Photos courtesy of Mortis Studio.
It’s odd and unfortunate how pervasive homophobia in surfing is in 2021.
The most explicit forms are found in online comment sections and localised line-ups, but underlying homophobic attitudes are also common throughout the competitive and social spheres of surfing. For decades, surfing pursued a relentlessly macho and heterosexual image. While an outsider might view a group of nude men in an isolated carpark slipping into tight neoprene slightly homoerotic, surfers (and surf media) have done their best to suppress anything that isn’t explicitly straight and male. It is only recently things have started to shift.
Tyler Wright, a two-time World Champion is openly gay. As is big wave surfer, Keala Kennelly, who has previously spoken about the heteronormativity of surfing and how it forced many surfers from the sport. On the men’s side, however, things are much sparser. The only World Tour surfer to ever ‘come out’ is Matt Branson, who went public with his sexuality in 2007, 15 years after leaving the tour.
Stephen Milner, a Southern California based artist, is challenging the perceived heterosexual norm in surfing. In the past, he’s made butt-plugs from sex wax and canvases of sunsets where a glory hole replaced the sun. More recently, he released a book, A Spiritual Good Time, which collates images from pre-90’s surf magazines interspersed with shots from gay porn mags. Not to juxtapose the two, but to re-imagine the stereotypically straight image they were trying to portray in a gay light. His work was considered fairly unprovocative in the fine art world for which it was intended, but it certainly ruffled some feathers when it has trickled into the surfing sphere. This year Stephen started working with Quiksilver for their Icons Are For Everyone campaign, showcasing surfers and surfing beyond the straight, tanned and blonde stereotype.
We got on the line with Stephen to talk about his work, its reception, and what he’s been up to.
How was it growing up as a gay surfer?
I grew up in Long Island but was mostly into skimboarding while I was there; we had a really good shorebreak. I was always surfing with friends, but I didn’t actually buy my own surfboard until I moved to Georgia for uni. While in Georgia I always hid my outside life and persona from the people I surfed with. My boyfriend at the time used to come to the beach and watch but I never told anyone who he was. It’s in the bible belt and there are a lot of Republican, Jesus-y surfers there. Some of the guys I surfed with had confederate flags on the back of their trucks. It wasn’t really safe to be ‘out.’
Fuck, that’s heavy
I never had buddies I could comfortably paddle out with. This didn’t change while I was in Georgia [Stephen lives in Southern California now] and at the time I wasn’t confrontational, I just sort of kept to myself. Now that I’m older, I don’t give a fuck. If I hear someone being a dick to women, being homophobic or whatever in the surf I’ll be right there to counter that.
Do you think things are improving now?
To me, it feels like surfing always take two steps forward and five steps back. In 2014 a documentary came out, called Out In The Lineup, which was great but since then like nothing really happened. Compared to skateboarding it always feels like surfing is 10 years behind the curve. And when something does happen people think there’s some sort of political agenda behind it, when really, we’re just trying to normalise different aspects of surfing and build communities.
The project with Quiksilver, to my knowledge, is also the only time a brand has truly done anything relating to LGBT culture in surfing beyond a slogan or pride flag.
Yeah, I never expected a brand to be putting time and money into the cause. We’ve just finished the first project, Icons Are For Everyone. I’m doing some more work with them which will be released soon too; it’s not just something to tag along with pride month.
When did you first start using surfing as one of the subjects for your art?
When I was studying as an undergrad, I initially wanted to be a Chris Burkard-esque surf photographer. I gradually realised, though, that the surf photography trips with magazines or whatever would be awkward. I wasn’t into picking up chicks and partying—which was the norm—and as a result, I wouldn’t be welcomed; I wouldn’t feel comfortable.
So, you decided to change course towards more conceptual art?
I wanted to challenge what I call the editorial tropes of surf photography: you get on location and photograph the environment, the waves and the babes. I wanted to do more conceptual, fine-art work. Surfers were never the primary or intended audience. Some of the first work I did was using surf images with altered Beach Boys lyrics; I changed all the pronouns of the lyrics—but most people didn’t even realise. Then I started working with sex wax, and all sort of different mediums. I didn’t really ever consider how this would be interpreted in the actual surf community and media though. At the time I couldn’t give two shits. However, it has had an impact when covered in surf media. For example, there was a lot of negative reactions to my interview in Surfer about my book, A Spiritual Good Time, but there were also some positive responses. Around that time a bunch of queer surf clubs started to pop up which was great to see.
Tell us a little bit about A Spiritual Good Time.
One of my favourite things from the old wetsuit advertisements is that—and probably because they knew having four guys in tight wetsuits was homoerotic—they would throw a bikini girl in the front of the frame. Just to preserve the heterosexual, masculine identity of these surfers. When you remove the girl in a bikini or focus in on a particular part, it paints a completely different picture. A Spiritual Good Time uses a lot of images like this and shows surfing in a different, homoerotic frame.
What kind of backlash have you recieved? Is it mostly homophobic?
There were so many surfers and ex surf photographers who were so confused by what I do and think I’m just ‘stealing images.’ They take it at face value and think that when I use an image I’m just claiming it as my own, they don’t look at the context of appropriation in art. Then there are people just calling me a ‘middle-aged creeper,’ like when the Quiksilver ‘Surfing is Gay’ video was first released online. The other reaction is when people respond to my work by saying ‘I’m sexualising surfing.’ Well, for decades magazines sexualised female surfers in their advertisements—it’s not new.
Ha! Most surfing magazines had a ‘Girls’ section and frequently ran spreads of pretty much nude women.
Exactly, the idea that surfing wasn’t sexualised before is bullshit. They just don’t like when the sexuality portrayed is different to theirs. I’ve also loved that some of my favourite surfers have a feminine style to their surfing. But to even say that to some people they’re like, ‘Woah, what? He’s a dude you can’t call it feminine.’
Surfing has been described as ballet on water, which is so far from what you might expect a macho sport to look like.
I’m still celebrating surfing through all of my work. I love surfing. I’m just celebrating different aspects.
Now that surfers are part of the audience for your work, what sort of impact do you hope it has?
I just want more people to be vocal about these issues and do more work around it. Hopefully, work like A Spiritual Good Time invites others to do similar work. Making other people feel welcome to talk about queer realities in surfing and express themselves. I want queer surfers to be making films, working in the magazines, making art and just being themselves. Essentially, for queerness in surfing to be normalised. As you and I know, when you go out in the water, surfers are really diverse. It isn’t just what you see on social media and magazines.