Given that sports are still traditionally male (read: macho) dominated, this isn’t that surprising. One thing I do find surprising is that a lot of homophobia exists in a sport that I always considered to be pretty laid back – surfing.
I guess the main reason for this is because I associate surfing with being not only a sporting pursuit, but also one with a strong spiritual undercurrent. I’ve only attempted to surf a few times, but I did actually manage to catch and ride a wave….once. And it was absolutely thrilling! You feel the force of nature and you’re actually able to connect with it. It’s an amazing feeling, one I can only describe as pure freedom. I assumed that a sport rooted so deeply in nature, would naturally be tolerant.
Turns out it isn’t so. For the approximately one million gay surfers in the world today, homophobia is intrinsically linked to the sport they love. This means that coming out isn’t always an option. Many gay surfers live with a duality in their lives. They have to separate the sport they love from their sexuality.
But something is being done to change this situation. In 2010, an online community for gay surfers was born in the form of GaySurfers.net. You can join the community to speak with, meet and exchange ideas with other gay surfers, whether they live around the corner from you or half way around the world. It’s a great way to reduce isolation and provide support, information and connection to a group that previously hasn’t had access to any of this.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Thomas Castets, the founder of GaySurfers.net. Thomas is also currently working on a documentary about the taboo of homosexuality in surfing called ‘Out In The Line-Up’.
You started GaySurfers.net in 2010 because you yourself are a surfer who happens to be gay, and you couldn’t find any online avenue to connect with other gay surfers. What was it like being the first one to start such a website? Was it difficult and what sort of response did you initially receive?
For years I was hoping to find a website for gay surfers. I searched online, but never found one. I wondered “Where are all the gay surfers hiding?” And “Why are they hiding?”
So one day 3 years ago, while riding a wave of optimism, I decided to build it myself!
GaySurfers.net was born in February 2010 as the first online community for gay surfers. Our mission is simple: to create an interesting and fun site where gay men and women can gather, connect, and share their passion for surfing and other related issues. We keep it clean, interactive, and easy to navigate. I’ve been amazed at how quickly it has grown. Most people who find the website email me to say that they can’t believe that they finally found a website for gay surfers. They tell me they have been looking for years and are so happy to have found it!
Since the website launched and has grown considerably, you now have members all over the world. How do most members use the site? Is it a way for them to chat online and reduce their isolation or do they meet up with and surf together with other members in their nearby area?
In the first month, about 800 gay surfers had registered from 76 countries worldwide. Now we have almost 5000 members and we organise surf sessions and surf trips in the 51 groups around the world. Each group has a group admin (sometimes even several) who are the local contacts in charge of organising the events.
I get a lot of feedback from members who say that the site has allowed them to realise that they are not alone. It’s an important realisation, because mainstream surf media has made few attempts to extend a hand to our community. Our site breaks down prejudice and builds up self-esteem by creating a network of openly gay surfers who understand the trials of being homosexual within surf culture. Essentially, we’re making it easier for them to accept themselves. That’s a big part of our mission: to remove shame from the equation and help gay surfers be the best they can be.
In recent years, gay rights have advanced in many areas of society. Have you noticed a growing acceptance of homosexuality within the surfing community during this time?
It is hard to measure how much is acceptance increasing in different parts of the world. But what is for sure is that there are still surfers who fear of being discriminated against if others find out. This has historical roots, and is similar for many social minority groups.
Surfing is a community lifestyle – we are out there in the surf, together with the rest of the community. We all want to belong, to be respected for who we are and we all fear to be ostracised. For gay people I guess the risk is higher and it’s always in the back of our heads.
Fear and silence often leads to depression, and sometimes even suicide. I think it’s really important that we raise this issue and find ways for the new generation of surfers to be able to feel free about who they are.
I’m especially happy to see so many young surfers joining the community, because I find that the younger guys who are just discovering their homosexuality need the most support and encouragement.
What do you consider to be the main challenges facing the surfing community in order to fully accept homosexuality?
I think the biggest challenge is that homosexuality is not visible and surfers don’t know how to deal with it. Homosexuality is a taboo in surfing mostly because it challenges many of the existing ideals in surfing of how many straight male surfers choose to see themselves. I often hear people say “I never thought there were any gay people who surf!”
Do you think having an out pro-surfer would help bring about more acceptance within the surfing community?
The absence of openly gay professional surfers and role models creates a perception that gay people don’t surf.
The surf industry has been making millions of dollars selling the image of straight white male and bikini clad female surfers. Most surfers buy into this stereotype and reject whatever makes them different. There are barely any references to homosexuality in surf magazines and the only time the word ‘gay’ is used, it is in a derogatory sense, which suggests homosexuality is inferior to heterosexuality. In such a strong and insular culture it’s understandable that gay surfers prefer to remain silent rather than deal with rejection.
It is a vicious circle. It’s not that surfers themselves are necessarily more homophobic than others, but gay surfers have not yet found a place in surfing. And the fact that homosexuality is not visible, perpetuates the taboo.
So yes, if a respected pro surfer came out as gay, it would definitely bring out more acceptance within the surfing community. He/she would become a role model for the newer generation.
You’re currently working on a documentary called ‘Out In The Line-Up’. What is it about and what are you hoping to achieve with it?
Two years ago I took a month off and did a surf trip to California, Hawaii, Australia and Indonesia. I contacted the members in these areas and they invited me to stay with them. It totally blew my mind! I met up with amazing people in each and every country. We surfed some great waves, they organised a party for my visit in San Diego, gave me a surf board in Hawaii and we decided to march in the Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras festival in Sydney. Everybody was grateful. There was such a good energy that I promised myself to come back with a film crew to document the coming together of the first global community of gay surfers.
I came back to San Diego a year later with a film director, a camera crew and the documentary became a much bigger project. We formed a production company, interviewed gay surfers from all the over the planet, world champions, journalists and psychologists to explore the taboo of homosexuality in surfing. We opened up the dialogue with the surf industry to see how homophobia has come to be, and what needs to change.
We heard dozens of compelling stories of fear, faith, confidence and pushing through barriers – on waves and in personal lives. I got to meet world champion Cori Schumacher, ex US pro-surfer Robbins Thompson, former US congressman Barney Frank and his surfer husband Jim Ready, as well as a variety of journalists, psychologists and sports experts to gain understanding.
Why is surfing so homophobic? Is it the fear of surf apparel manufacturers that they won’t sell board shorts if the word “gay” touches the sport? Is it the fear of pro surfers that they’ll lose their sponsorship dollars and career opportunities if they speak up?
The film exposes discrimination and exclusion, but also hope, our energy and the love for the ocean.
You’ve shot the film and are currently crowd funding the post-production phase. How can people donate and what does that money go towards?
The project has been in development since March 2012 and shooting began in September 2012. About 90% of material has been filmed already, in Sydney, San Diego, Mexico, Byron Bay, the Gold Coast, Santa Cruz andEcuador. You can watch a 3 minute teaser video on our website http://outinthelineup.com
The director, producers and the entire film crew are working on a voluntary basis without any claim for remuneration. We were very lucky to find a lot of film professionals within the community of gay surfers who volunteered with filming, sound recording and most areas of the production.
There are still some costs that we can’t cover ourselves and we still need to raise $150,000 to cover the cost of post-production, marketing and distribution. To ask for support we have launched a donation page on the website http://outinthelineup.com/donate/
When is the documentary set to be released?
The film will be a 52 minute documentary and will be released before the end of 2013!