Where Are All the Gay Athletes? Does Action Sports Have an Issue With Homophobia?
In the week that Olympic medallist Gus Kenworthy came out, we examine the scene's shameful secret...
Last week, American skier Gus Kenworthy announced to the world that he was gay. The revelation about the five-time free ski champion made the front cover of the US version of ESPN Magazine. As the magazine hit news stands, the 24 year old skier took to social media to tell the world himself. He tweeted just three words: “I am gay.".
But why? Why is this news? In 2015, should an action sports athlete coming out still make the front cover of a major magazine? And more importantly, in his interview with ESPN, why did Kenworthy say “They say [action sports is] a community of individuals and everyone is doing their own thing and it's not a team sport, so you get to be yourself. But you don't really."
To call this a statistic is a stretch; but a socially agreed best-guess suggests that somewhere between one in four and one in ten people are gay. Yet the world of action sports seems at odds with this.
There are very few openly gay pro surfers, snowboarders or skaters, and words like "gay" and "fag" are frequently used as derogatory terms. So do we as a community have a problem with homosexuality? Are action sports homophobic?
It’s a strange question to ask. The fact that it is being asked at all is somewhat jarring and uncomfortable. Generally speaking, as action sports participants and enthusiasts – whether we skate, surf, ski or snowboard - we hold ourselves to a higher standards of tolerance than people that associate with other sports.
Hell, we barely recognise what we do as a sport. We talk about lifestyles. Sometimes even religions. Whatever it is, it’s an environment where everybody gets along. Bromance is king. Action sports are all about including people, not excluding them. They're about expression and creativity. They're all about being progressive. Or at least, that’s what we tell ourselves.
But seemingly to many participants, tolerance only goes so far. In fact, to paraphrase sickly looking hip-pop urchin Macklemore; if I was gay, I’d think action sports hate me. Search briefly on YouTube for skate videos or snowboard slams and you’ll soon stumble across the words “gay" or “faggot" in the comments – words used pejoratively, intended to insult the subject, calling them lame, a loser, somehow lesser.
Some will argue that this is no more than insecure, bored kids, bashing away ignorantly on their keyboards. But the internet and social media are undeniably parts of everyday life and, in the 21st century, they're an integral part of the scene.
And anyway, the use of homophobic language extends far further than confused youths trolling away on the internet. Pros use it too. In his film Horgasm, pro snowboarder Torstein Horgmo criticises his own performance at a competition referring to it as being “pretty gay".
While there’s no suggestion at all that Horgmo is a homophobe, the statement is typical of the phrases used in board sports. Worryingly, it's seen as normal. Accepted. No eyelids were batted that day.
In 2004, at the Sports Industry America trade show, Ride Snowboards had a stall which carried a banner reading: “The worst thing about riding a Burton [snowboard] is telling your friend you’re gay." The stunt generated a lot of negative publicity, and the company released an official statement apologising.
“Our company and its employees in no way condone or otherwise support this type of activity or message. We are very disturbed by its occurrence. Ride Snowboards apologizes to all those offended by this incident," was the message.
Whether or not you think the apology was slightly disingenuous, they clearly recognised that the banner was a meteoric error of judgement. But the fact that the slogan made it as far as a tradeshow booth in the first place is a clear indication of the attitude towards gay people in board sports from many within the industry.
So, is the problem of homophobia endemic in board sports? “There [are] homophobic people within action sports, absolutely. Is it, as a whole, homophobic? I don’t think so." suggests openly gay skateboard photographer Sam McGuire. Based in LA, McGuire is one of the best-respected snappers in skateboarding, working all over the globe, and regularly shooting the likes of multiple Dew Tour winner Ryan Scheckler.
“Are boardsports the most outspoken, welcoming-to-diverse-people crowd? Probably not. But is it homophobic? I don’t know. I think it’s a very broad blanket to put on such a huge diverse community," he adds.
"There are homophobic people within action sports, absolutely"
Film maker and surfer, Thomas Castets agrees. “Of course, there are some levels of homophobia: some people will say ‘I hate gay people’ but I imagine they do because they want to impress their friends, or they simply have never met a gay person, but when they do they usually change their minds."
Castets is a French born surfer, living and working in Australia. When he moved down-under, he founded GaySurfers.net, a website for surfers who happen to be gay to find each other and talk, exchange stories, plan trips – whatever they wanted. The site now boasts more than 5,000 members worldwide.
Thomas took the decision to go out and meet as many of the more active site users as he could. “Most of them work in the arts industries, and were very quiet in their circles of friends an families about their sexuality.
