clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Gay surfer talks about the new surfing doc film, 'Out in the Line-Up'

New, comment
David Wakefield ready to hit the surf
David Wakefield ready to hit the surf
Out in the Line-Up

OUT in the line-up: a film about homosexuality in surfing Three Australian filmmakers have made a groundbreaking documentary exposing the taboo of homosexuality in surfing. They are running a Kickstarter campaign until December 13 to raise funds needed to release the film. Wakefield is one of the film's protagonists.

I fell in love with surfing at age 5. The beach, ocean and surf have been at my core ever since. Without them I'm not me, and so my life is and has been very much built on this passion.

I also knew from an early age that I was gay.

I'm an Aussie. In 1992, I won my first surfing contest and went on to become a state champion. But even as a teenager beginning to compete in surfing contests and advertising my sponsor's products, I knew being gay was not an acceptable option for those active in the sport. Surfers were simply not gay! I felt pressured to conform and so I kept the fact that I was gay a secret for the next 20 years.

Surf culture is both strange and complex. It's very different from many other sports. Unwritten rules of surf break ‘ownership,' pecking order, what an individual's personal image should be as a surfer, level of talent and how this affects what waves that surfer can catch ... the list goes on and the rules can change from one beach to another, one country to another.

You don't hear about gay people in this sport. There's never been an openly gay male professional surfer at the elite level. In fact, surfers and surfing as a culture are unrecognizing or unpredictable in their response to gay people. The past has seen very real and negative consequences for those who are gay including loss of sponsorship and publicity to those professional surfers who seemed on the verge of coming out. Many openly gay surfers have witnessed ‘poofter bashing' in the surfing community, some have been bullied in the line-up, others have been rejected by family and friends.

In the most tragic of instances, some have even taken their own lives as a result of non-acceptance.

Recently I asked an academic, non-surfer friend what comes to mind when he thinks of surfers. His response was interesting.

‘Beautiful, tanned, athletic bodies, masculine and feminine, riding waves using ballet-like movements combined with raw muscled power. Laid back attitudes, huge big smiles, at ease in nature and the ocean which seems to feed their creativity and souls.' He went on to say, ‘But then, there's that tough guy surfer image where surfers claim to own the beach they surf at and have a gang-like mentality that is unpredictable and these surfers are pretty scary to the average person.'

There's truth in this observation. Surf culture's foundation is born of a freedom of spirit, open-mindedness and connection to nature. However, there's also a dominance of male rituals in surf culture that marginalizes minorities and the pivotal role sponsors and media play in maintaining outdated stereotypes through professional surfing.

Surfing has given me a lot. I have been fortunate to maintain my sponsors without the need to compete much, I've surfed and filmed and traveled and made a whole heap of great friends and all this has been done while closeted. I hoped and I think knew deep down that one day this would change, at least for me and I would come out. I just wasn't sure when my courage and the opportunity would come together and feel right, be authentic and true to all that makes me who I am.

In February, 2011, a fateful web search led me to meeting a French surfer who was living in Australia, Thomas Castets. He'd just founded a site called Gaysurfers.net. In its infancy, the site's aim was to create a place of community and support for surfers who were gay. This blew my mind and I immediately contacted Thomas and we arranged to meet at my place at Byron Bay, Australia.

For a few weeks we surfed and worked on the site, establishing its aims and objectives in order to provide a safe community for members and supporters and create surf events for surfers who were gay to meet and surf together.

This friendship has resulted in many firsts for the surfing world. In March, 2011, with a growing number of more than 3000 members, about 26 gay surfers from the site marched at the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Deciding to tell someone you're gay is a very powerful experience. Here I was, about to tell and share with a crowd of 300,000 ecstatic, celebrating and supportive strangers my most private and personally puzzling information; I'm a surfer who happens to also be gay. The atmosphere and energy around me made feel comfortable enough for this process to be both safe and easy.

As I joined the other surfers I would be marching with there were two issues at hand: our personal recognition by the public that we are gay, and that we are part of a global group of surfers marching for the first time to represent the diversity which exists in both surfing and the gay world. I was marching near the front of our group when I was suddenly met, picked out and interviewed by host and gay icon Pam Ann, in front of a TV camera and beamed to millions of TV viewers around the world. How amazing!

The next morning my photo was published on the Sydney Morning-Herald's Web site. I was now 'out!' Really out! Surfing publications from around the world picked up the story and social media did its thing to attract a whole range of comments from the encouraging to the obscene.

Surfers who were openly gay had finally hit the headlines.

Earlier this year, Thomas and I decided to embark on a global journey to find an answer to the question, Why was homosexuality so invisible in surfing, even taboo? Quitting my job and packing up my house, we set off to find some answers and hear of other surfer's experiences. The result is a documentary called OUT in the Line-up, which follows us on our journey from the east coast of Australia to Hawaii, California, Mexico and the Galapagos Islands.

Along the road we meet a variety of characters and talked with lots of surfers. We hear from openly gay former professionals including three-time world champion Cori Schumacher, big wave rider Keala Kennelly and once top-five US professional surfer Robbins Thompson. We also speak to everyday gay surfers and the younger generation about being gay in the line-up.

We also seek out the expert opinions of former US Congressman Barney Frank and his surfer husband Jim Ready, openly gay Australian surf icon Nell Schofield, controversial surf journalist Fred Pawle, author-academic Clifton Evers and many others.

Surfing though beautiful is unpredictable. The same can be said of its culture. It can be both warm and nurturing but also confronting and unforgiving. Why is it so important that we talk about the issue of homosexuality and surfing? It's really simple: We need to be able to be who we are. When that guy in the surf asks you, Do you live around here with your girlfriend? You want to be able to reply that actually, you live here with your boyfriend and to be able to do so without negative judgement or worse being beaten up or harassed.

Beyond exposing this taboo issue, trying to answer important questions and shining some light, this film seeks to affect change. It aims to confront the surf industry and the wider surfing community, creating awareness, provoking discussion and challenging stereotypes. Hopefully "OUT in the line-up" will help to pave the way for a younger generation of surfers, help to open up a culture so they can be open about who they are, to be themselves all the time, to connect with each other and to find a safe and supported place in professional surfing if that's their dream.

The documentary OUT in the line-up is almost finished. The team are trying to raise $60,000 before December 13th to help cover the cost of releasing the film. To find out more information and help bring the story of gay surfers to the big screen, click here.

Oitlu-signature_medium