Is skateboarding is allowing more pros to be out and proud?

Why are there so few gay skaters? HUCK catches up with Tim Von Werne, whose career was cut short under a veil of ‘controversy’, to find out if skateboarding is stepping away from the closet and allowing more pros to be out and proud.

“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. 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.’”

I’m sitting outside a pub in Clerkenwell, London, talking to Tim Von Werne about his previous life as an openly gay sponsored skater. Tim is someone whose name constantly crops up in any conversation about gay people in skateboarding, whether you’re trawling magazine message boards and YouTube comments or talking to some of the biggest names in the business. Originally from Miami, Tim was an am for Birdhouse Skateboards at the end of the nineties, but his career was cut short in 1998 when his sponsor pulled an interview in Skateboarder magazine in which he talked about his sexuality.

It’s one of those rare sunny Saturdays in the capital and Tim, now a scientist living in London with his husband of ten years, is relaxed and jokey, yet pensive at the same time. He talks about his sponsored days with the kind of fondness people have for old friends, tinged with the sadness of a relationship gone wrong. “I understood why it didn’t get run, but it sort of marked a turning point in my relationship with Birdhouse – and possibly skating in general. It was just after I broke my ankle, so I had to take some months off anyway, but [the incident] definitely reduced the amount of time I spent skating. It became pretty clear straight away that, if they weren’t willing to print the article, that if I wanted to be a professional skateboarder, I may have to think about going into the closet, which I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing. I’ve never been ashamed of being gay and I wouldn’t want to have to start feeling that I needed to be.”

The word ‘closet’ brings to mind a bygone era – hankies in denim pockets, guys loitering in raincoats and blatant homophobic vitriol on the front-page of the tabloids. Maybe it’s beer-induced optimism, maybe it’s the sunshine, but from our vantage point, outside this pub in one of the world’s most liberal quarters, the concept of ‘the closet’ seems almost retro. Haven’t we left that all behind? If not society, then what about skateboarding? Surely the cool, creative, enlightened world of skateboarding has gotten past all that? Maybe. Maybe not.

Curious, I decide it’s about time someone started asking, ‘Where are all the gay skaters?’ As the only openly gay pro of his time, Tim was a solitary figure back in the nineties. Surely that should have changed by now? “If we’re talking top professional level – the ones I know of that are commonly understood to be gay – there are about four,” says Tim. “But I don’t feel comfortable giving peoples’ names.”

I can’t help but respect Tim’s reticence, but at the same time it gets me thinking: why, in this day and age, are we still whispering about the ‘g’ word as if it’s some kind of dirty taboo? If it’s common knowledge within the industry that some pros are gay then what is stopping them from being open with the general public, too?

Later I talk to Ed Templeton, pro skater, artist and the man behind Toy Machine skateboards, who tells me he knows of Jarrett Berry - another name that constantly comes up on the blogosphere – who featured on the cover of Big Brother’s ‘Gay Issue’ in 2002. He says he knows of plenty top level female pro skaters who are openly gay – something that ex-Big Brother editor Dave Carnie also confirms when he points me towards two big names. “There are others, too, but I’m not at liberty to say. That choice is theirs to make,” adds Templeton.

Bryce Kanights, an ex-pro skater turned photographer says he can think of seven skaters – ams, pros and ex-pros – who are gay, but not out in any formal way. Patrick O’Dell, too, photographer and the brains behind VBS TV’s Epicly Later’d series tells me he can think of six or seven people, pros and ex-pros, who are not out.

Though I was clear when talking to people that I wasn’t looking to publish a tabloid-style list of closeted skaters, the phrase ‘off the record’ was used constantly. No one, it seems, is keen to break the code. Tim explains: “All of their friends and everyone they hang out with and skate with knows, which is how everyone in the industry knows, because these things get around, but it’s just not publicised. I’d like to the think the reason it’s not publicised is because people are okay with it, but I think I’m a bit cynical; [I think] the reason it’s not talked about is because people don’t want it to be talked about.”

And why don’t people want it to be talked about? Michael Brooke, editor of Canada’s Concrete Wave magazine, says: “One of the key challenges is that you’re dealing with a youth market and that is a precarious thing from a business standpoint. What I think we’re tapping into here is that I think there are a lot of people in the business side of skateboarding who don’t really want to sponsor an openly gay skater because they don’t want to rock anybody’s boat. The typical street skater kid is between ten and twenty years old, with a big bulk being fourteen to sixteen. It’s kids who drive the business in terms of buying the stuff and swamping the pros for autographs, and I think at that age, it’s a very sensitive age in terms of your masculinity. I get the feeling that they aren’t close-minded people; they’re just people that are very scared that they’re dealing with such a dynamite issue.” Kanights agrees: “I think the underlying problem with the acceptance is that it’s a youth-driven activity.”

