Craig Butler is a seven time Irish national champion, 21 years old and from Tramore Co. Waterford, Ireland. In 2016 he wants to represent his country on the World Longboard tour, and be the first openly gay surfer on the Mens World Tour.
In truth we shouldn’t even have to publish a story about a surfer coming out, it is 2016 FFS, however I think we all know that there are still some living in a weird world where some people are afraid of homosexual males. I am not sure if they think gay folk will jump on them after half a shandy and change their sexual polarity or something but the stigma is unfortunately still around. Having had several friends of both sexes come out at different stages of their lives I can tell you they can go through hell. As if being a spotty hormonal teen isn’t bad enough for most kids some have to deal with the added bonus of realising their sexuality is going to result in bullying and piss taking. Even in adulthood some people find it really hard to be themselves. In short coming out can be pretty brutal when it shouldn’t even be an issue. It is a fact of life that not many make the journey without some sort of scar, many contemplating suicide along the way. While gay female surfers now have role models and the stigma seems to be fading male surfers have no such luck. So it was a pretty brave move when Irish Longboard champion Craig Butler came out publicly in a documentary film, Out In The Lineup. Since then he has had no regrets and huge amount support. Now he wants to share his experiences and be the first openly gay surfer on the Mens World Tour. CARVE caught up with him to learn more about growing up, the problems he faced and the future. (You can help Craig reach his goal www.gofundme.com/worldsurftour )
“I’m at a place in my life right now that would have made me panic just a couple of years ago. Shit, if someone even mentioned the word ‘’gay’’ around me, I would go red in the face and start to sweat. I don’t know how I got here, but I’m very happy that I did.
“I was afraid that people would think differently about me, that the Craig that people have known for years would no longer be and that the new me that they would learn to know about would ruin all of the respect and accomplishments I’ve achieved over the years.
“I’ve tried so hard since I was a kid to be liked and to try to build a name for myself as a surfer. I thought that if people found out that I was gay that they would no longer want to be associated with me and would think of me as just another stereotype.
“I spent a lot of my young teen years feeling like a complete loner and a total outcast because I am gay. It led to a lot of issues in school. I spent years thinking a lot about how much easier it would be if I was dead. I would cut myself, not just because I felt like it would ease a lot of pain but also so on the off chance someone would notice me in my early school days. Depression wouldn’t be my greatest friend at the best of times, and battling with coming to terms with my sexuality and wanting to be liked didn’t help this.
“I went from being bullied to being the bully as a youngster and it’s still something that I regret to this day and beg those who I bullied for their forgiveness. I thought that if I picked on others then somehow people would see me as ‘tough’ and never question my sexuality. I’m still ashamed. The thought of putting another youngster who was also dealing with themselves through torment still eats me up inside, even though that was a long time ago.
“You might think “What does this even have to do with surfing?” The truth is, it probably has nothing to do with surfing. But I do know my teenage years would have been a lot easier if I could read about a pro surfer who also battled the same demons I struggled with. That alone might have softened the blow. Maybe if I’d been able to see just how gay people are accepted in the surf community, I wouldn’t have grown up to be the nervous wreck that I am today. I know these things would have made a huge difference to me as a kid, and I believe it can make a difference to the thousands out there today facing the same inner struggles.”
“Growing up, I would never accept myself as being gay. I wanted to be the best but I thought that people would just end up hating me if they ever found out. I battled thoughts of suicide, telling myself I would have to kill myself if anybody ever found out I was gay. I remember a couple of instances some people nearly found out and I thought to myself “Well this is the end of me, there’s no room for gay surfers.” I would Google search gay professional surfers but never found any. That only added to my feelings of loneliness and the belief that I was the only person going through this. Feeling like the only person on earth sucked. No matter how many contests I won or how many days of good waves that I got, nothing filled that dark hole. I just wanted to be liked for being me, but I could never imagine my life where people would know that I’m gay and accept me.
“Things instantly felt better when I finished school. I didn’t have to act like the tough guy just to hide the truth. Then I was offered a part in the documentary OUT in the Lineup. After thinking it over for a couple of months I realised if I was going to come out, there was probably no better way to do it. Foolishly, I thought it would never be screened in Ireland so I would’t have to worry about anyone I know seeing it.
“I was traveling through New Zealand with a bunch of childhood friends when the film was shown at a festival back home in Ireland. I panicked. I was surprised, though, when I started getting emails and messages from people I’d looked up to. There were messages from surfers in Ireland, congratulating me and reassuring me that it wasn’t a big deal. I came out to my friends that I was traveling with, and they too could not have been happier for me. To my absolute shock, nobody cared about my sexuality (in the negative way I had feared, that is). They supported me and showed me love. It might have been a big deal for me, but I learned it wasn’t a big deal for anyone else because it didn’t impact their life. As a teen, I remember coming across a thread about homosexuality in surfing online. I remember reading the homophobic comments on it and I remember just feeling sick and thinking to myself “Wow, this is what my life is going to be like.” The day that I came out healed a lot of scars from the years I spent alone, hating myself for who I love.
“Now all the locals at home know that I’m gay, and they’re not afraid to give me some harmless playful stick about it in the water. I like it that way, as I’m usually the one to instigate it. As a mate of mine that I do a bit of traveling with for surf put it, “If someone stops liking you for being gay, then what kind of messages does that breath about that person?”
“So now I’m currently working to qualify for the World Longboard Tour. I want to be the first openly gay surfer on the World Tour. I won my first national title at the age of 13. I have won six more since then. I am the current Irish National Longboard Champion and plan to reclaim that title for 2016. I recently turned pro after picking up sponsorship from O’Neill. So today, after all this, I want to be a voice for everyone in our sport that suffers in silence.
“I want people to know they don’t have to go through it alone and that there are plenty of surfers struggling with the same problems. I know if I’d come across this same essay when I was a grom, it would have given me comfort. I know having a gay role model in surfing could be a big support for a lot of people. So I’m here to say I want to be that role model. I want to be that person because I know how shitty it is to grow up as a gay surfer and think there’s no one to look up, nobody sitting in the same boat as you, nobody who went through the same turmoil.
“I am the person I am today because I came out. Even though I still battle demons I wait until I’m in the water on a wave to lash out instead of going after myself or others. People finally like me for me, and I have a feeling that coming out and being true to myself has something to do with that.
“There’s a lot of love and equality in present-day Ireland. The dark days that our parents and grandparents grew up in are long gone. The Catholic Church no longer has a strong hold on everyone. People are no longer shamed and locked away in a closet. There was a landslide vote for same-sex marriage last spring In Ireland. It was really cool to see people — surfers, non-surfers, young and old — going out and voting “Yes” and urging people to do the same. I think everyone was happy in some way that they could be a part of a better future.
“The best part has been people’s reactions to finding out I’m gay and being able to break a stereotype of gay people, especially when surfing. You don’t need to paint a rainbow on your board, but at least keep some negative opinions to yourself.”