Where we stand today, the ways in which we move and take up space, and the freedom we have to surf, march, dance, perform, and exist in the ways we choose to would not be possible without the hard work and dedication of the many LGBTQIA+ leaders throughout history. While where we are today is nowhere near where we should be and our fight is still being fought, we are looking to the past to honour those who paved the way for us, and to reignite the sense of responsibility in our communities of sport to create and maintain inclusive, safe spaces rooted in solidarity and the love for water.
This year marks the 53rd anniversary of The Stonewall Rebellion. On June 28th, 1969 in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, members of the LGBTQIA+ community finally fought back against the then normalized police brutality that posed a daily threat to the neighbourhood. At the time, being openly queer was a criminal offence and thus the queer bars that did exist in New York City were without license and primarily run and operated by the mafia, exposing the community to regular police raids and violence. While the Stonewall Rebellion is not the earliest example of movements towards queer rights in North America, this event catalyzed the liberation movement as we know it today. The 5 day protests that followed were so impactful that the following year the first Christopher Street Liberation Day March was held to commemorate that night at Stonewall. This was considered the first ever gay pride parade.
The recognition and visibility that started with the Christopher Street March led to significant civil rights advances in the 70s; queer people started gaining government-level protection against discrimination, the first Pride flag was designed, and in 1979, over 100,000 people attended the first National March for Gay and Lesbian rights in Washington.
While North America as a whole was profoundly impacted by this moment, the progress seen in Canada at the time had more to do with the advances made by small but powerful groups of courageous individuals in various subcultures across Canada. In Vancouver, we saw the launch of ASK in 1964, the first homophile group in Canada that aimed to educate and focus less on the typically sexualized discourse on queer politics and instead on inclusion within the country and a sense of camaraderie with other marginalized groups. Later in 1969, the University of Toronto launched UTHA, the first contemporary gay liberation organization in Canada.
The outbreak of AIDS in the 1980s greatly impacted the progress for queer rights in Canada and the United States. Since the disease disproportionately affected homosexual men, anti-queer groups and leaders in North America used this as collateral to halt the advance of queer rights. The disease was first called “gay-related immune deficiency”, or the “gay plague”, and this rhetoric reignited anti-queer panic that spread across both nations, bringing Pride marches to a halt, banning blood donations from gay men, and leaving the growing need for medical attention ignored. As a result of the government’s inaction, activist groups in Canada and the US started several organizations providing support and care to the queer folks affected by the disease.
In the 1990s, the Clinton campaign launched “Dont Ask, Don’t Tell”, a policy implemented in the military that allowed queer men and women to serve as long as they kept their sexuality a secret. This attempt to ‘protect’ queer folks backfired, as DADT failed to protect queer members from being discharged, and it was eventually repealed by Obama in 2011.
In 2003, the US’s anti-sodomy laws were finally repealed and struck down, decriminalizing homosexuality nationwide, and soon after, the US government amended anti-discrimination laws to better protect queer people from hate crimes, and finally in 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that states cannot ban same-sex marriage, making it officially legal. In Canada, we saw a sooner timeline, where the bill for same-sex marriage was approved by the Crown and became law in 2005, and in 2013, the Canadian Human Rights Act was amended extending human rights protection to trans people in Canada.
When we look to our communities of sport to find the change and progress we are seeing on a global scale with the Pride marches, love parades, and the changing corporate and governmental narratives surrounding Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, we unfortunately find ourselves with almost nothing. On the professional level, there are only a small handful of elite competitive surfers who have come out, and this is largely due to the community of toxicity, sexism and queerphobia that persists around the world. The majority of surfers who have come out did so long after their career and tour days were over, because as we have seen for years, any notion of a surfer being either queer or non-heteronormative has lead to magazines pulling features, sponsors dropping athletes entirely, or a complete loss of respect by peers, competitors, and the media. This makes the world of surf and boardsports in general one of the most inequitable and unapproachable sport categories in the world.
