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How trans surfers find community

Episode Summary

Trans surfers are beginning to find community among themselves in a sport that too often isolates and even shuns them

Episode Notes

Trans surfers are beginning to find community among themselves in a sport that too often isolates and even shuns them. 

Today, we hang out with some at the beach, to hear their joy and pain. Read the full transcript here.

Host: L.A. Times senior producer Denise Guerra

More reading:
Biden sports plan angers transgender advocates and opponents

Black surfers find moments of reflection, rejuvenation at ‘A Great Day in the Stoke’

For transgender kids, a frantic rush for treatment amid bans

Episode Transcription

Gustavo Arellano: Hey, what’s up? It’s Gustavo Arellano.

Before we get into our latest episode, just a head’s up: You want to hear until the very end, because we have some news that you need to hear.

At The Times, we bring you stories that showcase news from a West Coast perspective, through the lives of people making a global impact, and today we're handing over the mic to senior producer Denise Guerra. She’s a big time surfer, goes down to El Salvador, all up and down California, and so in surfing she found this amazing story that's quintessentially California, but also how the global transgender community is finding their place within the scene. 

Denise: I'm Denise Guerra. You're listening to The Times: Essential News From the L.A. Times. It’s Friday, April 28, 2023. 

Jade: If I didn't have surfing in my life, I probably wouldn’t be doing so well. You know it saved my life over and over in so many ways.

Denise: Jade Curly is a transgender surfer, and in the world of surfing, being transgender can often be an isolating experience. But today, Jade is not alone.

Shelly: We're out here at Will Rogers and we have taken over this goddamn beach like we have taken it over. It is a place for us to shine in so many ways. I'd say there's probably like 60 people here. There's definitely a 10-foot pole with a trans flag flying. We have a homemade banner that says trans bodies belong on the beach, and it is such a nice day for people just to reconnect.

Denise: This event, after weeks of rain, is called: Trans Surfer Boogie and Beach Day. It started like how all things start nowadays, on Instagram. Shelly Simon is one of the organizers and helps run a community for LGBTQ+ surfers called Dream Team Society. For transgender, nonbinary and allies, this beach hangout of music, football and surfing is a rare event. Many are meeting for the first time.

Shelly: I've met people like from the internet out here on the sand. That really makes me happy. Other surfers who haven't met other surfers, and the water's calm. It's freezing, but it's chill, you know? And it's nice to be able to, like, have the space out here to just exist. So I'm crying on the inside, happy on the outside.

Denise: For many attendees, these beach days offer a safe opportunity to learn techniques and the rules of the water. Without communities like this, it's not uncommon for beginner surfers to learn by getting yelled at or physically confronted by other surfers in the water. 

Sam: I grew up in Florida, and I remember as a kid, I really wanted to learn how to surf, but it was a very like, exclusionary kind of place. Like actually I remember…

Denise: That's Sam Greenspan. After four years in Los Angeles, the intimidation of surfing dissipated. They said it’s taken a long time to find a place like this.

Sam: I remember the only surf camp that I could find was a Christian one, and I'm Jewish and my parents were, like, you're not going to Christian Surf camp.

Denise: Here’s Zen Rashida, but she goes by Z

Zen: I’m born and raised here in L.A., sixth-generation Black Angeleno, and I think our reclamation and of our relationship to water is so important. And for that reason, that's why I'm out here too, ‘cause I used to surf a bit in high school. So this was my first time back, and I stood on the board. It was really cute. And someone gifted me a body suit. This is what community is for me.

Denise: Event co-founder Mud Howard said this event is meant to specifically celebrate the transgender community.

Mud: After this hellscape of a political landscape that we're just hurdling slowly forward into, we need to just be around each other. We need to experience joy. 

Denise: And in 2023, transgender issues have become a political battlefield.

AP tape: At least 12 Republican-led states, including Utah, have passed laws banning transgender women or girls in sports.

Transgender plaintiffs say a birth certificate that doesn’t match their gender identity puts them at risk of discrimination or even violence.

Transgender athletes whose biological sex who was assigned at birth …

Denise: In the ocean they don't have to think about any of that. The politics fades at the beach break.

Zo: I was thinking about why do I love surfing as well and not just like jumping in the water or visiting the beach, and I was like, oh, this is like a gender-affirming experience for me and a gender-affirming sport or hobby, whatever you wanna call it.

Denise: Zo Shay started surfing after the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown.

Zo: ‘Cause being trans masc, not only am I like building traditionally masculine muscles, with the shoulder and the back muscles, but I also feel powerful when I'm surfing. I get to think about my body in a way that's, like, how am I using my body, not how is my body experiencing the world?

Denise: Growing up, Zo lived far from the beach but decided to surf after seeing a surfboard in a neighbor's trash can. But he didn't wanna surf alone and found surfers through word of mouth.

