A new documentary suggests that’s just not good enough for surfers anymore.

A film review by Nick Carroll

A few months ago a friend of mine was surfing Lower Trestles in California, when an argument blew up over a wave.

It happens at places like Lowers every day: angry older male surfers challenging each other for space, like walruses on some forgotten frozen shore. “Aussie faggot!” the offended party bellowed at my friend. “Fag! Don’t take my wave!” And so forth.

My friend isn’t really super open to being abused, and swiftly convinced the other party that perhaps this wasn’t the right approach.

As the spray settled and everyone went back to surfing, my friend noticed a kid off to the side looking very shaken. “Are you OK?” he asked

The kid’s face changed from shaken to sad. “I hear those words and it just freaks me out,” he said. “You see, I think I’m gay.”

It’s the sort of scene that haunts the background of Out In The Line-up, a surprisingly gentle documentary about gay surfers and their struggles with identity in the surf culture.

Made by producer Thomas Castets and director Ian D. Thomson, the doco follows in part Thomas’s mission to find other gay surfers in a global surf community that more or less denies their existence.

I say “surprisingly gentle” because the sort of violent language my friend encountered at Lowers has been par for the course at most surf spots around the world for generations, forcing gay people involved in surfing to hide in plain sight. Don’t ask, don’t tell, as it were.

One of these people is David Wakefield, an excellent surfer who has a NSW State Title to his name. Dave has grown up right in the midst of Aussie surf culture; he struggles to figure out how to square off his sexual feelings with the surf community that he’s always seen as home.

Thomas, a Frenchman who began surfing some time ago, comes across Dave after beginning a website – gaysurfers.net – in an attempt to get gay surfers together for surf trips.

For Dave, the contact begins a process that leads to him coming out at Sydney’s Gay Mardi Gras – interviewed live on camera, before he’s had a chance to talk with his Mum. Dave’s a lovely guy who copes with this the way he surfs: fluidly and a bit abruptly. Soon he’s sharing a caravan with a Latino gay surfing mate at Baja Malibu, northern Mexico, and happy as a clam.

It’s fascinating viewing as Thomas comes across some spectacular people through gaysurfers.net, including the razor-sharp Californian Cori Schumacher, a former world longboard champion who shows little intellectual mercy for sloppy thinking in the surfing culture. Cori led a tough-minded campaign last October to the doors of Roxy Surfwear in Huntington Beach, after Roxy aired an ill-considered ad for a women’s pro surf contest that verged on soft porn.

Thomas’s subjects seem empowered compared with earlier generations of gay surfers, many of whom were openly scorned. Top women surfers of the 1980s were dismissed as “dykes”, even as they won major championships.

The brilliant photographer John Witzig, who co-founded Tracks magazine and has since published his work from the 1960s and ‘70s to universal acclaim, kept his private life private, yet still had to stare down some vicious insults and barbs from a number of famous Australian surfers who didn’t take kindly to his sexual orientation.

They were more brutal days, yet a hard shell of homophobia still lines the exterior of surf culture, here and elsewhere. Out In The Line-up won the top award at the recent Byron Bay Surf Film Festival, yet few if any of the area’s renowned surfing population went to the showing.

At the same time, the shell is kind of fragile. At the first encounter with personal friendship, it falls apart instantly. Legendary super punk Australian surfer Matt Branson found this out when after years of agonising, he finally came out in an article for Stab surf magazine written by the journalist Fred Pawle. (Pawle is interviewed for this doco; Branson is not.)

The response from his hardcore surfing mates? Pretty much a universal “good on ya”. As Newcastle’s Matt Hoy says: “I told him, well I’ve known that for years! Ya poofta!”

Homosexual bigotry is also unacceptable now in surf corporations, if what happened to Quiksilver marketing executive Chad Wells is any guide. Confronted last year with Cori Schumacher’s protest, he Tweeted something about at least the girls are sexy now, “unlike the ’80s when they were all dykes”. Wells was sacked within days.

In other areas, Thomas’s attempts to penetrate the shell are rebuffed in perhaps unintentionally hilarious fashion. He contacts the Association of Surfing Professionals to interview someone – anyone! – and finally gets the organisation’s VP of media, Dave Prodan, on camera. Within days Dave has sent Thomas a note withdrawing permission to show the interview. Don’t worry, Thomas: nobody gets a quote from Dave without a struggle.

Fernando Aguerre, head of the International Surfing Association, which runs the amateur side of the sport, has no such qualms. Fernando tells Thomas’s camera his organisation is open to anyone who wants to “win with honour”.

If the ISA can open its doors, maybe the rest of us could think a bit more about what we yell at each other in the surf.

Written by Nick Carroll – Originally published by Sydney Northern Beaches Magazine.