THE BACKSTORY // BOBBY WORREST
This past May, I found myself in Washington, D.C., for 48 hours. With such a short amount of time available, I thought...
By Ben Stephenson
Last September, when Giovanni Reda and VICE Sports released their documentary Brian Anderson on Being a Gay Professional Skateboarder, we got our first openly gay major pro. The video was a huge deal, and skateboarding is certainly better for its existence. Historically, skateboard culture has done much to enforce the sexual status quo––despite its allegedly “countercultural” image––and our media has until now been hetero-normative and homophobic to the extent that anything that even acknowledged the existence of queer skateboarders has come as a breath of fresh air. B.A. is a bona fide legend, and for someone of his stature to publicly confirm the gay rumour amid skateboarding’s media climate was, in 2016, still unprecedented and massively brave. However, I think we need to look past the congratulatory headlines and make clear exactly what we’re trying to celebrate.
The video begins by establishing, in Mike Carroll’s words, “how gnarly Brian is.” A host of big-name pros––Carroll, Guy Mariano, Frank Gerwer––offer praise to B.A., essentially reminding us that, as Omar Salazar puts it, B.A. is “burly, like a monster human being … the most manliest figure I’ve ever seen.” To support this, there’s footage of Brian skating intercut between speakers. In the video’s first two minutes, B.A. is associated with all of the following words: “bad ass,” “aggression,” “determination,” “crazy axe murderer,” and “he don’t give a shit.” So okay, we get it: B.A. is traditionally masculine.
Next there’s a fair amount of work done to establish another aspect of B.A. According to Sam Smyth, on Girl trips, sometimes Brian would wander off and go “do something away from the crew.” Cue a shot of B.A. alone in the distance, sitting against a wall and talking into his phone. “We just figured, okay, he just likes his own personal space,” says Smyth. “I guess I didn’t understand what that was, at first, you know, but in hindsight I can see why.” “He was different,” says Carroll. “He was way different.”
Then, at the 3:04 mark, we’re finally given access to Brian’s own perspective. He sits at his living room table, looking right into the camera. “My name is Brian Anderson, I’m a professional skateboarder, and we are here to talk about the fact that I’m gay.” Cut immediately to a full-minute-long montage of some of B.A.’s best skateboarding.
Watching the thing, you can actually feel the homophobia lurking in the background. I’m not talking about hate; I’m talking about phobia. Reda’s lens knows full well that we skateboarders aren’t comfortable with one of our elite coming out unless we’ve first been banged over the head with machismo and othering. Yes, Brian Anderson might be gay, but he’s also gnarly and manly. And don’t forget: he’s also not quite like us!
Herein lies a more complicated problem. Because let’s not forget, most of a given skateboarder’s identity is based on a foundation of othering various things. Back in the day, Mike Vallely told us to never let ourselves become “pedestrians.” Thrasher tells us to remain as uneducated as possible, low-brow, vaguely punk. We can’t be basic, but we also can’t be pretentious. To be a true skateboarder, to be legit, requires adherence to a virtually endless code of regulations, rules that are always changing, and always unspoken, but always known by each of us with total certainty.
When I started skating at fourteen, in the early 2000’s, I began a long education in what I couldn’t be. Here’s a tiny sample of the list of things I came to learn that a skater absolutely could not do without risking potential ostracization from the skateboard community: perform certain tricks that are known to be wack; wear the wrong shoes or clothes; carry one’s skateboard by the truck; push with the front foot rather than the back; purchase certain skateboard brands; appreciate certain pros; be female, or be any gender other than cis-male; be gay; be handsome; view women as human beings or be in a serious loving relationship with a woman––i.e. be of any sexual orientation other than heterosexual misogynist; execute tricks improperly/unconventionally; put out footage shot in a skatepark instead of the streets; do too many tech tricks; do too many stairs or handrails; care about one’s health; follow trends; make art, or at least any art that isn’t photography or doesn’t look like it belongs in JUXTAPOZ; participate in any other sport/activity; take more than a few days off from skateboarding unless seriously injured; dislike beer; be anything other than skinny or muscular; be overly muscular; teach a woman to ride a skateboard; have good posture; appreciate one’s own progress in skateboarding; unironically express emotion; use fancy words; practice any religion other than Skateboarding; skate in too many contests, or practice one’s tricks too much; ride the wrong size board or any trucks that aren’t Independents; read books; wear glasses; wear a helmet at any time…
You get it. And let’s be clear: I’m probably still pretty invested in a lot of these. It’s not hard to spot which other parts of the list are way more insidious and harmful, though, and desperately need to be dismantled. Hence the Brian Anderson video. But the video endorses another set of rules informed by homophobia, and in the end it frankly feels bizarre. It seems to be making a real attempt to celebrate B.A.’s homosexuality, but it also constantly guards itself against some perceived contamination of gayness.
