Queer: German quer (traverse), Latin torquere (to twist), English athwart (across)
Homophobic jokes and insults are common in surfing. Out in the surf and at the beach I’ve heard heaps of crew use the words fag, poofter, homo and faggot to insult and abuse other crew. This attitude frames being gay or queer as deviant and negative, which they are not.
Young men learn early that, to be a tough Australian red-blooded male, you have to be straight. The fact that gay men can be tough as nails is ignored. To be “gay” is read – as the playground abuse still goes – as synonymous with being a nerd, female or bad at sport.
During my research with young blokes they tell me that the homophobic abuse, and negative images burden them with a lack of acceptance, discrimination, sadness, poor self-esteem, shame, and rejection. For gay surfers this is far worse than any violent localism.
Ironically, men who surf bond closely by doing things together – surfing, hanging out, going to surf movies, dancing at concerts, meeting at the footy, and having lunch and dinner. This scenario is common amongst the boys. After each activity we will inquire as to when we will meet up again. Text messages zoom back and forth if someone is out at the pub or the surf is good somewhere.
Dave Carnie, ex editor-in-chief of a US skateboard magazine, called close non-sexual relationships between two blokes a Bromance, blending the words bro(ther) and romance. The New York Times described a bromance as a relationship where a man does things with another man he would ordinarily do with a woman he liked.
I am skeptical about the whole bromance thing, though. Isn’t this just a new term for mateship? Mates have always hung out together. The bromance idea smells a lot like marketing spin. Does watching a sunrise over the waves together count as bromance or mateship? What about sleeping in the same van on a trip up the coast?
Group sex involving one girl and several mates is not uncommon. Does that mean you have scored in bromance terms?
It seems like any differences between bromance and mateship is pretty arbitrary.
The young men spoke to me about how male-only bonding often involves homophobic jokes and references which work to distance any homoerotic reading of the relationship.
Male-to-male relationships are also often routed through triangular desire involving a woman. Films use the technique of bonding through a woman to underscore the mateship stories as straight, and not gay.
Think about the relationship between Keanu Reeves (Johnny Utah, an ex pro-footballer now turned FBI agent) and Patrick Swayze (Bodhi, a heroic surfer) in that Hollywood film Point Break.
Utah and Bodhi go to the edge of death together – skydiving, surfing giant waves, and robbing banks. Utah finds himself increasingly attracted to the adrenaline-charged lifestyle of Bodhi.
To ensure the audience don’t begin to think Utah is becoming attracted to Bodhi himself a woman is thrown into the mix, who Utah has to save from Bodhi.
In the grand scheme of things the woman doesn’t really matter to the storyline. It’s the intimate relationship between Bodhi and Johnny Utah that keeps the film ticking over.
This tactic of using women as something to bond through, reinforce heterosexuality and distance any homoerotic reading is not just a tactic used in Hollywood films.
The run of the mill surf movie and surf magazine includes shots of young women barely dressed. The images of women with a come-get-me look are interspersed between images of action men all ripped, flexing, glistening wet and bonding.
When hanging out with the boys talk about women comes up often: who shagged whom, how and where. Or we talk about surfing, sport, surfing, cars, surfing, work, surfing, politics, or surfing.
What this way of talking with a “crutch” does in male-only groups, and during male-only events, is interrupt homoerotic interpretations of what’s happening when we hang out and talk shit.
To just want to spend time with your mate and talk about personal issues is ridiculed as a bit, well, “gay.”
You are allowed to be with the boys but not to want the boys.
The policing of male-to-male social bonding and mateship in surfing is common, and is due to an ever-present undercurrent of homophobia.
The fact is, though, the idea of calling someone gay, bi, straight or otherwise is relatively new. Defining people according to their sexual choices and partners has only existed since the nineteenth century. Prior to this there were no ‘homosexuals’ or ‘heterosexuals’, but rather sexual acts that were approved of or disapproved of. Saying you were ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ wouldn’t have made sense.
With the rise of biology, anatomy, medical science, and psychiatry in the modern era sex and whom you liked to have sex with became an object of study. “Experts” like doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists wanted to manage people’s sex and sexuality, and in turn what people could and could not do with their bodies.
Some of these experts begin with the assumption that “normal” sexuality is straight, and everything else – like being gay – is “deviant” or a “fetish.” People are then studied and categorized or boxed according to a type of sexuality.
It works out far easier to classify and control people according to whom they prefer to have sex with than what they like to do and how they do it. The actual practices of having sex are too messy and change up too often.
Due to homophobia there are few openly gay surfers.
When ex pro-surfer Matt Branson came out his mates freaked out. It took more guts for Branno to tell his mates and the broader surfing community he was gay than to push himself over the edge on a ledging 10-footer.
There aren’t many positive images of gay male surfers like Branno, but that is all beginning to change.
In an echo of director Ang Lee’s gay western movie Brokeback Mountain, English director Ed Aldridge has made a gay surfing film called Tanlines. The film is about a gay relationship between two surfers in Australia. The reaction to the film in the surfing press and community was very defensive, rubbishing the film before it was even made. Crew told Aldridge to piss off with his “homo” take on surfing, and the actors and director were even said to be worthy of being bashed.
Another film was released in March 2008 called Shelter. Shelter also deals with the conflict and confusion some surfers experience when trying to fit into surfing communities and still pursue their attraction for blokes. The film follows the lives of two Californian surfers who fall for each other after sharing waves, hanging out, and bonding.
Positive images of blokes like Branno and shown in Tanlines and Shelter, are important. They show us that gay blokes surf, even though there continues to be intimidation and denial.
I find the homophobic side of surfing disheartening and continuing unabated. Yet those who are privileged and fit the mold of the traditional straight Aussie male stay silent far too much, myself included. This silence can too easily equate to complicity with the homophobic violence, ostracism, and abuse.
It’s about time we begin to speak loudly and clearly and join the chorus of voices who have been telling us for a long time these attitudes have no place in our community anymore.
This article was originally published on June 23, 2010 on Swellnet.com.au. Check out Clifton Evers’ latest book, Notes for a Young Surfer.