Pride month in June is usually a time to celebrate the LGBTQ+ community. But across the country, festivities have been marred by a wave of anti-trans and anti-drag legislation pushed by Republican lawmakers and religious conservatives.
The Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a research and policy think tank specializing in extremism and disinformation, found that in the first five months of 2023, there have been more incidents of anti-drag protests, offline and online threats, and violence than in the last seven months of 2022. The sport of surfing is not immune to these incidents. But organizations like the non-profit Queer Surf have made it their mission to create a space of joy and connection within a historically exclusionary sport.
Queer Surf began in 2016 with meet-ups and small group surfing lessons on Bay Area beaches. After its first year, the organization grew through word of mouth within the large LGBTQ+ population in San Francisco and beyond. The founders, Kyla Langen, a public school science teacher, and their partner, Nic Brisebois, a therapist for queer youth, wanted to find an effective way to not only create a space for queer joy in surfing but also combat homophobia by making it accessible to the LGBTQ+ community.
Langen was not a stranger to surfing. She grew up in Carlsbad, CA, a beach town in northern San Diego County. Surfing was not only part of the scenery but also in her family. Her father coached Oceanside High School’s Surf Team for years before retiring. Langen herself began competitive surfing in middle and high school, and later at Mira Costa College, also in Oceanside.
She eventually became a professional surfer and gained sponsorships. But Langen faced sexism within the male-dominated surfing industry. Worse for Langen, she learned the professional surfing world was not a safe environment for those in the LGBTQ+ community. Langen said she was told time and time again not to come out publicly as a lesbian.
“You needed to be palatable to the mainstream, which usually meant being femme-like feminine,” she recalled being told. “One had to always fit into the mainstream idea of what a surfing woman should look like and what looks good on tags and posters and everything.”
This experience would later serve as her inspiration to reclaim surfing and create a safe space by making surfing accessible to a wider range of the LGBTQ+ community.
Ry Andresen, a non-binary trans surfer, found a love for surfing and a sense of community by attending many Queer Surf events since 2020. Andresen had no surfing experience when they first started, but found encouragement from both Lange and Brisebois.
At one weeklong Queer Surf event in Cardiff, California (located in north San Diego county), Andresen described the feeling of being in the water with others in the LGBTQ+ community.
“Several thousand of us queer people just like out in the lineup together, taking up more space than the typical, straight men that are out there — that never happens,” Andresen said. ” We got to make the rules of the ocean for that little period of time, which meant being both respectful and kind as we shared waves with each other — at that moment, I felt like I was part of a utopian society.”
According to Mando Levett, a non-binary surfer and board maker who is also a co-founder of Gnder Surf, a new organization working on gender diversity in surfing, beaches that are used primarily for surfing remain heavily gate-kept to white, cis straight men. Levitt also spoke a lot about the ongoing battle of the idea of a “dynasty” in surfing — where those who were fortunate enough to grow up in the sport look down on those who start surfing later in life and actively work to keep them out.
“At what point do you start to let people in? What kind of criteria do they have to have? I didn’t come from a surfing family. And it took me 15 years before certain people even started saying hi to me. It’s just the dynasty thing, it is very much about who you are, and why you should be allowed to be at the surf spot.”
Levett also mentioned how “safety in the water” becomes an excuse for legacy surfers and limits or keeps new surfers from joining in the surf. Andresen also experienced similar issues when surfing on their own. They said if they looked more “female-presenting,” they instantly became a target.
“I’ve gotten yelled at and kicked out of waves all the time when I surf by myself with a lineup of only straight men, which happens a lot,” said Andresen. “I can’t go for the best waves and I have to stay away from … the crowd just to protect myself and avoid confrontation. So, I’m very used to taking some junky waves.”
The world of professional surfing is changing, though, and becoming more welcoming to the transgender community. In 2022, 43-year-old surfer Sasha Jane Lowerson became the first trans woman to claim a title at a surfing competition. The World Surf League since then has recently announced that it will adopt the transgender policy of the International Surfing Association across all its tours. It will go into effect immediately. The policy, which the ISA first released in October of 2022, requires athletes who are assigned male at birth to maintain a testosterone level of less than 5 nmol/L (nanomoles per liter) continuously for the previous 12 months to be eligible to compete in a women’s event.
The move brought backlash with famous pro surfer, Bethany Hamilton posting a video on Instagram saying she would boycott World Surf League events. Hamilton used misgendering language to refer to trans women in the sport and said she wanted to make sure the future of women’s surfing is protected from what she sees as “glimpses of…dominance” by trans athletes.
When asked about Hamilton’s remarks, Langen said, “We really need to start taking the reins and start making some decisions. The queer community specifically needs to start having a stake in this. We can’t just wait for the World Surf League to make a policy, we ourselves need to create a guiding body of folks.”
Accessibility remains key to Queer Surf’s mission. This year, the non-profit even teamed up with another Bay Area organization, Brown Girl Surf, and gave away surfing lessons and materials such as wetsuits, boards and other necessities. Brisebois and Langen plan further outreach to the LGBTQ+ community in hopes of making the surfing community even more accessible.