The other day I was Skyping with one of the producers of the Documentary being made by the gaysurfers.net, and he ask me a question. “…(in the context of homosexuality and surfing) what you would like to achieve…?”
It seemed a relatively easy question to answer. But, it kept niggling away at me. On the surface surfing seems fairly straightforward. Get a board, wetsuit, towel, head to the beach, splash around, almost drown, dry off, get on with your life.
But there is an underlying homophobia in surfing. I’m not talking about the average guy that takes up surfing. I’m talking about the culture of surfing.
As an LGBT adult if you had a child and took him to what equates for surfing’s little league, you would find a pretty uncomfortable environment. If you were a LGBT youth and want to participate it would be down right hostile. If you wanted to, go to the North Shore with your partner hangout and surf Pipe, you’d risk a beating, at the very least. If you tried to get sponsors to compete you would find all doors closed.
Surfing culture overwhelmingly is conservative, homophobic and out of touch with the realities of sexuality and civil rights. Not only do they not understand they don’t want too.
The problem is and has been, no discussion of sexuality other than derogatorily. The closest the surfing media comes to discussing sexuality in surfing is exploitive articles like the Paul Sargeant, “Where Is Sarge” article (originally published in Stab Magazine).
This article, in particular, helped reinforce surfings ignorant and homophobic beliefs regarding the LBGT community. What make’s it exploitive is the lack of sensitivity and effort to differentiate between Sarges “alleged behavior”, from normal behavior -gay or straight.
Hardcore surfers, professionals, and the industry don’t want to think about this topic. By offering up “Sarge” as a standard, the surfing community feels justified in their homophobia.
If you ask people in the industry they’ll say there is no homophobia in the surfing world. What you’d find is polite disinterest and doors closed. This is not a topic anyone wants to discuss- for obvious reasons.
The surfing industry has pursued a policy of tight control over the cultural image of surfing over the surfers in the industry, the magazines, etc… “Only A Surfer Knows The Feeling.” Companies like Nike had tried multiple times to break in to the market to no avail, and have given up. There is very little room for anything that strays from their narrow ideals.
But surfing is moving beyond the tight grip of the “Surfing Industry.” People are pursuing surfing without need to be a part of the inner culture of surfing, and if the homegrown companies want to survive they are going to need the embrace the realities of a world culture.
Homophobia is alive and well in surfing. It is institutionalized, and frankly the track record of the sport on racism isn’t that great either.
So what would I like to see? Dialogue. The surfing community cannot continue to hide behind a wall of silence. It has to look at the damage it is doing to kids and adults who have every right to be apart of surfing, but are insidiously ostracized because of their sexuality.
It has to realize that Sarges like catholic priest that molest are in part created by a repressive system.
The surfing industry, magazines and professionals, those who profit by selling surfing have a responsibility to us, and we shouldn’t let them shirk by denial.
8 thoughts on “Note from from ex-pro surfer Robbins Thompson”
This begs a follow up question – how does dialog take place?
It’s not as simple as it initially sounds. Take the gay community at large, how would dialog take place? (because it sure isn’t happening well right now). There’s millions of gay people on the planet, we can’t all speak or we’ll all just be noise. There has to be some system were similar ideas are consolidated then represented… like governments with general populations. The problem then becomes how to select these individuals and how to select the concerns which are pushed forward.
Even with the above, if we used a government-style system, it would not be simple. The problem is the gay community itself must first sort out what it is “we” want, before we can tell the rest of the world what “we” want.
I think there would be great clashes with in the gay community itself about what it is we want as well as what we don’t want. You can not entirely blame other people for being confused or ambivalent or ignorant when we ourselves have not agreed upon nor communicated our desires.
No it’s not a simple thing. I’ve puzzled over it for ages. As to starting a dialog well I think we need to start it with ourselves. Not as being gay but as a minority group of surfers.
Talks like this one are a great start, as is this website. It bringing cohesion to us gay surfers as a part of the surfing community.
Problem is we have been so belittled that in many cases we accept our lot (demeaned and ridiculed), in the surfing world because it is all we have known. just as many straight surfers think it is ok to treat us this way. No one has the right to make use feel less.
