A NEW KIND OF SURF CULTURE: Inclusivity, Activism and Intersectionality
At WMNSurfMag, we believe in telling a more complete story about surfing. Our aim has always been to emphasize the female side of the sport, not only because female athletes are generally underrepresented, but also because, when they do get the spotlight, they are “seldom very clothed, often objectified, sometimes even when it came to some of the greatest female surfers of all time,” wrote Todd Prodanovich for SURFER.
Reimagining the surfing world as more inclusive, however, cannot begin and end by representing its female athletes in a new light.
"People are often disadvantaged by multiple sources of oppression" — yw Boston
While the NBA has made strides to speak up about the #BLM movement this year, and MLS has outspokenly supported athletes of all backgrounds, via partnerships with the You Can Play Project, Athlete Ally initiatives, as well as their “Soccer For All” campaign — the surfing world has exhibited less willingness to do the same.
At the Tweed Coast Pro event this September, for example, Tyler Wright, a two-time world champion surfer who came out as gay last May, knelt with her fist raised for 439 seconds, “one second each to honor the 439 First Nations persons in Australia who have lost their lives in police custody since 1991,” according to USA Today Sports.
Shortly after, WSL posted on Instagram to show support for Wright. One of the most liked comments on that WSL post read, “Oh cool. Now I have to stop watching surfing too. BLM is a Marxist organization and it’s built on a lie.”
It’s clear that most surfers don’t want to talk about racism, sexism or homophobia.
“The lack of queer representation ... has allowed homophobia to go unchallenged, resulting in a surf space that doesn’t look particularly welcoming for queer youth.” — Todd Prodonovich
The Problem of Homophobia
In a recent feature article in SURFER's final print edition, “How LGBTQ+ Surfers Are Creating a More Inclusive Surf Culture,” Prodanovich sought to tackle the complex and intertwined issues of racism, homophobia and toxic masculinity in the surfing world.
“When it comes down to it, masculinity in surfing is extremely fragile," Stephen Milner, a San Diego-based surfer and artist, told Prodanovich. "Once you start poking at it, it just comes apart."
Alongside other visual art projects, Milner displays provocative pieces near hallowed surf spots, such as First Point in Malibu, California, which Prodanovich wrote are often torn down in a moral panic and outrage.
Milner discussed how hard it is, as a surfer and artist, to live under such an imposing heterosexual ideal.
“As a gay teenager in a small town, it was very hard growing up,” Milner said. “I knew I was gay, but I still had a girlfriend and I was playing sports and stuff like that, just finding ways to come across as more masculine.”
Prodanovich argued that today’s surf culture has made strides in better representing and including women and people of color, but it still has a long way to go in including all people of all backgrounds — especially the LGBTQ+ community.
“It’s a real issue,” Milner said. “You can see that through … closeted pro surfers [who] felt like they had to leave the Tour before they could come out, for fear of losing all their sponsors and having this big fallout.”
“They just don’t want to know about it, and they don’t want to talk about it” — Ian Thomson
Prodanovich also sat down with three-time Women’s World Longboard Champion, Cori Schumacher.
After an explosive introduction to the surfing world in 1995, she quickly rose to competitive prowess, which lasted well into the 21st century. In 2010, she became the first openly gay world surfing champion.
However, Schumacher found the surfing world to be an incredibly homophobic environment, as soon as she came out. In 2011, she boycotted the ASP World Tour and stopped competing altogether.
“I was silenced, erased,” Schumacher published on Facebook in 2018. “In our support of LGBTQ athletes, we need to be aware that there was (and still is) an effort to silence and make invisible LGBTQ folks from the past and women who have fought to make change across history. We need to do a better job at remembering our history, especially women’s surf history.”
The Problem of Side-Stepping
In 2014, while Ian Thomson was working on the surfing documentary, “Out in the Lineup,” Surfing Australia and the Association of Surfing Professionals refused to be interviewed for the documentary.
