TURNING THE TIDE
SURFERS HAVE always followed their own rules; their culture has a hippy vibe built on a relaxed lifestyle that rejects convention. Why, then, is the surfing profession more homophobic than the AFL, golf or even rugby? “It’s really behind the times compared with other sports,” says Australian Ian Thomson, whose documentary on gay surfers, Out in the Lineup, is part of the FEAST film festival program. “That comes as a surprise to many people because they think of surfing as this hippy counterculture, free-loving, free-thinking, free-living culture and sport.”
There are gay surfers who were happy to be interviewed in Thomson’s film, but the only professional surfers who feature have already retired.
“There are no gay male professional surfers,” he says. “I interview (WA surfer) Matt Branson who was a professional surfer in the ’90s and he had to leave the pro tour to come out. That secret could have destroyed him, his career and the two companies that were sponsoring him.”
The growth of a cohesive gay surfing movement began recently when a French surfer who moved to Australia, Thomas Castets, set up a website GaySurfers.net.
It turned out he wasn’t the only gay surfer in the world and those who contacted him had a similar story; they feared being outed and ostracised. Many felt stranded between gay culture and surf culture.
Thomson says the anti-gay ethos is clear from the banter in the surf anywhere and is strongest around regional communities.
“The pecking order in surfing is such that to put others down you describe them as being ‘a poofter’ or ‘a fag’, sometimes quite aggressively,” says Thomson. “It’s interesting because (former Australian champion) Barton Lynch describes it as not even being aware they were putting people down.”
Thomson says the prevailing mood is “don’t ask; don’t tell”. The stories from the 1980s and ’90s of gay surfers being bashed have gone, but in their place is denial rather than acceptance.
Unlike sports such as football or tennis, surfers don’t earn much from their athletic performance; the money is in the sponsorship deals they attract, which means fitting into some sort of marketable ideal of what a surfer should be. And for men or women, that doesn’t include being gay.
Thomson, who lived in Europe for almost 20 years, says he approached the professional surfing body, the ASP, about introducing an anti-homophobic clause into its professional codes, much as the Australian Football codes are looking at doing. It wasn’t even on their agenda.
“Surfing is behind the times,” says Thomson. “Much as they like to think of themselves as at the forefront of counterculture, they’re actually very mainstream.”
Former Adelaide surfer Milly Hyde, pictured above, who now lives in Wollongong, appears in the documentary talking about growing up in the Barossa where her father was a doctor.
“I was too scared to come out because I was from such a conservative family,” Hyde says. “I didn’t know anyone who was gay. My dad used to talk about poofter bashing...”
Hyde says there was anonymity in the water, where everyone looked the same, but the culture badly needed to change. “The film has a really nice intimacy and asks some important questions of the surf industry,” she says. “It’s interesting, there’s been other sports where people have come out, like rugby, and it’s yet to happen with surfing. I think this film is going to push it around a bit.”
Thomson says he made the documentary partly to raise awareness but also to support young gay surfers who might feel like Ben Roper, a flight attendant and member of the Bra Boys surfing community who took his own life last year.
“Ben Roper’s mother said, if it can stop one young gay surfer feeling that there was no other option than to choose that path then we’re successful with this film,” he says. “But we’re also trying to start some awareness and dialogue with the surfing community.” Out in the Lineup screens tomorrow at 7pm at the Mercury Cinema, followed by a Q&A session with Ian Thomson. The Feast Film Festival program runs until July 6. feast.org.au