ARTIST STEPHEN MILNER IS LAUGHING NERVOUSLY AS WE LOOK UPON HIS LATEST CREATION. WE’RE MASKED UP IN TYPICAL PANDEMIC FASHION, STANDING IN A HOT SAN DIEGO GARAGE THAT’S SERVED AS MILNER’S STUDIO THIS SUMMER.
I’d imagine the nervous laughter is a regular occurrence for the 29-year-old, given the provocative nature of his work, which explores themes like queer identity and toxic masculinity in a world not known to do so—the surf world.
Between us sits a large sheet of plywood resting on a pair of sawhorses. The wood’s surface is printed with a very-Instagrammable beach scene, the golden rays of a setting sun dancing off the surface of the water. Where the sun should be, however, Milner’s cut a circle out of the wood and replaced it with, well, a glory hole.
“I’m thinking I’ll probably write ‘locals only’ on it,” Milner says, surely smirking under his mask.
By the time you read this, the installation likely will have gone up (and been torn down in a moral panic, if we’re being honest) along some of surfing’s most hallowed ground—the Malibu wall.
Subtlety, as you might have deduced by now, isn’t really Milner’s thing. He’s a natural-born shit-stirrer, and a talented one at that, specializing in this kind of mischievous dance with cultural critique and tongue-in-cheek.
Milner holds a master’s degree in fine art from the University of Oregon, where he worked in sculpture, photography, video and installation. As a lifelong surfer from Long Island, New York, it was only a matter of time before his work exploring queer identity connected to his experience with surf culture. It started with Milner painting Beach Boys lyrics with all the gender pronouns switched around. He then made nude sculptures à la Michelangelo using Mr. Zog’s Sex Wax. And most recently he created a book splicing up found photographs from old surf magazines and similarly beachy images from gay publications, creating a kind of alternative, queer visual surf history.
In the fine art world, this would be seen as pretty low-stakes stuff. Edgy, sure, but no one is going to tear anything offa gallery wall in outrage. When Milner’s work started making its way into surfy circles, however, all bets were off.
“Even though I started making work based on surfing, surfers were never my intended audience,” says Milner, “because I knew I would get the reactions I’m getting now.”
Milner and I are having this conversation about a week after SURFER published an online interview about his book project. In the SURFER article, Milner opened up about his upbringing, feeling unable to come out to his surf friends, and why he thought it was important to challenge homophobia and toxic masculinity in surfing.
The conversation was nuanced, but the reactions from other surfers on social media were anything but. From “Brokeback Mountain” jokes to comments like “Queer surfers are kooks” to claims of “the media shoving gay culture down [our] throat”, it was a bit of a dumpster fire. Milner wasn’t shocked—he knows surf culture, after all—but it did give him some pause.
“I know that my artwork isn’t going to be for everyone, and I want to have difficult conversations through my art.” Milner says. “But I’m a sensitive person as well. When those comments first started happening, it was hard. I reached out to a friend who does this kind of work as well and asked, ‘Am I doing the right thing here? Do you ever have these conversations around your work?’ And he goes, ‘No, dude, I’m strictly in the art world and your work is now floating into the surf world, and you’re going to have to deal with that.’”
As a queer artist in the surf world, Milner may be in a position of particular exposure to surf culture’s homophobia. But the truth is that every LGBTQ+ surfer deals with it on some level.
The ocean may not judge based on sexuality or gender identity, but many surfers do. Surf culture reflects our demographics to an extent, and most surfers—certainly those with the most influence in the culture—likely live in homogenous, affluent, socially-conservative coastal enclaves. But surf culture seems to skew even more regressive on LGBTQ+ issues than our demographics would suggest.
While today you aren’t as likely to hear the once-constant homophobic slurs in beachside parking lots, the problem persists in different forms. It’s not hard to find. Just poke around on social media for a bit and you might see Stab’s Instagram post about renaming the “sex change” skateboard trick the “Caitlyn Jenner” in surfing. Or maybe you’ll find the post on a San Diego surf shop’s page where Kelly Slater calls a shaper he’s feuding with “sexually confused”. It’s not the same as barking slurs in the lineup—which still happens, too—but it has a similar effect in signaling to others who is and isn’t welcome in surfing.
But surf culture is changing—both passively, as the world changes and surfing is begrudgingly pulled with it, and actively, through the efforts of young queer surfers like Milner. How quickly it does, however, has much more to do with straight, cisgender surfers than it does with members of LGBTQ+ surf community.
“I want to see more people feeling comfortable coming out in surfing,” says Milner. “I hope this conversation just keeps going until people feel uncomfortable to actually reach out and say bigotry and harsh words toward anyone who’s different from them. You may think there’s no place for different people in surfing, but you’re wrong.”
Cori Schumacher greets me at a park overlooking a tranquil lagoon framed by spindly reeds. We’re not far from the SURFER offices, but I’ve never once noticed this oddly-Zen corner of Carlsbad’s suburban sprawl. Schumacher would know all the good spots in this city, though, considering she literally runs the place.
City Council Member Schumacher represents Carlsbad’s 1st District, which contains this park, a long stretch of beach (the surf could be better) and many thousands of residents. But before she occupied Carlsbad’s halls of power, she was on the outside of pro surfing’s, pushing its institutions to evolve on social issues.
Raised in San Diego by surf-obsessed parents, Schumacher epitomized the Southern California super grom, seldom seen out of a wetsuit on weekends, always sparring for a podium spot at local events, with piles of plastic trophies back home to show for it. For someone who’d later be cast as an outsider in the surf world, Schumacher’s upbringing looked less like Erik Logan’s and more like Kolohe Andino’s.
Schumacher’s parents placed a lot of pressure on her to perform, but that wasn’t the biggest burden she felt at the time. She was gay—a fact that she couldn’t tell her family, who were both deeply religious and deeply immersed in a homophobic surfing culture.
This was the 1980s, a time when most surf brands used bikini-clad models as lusty props for male team riders to pose within magazine ads. Actual female surfers, on the other hand, didn’t get much play unless they could also be cast as one of those lusty objects. Or, as Shumacher puts it: “Male surfers in the ‘80s were basically presented as rock stars, and at the same time, athletic female surfers were being castigated as lesbians.”
Her parents told her that those women were holding back women’s surfing as a whole, the implication being that if they just made themselves more desirable from the surf industry’s male, heterosexual perspective, it would lead to more opportunity for all women in surfing.
“If I wanted to be a part of the problem, then I would end up being a lesbian,” says Schumacher of her parent’s worldview. “When I first started to feel as though maybe that was the case for me, I distanced myself from that feeling a lot, which led to internal fragmentation that was a pretty serious mental issue for me when I was growing up.”
When Schumacher qualified for the 1995 ASP Women’s World Tour, she remembers the judges telling her to smile more, wear her hair long and avoid hanging with certain female surfers if she wanted to succeed. By 1998, she’d soured on surf culture and surf competition altogether quit both and left for San Francisco to attend college and try to learn to accept herself.
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