Surf’s UP … and Out!
by Joshua Wyrick
The competitors don’t hit each other. The athletes are known for their shaggy hair and non-conformist attitudes. Points are awarded based on an individual performance scored by a panel of judges who look for finesse, creativity and new takes on old tricks. So what has made the sport of professional surfing one of the most difficult environments for athletes who are open about their sexuality?
Surfing culture retains the macho image that has been engendered for generations by such seminal surfing flicks as Bruce Brown’s 1966 classic “The Endless Summer” as well as Keanu Reeves’ more recent portrayal of Johnny Utah in the 1991 hit “Point Break” where he starred alongside the late Patrick Swayze, a 1980’s bastion of manliness.
A new documentary, “OUT in the Line-up” explores these issues within the professional surfing community by examining them through the eyes of some of the world’s most talented competitors.
One of them, David Wakefield, kept his secret for nearly twenty years before being outed in 2011 at Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras festival on the front page of the “Sydney Morning Herald’s” online edition.
“Surfing is a very macho sport, built on respect,” Wakefield says. “I remember being a grommet (Aussie slang for a new surfer) when I first got my hot-buttered board … the older guys tied it to a tree and would see if they could piss on it,” Wakefield recalls through a somewhat tepid laugh.
This type of seemingly harmless ritual hazing and harassment is common throughout many sports. Shows of dominance litter the athletic landscape, such as making rookies carry all the equipment back to the locker room on the first day of practice in the National Football League. These acts, meant to enforce the hierarchy that exists within nearly all areas of society, represent an endemic problem to new competitors.
Wakefield’s decision to wait so long before coming out was not entirely due to fear of alienation. In professional surfing, having sponsors is not simply extra money for the athletes as is the case in many other professional sports. It is the only way to compete.
Travel expenses and equipment costs rise exponentially throughout a surfer’s career. Without sponsor money, even the best surfers could not afford the sport. In spite of having a winning record and shelves of trophies, the prize pools for the competitions are mostly petty placeholders for the exposure that is gained by winning a major event.
After coming out many surfers are told that their lifestyles are not consistent with the brand’s image, thereby having their sponsorships, and by extension their career aspirations, pulled out from under them.
Unfortunately, the risks do not end there. Susie Hernandez remembers ruefully her first experience as an out surfer: “I moved to San Diego and … found my sexuality … not long after that my roommates moved out, and I even lost most of the surfer buddies I had made.”
Even at the top of the pyramid these attitudes are still prevalent. Cori Schumacher, three-time world champion long-board surfer, says of her prior experience “… the precedent has been set … if you’re gay or they think you’re gay, you’re out [of the sport].”
For former United States congressman Barney Frank, married to partner and life-long surfer Jim Ready, the problem extends beyond being pushed out of the sport.
“What you have is the groups of people who have a choice to conceal their sexuality, and often they do — whereas the media caricatures we are most often exposed to are the most stereotypical, flamboyant ends of the spectrum,” Frank relates. “But we had our reality, being honest about who we are — our reality is slowly diminishing the caricatures and thereby the prejudice that exists.”
For many, the issue begins with media representation of surfers in general. Most of what the public sees of surfing is, according to visual artist and surfer Miguel Libarnes, the “… media portrayal of ‘white male conquering Fiji.’” There are surfers of all nationalities wherever big waves exist yet this image dominates what many across the planet know as the stereotypical board-rider.
Thomas Castets, founder of gaysurfers.net and producer of the film, continues to expose the kind of trepidation that people in power have when confronted about their organization’s attitude toward homosexuality. After finally being granted an interview with ASP’s (Association of Surfing Professionals) vice president of communications Dave Prodan, Castets later received an e-mail from Prodan refusing to sign a release for the interview to be shown due to “nebulous comments” he had made.
These kinds of attitudes are damaging in a way that cannot be understated. Castets comments on the founding of gaysurfers.net by saying that at one time he thought he was the only gay surfer in the entire world. “All those years I would search Google for a place for my interests and all I would find was really bad pornography,” Castets admits with a chuckle.
In a world where gays and lesbians are four times more likely to commit suicide, forums like gaysurfers.net are of the utmost importance as a way to communicate with others. With Castets’ help and the collaborative effort of thousands of others across the globe, coming out in the line-up will soon be a source of pride instead of stigmatization.