Is there homophobia in surfing ? by Clifton Evers

June 2, 2013 in Articles, FEATURED by Clifton Evers

Some time ago I wrote an article entitled “Queer Waves” in which I explained some of my experiences of, discussions about, and attitudes towards homosexuality and surfing. I’ve also written about gender, sexuality and growing up as a surfer in a book entitled Notes for a Young Surfer (2010).

Subsequently, I have been asked questions about homophobia in surfing. How do I understand it? What are my experiences of it? Etc. The questions emerge because people experience homophobia (implicit and explicit) time and again in surfing and want to talk about the issues. The homophobia comes out in the language used, the stories told, in media representations, as well as in practices in the beachside car parks, on the beach and in the water. Below are a few questions that have come up and my responses to them.

Illustration by Kai Wu

Note: my focus here is on experiences of men. I am not sufficiently familiar with homophobia in regards to women surfers so my answers below are particular. At this point, what I would say that the surfing community as a whole also needs to listen more to what women who have experienced homophobia have to tell us about their experiences and to reflect upon this.

Is there homophobia in surfing?

Yes, there is homophobia in surfing. This is reflected in how heteronormative the culture is.  For example, see the surfing media’s lack of representation of homosexuality and normalisation of heterosexuality which therefore positions homosexuality as somehow “not normal” or “other”. The representations – images and words – repeatedly emphasise heterosexual relationships. Consider the exclusive emphasis in the mainstream surfing media on a heterosexual male gaze which treats women as primarily sexual objects and how this same media would never dare sexualize a male body (unless, this was cloaked in irony). You can see this at work on websites, in magazines, in social media, and even in how the Association of Surfing Professional’s world tour is packaged, operated, and sold. Also, consider the negative connotations of “gay”, “fag”, etc. in surfing. While it may seem innocent enough to yell “gay/fag” when someone does not paddle for a dangerous wave the constant reiterations of the negative connotation has effects on people’s sense of worth and belonging. Yet, it has become commonplace and people treat it as innocent when actually it is a manifestation of homophobia, whether that homophobia is intended or not. Then there is the occasional outright abuse of gay surfers in various settings – online, in the surf, in car parks, etc. Surfing culture does have a significant problem in regards to homophobia.

Sometimes, I am told that gay surfers are tolerated in surfing. I dispute that. More often than not people do not feel comfortable about coming out as gay in the surfing culture because of the homophobia they know is present. There are very few representations of or support for queer-identified surfers in the surfing media, surfers are not comfortable about or supported in identifying as queer on the ASP world tour, some surfers don’t feel comfortable even in their own surfing communities to identify as queer, and so on.  Regardless, it’s not a case of “tolerance”. I have never liked that word anyway as it implies one group has the right to determine the position of others – a pecking-order is put in place with one group assuming it has some inherent right to sit at the top. I prefer the words “understanding” and “appreciation”, whereby these include sharing a diverse array of stories, histories and experiences with each other with an eye on some personal reflection i.e. if one judges someone else it being pertinent to first question the foundations of one’s own assumptions, practices, beliefs, etc. upon which that judgment is made. Through such a process I think we will find that everyone’s lives are complex and that we could all try to be more socially inclusive (not simply in regards to sexuality as that is not the only feature of who we are and simplifies the rich diversity of people’s lives in general).

If so, where does homophobia come from?

There is no one cause for homophobia. The broader society normalises/naturalises heterosexuality at the expense of other sexualities which it sets itself up in opposition to, thereby constructing them as what one “shouldn’t be” or silencing alternatives. Even if this is sometimes not an explicitly stated aim it is implicit to the process of “heteronormativity”. For example, surfing culture has for a long time been dominated by men, even though women have been present in surfing since the beginning they and their influence have been marginilised by the dominance of men. These men and the stories they tell and practices they undertake have constructed a particular interpretation of what it means to be a man and surfer i.e. heterosexual and not feminine – with homosexuality being “assumed” to be more feminine. Trying to “live up to being a man” in this culture thus has come to mean an ongoing process of distancing oneself from femininity and homosexuality i.e. that which the heteronormativity of the culture has constructed as not being normal for or desirable for a man in this culture. A particular heteronormative interpretation masculinity becomes prevalent and necessitates misrepresentation, dismissal of, silencing of, phobias of, and even violence against other genders and sexualities to maintain its power and subsequent privileges i.e. to prove you are “one of us” and “not them (the other)” otherwise how can you be a “real man”.

Consider how surfing involves a lot of bonding between men based on feelings e.g. stoke. Such a felt way of being is often associated with femininity and also “being gay”. Given this, we see a strong presence of “homosociality” in surfing culture (indeed, in many male-dominated sporting cultures). This is where men bond through something else e.g. a woman, an object/past-time, etc. The idea is that direct male-to-male intimate relationships are “interrupted” and thereby any “intimate” reading of the relationship is “short-circuited”, so to speak i.e. a heteronormative interpretation of the relationship is encouraged at the expense of any that may suggest otherwise. Why worry about such an interpretation? The answer: the influence of homophobia and heteronormativity.