Zo: Do you know any other queer trans surfers? Oh, I know this one person. And then we'll surf with someone else and we're like, do you know anyone?

Denise: The marginalized of the surf world are carving out spaces of their own. And that's why queer and Black community surf organizations are gaining momentum in this post-pandemic society. Because when you look at the world of competitive pro surfing, you know the ones who get all the media attention and the sponsorship deals, finding transgender surfers is like …

Zo: I can name zero. I'm gonna look this up.

Denise: Zo opens up Google on his phone.

Zo: My assumption is that there are more trans surfers in a competitive circuit than we know about. But, yeah, I can't, yeah, she, Sasha Lowerson is the top, top Google result, huh? That's  all I see right now.

Denise: Coming up. …

Sasha Jane Lowerson: I've let go of that pseudo-style tagline of trans woman. I'm just a woman. I'm just a surfer.

Denise: … We speak to Sasha Jane Lowerson.

Denise: So we're in L.A. speaking with Sasha Jane Lowerson at her home in West Australia, and the zoom recording had some hiccups.

Sasha Jane Lowerson: Can you hear me now? Yes. OK.

Denise: Woo-hoo!

Sasha Jane Lowerson: Winner!

Denise: Sasha is gleaming with joy.

Denise: She has a huge smile with a bold, dark maroon lipstick, shoulder-length blond hair and a black tank top. She's 44 years old and has spent three decades in the water. She commands a longboard by twisting, turning and walking her body up and down the board's surface to create  a graceful, smooth S-curve along the water.

Sasha Jane Lowerson: A wave doesn't say, “Oh, well, you know, you're a boy or you're a girl, I'm gonna let you do this on it.” It's a piece of energy that moves it from one direction to the next,  and we as surfers are lucky enough to ride that piece of energy for a short amount of time.

Denise: She's currently a competitor for the Women's Longboard Qualifying Series in Australia. But to get to this place, she had to overcome a hard past.

Sasha Jane Lowerson: Yeah, I struggled with a lot of mental health, and it was for many years I was like “I can't go on.” So the breaking point was, I survived another attempt on my own life and I was in a very dark place,

but yeah, for a lot of years I've suppressed and hid that away.

Denise: Sasha started surfing at a young age. Presenting as a male, she participated in men's categories. 

Sasha Jane Lowerson:  All the way growing up, in the late ‘70s, the start of the ‘80s, and watching the midday movies as a kid here in Australia, “Gidget” was on TV, and I wanted to be Gidget. The fictional surfing tween Gidget from Malibu helped popularize surfing to the masses in the ‘50s and ‘60s through books, TV shows and movies. She was adventurous and quirky with a peppy voice to match.

Gidget audio from “Gidget”: Was it ever exciting? It was like nothing I ever felt before.

Sasha Jane Lowerson: I didn't want to be the dude that was on the beach with her. I wanted to be her.

Gidget audio from “Gidget”: Whoop. We were on an elevator headed for the sky and then zoom speeding across the ocean on top of the world. It was the ultimate.

Sasha Jane Lowerson: There was a possibility I could be her, but would I be physically threatened and would I be physically hurt at the beach for being able to be me? 

Denise: In 2020, she won the over-40 age men's logger event in the West Australian titles. But her anxiety and depression was worsening, 

Sasha Jane Lowerson: When I first started transitioning, due to the fact that I'd been so heavily involved in the surf industry, I understood the surf culture and I understood it was quite toxic. 

Denise: And in 2021 she took a break from surfing.

Sasha Jane Lowerson: If you're in the surf world, you've only just gotta look at what happened in Bali. with a Californian, lovely surfer, beautiful lady. 

Youtube: Stop, go away.

Denise: Sasha described footage posted online earlier this month. A man swims over and sucker punches a woman in the surf lineup and proceeds to take the fight onto the beach. 

Youtube: Go away.

Denise: This aggressive interaction is yet another example of surf's reputational, machismo, surfing's dark side, the threats of physical danger over who is allowed to surf in the water.

Sasha Jane Lowerson: And anyone that's been in the surf world in the surf lineups has seen that time and time again.

Whether it's competitive surfing or a regular beach day, the fact is being a woman in the sport means having to prove you belong. But if you're transgender, it's often a question of whether you should even exist. For Sasha, starting her transition in 2021 meant she might have to give up surfing forever.

Sasha Jane Lowerson: That was one of the hardest things because I was euphoric. I was getting to be me for the first time. And all these things that were amazing, almost felt like  bittersweet,

Denise: Could she be Sasha and be a competitive surfer?

Sasha Jane Lowerson: There was a lot of mixed emotions. There was a lot of fear of the unknown. I was like, I don't think I'm gonna compete ever again on an elite level ‘cause I competed as old me on an elite level, on the big stage and it wasn't about that.

