The Stranger

Until recently, skateboarding was the only major sport in which not a single professional was out of the closet. That's right, from basketball on down to bobsledding, there are out pros.

Last September, that changed. Legendary skate pro Brian Anderson came out of the closet in a splashy VICE Sports documentary, and the skateboard world responded by giving itself a big collective pat on the back. While Anderson's announcement is absolutely a milestone for skateboarding, as a die-hard skateboarder myself, it's been hard to join in the celebration. You see, I've been skateboarding for 16 years, and I've known I wasn't entirely straight for 15 of them.

Anderson stayed staunchly in the closet for the majority of his pro career, but I've known he was gay since the early aughts, when he approached my obnoxiously handsome friend Todd at a Girl Skateboards team demo in Shoreline. Anderson told Todd in an unequivocally suggestive manner that he had beautiful eyes. Years passed after that incident, years in which Anderson didn't come out of the closet I knew he was in, years in which he ended up serving as a role model for being in the closet.

That said, I understand why he didn't come out earlier. As he put it in the documentary, "Hearing 'faggot' all the time made me think at a young age that it was really dangerous to talk about it." And you do hear it all the time. If you're a dude who is into dudes, growing up in the skate community is an exercise in tolerating casual homophobia.

The meet-up spot, in my experience, is one of the last bastions of Donald Trump's just-between-us-guys "locker room talk." The word "gay" is still considered an acceptable pejorative. If someone is being annoying, they're "such a fag." If someone is battling a hard, scary trick, they tell themselves to "just do it, no homo." The implication is that equivocation and weakness are implicitly queer characteristics—and more importantly, that gay people are not good people as far as skateboarding is concerned. I had plenty of reasons to avoid coming out, but Anderson's reticence—especially because he is so deservedly a legend—was a potent confirmation that it was wise to keep my mouth shut.


QUEER LIKE ME: I’ve been skateboarding for 16 years, and I’ve known I wasn’t entirely straight for 15 of them. Tim Urpman

It's always been easy for me to fly under the radar. I am very much the classic skate bro: I primarily date women, I'm covered in dumb skate tattoos, and I'm happiest when drinking Rainier out of a brown paper bag and idly skating around the Cal Anderson tennis courts. My encounters with guys have been few and far between, and they've never presented a logistical problem—they've always kind of happened at random, and never at places that my skate friends or I frequent. If I never said anything to anyone, they'd never know.

Indeed, for a long time, I haven't said anything to anyone. When I was 20, I moved into an apartment on Capitol Hill with an older skate friend. It was a three-bedroom, and we needed someone for the third room, so we wrote a Craigslist ad. Right before we posted it, he told me he wanted to put something in the text to indicate that we'd prefer a straight roommate. I'd only awkwardly and abortively made out with a male high-school classmate at that point, and I didn't really have a firm hold on my sexuality, and I always dated women, so I just kept my mouth shut. It seemed so much easier to omit the complicated truth.

We ended up describing ourselves in the Craigslist ad as "two straight guys," a phrase that, while not overtly discriminatory, still didn't feel great to write, because some part of me knew it was code for "no homos." Three months into that lease, I had my first homosexual encounter. I was shopping for ironic T-shirts at the Capitol Hill Value Village, and my checker just so happened to be the hottest guy I had ever laid eyes on—tall and ripped. He also happened to be a pretty good flirt and, before I knew it, I'd accepted his invitation to come over for a social gathering at his apartment. That social gathering ended up being him, me, a pack of Lucky Strike lights, and some cheap beer. I'm sure you can figure out how that went.

When I woke up the next morning, instead of being elated that I'd gone to bed with the World's Hottest Guy, there was a lump the size of a grapefruit in my throat. I felt, for the first time, the fear of being outed. What if he told someone I knew? What if my roommate found out? I had myself convinced that there would be real consequences to my living situation, so instead of seeing the World's Hottest Guy again, I ignored his calls and doubled down on the farce of being a 100 percent straight skate bro. Having a healthy and enduring attraction to women certainly helped. I decided just to focus on that.