“I noticed that most of them didn’t fit in the gay stereotype – the gay community – and didn’t fit either in the surfing community because there were always scared of being discriminated against or that what people would find out, so they were being very quiet about it, and a bit uncomfortable about it." This journey inspired the award winning documentary titled ‘Out In The Line Up’, which explores the taboo of the gay surfer.
Sam McGuire confirms that he also had fears. “Part of why it took me a while to come out was because skateboarding’s environment was a bit strange and I didn’t feel quite safe coming out."
It's a pretty shocking statement, and one that completely contradicts the inclusive, tolerant myth we associate so fondly with board sports.
What is it that makes coming out something to fear? Why are homosexuals singled out so much? “It stems from the old idea that if your gay, you’re not a man. Like it’s a lesser thing. The gay guy is the bird with the broken wing, and it’s often used to sort of emasculate someone," says McGuire
Castets takes this theory even further. “[While making the documentary] a psychiatrist explained to us that when you grow up, you go from being a boy to being a man, and in that process you try to become a man as fast as possible. Faster than your friends. Part of that process is to eliminate or reject anything that’s feminine about you.
“Homophobes just aren’t the brightest people."
“You want your voice to become a man's voice. You want to become more manly than you are. And rejecting femininity in general includes rejecting feminine values like compassion and generosity, but also anything that could be gay or that could take you out of the stereotype of being a man within our society."
By definition the world of action sports is a physical place and one where quote-unquote "manly" traits are admired. When big slams and pain are everyday occurrences, things like courage and calmness in the face of danger are attributes to be admired. But why is it that gay men are assumed to be less manly? As everyone knows, sexuality has nothing to do with such character traits. Castets thinks that a simple lack of knowledge may be to blame.
“Fear comes from the fact that most people have never heard of a gay surfer, so gay surfers are invisible. It creates this sort of situation where you cant blame someone for not knowing any other gay people if gay people don’t tell them they’re gay.
“I found that it wasn’t that surfing was a homophobic sport, it was a kind of mixed balance thing where it was just not talked about. And because it wasn’t talked about, people weren’t able to get over the stereotype. The stigma. The fear."
"It is still very hard to get pro surfers to talk about it"
This response suggests that it’s an issue that’s best resolved with understanding and education, as opposed to pointing the finger at homophobes.
Sam McGuire has a similar stance on the matter - although he puts it rather more bluntly. “They just aren’t the brightest people. An explanation is not an excuse, but I think it helps understand where these thoughts come from."
It's an admirable approach and impressively measured given the struggles both McGuire and Castets have faced.
It's also an approach that leads logically to an obvious solution. “I think just talking about it and exposure [are the best ways to change attitudes] really." says Sam. “The more gay people coming out, the more experience people have with gay people the more they understand."
So, a high profile pro, such as Gus Kenworthy, coming out as gay would help, surely? A banner name would show the world that there’s nothing unusual. Nothing to hate, fear, or mistrust. Nothing to see, in fact.
“That would be great" says Castets, speaking before Kenworthy’s annoucement. “But what would also be great is a straight pro surfer said that his best friend was gay, or that they don’t have a problem with it, because I think that still, it is very hard to get pro surfers to talk about it, because they have sponsors, they have a number of things that tie them in to what they say."
"Skateboarding needs to grow up a little bit"
This raises an excellent point. There are a lot of obstacles for anybody in action sports who announces to the world that they’re homosexual, or even that they’re pro gay rights. All of a sudden, they become the flag bearer for a massive amount of people.
As Gus Kenworthy is no doubt finding out this week, being "the first" inevitably turns you into a spokesperson. This can be a good thing - he'll be called on whenever the press want a comment on the issue. But it can also have downsides.
Gus now faces a struggle to be judged on his athletic merits alone. Any career achievements, his silver medal at the Olympics included, potentially face being overshadowed by his status as the first openly gay free skier.
This goes some way towards explaining why gay riders have kept quiet about their sexuality in the past. Cheryl Maas is an illustrative example. Maas is a pro snowboarder, an Olympian, and also happens to be a lesbian, happily married to her partner. While Maas makes no attempt to shy away from her sexuality, she also doesn’t discuss it with the media.
While competing at the Sochi Olympics last year, Maas waved her glove - which featured a rainbow flag design - at the camera. Many took this as a brave protest against Putin's repressive anti-homosexuality laws, a move that could have seen her expelled from the games for political activity. But if she was making a deliberate point, Maas didn't claim it. In fact, she refused requests for interviews on the matter.
This is of course completely understandable. The responsibility of being a spokesperson, just for being who you are, isn't necessarily a burden everyone would want to bear. Frankly, who would want the pressure? Could you still compete at the highest level if your training was interrupted by having to fight the corner of the demographic you just so happen to belong to?