O’Dell, too, thinks the lack of openly gay pros is the result of protectionism on the industry’s part: “I’d say the heavy demographic is high school and that if someone is known as the gay skater, that would probably hurt sales.” He continues with an anecdote about his school days: “This is so stupid now, but I remember seeing a Jason Lee board with David Bowie on it and I remember thinking it was cool, and someone was like, ‘He’s gay.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t get that then because that’s the gay board.’ It’s totally stupid in retrospect, but at the time I was like, ‘I should choose one of these other boards, because I don’t want to show up to the park with the gay board.’”

So why don’t kids see being gay as just another colourful stripe in skateboarding’s diverse tapestry? We’ve got artsy skaters, jocky party-boy skaters, hip hop thug skaters and hesh rock skaters, but nowhere among that cultural mix are there any skaters that just happen to be gay. Carnie thinks this gap speaks of a wider problem: “I don’t think homophobia is any more specific to skateboarding than it is to youth culture, especially that specific age group. I think it’s more of a cultural issue that homosexuality amongst young men is considered a weakness.” Andrew Reynolds, who was Tim’s old teammate on Birdhouse, explains that part of the problem is that the gay stereotype doesn’t fit into the “tough guys, falling, bleeding” image of skating. And Brooke tends to agree: “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.”

A father of four, Brooke thinks that while today’s teenagers are more enlightened than their parents’ generation, they might still have preconceptions about what it means to be gay: “If they know people that are gay or have family members that are gay, it’s not a big deal, but they may still equate gays with being weak – that fairy, mincey, pansy kid of thing. I hate to say this, but I think it’s going to take time.”

I speak to Sophia Le who agrees that the road to acceptance is a long one. Sophia lives in the San Francisco area, skates and is gay. We talk about Sophia’s experience as a female skater and the recent interview in Canadian skate mag King Shit with transsexual skater Hillary Thompson, which Sophia sees as a progressive step. “Skateboarding has definitely grown up a lot and matured and is becoming more accepting, but it’s a slow and long process with anything that has discrimination [within it]. It takes so many baby steps. First, it’s like let’s accept other cultures and ethnicities and then let’s accept women, to a certain extent. And with anything that is male dominated, I feel that it’s always gay men that are the last to gain acceptance,” she says.

There’s a resigned frustration that comes through in her voice, the same frustration that echoes in the words of the next guy I speak to. Steve Olson, legend of the West Coast seventies skate scene, party animal and father of Girl Skateboards golden boy Alex Olson, is not one to sugarcoat things. Between weirdly long telephone silences and borderline lunacy (“Sorry, I was just looking for my lighter… Sorry, what was the question again? I’ve completely lost my mind,”) he laments skating’s closeted culture. “I think it’s pathetic to be honest. It’s 2011 and it’s like, ‘Who cares?’ Who really, really cares?” he says, before hammering the industry. “The skateboard world is run by idiots – they’re just greedy, money-grabbing whores.”

It’s easy to blame it on the industry. But I know that, aged fifteen, I was rolling around South Bank doing little, squirty kickflips and calling everything ‘gay’ – fast-forward three years to when I came out and it becomes apparent that teenage insecurity and inexperience is much of the problem. O’Dell agrees: “I think as a fifteen-year-old I was probably homophobic. I think if I met a gay person when I was fourteen, I’d be weirded out. It would be easy for me as a thirty-four-year-old to go like, ‘You guys are dumb, you guys are a bunch of un-informed little homophobes,’ when they haven’t had the experience to shape their opinions. Some fourteen-year-old writing on the message boards in Ohio probably just hasn’t met any gay people.”

But it’s also not okay to lump the blame on kids. In an era where information about every possible lifestyle is just a Google search away, shouldn’t we give young people more credit? Might they be more open-minded than we think? For Andrew Reynolds, ignorance has nothing to do with age. He recalls how, as a teenager coming down from Lakeland, Florida, he was pretty nonplussed by the whole issue. Upon finding out Tim was gay, he simply thought, “Wow, really? That’s a trip.”

I talk to Dr Nigel Jarvis, a senior lecturer at Brighton University who has explored masculinity issues in grassroots-level sports in the UK and Canada. He says that while sport is “one of the last bastions of homophobia” in society, younger people are more relaxed about sexuality than their parents’ generation. “It would be quite interesting to look at the ages of business people in that industry,” he adds. “They may have an old-fashioned view that gay athletes or pro skaters turn off young consumers. A lot of people making decisions could be basing them on a gut instinct that could be quite outdated. Do they have evidence to back that up?”

But surely being ‘cool with it’ should be the norm? Shouldn’t skaters be capable of taking this all in their stride? In the shift from being a bunch of reprobates screeching around Santa Monica to becoming a multimillion-dollar industry backed by some of the biggest brands in the world, has skating lost some of its maverick spirit?

