Gay Surfers: The Start of a New Wave
A documentary about gay surfers opens this year’s Brisbane Queer Film Festival. Andrew Shaw takes a look at the film’s portrayal of surf culture and talks to filmmaker Ian Thomson about Out in the line-up.
“I do surf,” says filmmaker Ian Thomson. “But I’m not a particularly good surfer.” When he does take to the water, Thomson floats his longboard at Byron Bay’s easygoing break at Wategos Beach, where he says the scene is less confronting. “There’s a nice community there, a lot of women surf there, a lot of older guys, and it’s a nice vibe. The longboard community is a much more easygoing one than the shortboard community. With the shortboarders it’s all about claiming the wave. That’s where a lot of the aggression happens.”
Thomson is the filmmaker behind Out in the line-up, a documentary that tells the story of queer surfers and reveals the darker side of surf culture, its misogyny, its homophobia and the pressure sponsors place on surfers to be marketable to a straight audience – a strategy that leaves no room for alternatives to mainstream values and sexuality. Out in the line-up opens this year’s Brisbane Queer Film Festival, exploring sexual politics and community in an area seldom associated with gays and lesbians.
On location with Out in the line-up.
Although today it’s a regulated competitive sport, in the Sixties and Seventies surfing was ‘alternative’. Alternative to what? To the rat race, to what mum and dad wanted you to do, to a proper job, to thinking like everybody else, to regulated competitive sport. But despite this historical reputation as a laid back community of individuals on a Zen journey to find themselves, surfing culture was, and still can be, sexist and homophobic. As the film’s synopsis puts it: “Out in the line-up uncovers a culture that has strayed from its foundation of freedom of spirit, open-mindedness and connection to nature.”
No professional male surfer has come out while competing. Perhaps the most famous of those who came out long after he quit the circuit is Matt Branson. Branson dominated Australian surfing in the 1980s and early 90s with his macho surf-punk antics, an inked up tough guy who quit professional surfing in 1992. He came out publicly in 2007 in an interview with surfing magazine Stab.
Stab is one of a number of magazines that cater for the core surfing market of white, straight males. Some are blatantly sexist – girls only feature if they’re in a bikini, preferably on all fours, signalling that in surfing culture a woman’s place is in the bedroom not the beach break. But the limit to what a professional female surfer should have to do for sponsorship and a photo deal – don a bikini, do a ‘girl on girl’ photo spread, pose nude – and what a man needs to do is now being debated by those surfing mags that take the time to define and question their culture. Surfing Life recently ran a story about Silvana Lima, a Brazilian surfer who lost her sponsorship after an injury and now looks to crowd-funding to enter competitions. Lima says: “Beaches are not catwalks and athletes are not fashion models.”
These are big questions. As world champion and out Californian surfer Cori Schumacher says in the film, a pro surfer’s sustaining income is in photo deals and sponsorship, not prize money.
Surfing the cyber wave
The spark that led to Out in the Line-up was GaySurfers.net, a website of some 5,000 members that connects gay and lesbian surfers around the world founded in 2010 by a Frenchman now living in Australia, Thomas Castets.
“I was on a trip to Byron and I met Thomas at the pub one night,” Thomson says. They met through a mutual gay friend, Dave Wakefield, who had once been state surfing champion and whose story features in the film. Wakefield remained in the closet for two decades, only to come out publicly in 2011 when he was interviewed on TV while marching in the Mardi Gras Parade with GaySurfers.net. “I’m a surfer but within the surf culture there’s nothing for me as far as how to express my sexuality,” Wakefield says in the film.
Thomson listened as Castets told him about the range of people who had contacted him through GaySurfers.net, including women’s world champion Cori Schumacher and a host of other surfers, both professional and amateur. “These people felt stranded between gay culture and surfing culture,” Thomson says. “They had to keep a secret from their surfing mates, and on the other side they felt they didn’t really connect with gay culture – or certainly what is prevalent in the media and in a lot of the urban centres. There was this great feeling with GaySurfers.net of finally finding a community of like-minded people.”
Gay surfers: 'These people felt stranded between gay culture and surfing culture'.
Given Thomson’s background as a freelance director for ads, film and TV (he’s a Visual Communications grad from Sydney College of the Arts) the pair decided to make a film – a two-year effort with a crew of volunteers in Australia, China, Ecuador, San Diego and Mexico.
From counterculture to business culture
Thomson believes technology changed the face of surfing; that once, longboarders shared waves, but with the advent of the shortboard, waves needed to be claimed so skills could be shown off and that’s where competition set in. “But in western culture, in Australia and America, from a societal view it was very much about being a counterculture, it was about being a drop out. So there was this element of it being very embracing of everything that was different. Surfers felt they were the outsiders and it was a lifestyle and a sport that was very close to nature. All those values about freedom and a connection to nature are core to what surfing’s all about.