Around five minutes in, Brian describes discovering his attraction to men, at age three or four. He noticed himself liking men’s facial hair, and later he felt drawn to the massive-chested Bluto character from Popeye cartoons, which he says is “funny,” because “that’s what I like now, as an adult.” Cut immediately to Carroll: “Yeah, skaters are definitely not his type! So all you skaters out there, don’t even trip.” In other words: sure, B.A. might be gay, but don’t worry. He’s not going to be pestering you for a date while you’re trying to perfect your nosegrind pop-out. But why do we still need to maintain this safe distance?
The video is at its best when it gives us B.A.’s heartbreaking account of his years of closeted shame, and his longtime fantasy of eventually disappearing into the country somewhere to finally begin his life. Or of his fear of coming out earlier in his career arc, his knowledge of the danger of who he was, and how he used his achievements in skateboarding––and a fair amount of alcohol––to compensate for the secret. And it’s at its worst when it lazily plays into gay stereotypes (e.g. when Brandon Biebel claims he always asks B.A. for advice on his outfits) or when it participates in cringey voyeurism (e.g. when, in the credits, Reda asks an uncomfortable-looking Brian “Have you ever had one that was too big? Where you’re like ‘I’m not fuckin’ with that thing?!’”) or when it makes Brian prove his gayness through irrelevant questions (How does he know he’s gay? Has he ever slept with a woman?). But its true take-away message is somewhere in the middle.
It’s summarized perfectly by Lindsey Byrnes, when she talks about Jake Phelps’ and Thrasher’s acceptance of B.A.’s homosexuality: “The one thing that they love and respect the most,” she says, “is a really good skateboarder. That trumps everything. So what are you gonna say? I mean he’s a great skateboarder, and they loved him, and respected him.” Or, as Mariano observes at the film’s conclusion: “We already love this dude. We’ve already given him S.O.T.Y. … It’s like, if you did have any pre-existing thoughts or bigotry … you can’t deny it now. Because you’re already in love with this dude, he is our superhero. And you can’t take that cape off once you’ve put that on him.”
The message here is pretty clear. If you can prove you’re good enough at skateboarding, if you can check off enough other boxes on the Legit List, then skateboarding will be able to accept that you’re also gay. But seriously––that can’t be the moral we were aiming for, can it? Conditional acceptance is actually just compromise. And conditional “love” isn’t love at all.
Part of the reason B.A. wanted to make a coming-out video was to give hope to gay skaters. He wants them “to hear what I went through, and to know how everything got better for me, and I got a lot happier, and felt more free, and didn’t have all the shame buried inside my body … to convey that message was really important to me.” So what about all the gay skaters out there who aren’t already Brian Anderson? What about a gloriously flamboyant skater? Or what about the female skaters, the trans skaters? Is this really what we want to say to all those we’ve shamed and ignored and feared for so long? If you work hard enough, if you succeed in proving yourself and fitting in, we will eventually look past your unspeakable flaw. Are we still not ready to straight-up say it’s not a flaw? That it can only amplify the true spirit of skateboarding? Can we now, after seven decades, finally say more than “it’s cool, dude?” Can we say We love you? We’re so glad you’re here?