It reminds me bit of what the French Gov. did to the Polynesian people.
They tried to take away their cultured, language and made people ashamed of who they were.
When I was sailing around the South Pacific we stopped at an island in the Marqueses where we met a guy in a very small village where they still fished in dugouts. He was building a cultural center to teach the children their language and heritage. We ended up there for a few weeks helped him build his small place on a river that cut through the village, I brought power tools, I learned a lot about what a one guy can do when he puts his mind to it. I also learned not to be afraid to be proud of who you are.
I don’t know much about being gay, but I know it’s what I am. Who am is a surfer, and this is a culture that I demand to be recognized as part of. Around the world gay people are dying because of something as integral to our being as the color of our skin. So start a dialog wherever whenever.
Visibility as individuals and as a group is what we need to do.
Never under estimate the impact of the individual.
And, by all means start the discussion between ourselves and with other surfers. Reach out…
I really have to ask, is being “a gay surfer” any different from being a surfer?
I have 43 years in the water, and as far back as I can remember, never cared what someone’s sexual orientation is/was. (although the early 70’s are a bit fuzzy, kidding)
Back in the NSSA days and my very brief “pro” (1 contest) career, I never heard any comments about anyone. I’m sure that at the level you attained, it was different. But was it different because you are “different” or what?
Did you lose sponsors? Did you come right out and say,”HEY EVERYBODY, I’M GAY”!
You have read my posts on that other blog, so I guessing you know that I’m pretty open minded and try to be respectful.
For what it’s worth, back in 1982, I was “dating” a porn star and we lived in west Hollywood. There were 2 beautiful men up the street, built like Adonis’ and I was SURE that she was getting nailed while I was at work. They were gay. Surprise, surprise! The point being, I “couldn’t tell” and I never would have thought.
So, the bottom line is…. are you a surfer, or a gay surfer?
Sounds like we’re of a generation. I think we can all remember the subtle and not so subtle remarks made about the gay kid or faggit at school. I imagine every kid is/ was pretty insecure in those high school, college days.
As a straight white boy the most we really had to be insecure about was if a girl liked you, or our Adam’s apple stuck out to much.
As a gay kid in a world that in many cases is legally allowed to discriminate against even legally kill you- that’s a lot on your plate. Back then (70’s-90’s) being gay was considered an illness, and homosexuality pretty much reviled in the U.S.
Yet people, all people I think have an innate gaydar, so for whatever reason we get singled out. And there is always a level of ostracism. Maybe it’s partly coming from inside of us, as it was ingrained in us to hate who we are.
Surfing even to this day is pretty homophobic. I think just about every kid that is gay cringes when he hears someone use the word fag or worse. And, these words are ingrained into surfing slang. It’s easy to say “we don’t mean anything by calling someone a fag”, but like the “n” word it carries the malignant weight of hate, fear, and violence in it.
Essentially the surfing world has refused to even address the issue rather hiding sayings like “just surf. Who cares what you are? Don’t bring your sexuality to the waves”. But surfing is much more than just the surfing part. It’s a lifestyle and sport. And like soccer kids start surfing as a sport very young.
Surfing has done a good job at staying white, male elitist, which is an issue that moves beyond homophobia.
But as a gay surfer who’s whole life was surfing, and who came from a family of surfers, and worked for years in as well as competed I can tell the surfing world is very good at subtle ostracism.
I did not come out as a gay surfer, never planned too, probably wouldn’t be out now. When I was outed it was messy. Things were written on my car and I lost a lot of friends, job… In part I’d have to take some responsibility for that. At that time I could see nothing worse than being a fag. Because that is what a lifetime of homophobia taught me.
I have known gay kids that were trying to compete in surfing and couldn’t handle the pressure of hiding. I’ve known some that were called names and ostracized when they tried to be open.
I’m glad you were not uncomfortable with gay neighbors while living in Hollywood. For my part I’ve always lived at the beach. I don’t go to gay bars or live what could be called a gay lifestyle. I’m a surfer.
