The uncompromising new film about young gay surfers, which starts shooting in Sydney this week, threatens to torpedo one of Australia's last red-blooded heterosexual role models by revealing the often brash, softer side of the "surfies".
In an echo of what director Ang Lee's homosexual western Brokeback Mountain has done for cowboys, the controversial subject matter has already caused considerable waves in Sydney. While there are now women surfers and even groups of Christian surfers, as in many other Australian sports there are still precious few openly homosexual ones. The film's English director and writer, Ed Aldridge, said: "There are heaps of gay surfers but there aren't any of them who are out and therefore there's this fear of exposure."
The movie, called Tan Lines, because Aldridge said it concerns what is usually hidden, tells the story of a homosexual affair between a teenager and another surfer in a small coastal town. "Obviously when you have tanned, toned bodies in half-curled-down wetsuits walking along the beach there's a sexual element," he said.
Aldridge, who is 27, gay, and himself a surfer based in Bondi, said there has been an uneasy reaction to the project, which is aimed at gay audiences worldwide, from the dominant surf culture which he describes as homophobic. "The surf magazines, they've reacted in the way I thought they would ... there was one headline, 'Poofters Ahoy'. It's because they think the film is about perving on them as surfers, although in no way do I want to make it a film [like that]. They are very defensive about the depiction of them surfing," he said.
The low-budget movie, which challenges the macho paradigm of bare-chested blokes who bravely ride their "planks" on towering waves, certainly raised eyebrows and comment from surfers at Sydney's appropriately titled Manly Beach, named by an explorer after the confident and masculine local Aborigines. Tim Plunkett, 20, said that, while he didn't know many gay people, he wouldn't have a problem with them surfing as long as they didn't try kissing between sets of waves. "I feel it's more of a manly sport, and as gay men have more feminism in them it's not likely to appeal to them," he said.
However Aussie surfer Paul Allison said gays were accepted with "no problems" these days, especially in Sydney. "There are some dudes who wear budgie smugglers [tight-fitting swimming trunks] that you think could be gay, and some guys with dodgy outfits on. But you never know, though," he said. His surfing girlfriend, Aimee McKee, also doubted whether there was any homophobia at the celebrated beach. "Surfers are a very accepting group of people. They accept women, they accept homosexual people, no worries. They just love the ocean, and if you respect the ocean, they are happy to have you as part of their group."
Like others, she said, she didn't know any gay surfers personally and was surprised that lesbians, who have come out in other sports, weren't more openly a part of the surf scene. "If gays realised how good for their bodies surfing was they might be interested in getting out there and shaping up," she said. "Maybe it is an issue of intimidation."
In fact, 500 miles to the south, in Melbourne, there is a gay and lesbian surfing group known as Bent Boards, which is probably the only such association in the country. It has been going for two years, meets twice a month in summer and has 160 people, mainly beginners, on the email list. "We are trying to build up our profile, and the fact that gay and lesbian people do surf," said convener Gail Chrisfield, speaking from Torquay, Victoria, the so-called surf capital of Australia.
She said Bent Boards employs heterosexual surf coaches to teach members the ropes and said their reaction was always that gays and lesbians were a "lot of fun" to teach. "We tend to have a lot more women - there seems to be a big upsurge in popularity with women. But we are keen to have more guys down, as the ones who do it really enjoy it," she said. Bent Boards is even organising a "let's go surfing day" as part of Victoria's annual gay Midsumma Festival.
The official body, Surfing Australia, said there was no discrimination against gay surfers and it would be illegal if there were. A spokesman said he knew of one homosexual competitor in sport, but he had decided not to come out publicly.
Ed Aldridge tried to cast gay surfers in his film, which he hopes to finish by June in time for the festival season. But he couldn't find any, so he settled for straight surfers who are also non-actors. He refuses to tone down the explicit nature of the story and expects it to make as much of a splash when it's screened as it has even before it has been made. "There's a lot of sex in it; there's teenage characters; there's drugs; there's a lot of swearing and quite surreal moments," he said.
Joanne Hillman, a spokeswoman for the British Surfing Association, which is based at Fistral Beach in Newquay, the spiritual home of English surfing, said that despite the sport's image, surfers in general were very accepting of homosexuality. "Surfers have always had a bohemian lifestyle and been quite alternative and non-conformist," said Ms Hillman. "I know there is a macho image - with things like big wave riding, for example - but surfers tend to be quite open. Homosexuality is probably more accepted within the surfing community than in other, more traditional sports."
THE WORD ON MANLY BEACH
MARK WASHINGTON, FAMILY MAN, 37:
"It's not the sort of environment to be openly gay. You have your shorts and boards - how can you be gay?"
JONAS LARSEN, FROM SWEDEN:
"The aggressive nature of many young Australian males is one of the downsides of the sport even if you are not gay. They are very macho."
GUS DAVIES, STUDENT, 20:
"There are gay surfers, definitely, but I don't know about any gay surfing scene. It's hard to be camp on a surfboard or anything like that."
CLINTON MOODY, 32, FROM MANLY:
"I've never bumped into any. There's too much testosterone in the water for them."
MATT SKELTON, TEENAGER:
"I know two lesbian surfers but not any gay men. No one is really open about it. It's pretty homophobic around here."
MATT WILSON, FROM MANLY:
"Many board riders probably are homophobic. When you are a kid you think it's not cool to be gay. When you grow up you realise how stupid you were."Reuse content