I should point out that this process of heteronormativity and the subsequent characterizing of sexes, sexualities and genders is not unique to surfing culture. Ever since the 19th and 20th century we have seen the emergence of clear-cut sexual identities/categories and so-called associated characteristics as predominant defining markers of who people are and what they should aim to be and do. When you carefully think about it though such taxonomies are a simplification of who people are and what they do. People are complex and what they are and do is never fixed, anyway. So, to assume there are clear-cut sexual identities is to ignore all the various sexual practices and complexities of relationships that are involved in life.

What does it mean to be a man / a surfer in Australian surf culture?

To be strong, assertive, independent, stoic, active, aggressive, rebellious, self-confident, thick-skinned, sexually aggressive, etc.  This is a dominant interpretation and characterisation, although no-one ever holistically fulfills such expectations. Yet, time and again you will see such adjectives applied to men who are fulfilling the expectations of being a “real man” or “successful surfer” in this culture. Look at any biography of a male “surf star/celebrity/character” to see such traits being celebrated and adjectives at work.These traits are set up in opposition to ones such as vulnerability, softness, emotional, fragile, passive, sexual receptivity, private, sexually submissive, gentleness, empathy, sensitivity, caring, nurturance, deference, etc. The latter traits are associated with femininity and homosexuality. Again, look at any biography of a male surfer and you see far less of these traits being celebrated and adjectives at work. Of course, when we pay close attention to people’s lives we see all sorts of mixes and matches and cross-overs. Nevertheless, what traits are held up as desirable for a man who surfs in Australian surf culture validates and shapes what one should be and do and understand as normal/abnormal and should aspire to or not.

How does this compare to other surf cultures?

Cultures construct gender, sexuality and sex very differently, and by culture I am referring to intersections of class, generation, ethnicity, nationality (even regional), religion, (dis)ability, etc. For example, there are “masculinities” and “femininities” rather than any singular interpretation. For example, in some surfing cultures being “independent” and “aggressive” are less desirable traits and “deference” and “group harmony” are the desired dominant traits. In other cultures emotion, men and surfing is not viewed in a negative light like it is in Australia – where the dominant emphasis is on stoicism. I would add to this that cultures change. So, what it means to be a man is never settled and always contested, a dynamic process.

How do surfers express their feelings?

Men who surf express their feelings about each other in strategic ways. For example, by way of strategic body touching e.g. handshakes, pats on the back; body language, etc. In Australia, you will find less straight-identified men giving someone a long hug or holding hands or with their arms slung over each other’s shoulders as they walk along (as they do in some cultures), etc. for fear of being called “gay” – there is sometimes a homophobic “policing” of expressing feelings between men through body contact. Indirect praise is used to express feelings e.g. sometimes expressing admiration for what someone did rather than how you emotionally feel about them per se. You may compliment their surfing or how they are looking after their family affairs but look them in the eye and express how you directly feel about them (unless drunk together which changes the “context”) or openly admire their body and questions will be raised about your “manliness” and “sexuality”. Sometimes, a strategy is to discuss feelings/sensitive issues through someone else rather than directly about oneself e.g. discussing a surf sport star’s issues that reflect one’s own concerns/issues/feelings i.e. “I know this guy who …”. Another way to express your feelings is through a shared sense of belonging e.g. localism. To be honest, if we pay close attention the whole expression of feelings between men is an intricate strategic and tactical negotiation.

I would like to add though that there are varying degrees to the above. Some men are quite comfortable with expressing their feelings and having others express their feelings to them. My point is that the more homophobia has a hold the more forceful the policing (by others and by oneself) of such expression of feelings among and by men.

How does growing up to be a man, to be a surfer relate to being homophobic?

Growing up to be a man in the surfing culture in Australia means having to negotiate what is a homophobic setting. Often, homophobia is so normalised that you do not even realize you are helping to perpetuate it until it is brought to your attention. And then you go, “but that’s not what I mean”. Yet, this is what homophobia does: it normalises certain attitudes, behaviours, representations, comments, and traits that many times hides it from us and the effects that it has. To be honest, my experience in the surfing culture has been with it as homophobic and heteronormative so it was not until I had people sit me down and explain to me the ramifications of what I was doing and the effects on them that my answers to the above questions began to take shape. Homophobia and heternormativity had been “naturalised”.

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Crucially, conversations about these matters need to be had so that understanding and appreciation can gain momentum. While it’s possible to argue that we simply shouldn’t care if someone is gay or not such an argument misses the point. Such a discussion is important because otherwise the structural heteronormativity and homophobia will continue unabated. This is more than a personal endeavor, also. Yes, ASP and mainstream surfing media I am speaking to you. I’d argue that such questions as above are really important, and need to be reflected upon and talked about more openly by the surfing community as a whole in various forums if we want to pursue increased appreciation and understanding of diversity in surfing, and even more broadly. The current status quo isn’t anywhere near good enough.