However, the more I came to understand and accept my identity, the more male partners I had, and the more I was able to be open about it with friends and family outside of skateboarding, the more I came to understand how fucked up it was that I was closeted in such a major portion of my life—among my skater friends, who were the best friends I had. I was, whether I wanted to admit it or not, staying in the closet for all the wrong reasons.

For one, I was coddling straight people's feelings. I'd convinced myself that I was making life easier for them by not coming out. I was preserving my valuable friendships within the world of skateboarding by "not making it weird" for anyone. Being in the inner circle is something that was extremely important to me growing up. I wanted to be down, I wanted to hang out behind the counter at the skate shop, I wanted to get invited to go skate with the older guys.

It always seemed difficult, if not impossible, to be both one of the guys and someone who is open about occasionally sleeping with guys. So I kept it to myself. As progressive and accepting and punk as skateboarding culture thinks itself to be, it is still very uncomfortable with queerness in its midst—which is partly why it took Anderson so long to come out. It's easy for straight men to understand and accept gayness when it's something that is very clearly delineated, when it's drag queens and pride parades and leather daddies. But when it's someone in your crew? Someone you skate with every day? Go on road trips with? Talk about girls with? That's a lot closer to home.

In Anderson's VICE segment, much fanfare is made of him not being "into skaters." A significant part of the nearly half-hour segment is spent on him explaining that he is into big, burly bear dudes. I couldn't help but wonder if that was there simply so that the skaters watching it could be like, "Oh cool, he's off in Gayopolis doing gay things, and when he's skating with the dudes, he's just skating."

Tobias Coughlin-Bogue. Tim Urpman

News flash, motherfuckers, I'm into all types of dudes, but when I'm skating, I'm always just skating. I find kickflip crooked grinds to be a lot more fascinating than your fanny. Regardless, one of the main reasons I was afraid to come out for so long is that I worried I would be an unwelcome addition to the session because everyone would assume I was checking them out. This is homophobic bullshit, the result of a long and deliberate campaign by mainstream culture to paint gay men as hypersexualized deviants and otherwise "other," and I'm over it.

The second reason I found it difficult to come out has to do with the awkward position that men who do not conform to our ideals of gayness or straightness find themselves in. Being out and proud always seemed to be antithetical to the lifestyle and identity I'd become accustomed to, because coming out is portrayed as a game of absolutes. Would coming out as not 100 percent straight mean I had to stop dating women? Stop wearing the same pair of Dickies for four days in a row? Stop spending rainy Friday nights drinking lukewarm Coors Light in a parking garage with my skate buds? To follow this line of thinking—my line of thinking—it was as if everyone would be fine with me being flamboyantly gay, but they wouldn't be fine with me being a regular old skater who happens to sleep with dudes now and then.

Now I see all of this is wrapped up in heterosexual male insecurity. The idea that you're either 100 percent straight or 100 percent gay is another way of delineating the world, separating "them" from "us." Relying on this rigid definition of sexuality is very convenient for men who might not be too keen to examine where they fall on the spectrum. I know plenty of people who have taken the time to ask themselves where they stood and have only ended up realizing how very straight they are. Those are always the people who seem both most secure in their heterosexuality and to have no deep need to defend it. By contrast, the guys who are afraid to examine their own sexuality are the ones who, like many Republican congressmen before them, are potentially in for an unpleasant reckoning later in life.

Anyway, even before Anderson made his big announcement, I was feeling an ever increasing duty to come out myself. To do my part, challenge some notions, change some minds, and so on. All I had to do, I realized, was own my queerness. Own it in the context of skateboarding. Admit it to people.

So I did, starting with my closest, oldest skate friends. Truthfully, one of them already knew. I don't remember the exact moment, but I know that, at some point in my early 20s, I let Todd in on my secret. I have fuzzy memories of being up way too late and drunk off cheap beer in his basement apartment, but that describes a lot of nights back then.

More recently, my friend Julian picked me up to go skate and immediately asked my thoughts on the news about Brian Anderson coming out. I'd always been particularly nervous about Julian finding out about me, especially during the year and a half that he was my manager at a restaurant. He is aggressively straight and a big fan of the "Who takes it in the ass?" genre of good-natured shit-giving.