In the well-known and well-documented surf culture of the 80s, heterosexual male surfers were idolized and treated like rockstars, while female surfers were either highly sexualized or chastised as lesbian, or they were dismissed entirely as nothing more than eye candy or a ‘prize’ for professional male surfers. Even less recognized and without opportunity were queer surfers, surfers of colour, or surfers from marginalized communities. Fast forward to the present century, and we see the exact same problems, the same disparity and the same struggle for representation.
Equal pay was offered to women in the World Surf League only 3 years ago, and while this is ahead of the curve compared to most other world sports leagues, women are included in much fewer competitions than men, giving them less opportunities to succeed, and less guaranteed financial support than men. Queer surfers still face the threat of losing sponsorships over their identity since in the hypermasculinated surf narrative, ‘queer’ still signifies a threat to the idea of what it means to be an athlete. This sexism and queerphobia that is weaved into surf culture is one of the primary reasons that many people shy away from picking up a board in the first place. Add to the list the often aggressive line-up hierarchy found in most of the top surf spots in the world, as well as the ever pervasive locker room banter—it’s no wonder that so many athletes keep their identities private. These barriers all serve as a reminder that progress made on paper is not necessarily reflected in daily life and that each of us need to take responsibility to act differently, support each other, and to stop tolerating the toxic narratives leading this industry.
Just as our history of sport has yet to catch up with most of the political movements made in the last century, the queer rights movement itself still has many inequalities; the scale remains overwhelmingly tilted, and though the monumental rebellion at Stonewall brought visibility and recognition to queer communities on a vast scale, the frontliners of the uprising—trans people of colour—were quickly overshadowed and cast aside by the groups of the time that made no space for the struggle of trans folks or for people of colour, revealing the movement’s long history of race and class struggle that we are still unfolding today. However, the movement as we know it would not be where it is without the trans folks who fought back in 1969, who, once they saw that the movement was not addressing the homelessness, violence, and inequalities being faced by the trans community, created organizations specifically aimed to protect and empower those who were most vulnerable. We still see this disparity today, where up until the past several years, trans and gender nonconfoming folks, especially those of even further marginalized communities, were rarely part of the Pride conversation, and remain the most vulnerable and underrepresented people in the movement today.
As seen both in our history of sport as well as our history of Pride, erasure is a common theme. Often it is those who work the hardest that remain unseen and unempowered. Athletes like Matt Branson, Cori Schumacher, Tyler Wright, and Keala Kennelly are recognized for their boldness to come out and come forward, but what is less seen are the struggles they faced in doing so. And the struggling athletes unnamed in the media are many, and are finding ways to create solidarity behind the scenes all around the world in order to make our communities safe. In our fight towards safety in freedom of expression, who we often fail to thank are the activists descendant of Sylvia Riveira and Marsha P. Johnson, whose sole hope is to continue to create safe spaces for at-risk youth, and for the people who step outside their front door every day boldly dressed as they please, hoping to remind everyone of the beauty in being yourself.
When we look at boardsports, we unfortunately still find ourselves fighting to get out of the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” era, where as long as you don’t share your sexuality or identity you will be respected and your reputation unquestioned. This silencing tells our young generation of surfers and athletes that only a certain kind of person can succeed or gain respect and recognition in our community. The fact that we are still sitting in a place where athletes are afraid to come out, where marginalized communities have unequal access to the water, and where the media still sexualizes and discriminates against non-cis male athletes shows how much work there remains to be done. We are a small business but we are leaders in our community no less, and we feel our responsibility to redefine and modernize the idea of queerness in sports and to lead this conversation now more than ever, and to encourage our partners and fellow industry leaders to do the same, creating as safe a space as possible out there in the water we all call home.
Words by Isabella Heeney. Header photograph by Stephen Milner.
Joining our crew after 6 months of living and surfing in Ecuador, Isabella — or Isi as she’s known around the shop —is bringing her passion for journalism and storytelling to our team. A Toronto-born outdoor enthusiast, she’s settling here for a while to see how her Ocean-surfing skills fare on the Lakes, and when she’s not at the shop you can usually find her biking on Toronto Island. Find her on Instagram.