Brian Anderson’s celebrated skateboarding career stretches back almost two decades. He first attained professional status in 1998 while riding for Toy Machine before joining Girl Skateboards a year later and subsequently earning Thrasher Magazine’s Skater of the Year award. He went on to stay with Girl for almost 15 years, attaining legendary status before leaving in 2013 to start his own company, 3D Skateboards.
A few weeks ago, however, Anderson made headlines for more personal reasons after discussing his homosexuality in an intimate VICE documentary. Throughout the 26-minute video, Anderson discusses the complexities of discovering his own sexual identity, his fear of being rejected by his fellow skateboarders as well as the issues of casual homophobia and hyper-masculinity within professional skateboarding.
The interview makes Anderson the world’s first openly gay professional skateboarder – there are, of course, others, notably South Africa’s Yann-Xavier Horowitz; but nobody on the same scale as Anderson. The responses may have been overwhelming positive to his story, but the documentary highlights a well-documented history of homophobia in the skateboarding industry which dates back decades.
Back in 1998, Tim Von Werne had sponsorship with Birdhouse, a skateboard company formed by Tony Hawks and Per Welinder in 1992. The story goes that Von Werne had conducted a magazine interview in which he openly discussed his homosexuality for the first time: “The interview was done, we shot a bunch of pictures to go with it, then the guys who were the business managers for Birdhouse got hold of it,” he revealed in a 2011 interview with Huck.
“They read the article and were like ‘Absolutely no, this is not going to happen.’ When they were shutting down the article, they were like, ‘We have absolutely no problem with you being gay – it’s just about how it will be viewed in middle America. We feel bad – we just can’t do it.'” He later explained that the pulled interview represented a clear choice: either continue his career as a closeted skateboarder, or quit. He chose the latter, cutting his career short.
The issue of sponsorship becomes important as the article progresses – one of the biggest reasons for a lack of openly-gay skateboarders is the involvement of large companies keen not to rock the boat. Professionals are paid for by enormous corporations that view an affiliation with respected skateboarders as a ticket to guaranteed sales; as a result, every interview conducted with a sponsored skateboarder must be approved by their sponsors to ensure their words don’t damage the company’s reputation.
Unfortunately, the fact that sponsors are reluctant to back an openly gay skateboarder speaks volumes about their intended audience and the hyper-masculinity that reigns supreme.
This attitude is encapsulated in the same Huck article by Michael Brooke, the editor of Canada’s Concrete Wave magazine: “Skateboarding is funny in that it’s a macho thing to do. It’s got that attitude like, ‘I’m gonna throw myself off forty stairs, I’m not pussy-footing around here.’ It’s like you’re this gladiator and you’re going out there with your sword. It’s presented as an overwhelmingly masculine thing to do.”
Incidentally, this emphasis on masculinity is a frequent presence in the recently-released Brian Anderson documentary, which opens with pro skateboarder Omar Salazar describing him as “Shaved head, and he had his flannel and he was burly, like a monster human being that was just the manliest figure I’ve ever seen.”
Anderson himself expands on this in a follow-up interview published on VICE: “I just want to say that I’m aware of the fact that I’m very fortunate that I’m 6-foot-3 and I have a deep voice and I’m what you would consider "masculine." For people that are effeminate – effeminate men – and they went to high school and they were called gay, queer and faggot all the time – like, this is why I’m doing this.”
Various interviewees describe their shock at discovering Anderson’s sexuality – he was able to pass because he didn’t fit the effeminate stereotype of a gay man. The fact that he describes himself as "lucky" to be masculine highlights a sobering truth: that homophobia is still rampant within the skateboarding community.
One relevant example is Jarret Berry, an openly gay skateboarder who graced the cover of Big Brother magazine back in the 1990s. Although it may seem progressive, the image chosen saw Berry skateboarding in backless leather chaps and the headline was "Jarret Berry and other fruits and fairies” – overall, not the most progressive combination.
Obviously Anderson’s coming-out story highlights the struggles of gay men within the skateboarding industry, but what about bisexuals, lesbians, trans skateboarders and even female skateboarders? In a recent New York Times documentary about the Brujas of the Bronx , an all-female skate crew, one member explains: “Skateboarding, even though it has a very revolutionary energy, it’s very heteronormative and very patriarchal.”
Attitudes do seem to be shifting, but the process is painstakingly slow – there are extremely few examples of notable professional trans and lesbian skateboarders, whereas some high-profile female skateboarders have noted that women who join the boys' club of skating find themselves being highly sexualized.
Of course, it isn’t the case that lesbian, trans, bisexual and non-sexualized female skaters don’t exist; it’s simply that their existence isn’t heavily publicized, which is a huge part of the problem.
It also goes without saying that the issue isn’t exclusive to the skateboarding industry, but is, rather, a wider issue which continues to plague sports in general. This was best exemplified by a comprehensive study recently conducted called Out on the Fields which concluded that only 1% of 9,494 participants felt that lesbian, gay and bisexual people were "fully accepted" in sporting culture.
78% believed that lesbian, gay and bisexual people would not be safe as spectators at a sporting event, whereas 84% said that homophobic slurs and jokes occur either "often," "all the time" or "sometimes." Just 1% said that they never occur.
Contextually, the study incorporates responses from a diverse range of ages and sexualities and was completed anonymously. Results found that homosexual and bisexual athletes overwhelmingly participate in team and individual sports but still feel that LGBTQ people are too stigmatized to come out.
This, naturally, leads to conformity and the modification of behavior, and can cause a huge amount of self-loathing, especially within team sports where the fear of teammate reactions only adds to the overall fear of coming out. Again, the study shows that 62% of respondents believed that homophobia was more rampant within team sports, leading to the famous "locker room" mentality that makes open homosexuality within sports including football and rugby so rare.
For Brian Anderson to be open about his struggles with sexuality is extremely admirable and will doubtless force many to rethink their outdated stereotypes of homosexual men in particular.
Still, we should be careful not to glorify masculinity – femme-shaming is, after all, another enormous problem within the LGBTQ community – but instead use Anderson’s story as a jumping-off point to discuss the ongoing issues of homophobia, hyper-masculinity and general discrimination towards the LGBTQ community within sports.
We must extend the conversation to trans, bisexual and lesbian athletes and, more than anything, attempt to eradicate the culture of masculine dominance still depressingly associated with the majority of sporting industries.
On the whole, social attitudes seem to have progressed exponentially over the last few years – we have trans pop stars, queer actors and an increasing knowledge of issues relating to gender and sexuality all filtering into mainstream discussions. Now it’s time to extend that discussion to sport, one of the few fields which remains a beacon of outdated masculinity in an increasingly accepting world.
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