“Yes,” offers Steve Olson, “and no.” Indeed, most people I speak to agree that while skating has changed, sections of it have stayed true to their alternative roots. “Some elements of skateboarding have retained their ‘fuck-you-we’re-different’ attitude and they’re growing,” says Brooke. Carnie agrees: “The female skate scene is getting much bigger. […] It reminds me of how skating was in the seventies and eighties, when there was no hope of making a living out of skateboarding. [Socially], nobody liked you. […] The girls are like that and they’re shoved off to the side.” Brooke agrees that there are more open-minded pockets within the world of skate. He thinks that longboarding, while rejected by the core, isn’t prone to the same exclusive clan mentality that plagues street skating – you can wear whatever shoes you want, you can dress however you want, you can be a girl and no one cares. “Uniformity and conformity, that mould, is being broken by the world of longboarding,” he argues. “Whether it’s down to its inclusive nature or not, longboarding grew forty per cent last year.”

But it’s not just the brands worrying about profit that are keeping closet doors shut; blame, too – if that’s even the right word – also lies with skaters who don’t want to come out for fear of a drop in board or shoe sales, which comprises the majority of their income, according to Kanights. “The reason why x pro doesn’t come out as gay is that he won’t sell any boards and the company will be threatened by it,” he says.

But is this all really about money? Possibly not. Kanights tells me he believes pros are reluctant to come out not just because it’s a commercial risk, but because it’s a social one, too. I ask whether he thinks there is genuine deep-seated homophobia within the ranks of pro skating? “I know there are some openly homophobic guys out there who are pro skaters,” he says.

It reminds me of an incident in 1993 in which pros Danny Way and Josh Swindell were involved in a fight outside a bar in Los Angeles with a man who was allegedly propositioning Swindell. The Los Angeles Times reported that the victim’s face was “beaten beyond recognition”. Way was never convicted of any offence in connection with the incident, but Swindell got fifteen years for second degree murder.

Patrick O’Dell tells me about an incident ten years ago where a skater who was rumoured to be gay left a tour after somebody said, ‘Oh, I heard you were a faggot.’ “It turned into the hugest fight with three skaters being extremely homophobic and the others sticking up for him,” says O’Dell. But while these incidents paint the worst possible picture of sections of skateboarding, Tim points out that, while on Birdhouse “there was no one I met when I was skateboarding or that I have ever talked to in skateboarding who ever had a problem with me being gay”.

Still, as Sophia Le points out, coming out professionally is a leap into the unknown. “I feel like for the gay athletes who want to come out, you need to know that there is a safety net out there for you to do that. Of course, there will be those who pioneer, who go out there and do it anyway, but to get there you also need that support from the industry.”

So is that safety net there? Templeton thinks so: “I would support my riders in their choice [to come out], certainly. And if they wanted to be the person whose mission it is to talk about it and bring it forward, then Toy Machine would be there to help.” But Templeton also stresses that a pro’s decision to not come out isn’t just about them wanting to protect their careers. “Not everyone has an axe to grind or is a willing banner carrier. Any gay skater who decided to come out as gay and be public with it would end up being ‘The Gay Skater’. Everything he or she did after that would be seen through the lens of them being gay. I can easily understand the reasons for not coming out.”

Dr Nigel Jarvis agrees. ”The problem with a lot of athletes that come out is that you’re still front-page news. You need to be a strong character to withstand constant questions about your sexuality,” he argues.

A few weeks after we first meet, Tim and I catch up at Mile End skate park, east London. It’s eight in the morning but, weirdly, we’re not alone: there’s a session going down among a small group with a mean age of about thirty. In between Tim lamenting his terrible nineties shoes (“They look like moonboots,” I tell him. “Oh, thanks,” he laughs) and showing me pictures of his new puppy, it’s apparent that he still has it, doing frontside airs in the bowl and lofting massive pop shove-its over the hip. We sit down for a breather and I ask him what would’ve happened if that interview had been published all those years ago. “Had the article gone ahead, and if there hadn’t been a massive backlash, I would probably still be skateboarding, just because of the amount of exposure it would have gotten,” he says. “Looking back, I should have pushed to get it printed. Tony [Hawk] wanted to do it and I think he was looking for me to push for it. It could have done a lot for other people.”

And what about today? Could an openly gay pro do a lot for skateboarding now? The panel thinks so. “Skateboarding needs things like that to keep it fresh, to keep it interesting and to keep it weird. Skateboarding should be weird,” says Carnie. Templeton adds: “Let’s get this stupid debate/experiment over with. If we think we are so progressive or even countercultural, we should have been past this twenty years ago.” Finally, outspoken as ever, Steve Olson chimes in with: “If I were gay I’d be like, ‘Yo, I am flaming, hear me roar!’ I would love to see some out-of-control homosexual skateboarder come out, like some outrageously over-the-top drag queen who’s like, ‘I’m skating for Judy!’ And you’re like, ‘Give it, girl!’ And he’s like, ‘That’s right, bitches!’ and goes and does like a triple set.”

“Would that be the true spirit of skateboarding?” I ask.

“Totally.”