“When surfing started to become marketed it was marketed by wealthy white men from America and Australia who had been surfing and never wanted to stop surfing,” Thomson continues. “So after they got a bit older and decided they didn’t want to have an office job, they developed jobs and industries around surfing: making surfboards, making equipment, setting up organisations. It was a small but dominant group, your white, heterosexual male. Then they started to market to that stereotype believing that was the target group. Anything outside of that wasn’t useful to the brand, wasn’t going to make them money so they became ostracised from the commercialisation of surfing.”
As a lifestyle, surfing often brings together young, straight guys in intimate situations: sleeping in the back of a van, showering, sharing each other’s hopes and dreams. The possibility of homosexuality being a motivation behind these moments must be constantly confronted, because we define our groups not only by what we do, but by what others do that we do not.
It’s a psychological perspective offered in the film by Dr Clifton Evers, who says the intense male bonding that happens in the surf has to be clearly defined as not homoerotic: ‘homosexuality is not us’ is a mantra male surfers learn by heart, whether straight or closeted. Using homophobic slurs in the surf and marginalising women are ways of defending the bromance, the right to have intimate male relationships that must be clearly defined as non-homoerotic.
The pressure of losing your sponsorship or your photo deal or your fans or even friends keeps pro surfers in the closet. The feeling that you’re letting down people who believe in you also comes into play. In the interview he gave to Stab magazine’s Fred Pawle in 2007, Matt Branson said he came out after his pro career because that secret had the power to destroy him, his self worth, and the two companies that were sponsoring him.
Women in surfing: Magazines and sponsors are often not sure how to handle women in general, let alone lesbians.
Thomson says multiple requests for an interview with the world’s governing body of professional surfing, the Association of Surfing Professionals, were turned down. “Finally we got an interview but they withdrew their permission just before we went to release the film.” Surfing Australia also refused to speak on camera.
Damaging perceptions: ‘gay’ = ‘less than’
Thomson says Cori Schumacher told him she was under pressure to fulfil a stereotype because it was believed that was the most effective way to market herself and the product, which wasn’t consistent with who she was. “Keala Kennelly says exactly the same thing, the pressure she was under from sponsors to be something that she wasn’t just because that was an easier thing to market.
“There has never been an out male surfer on the pro tour actively. Matt Branson came out, but many years after his pro career ended. Cori Schumacher came out just as she ended her career. Keala came out; she’d stopped surfing the pro tour but she’s still surfing big waves. She’s an openly gay professional surfer, she was outed in a surfing magazine.”
Homosexuality, in marketing terms, is a brand the surfing business elite can’t get their heads around. “We had a lot of people who didn’t want to speak to us on film,” says Thomson. “The interesting parts of this film are not only the wonderful characters in it, but the stories of the people that aren’t in it. That’s symptomatic of where surfing still is. There were people who said it’s time for this discussion, but they were not prepared to speak on camera because of fear of losing sponsorships, being thought of as gay.
“We had professionals from the mental health side of surfing, psychiatrists, who said if they spoke on the film that would implicate [pro surfer clients] they were speaking to and that wouldn’t be appropriate.
“Essentially the problem is a societal one: that being gay is ‘less than’. It starts with the derogatory use of ‘gay’ as meaning something negative. At the moment in youth culture something weak or not cool is ‘gay’. That really has to change. So what happens is you get these heterosexual guys who don’t want to be associated with [the word ‘gay’] because it means people will perceive them as being ‘less than’.”
Coming out in Out in the line-up
The story that bookends Out in the line-up is a coming out story in its own right. At the start of the film there’s a voice over, an anonymous post from a gay surfer. He says although he thinks a film about gay surfers is a good idea, he is in the closet and will never come out.
“We had no idea who the author was,” Thomson says. “Then two weeks before we finished editing he made contact through the GaySurfers website and told Thomas his story.”
The anonymous poster turned out to be 20-year-old, six-time Irish longboard champion Craig Butler, who decided after all to be in the film.
“That piece in the film is his coming out publicly,” Thomson says. “He recorded it once and couldn’t do it. Then he recorded it a second time. I hope he’s okay. Coming out is always tough.”
Out in the line-up, BQFF Opening Night Film, Brisbane Powerhouse, 119 Lamington St, New Farm, 7pm, March 28, 2014. Bookings: (07) 3358 8600 / brisbanepowerhouse.org
For details of the BQFF 2014 program go to brisbanepowerhouse.org
Check out the trailer for Out in the line-up here.
You can also catch Out in the line-up at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival on March 16.