Words by Craig Butler, 7x Irish national champion
I’m at a place in my life right now that would have made me panic just a couple of years ago. Shit, if someone even mentioned the word “gay’’ around me, I would go red in the face and start to sweat. I don’t know how I got here, but I’m very happy that I did.
So I want to tell you something. Something that’s a little part of me. Something that you might not agree with and might make you think “what does this even have to do with surfing?” The truth is, it probably has nothing to do with surfing. But I do know my teenage years would have been a lot easier if I could read about a pro surfer who also battled the same demons I struggled with. That alone might have softened the blow. Maybe if I’d been able to see just how gay people are accepted in the surf community, I wouldn’t have grown up to be the nervous wreck that I am today. I know these things would have made a huge difference to me as a kid, and I believe it can make a difference to the thousands out there today facing the same inner struggles.
Growing up surfing in Ireland couldn’t be any further away from the palm trees of Venice Beach or trunking it in Indo. Ireland is cold, dark, and it brings new meaning to the saying “freezing your nuts off.” We have a real tight knit community here. Everyone knows everyone and the surf scene is very much woolly jumpers, knitted hats and cups of tea. There is no localism in the water; the worst that’s going to happen is you’ll be dropped in on. Then that same guy that drops in on you will more than likely paddle back and apologise. All of which is to say there is a lot of respect for one another in these waters. Visiting surfers are usually welcomed with open arms and instantly accepted into the family. All of these things are really cool to see.
Growing up, I never accepted myself as being gay. I wanted to be the best but I thought that people would just end up hating me if they ever found out –- especially here in Ireland where everyone is so tight. I battled thoughts of suicide, telling myself I would have to kill myself if anybody ever found out I was gay. I remember a couple of instances some people nearly found out and I thought to myself “well this is the end of me, there’s no room for gay surfers.” I would Google search gay professional surfers but never found any. Sure, there was the odd gay sportsman here and there, but never a surfer -– never anything or anyone that I could relate to. That only added to my feelings of loneliness and the belief that I was the only person going through this. Feeling like the only person on earth sucked. No matter how many contests I won or how many days of good waves that I got, nothing changed this feeling. I just wanted to be liked for being me, but I could never imagine my life where people would know that I’m gay and accept me.
I have a very loving accepting mother who owns the local surf shop, but I could only imagine her disappointment when finding out her son was a “fag.” I went to numerous therapists as a kid and was even too scared to tell any of them about the secret I was hiding.
So what changed?
Things instantly felt better when I finished school. I didn’t have to act like the tough guy just to hide behind the truth. That alone made people associate with me more. Then I was offered a part in the documentary OUT in the Lineup, something I assumed in absolutely no way would I be part of. But after thinking it over for a couple of months I realized if I was going to come out, there was probably no better way to do it. Foolishly, I thought it would never be screened in Ireland so I would’t have to worry about anyone I know seeing it.
I was traveling through New Zealand with a bunch of childhood friends when the film was shown at a festival back home in Ireland. I panicked. I was surprised, though, when I started getting emails and messages from people I’d looked up to. There were messages from surfers in Ireland, congratulating me and reassuring me that it wasn’t a big deal. I came out to my friends that I was traveling with, and they too could not have been happier for me. The final step was just to bite the bullet and come out publicly to everyone that I knew, so I posted it on my Facebook. I was doing something that I could never imagine: I was finally out. To my absolute shock, nobody cared about my sexuality (in the negative way I had feared, that is). They supported me and showed me love. Sure, it might have been a big deal for me, but I learned it wasn’t a big deal for anyone else because it didn’t impact their life. The day that I came out healed a lot of scars from the years I spent alone, hating myself for who I love. My mother wasn’t disappointed with me, her surf shop didn’t fail because of my sexuality, and she couldn’t have been happier for me.
I think that the presence of the LGBTQ community in surfing is something that should be acknowledged more. You don’t need to paint a rainbow on your board, but at least keep some negative opinions to yourself. As a teen, I remember coming across a thread about homosexuality in surfing online. I remember reading the homophobic comments on it and I remember just feeling sick and thinking to myself “wow, this is what my life is going to be like.”
So now I’m currently working to qualify for the World Longboard Tour. I want to be the first openly gay surfer on the World Tour. This dream has nothing to do with my sexuality, it’s something that I’ve wanted for years. I have a big love for competition. I won my first national title at the age of 13. I have won six more since then. I am the current national champion and plan to reclaim that title for 2016. I recently turned pro after picking up sponsorship from O’Neill. So today, after all this, I want to be a voice for everyone in our sport that suffers in silence. I want people to know they don’t have to go through it alone and that there are plenty of surfers struggling with the same problems. I know if I’d come across this same essay when I was a grom, it would have given me comfort. I know having a gay role model in surfing could be a big support for a lot of people. So I’m here to say I want to be that role model. I want to be that person because I know how shitty it is to grow up as a gay surfer and think there’s no one to look up to, nobody sitting in the same boat as you, nobody who went through the same turmoil.