeing the white alpha male and bikini-clad surfer girl as the stereotypes of the sport.
6. In the film, you meet up with Australian surfer David Wakefield – who kept his sexuality hidden from other surfers for 20 years – and encouraged him to come out publicly with other gay and lesbian surfers at Sydney Mardi Gras (one of the largest LGBTQ pride events in the world). How did that go for him?
It was a big challenge for David to come out at Mardi Gras, especially because he had come from a conservative, religious background and had developed a good coping mechanism for keeping his true sexuality a secret, particularly from his family and surfing mates. But although his rather public outing created some emotional hardship with family and friends, he now says that it is one of the best things he ever did. Finally to feel free to be himself was very liberating for him. It has been a sometimes painful journey, but one that he ultimately created more opportunities in his life.
7. The film follows Thomas and David as they travel around the world meeting other gay and lesbian surfers. What surprised you most about their stories?
The incredible thing about making the film is that we were part of the real-time birth of a new global community. Most of the surfers we spoke to said they thought they were the only gay surfers in the world. So you can imagine their sense of discovery and of new belonging, when they met other like-minded surfers from all around the world. There was an amazing sense of joy and relief finding others – and we were lucky enough to witness the coming together and record that in this film.
8. On your trip, you talk to some well-known gay, champion surfers – but most of them didn’t come out until late in their careers or after retiring from pro surfing. Now that we’ve got pro athletes in other sports coming out while they’re still pro – or in some cases like college football player Michael Sam even before they go pro – are you hopeful surfing will follow suit?
I think it is just a matter of time. I hope that at some point soon we will see an openly gay male surfer step out and feel accepted enough by the surfing community to be open about who he really is. We have anecdotally heard of people within pro surfing that have wrestled with that fear. In some cases leading to tragic outcomes.
In women’s surfing there have been some openly gay women on the tour, but they have in the past reported that they are told to keep it quiet as it makes it hard to attract sponsors. I hope that a new sensibly can arise in the audience, where the surfing performance is the thing that makes this athlete great, and also appealing to the marketers, and not only the condition that they must be straight.
9. How have the professional surfing associations responded to your film? What about advertisers?
We tried for over six months on two continents to get an official statement from the ASP [Association of Surfing Professionals]. After finally being granted an interview, they revoked their permission to use it in the documentary two weeks before finishing editing. That was very disappointing. And even though we did get a very supportive statement from the ISA, it seems there is not formalized charter around anti-discrimination and anti-homophobia from the surfing establishment, and in our opinion there should be. We also tried to get the leading surf brands to speak on camera, but were unsuccessful. It would only take one leading pro surfer to speak out against homophobia in surfing to promote a change in attitudes, particularly with younger surfers. But up to now, no one we have approached has been prepared to do that. I assume that this mirrors a fear of affecting their marketability.
10. Is it more difficult for gay male surfers to come out than gay women? Why or why not?
It seems that for gay men in pro surfing there is more at stake. The stereotypes that are perpetuated to be a top male surfer seem to hold back someone outside of that mould stepping up. It is also often suggested that the judging system is partially subjective, so if someone different comes along, it is difficult to get the break and make headway in competitive surfing. I think this will change as social perceptions change. It is just disappointing that surfing seems to play the role of a follower and not a leader in this regard. I do however also believe it remains difficult for gay women to come out on tour, although we are seeing an unusual polarization in women’s surfing, where the recent return of the sexualized blond surfer girl seems to be in contrast with a renewed focus on the female surfer as an athlete rather than a model. It will be interesting to see how this polarization develops in the near future.
11. Does the gay surfing community have any heroes? Who are they?
We all need and love heroes. For a long time there have not been role models for gay surfers within the surfing community. But there are some emerging. Three-time world longboard champion Cori Schumacher and big wave rider Keala Kennelly are paving the way. The Australian ex-pro surfer Matt Branson is reclusive, but by coming out with his story in STAB magazine and most recently in this film, he is, willingly or not, a great example of someone who can defy the stereotypes and rip with the best of them.
BONUS: How do you define adventure?
To me adventure is challenging yourself with something that you doubt you can achieve. It is more that just taking on something new. It is grappling with the fear of failure. Which is the thing that makes it so rewarding when you achieve what you thought was impossible. And that is what really gets the blood flowing through your heart.
Photos courtesy Out in the Line-Up. For more on Out In the Line-Up, visit outinthelineup.com.