“That’s when we realised it was a real taboo,” Thomson told The Guardian. “They just don’t want to know about it, and they don’t want to talk about it.”
Thomas Castets, one of the surfers featured in the documentary, explained that the ideal of the tanned, blond, ripped and heterosexual nomad most of us imagine when we think about surfers is still alive and well.
“Surfing is still locked in its old stereotypes from the 60s,” Castets said. “There’s not much room for the individual in surfing.”
To make things even more complicated, this “old stereotype” does not merely perpetuate toxic masculinity and homophobia — it is also deeply interconnected to issues of racism, ableism and sexism.
The Reality of Intersectionality
Law professor and social theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw first coined the term “Intersectionality” to account for this overlapping nature of oppression.
Crenshaw argues that identity markers do not exist independently of each other. Each marker informs the others, often creating a complex convergence of oppression.
“People are often disadvantaged by multiple sources of oppression: their race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion and other identity markers,” according to yw Boston.
"I want to see more people feeling comfortable coming out in surfing. You may think there’s no place for different people in surfing, but you’re wrong” — Stephen Milner
Because of this, to talk about “Surfeminism” alone, as Krista Comer has termed it, would be to neglect the ways issues of race, class, sexuality and ableism are interconnected.
For WMNSurfMag to believe and advocate that Surfing is for Everyone, we must confront all the social and cultural problems inherent to our sport — we must acknowledge their complex reality and address them as such.
It is not just “difficult,” as a woman and/or person of color, to paddle out into a crowded, white and male-dominated lineup;
Nor is it simply “complicated” to consider coming out as a pro-surfer, when that might mean risking the viability of your career.
It is not just “hard” to get into surfing, if you can’t afford to buy high-end gear or pay for professional lessons;
Nor is it merely “discouraging” to attempt to break into competitive surfing as an individual with a disability.
All of these instances of inaccessibility come together, such that “the synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives,” wrote The Combahee River Collective in their liminal work, “How We Get Free.”
Crenshaw expanded on the Collective’s idea about syntheses of oppression, stating that to understand the oppression of black women, it is necessary to look at the intersection of blackness and womanhood — not just one or the other.
A New Way of Thinking
Likewise, for us to understand the oppression of the LGBTQ+ community within the broader surfing world, we must also seek to understand how that particular oppression intersects with sexism, racism, classism, ableism, etc.
“Do not shy away from recognizing that people experience the world differently based on their overlapping identity markers” — yw Boston
The trouble is that an issue’s inherent complexity often discourages many young activists from engaging with it. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by social and cultural issues, like homophobia.
Not to mention, intersectionality is a complex, intricate and entangled idea that can often feel insurmountable.
“Nobody knows what intersectionality means,” writes Eleanor Robertson for The Guardian. “I certainly don’t, and the more I read about it the more confused I become.”
It can also be difficult to reimagine how the sport might operate, when it has been that way for so long.
Territorialism, “priority,” the ever-illusive “male gaze,” as well as the homogeneous, affluent, socially-conservative coastal enclaves where most surf spots exist combine to make the surfing world incredibly hard to break into.
The sticky problem about tradition, as well, is that we often associate ideas about “how it’s always been” with “how it should always be.”
Not Just Dreaming but Doing
There is a lot of work to do. About that, there is no question. Reimagining surf culture will require diverse, multifaceted and dedicated efforts on numerous fronts.
What we, as a magazine, can do is tell a new kind of story about a new kind of surf culture. But progress only happens when (1) we work together to tell a new kind of story, and then (2) get into the water and live it.
In many ways, it will be up to you to imagine how that might look.
So cheer on young groms, however they identify. Invite friends out who might be too intimidated to try on their own. Lend people your extra boards. Share priority when lineups get crowded. Be mindful about how your decisions — and indecisions — might affect others. Be kind. And, of course, have fun.
We can only do this if we do it together.
SURFING IS FOR EVERYONE