Words by Craig Butler, 7x Irish national champion
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.
So I want to tell you something. Something that’s a little part of me. Something that you might not agree with and might make you 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 surfing in Ireland couldn’t be any further away from the palm trees of Venice Beach or trunking it in Indo. Ireland is cold, dark, and it brings new meaning to the saying “freezing your nuts off.” We have a real tight knit community here. Everyone knows everyone and the surf scene is very much woolly jumpers, knitted hats and cups of tea. There is no localism in the water; the worst that’s going to happen is you’ll be dropped in on. Then that same guy that drops in on you will more than likely paddle back and apologise. All of which is to say there is a lot of respect for one another in these waters. Visiting surfers are usually welcomed with open arms and instantly accepted into the family. All of these things are really cool to see.
Growing up, I never accepted 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 –- especially here in Ireland where everyone is so tight. 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. Sure, there was the odd gay sportsman here and there, but never a surfer -– never anything or anyone that I could relate to. 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 changed this feeling. 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.
I have a very loving accepting mother who owns the local surf shop, but I could only imagine her disappointment when finding out her son was a “fag.” I went to numerous therapists as a kid and was even too scared to tell any of them about the secret I was hiding.
So what changed?