Denise: Sasha said it was about being true to herself and how she was raised.

Sasha Jane Lowerson: I lived with my grandmother until I was 6 and she was this mighty, powerful woman. She really instilled in me in an early age. if you want to be who you want to be, you'd go do it. Just go out there and do it. Being a longboarder and I was confident I had a strong community that was around me.

Denise: She began speaking with pro surf's governing body in her region, Surfing Australia.

Sasha Jane Lowerson: It was about getting the inclusion at a community level put in place because, for me, that was more important. 

Denise: in 2021 Surfing Australia became the first to enact a policy that allows athletes to participate in competitions that best reflects their gender identity. And with that new role in place, Sasha entered her first competition as Sasha Jane Lowerson.

Sasha Jane Lowerson: So the first event I went in was a little over a year ago, it was the Noosa Festival of Surfing. It was pretty scary.

Denise: The fears, the bullying, the threats of physical violence, always in the back of her mind.

Sasha Jane Lowerson: But we got there and there wasn't even any media about it because I didn't win.

Denise: But that changed in 2022. Sasha won two of Western Australia's biggest longboarding competitions. Criticism came flooding fast with social media and news outlets, sharing headlines like,

Youtube: As world's first competitive trans surfer destroys opposition to win one-sided women's longboard contest.

And becomes the first surfer in history to win both the men's and the women's division. Oh, gosh. 

Sasha Jane Lowerson: It's only unfair when we win. That's what really grinds my gears about it is, I've kicked the hornets nest with the unsavory media outlets 

Youtube: You knew the other women stood no chance whatsoever against you because you were better than the men only three years ago. It’s one thing…

Sasha Jane Lowerson: They only wanna write when it's click-baitable, attention-grabbing articles. 

Denise: And that has led to real-world consequences for Sasha.

Sasha Jane Lowerson: There's a reason my social media account is private, and that comes back to just the state of where we are in the world at the moment too, because I get shadow banned pretty quick 

Denise: That's when a social media platform bans the user's content without telling them. Some research into shadow bans shows transgender content on social media as disproportionately moderated.

Sasha Jane Lowerson: It's a bit of a sad state at the moment. You can physically threaten someone on social media and they don't get shadow banned, but you can be a trans athlete and be shadow banned within a moment of two people just saying that you exist.

Denise: As word of Sasha's win spread through social media, debates of fairness, hormone levels, and what separates one elite athlete from another became fodder for tens of thousands of comments and heated debates. Some called for a transgender division separate from male and female competition. There was almost zero debate for whether trans men should compete with other men. The focus was almost exclusively on trans women athletes.

Some folks felt that it was unfair for trans women to compete against cis women. 

Sasha Jane Lowerson: Just so we can protect you from that evil trans lady. And then what happens next? Oh, you, we all get divided up.

That's the big picture plan when they start talking about dividing women.

Denise: Other sports have been dealing with similar debates. In response, governing sports authorities in swimming and track and field have issued recent bans on trans women competing in the female category in international events.

Denise: But surfing was headed in the opposite direction and not everyone was happy about it.

Denise: We'll have more after the break,

Denise: We’re back. Following Sasha's win in Australia, gender inclusion rules that allowed trans athletes to compete crept its way higher and higher into surf's global governing bodies. It's just one of the big changes in the world of professional surfing these past three years. First,  surfing became an Olympic sport.

Fernando Aguerre: All our souls and the souls of all surfers around the world will be in Tokyo as well.

Denise: To get to those Games, surfers had to follow rules set by the International Surfing Assn. The ISA is a nonprofit. Here’s ISA President Fernando Aguerre.

Fernando Aguerre: Supporting our first Olympic surfer in perfect gender equality, 20 women and 20 men for the first time in history.

Denise: In 2022, the ISA outlined the rules for competition when it comes to transgender athletes; other surfing associations would soon follow. And that meant surfers like Sasha had to submit to certain tests.

Sasha Jane Lowerson: I had to show as per their policy, I've had to have held a testosterone level of under five parts per million in every liter of blood for a minimum of 12 months. I get tested quite regularly to monitor my levels.

Denise: The ISA's declaration to include trans athletes received a ripple of attention from the general public.

Denise: That's until this year when the World Surf League officially followed the ISA'S guidelines. And if you don't know the WSL … 

WSL clip: We are so happy to be here.

Denise: … The WSL draws huge crowds with big corporate sponsored surf competitions all over the world. There's tons of money and global superstars.

WSL clip: 51 years of age, 11 world titles…

In that elite circle is Bethany Hamilton, who took to Instagram in February to talk about the organization's new policies allowing transgender athletes to compete. She said she plans to boycott the WSL because of the new rules.