I always knew it was good-natured shit, but something that good-natured shit-givers might not know is that it's actually terrifying. If you're queer, let's say, and everyone is speculating that you might be queer—with the implication being, of course, that you're a weirdo if you are—the prospect of being outed is kind of scary. Not "beaten and left behind a dumpster to die" scary, but "tearing apart the social fabric of your life" scary.

When Julian broached the subject of Anderson coming out, I quickly realized that skateboarding was no longer the only thread that held together the social fabric of my life. Plus, he was no longer my manager. There had never been a more opportune time to have the conversation.

"I think it's rad he did that," I said. "I don't know if you know this, but I'm also into dudes." This being modern-day Seattle, I was pretty sure he wouldn't kick me out of the car, but I was expecting it to be pretty awkward. This was a guy who once told me that gay sex was the most emasculating thing he could imagine.

I was pleasantly surprised to be proved wrong. He was the epitome of supportive. He did not make it awkward. We talked in the car for a while before getting to the skate park, and he kept telling me how happy he was for me, how proud of me he was, and how excited he was for me to finally get this weight off my chest. More importantly, he told me that it wouldn't change our friendship a bit, which is what I'd been most scared of.

"I just want you to know that it changes nothing for me, and it does not make me think of you any differently," he texted me later that day, adding, "Fuck anyone that treats you unfairly."

A few weeks ago, I met up with my former roommate—the one I wrote that Craigslist ad with—for a session, followed by the traditional post-skating pints at the College Inn Pub. After I told him, he gave me the warmest, most sincere hug I've ever received. We talked about the ad, I told him about the Value Village checker, and I told him about the grapefruit-sized lump in my throat the next day. It turns out that was entirely unnecessary. He wouldn't have kicked me out of the apartment in a million years, he assured me. Perhaps for that one time I drunkenly threw a computer monitor off the balcony, but definitely not for being attracted to guys.

"You're my little brother," he reminded me. "We're family."

My coming-out experience, at least within my close circle of friends, has been extremely heartening. I've got a lot more good friends to get a beer with (hopefully before this article hits the streets), but so far the process of coming out as queer has restored the faith I'd lost in skateboarding as a refuge for misfits. (For what it's worth, yes, I think of myself as "queer." I don't think of myself as "bisexual"—that word sounds too binary and dated to me.)

The really hard part is changing the culture, and that's the motivation behind coming out, and the motivation behind this article. Changing the culture means challenging harmful stereotypes wherever you encounter them, however uncomfortable the ensuing conversation might be. It means potentially being called "that dude who wrote the article about being gay." Honestly, it kind of sucks, but I can't in good conscience continue to let this stuff slide.

Despite all the broken bones, missed exams, legal citations, and ruined relationships it has led to, skateboarding has been an overwhelmingly positive influence on my life. It keeps me healthy and happy. It helps me forget Donald Trump for a few precious minutes each day. It's something I'm deeply emotionally invested in, as frustrating as that investment can sometimes be. It's the biases that are endemic to skateboarding in general, not skateboarders specifically, that I feel duty bound to challenge. I want us to do better.

Skateboarding, culturally and conversationally, still seems to suggest that you cannot be one of its "core" practitioners and be queer. You can be a novelty, you can nose-grind a huge handrail in chaps and a thong on the cover of Big Brother magazine's "Gay Issue," but you can't be a serious, tough-guy skater's skater. (The novelty phenomenon is even worse for female skaters, sadly, but that's another article.) Anderson being the first pro to come out certainly helps, as it doesn't get much more serious and tough than him, but he didn't come out until near the end of his skate career. It's going to take more than that.

If we want to drive the toxic masculinity out of this subculture, if we want to ensure that this thing we love is welcoming to people, we need to do it on a local level, person to person. Skaters like me, who are in a position to challenge the assumptions that skateboarding's homophobia rests upon, need to challenge those assumptions whenever we safely can, and we need to be loud about it. Cultural change doesn't happen in the space of one VICE doc. It happens incrementally, and it starts with individuals.