By Dennis Hensley
Originally published on Advocate.com February 25 2008 12:00 AM ET
Though no openly gay male surfers compete on the professional tour, several out lesbians do, including former world champion Lynne Boyer. Gay gals who surf are also the focus of the Logo reality show Curl Girls. All of which makes one wonder, Is there such a thing as a "curl guy," and if so, where is he? "I know they’re in the water," says L.A.-based Curl Girls star Michelle Fleury. "I look for them, but I haven’t spotted or spoken with anyone admitting to being gay."
Maybe they're in San Francisco, a gay mecca where the surfing scene has exploded over the last decade. "If there was going to be a place where there would be openly gay surfers, this would be it," says Matt Warshaw, the San Francisco–based author of The Encyclopedia of Surfing, "but you just don't see it." Warshaw is straight, but he's been writing about demographic trends in surfing for years and the ongoing invisibility of gay men confounds him. "I’m baffled as to whether it’s a sport that has happily or unhappily closeted surfers," he admits, "or if it's so staunchly hetero that it's like a force-field to keep gays out."
If the latter is true, it's for good reason. Despite its easygoing, enlightened vibe, surfing has a long history of homophobia. When a 1988 magazine article implied that Aussie surf star Cheyne Horan was gay, he lost endorsement deals and friends. A decade later, former top-5 pro Robbins Thompson left the sport in disgust after his sexuality became known and he started hearing taunts in the water and having the word "fag" painted on his car. In 1996, teen surfer Shane Dorian listed "dykes and fags" along with "diseases, the Devil, and flat spells" as things he'd like to rid the world of in Surfer magazine. And just last year, when a statue of a surfer went up in Cardiff near San Diego, surfers criticized it for not looking butch enough and dubbed it "Fairy Mary." So what's the deal?
"The gay guys I know who surf tend to try and keep their sexuality and their surfing separate," says Leslie Smith, a part-time surf enthusiast who works for a nonprofit organization in Manhattan. "They’re not closeted, but they’re not going to necessarily wear freedom rings on the beach." Smith adds that he has encountered homophobia on the beach, but like most surf-related altercations, it was all about turf. "I pulled up to this little cove in Hawaii a couple years ago," he recalls, "and a couple of a guys came over like, 'What are you doing here? Locals only.' They started calling me gay and making effeminate gestures and it became clear that I was going to leave or I was going to get beaten."
When L.A.-based entrepreneur Eric Mueller started surfing in the late 1990s, he found a far more welcoming scene. "I hung out with this straight guy who had a girlfriend, yet he'd always be like, 'I really want to make out with you,'" says Mueller, laughing at the memory. "He was the epitome of the surfer types I would meet, just very laid-back guys who didn’t subscribe to all the rules of society, including the ones that say guys aren’t supposed to make out with other guys."
New York theater producer Rob Ahrens's experience is somewhere between the two. "When I started in '98, a friend and I used to joke that we were the only two gay surfers in the world," recalls Ahrens, who actually came up with the life-changing idea to turn Xanadu into a Broadway musical while on a surfing trip to El Salvador in 2001. "Now, it seems like the sport is broadening. When I go out and it comes up, it’s pretty much a nonissue."
If there's hope for an out and proud future for gay men in surfing, it's personified by Dan Abrams, a financial analyst in Los Angeles who started a Yahoo group for gay surfers several years back that has since grown into a gang of around 20 or so gay and gay-friendly surfers. "It became like this really cool little family," says Abrams, an Army veteran and former USC rugby player, "and we've never experienced any homophobia in the water whatsoever. We openly talk about guys in the water and I’ve never really gotten anything more than just a surprised second look."
Abrams would love it if his group helped inspire other gay men to hop on board. "Sometimes, I think we worry so much about homophobia that it keeps us from doing things that we're interested in," says Abrams. "Maybe if people knew there were other (gay) people doing this, it might give them hope or a network of people to go do this with." Would he work with a beginner, like say a journalist who may be a little on the Fairy Mary side? "We give free surf lessons to anyone who's interested," he promises. "I can honestly say that surfing has changed my life. When you catch that wave, it’s like riding a roller coaster, only you’re the track and you’re the car and it’s all you."
And, let's face it; it's pretty sexy too. "When I’m out at a bar and someone’s like, 'What are your hobbies?' and I say surfing, their eyes perk up," says Abrams. "I have a surfboard in my apartment," adds Ahrens, "and I said to a friend who’s very stylish, 'I should probably get that out of here. It doesn’t look proper,' and he said, 'Oh, no no no, keep it there. That’s going to get you laid.'"