Bethany Hamilton: Is a hormone level an honest and accurate depiction that someone, indeed, is a male or female? Is it as simple as this? Who is pushing for this huge change? Does this better the sport of surfing? Is this better for the woman in surfing? If so, how?

Denise: For Sasha, these questions are a diversion from the other more important issues facing women's competitive surfing.

Sasha Jane Lowerson: We're making women's sport fair, but hang on, we're not gonna give even numbers and we're not gonna pay equal pay parities or give women the same amount of opportunities in the women's division.

Denise: There are less spots for women than men in many surf competitions, and there are still gender pay gaps in prize money women outside WSL events. Within the last decade, however, there have been major changes. In 2018, the WSL said they would pay men and women equally, and we've seen more women surfing in big wave competitions alongside men. So when Sasha saw the vitriol over new rules on gender inclusion.

Sasha Jane Lowerson: That for me was, was really upsetting. 

Denise: Not only for Sasha, but for others in the queer surf community.

Ky: I feel like there was never really a chance to actually pause and kind of celebrate the WSL in a way the fact that, wow, they did just say trans women can compete and can have a place within surfing.

Denise: That's former pro surfer Ky Langan, who along with partner Nick Brees, runs Queer Surf, an organization that holds surfing lessons and retreats for LGBTQ+ communities across California.

Ky: We've known the industry is homophobic and is transphobic, and I think a lot of people got really caught up in the comments and the way that surfers were coming out against it, and to me, it wasn't that surprising. It was like, yeah, of course. OK, everybody show your bones.

Denise: And the response from folks who organize the trans surf Boo Beach Day. Here's Mud Howard.

Mud: We need more cis allies who know and love and care about trans people. To be the louder voice in the room, louder than Bethany Hamilton, louder than, you know, whoever else is out there piping up about stuff that they don't know because we're tired and we just wanna surf.

Shelly: It's the work piece again, right? Where it's like always doing the work to educate people how to treat us, and it's like, well, people are tired, and other people sometimes don't listen. But they wanna create rules and like all these sorts of gatekeep-y things.

Denise: And these rules that gatekeep who can or can't surf competitively have made inclusion for amateur competitive surfers like Jade Curley difficult.

Jade: I can't surf with the men, and I'm currently still in a woman's body so when people see me, they automatically assume that my pronouns are her/she, and, um, it does feel isolating. It does feel excluding because I personally would like to compete with the men.

Denise: I asked Jade about trying to sign up for an amateur's men's competition.

Jade: What stops me is, I guess to be honest, fear. The fear of what's gonna happen outside the water or the looks or the harassment or the jokes or the laughs, and that's a scary thing. You know I've never wanted to be one of those people that need to be seen. And I think that spotlight is scary.

Denise: I asked Sasha if she had any tips for a surfer like Jade.

Sasha Jane Lowerson: I think my advice to a trans man wanting to go in the men's division: Go do it, I'll come and cheer you on. Just make sure you've got a good amount of tools in your mental health toolbox to get through that period of time. Go and do it. 

Denise: Sasha says that she can only hope that the momentum of gender inclusion and surf continues. She never had a queer surf community like what some people have today, but the world of surfing is changing and so is she.

Sasha Jane Lowerson: For a long time I, I never thought this was possible. I look in the mirror every day now and I'm just like there's this beautiful, strong woman looking back at me that was hidden inside for a long time and, and now she's actually out blooming. I’m just keep, keep moving forward and keep growing as a person, and that’s what keeps me going.

Gustavo Arellano:  And that’s it for The Times: Essential News From the L.A. Times. 

Denise Guerra and Ashlea Brown were the jefas on this episode. It was edited by Jazmin Aguilera and Mark Nieto mixed and mastered it.  

The Times was produced by Denise Guerra, Kasia Broussalian, David Toledo and Ashlea Brown. Our editorial assistants were Roberto Reyes and Nicolas Perez. Our fellow was Helen Li. Our engineers were Mario Diaz, Mark Nieto and Mike Heflin. Our executive producers were Jazmín Aguilera, Shani Hilton and Heba Elorbany. And our theme music was by Andrew Eapen. 

You might have noticed that I’m speaking in a past tense, because seriously: That’s it for The Times. 

After two years, this show as you all know it has come to an end. 

Don’t unsubscribe from this feed. The Times as a regular show might be over, but L.A. Times Audio will continue. So stay tuned! 

We had a great run, and I don’t like to belabor what can’t be changed. No, I’d rather praise what we did and thank the people who made it happen.

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And finally…from me…I’m not leaving the LA Times. No way, there’s way too much stuff to write about, you know? But you just won’t hear me anymore. My planet needs me, so off I go to hang out with Poochie in the podcast sunset.

And who am I? I’m Gustavo Arellano…and this is it, for The Times. Gracias.