My Experience in the surf community here in LA has been a lot more open and tolerant of people who surf different styles or are into other dudes. I am an OUT GAY SURFER who surfs all over SOCAL Malibu to San Diego.
Here in Venice at home when i paddle out I am more likely to hear “hey girl” from the locals rather then get out of here faggot! Which is nice, but I had to earn their respect and sometimes fight for it. Don’t snake this queen or you will catch fire!
That said I have made an effort to reach out to local Pro’s and Non Pro’s (Mollusk Surf Shop, Brothers Marshall give mad love and support to me.) At the end of the day we share one love and that is surfing,music & art. Pushing the many shades of surfing forward, not the cliches’ of the modern surf industry.
People could really give a fuck who i go home too, they just like the fact that I am comfortable enough with my skill as a surfer and a gay dude who is fun to hang out with. I also DJ quite a bit locally at house parties, openings. underground disco’s here in Venice. So I have been able to mix into both worlds and I find the more comfortable you are in your own skin people are in theirs..
I am very grateful for this site and my home community here in Venice that loves and accepts me for who and what I am all about.
I wish this to be the case for ALL of us someday soon. .
Let’s push things forward!
Fun area Venice. I spent four years surfing at university in Malibu love that place. The original gay surfer is from there da’cat. You won’t find many places as open and accepting as your area.
Ill have to come your way one of these days..
I want to let everyone know what I’m up to. I would like to get together a contingency of Gay and Lesbian Surfers to march and represent GaySurfers.net at the 2013 Gay Pride parade in San Diego July 13th at 11:00 am. if you’re in the San Diego area in July and are interested in participating please get in touch with me. Thanks everyone. cheers
or you can call my cell at 626-533-0019
Even though I came across this article long after it was written, your words resonate and ring loudly in my soul. I was witness to the homophobic crap directed toward you by those in the surf industry in the late 80’s and 90’s. I’m guessing as I write this today it still exists in a big way. I actually had an interesting perspective on your story because you and I were what I consider REALLY good friends and I didn’t know(for a long time had no clue) you were gay. At some point in my life I realized how clueless(selfish and an idiot at times) I really was when I was younger. Over a 7-year stretch (88-95) we probably surfed – guessing over 300-400 sessions together. We traveled many miles, camped in Baja countless days, worked together(you were kind enough to let me screw up your beautiful roofing work), and my single greatest day of barrel riding was with you right in front of your house. We then went into Rosarito for celebration tacos and beer and got smashed.
As for your surfing ability, to say you were a top level surfer is a massive understatement. You straight-up ripped beyond comprehension – It was a show every time you hit the water and I had a front row seat and was stoked! The more rocks and the sketchier the break, the more aggressive and intense you surfed. I left off the word “Pro” in my description because I saw firsthand the discrimination against you and I know how you were blackballed out of being a so-called pro – Except at the time I denied it was real I told myself that you were just aloof and didn’t want to be on the tour because you were a true “Soul Surfer”and didn’t want to grovel in shitty contest waves….. I understand today that is crap and I’m sorry for not speaking up or at least coming to you.
I never told you these stories, but will now because it’s relevant to the homophobia that existed in surfing. As you know I worked at a well-known surf company and when the higher-ups(people well known in the industry) heard that you and I were friends they started talking shit about you in the most homophobic manner. They bragged and told me how you were ostracized from your sponsored team(I won’t name the team) and overall they were just disgustingly horrible humans. Yes, it angered me and made me uncomfortable, but it also really confused me. I didn’t really know what to think or do because you and I were close friends and I had no idea. So I cowardly decided to just keep my mouth shut and not ask you because if you were gay – you’d tell me if you wanted, and if you weren’t gay…..Either way, I’d feel like an ass for asking. I didn’t work there for much longer and you and I remained friends long after.
I don’t know why we lost contact, but it’s something I’ve regretted for decades…. Now, to see you speaking out as an advocate for gay rights is wonderful. I hope over the years since this article and documentary were published it has helped push the conversation toward acceptance for everyone. You’re a good man and I hope you’re doing well.
If you ever want to catch up, drop me a note and I’d love to – Who knows maybe we could even catch a surf.
My best to you my old friend,