It's this that makes Kenworthy's move doubly brave. And that's before you even mention the question of sponsorship. As ESPN journalist Alyssa Roegnik pointed out in her interview with Gus: "A top athlete like Kenworthy takes in around 80 percent of his $500,000 to $1 million a year from sponsorships, which are based as much on image as they are contest wins."
If brands are marketing their products to a teenaged audience that's intolerant of difference, will they continue to sponsor an openly gay athlete? Could Gus' career be at risk, regardless of his future competition results?
" I'm nervous about that," he told ESPN. "The industry isn't the most embracing of someone who's different."
"Will sponsors back an openly gay athlete? Could Kenworthy's career be at risk because he came out?"
So, having chosen to take this huge risk, can Kenworthy expect help? The initial outpouring of support on social media - and in traditional media - was heartening, but are they back up? Are there campaigns demanding tolerance, understanding, and acceptance?
The world of board sports often look down their collective noses at more mainstream sports, and the base, pack mentality that appear to go hand-in-hand with them. However, the reality is that they’re years ahead on this front.
In September 2014, Premier League Football in the UK had a Rainbow Laces campaign, backed by Stonewall. Players across England and Wales wore rainbow coloured laces to show that homosexuality is a normal part of society, and that homophobia would not be tolerated. Over twelve months later, has this eradicated idiots shouting abuse from the stands? Of course not, but at least the message from the industry was clear.
Would campaigns be effective in changing opinions? “I think for someone in skating to speak out in support of it would really change things and influence people to also become more supportive of it." suggests McGuire. “Like rainbow laces, something small just to show people they are down. That’s where skating is sort of falling behind other sports. It needs to kind of grow up a little bit."
"In the run-up to Sochi, snowboard brands weren't discussing the anti gay rights issue at all"
In action sports more broadly, there have been some positive moves. Coinciding with the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, British company
“We thought that someone should bring it up and that having a limited edition glove to draw attention to it would be a good way to do it." The gloves were emblazoned with a rainbow design, and had “Snowboarding is GAY" stitched into the palm. As well as looking amazing, they sent out the message that snowboarding is for everybody.
Tom says that the reception for the glove was surprising. “I wasn’t sure how the message would come across and if people would hate it or completely ignore it but we felt someone needed to say it so we took the risk and put it out there.
“It had over half a million views on our Facebook page in 24 hours and countless re-shares, likes and comments on the media pages who shared it too. Our server went down and my inbox was completely flooded from people asking about the gloves.
"When we released our pro-rights glove, our server went down and my inbox was completely flooded"
"One lady offered a significant amount of cash to buy a pair but I turned it down. I still get emails from people looking for them today, so it was great to see that people agreed with our message of support.
“We only produced 50 pairs as it was a message of support and not an easy way to generate profit - we gave them all away, we didn’t sell a single pair."
Skateboarding itself has seen some steps in the right direction too. There's the Jeff Grosso Anti Hero skateboard (that, Sam McGuire assured us “the gay world is going crazy wanting to buy").
Both of these items are rad, and are laudable statements, deserving of the credit and respect they get. They also make the equivalent statements by the industry's big-hitters noticeable by their absence.
It goes without saying that no company would ever say “Yes, of course we’d drop a gay athlete…". But let’s remember; they are businesses, and exist in a world where sales figures ultimately dictate all. Sales figures that are dependent on their image. A company will only ever be as prejudiced as the demographic they sell to. That demographic, in the main, is us. You and me.
So, are board sports homophobic? The answer is a vague ‘kind of probably not but…’ One thing that is clear, is that for a group of people who pride themselves on their progressive attitudes, the action sports scene is very much left wanting in the collective support for gay people. Which is not really good enough.
It's not all doom and gloom however. Things are improving. Brave individuals like Gus Kenworthy taking a stand will make a huge difference. But we're looking forward to a time when a skier, snowboarder, skater or surfer coming out isn't front page news as it was last week. When all that matters is what a person can do on a board.
Really, that's only going to happen when the action sports public - the people who buy the brands, follow the stars, read the mags and populate the message boards with their comments - become a bit more tolerant. It's sounds corny, but it really is up to us.
The last word goes to Sam, who has a simple suggestion: “I think if we can learn to educate ourselves and people and chill out now and again, it’ll be fine."
Read Gus Kenworthy's full interview with ESPN for the word from the man himself.
Out In The Line Up, the award winning documentary following Thomas Castets and David Wakefield, is available to download, or buy direct from the website now.