Why Skateboard Legend Brian Anderson Was Afraid to Come Out
1999 was a hell of a year for pro skateboarder Brian Anderson, having been named Thrasher’s “Skater of the Year” and winning a world championship in Germany. But 2016 has become even more monumental in Anderson’s personal life, and in the social growth of skateboarding, after the recent release of his coming-out video – a documentary produced by lifelong friend Giovanni Reda. In his opening statement, from his apartment in New York, Anderson shared, “My name is Brian Anderson. I’m a professional skateboarder and we are here to talk about the fact that I am gay.”
Following his gutsy and candid testimony, Anderson quickly soared into the limelight as the most prominent professional skateboarder to have ever come out as gay. And contrary to past attempts by gay skateboarders to come out – efforts often thwarted by an industry and community that has been historically homophobic – Anderson has been praised, embraced and honored by his peers, sponsors and a community that, as a skateboarder, he has literally bled in the streets for throughout his career.
A Connecticut native, Anderson turned pro back in 1998, the same year skater Tim Von Werne was basically ousted from skateboarding for being openly gay. With consequences like these to fear, Anderson made a conscious decision to keep his sexuality to himself, accepting a life of frustration in hopes of developing a successful career. And he did exactly that. Beyond winning SOTY and the World Cup, Anderson’s skateboarding has taken him around the globe, created opportunities to explore his creative talents, and helped him start his own skateboarding company. His video contributions to skateboarding – beginning with his part in Toy Machine’s “Welcome to Hell” – were testimony to his aggressive nature on the board, leading him to become one of the most recognizable names in skateboarding.
But Anderson’s secret incessantly antagonized him. “I beat it down like a blacksmith striking an anvil with a sledgehammer. I just had to force that stuff deep down into my guts,” he recalls. Eventually, he would reveal his secret to a few close friends and Toy Machine teammates, as well as a few trusted skateboarding journalists and industry heads. Over time, Anderson found that the people he was surrounded by would love and protect him for nearly 15 years, until he was ready to come out.
Hard on the heels of his coming-out documentary release, Anderson sat down with Rolling Stone to give an in-depth interview surrounding his reasons for coming out now, discuss how he dealt with frustration and solitude while in the closet, and share his intentions to use his forward momentum to help the LGBTQ community.
Your story has transcended skateboarding and connected with a much larger audience. What has been the general reaction since you released the video?
I’m blown away by all of the positive reactions. I’m not totally surprised, but I am grateful. And I just had a gay relative tell me that I helped her. She said that seeing me at family dinners and holidays with my partner helped her to come out. I guess she just came out to her friends at her birthday party. That really touched me this morning.
You carried a secret for a really long time while pursuing a professional career in skateboarding. What was that like?
I was very lucky to be with Ed Templeton and the Toy Machine team. Ed and his wife Deanna are amazing photographers who have always taken very provocative photos – really sexual stuff of themselves. I knew that Ed was open-minded and if you were going to be on that team, and in that tour van, you had to be open minded as well. And I was right. Being with that crew, even at a young age, never felt homophobic – never. And that was a huge relief.
So then what was holding you back from coming out?
It was the industry that scared me. Nowadays, there are television shows about gays and transgender people. That didn’t exist 20 years ago. The Internet was just starting to become popular then. A lot of people were more close-minded and uninformed. I was pretty unhappy inside, but skateboarding always made me happy. Getting outside and skating helps get bad energy out of your body – that’s the case when you do anything athletic.
You’re a beastly, masculine, tatted up dude. How do you feel this has played into your life differently than say, a gay man with more effeminate qualities?
This is something that I’m really aware of. I do feel for people that didn’t have it the way I did. I’m tattooed, masculine, six-foot-three with a beard and deep voice. For a long time, this probably helped me stay under the radar when I wasn’t ready to come out.
I think when you see a stereotypically feminine image of a gay man, and you’re not that way, it’s tricky because you don’t understand it – you’re not like that. It comes down to really understanding yourself, and then being yourself. I don’t have to listen to Donna Summer and dance around my apartment in my underwear. Maybe I want to go hang out with a truck driver. That’s how I always felt. That being said, I do love hanging out with some queens – for sure. I love my gay-ass friends. [laughs].
Can you recall a really dark time while you were still in the closet?
Yeah, all the time. I always felt dark, but I buried it. And it just sat there in the pit of my stomach. I had to power through that and it wasn’t fun. But I realized that there were a lot of other people in the world with more difficult problems than mine – I understood that. I could have been born somewhere without clean or running water, or in some third world country with an illness and no doctors. I told myself these types of things to try to wrap my head around what I was going through. I just did my best to be optimistic during that whole time of being in the closet.
Was skateboarding your only relief during frustrating times?
One thing that really helped was that I always kept a sketchbook. I would listen to music and draw in my sketchbook all the time. I would never write anything gay, because I was terrified that someone would find it and read it. But I always had something to draw and get that energy out. Then I would go skate with my friends.
When did you first start coming out to your friends and teammates?
Around 15 years ago, I think I was 25 when I started to tell people in the industry. And then it became fun. But it was fun because it was all behind closed doors. The guys would be like, “Hey Brian, look out the van at that construction worker.” And I’d be like, “Hell Yeah!” [Laughs]. It got really fun in a cool way and I actually felt very loved and safe.
Were you afraid that someone would publish your story and it would have a negative impact on your career? Was that scary for you?
Yes, but when I did eventually come out to my friends at Thrasher and Transworld – because I knew everybody on the inside very well – they promised me they would never break my story before I was ready. And why would they? But that was a massive relief and also one rad thing about skateboarding. We have this little bubble we live in and I’m so fortunate to have done all these things that they loved me for, so they totally protected me. It was scary because I didn’t want to be out.
When did you and Reda decide to make a coming-out documentary?
I went to Tampa Pro and Reda was there. He’s been a trusted friend of mine for 20 years. So I told him I was ready and I wanted to publicly come out. I wanted to do interviews and share my story. So we decided to get after it and we put together a plan for the film. Of course, I needed to take a bath the morning of my first interview and calm my nerves. There was a lot of self-preparation. I was completely freaked out – you can see it in the opening scenes that we filmed in my apartment, where my hair’s slicked back. I couldn’t believe that I was saying that stuff on camera – it was the most monumental interview of my life.
Were there any second thoughts about releasing the video?
Reda was very sweet. He told me, “At any point, if you change your mind, we’ll pull the plug on this whole thing and not do it. This is your life story, man.” I’m so thankful for Reda because we became dearer friends during the process. He would send me cuts of the video to review and I probably watched the final cut sixty times before we released it. My poor boyfriend, Andrew, just had to sit there each night while I was watching my glowing phone with headphones on in bed.
How did you and Andrew meet and how long have you been together?
Andrew is the love of my life. We’re engaged – we’re going to get married. He’s my best friend, my partner, my everything. We met last fall at a bar in New York City called Nowhere. It’s basically our Cheers. We have so many friends that work and DJ there. Andrew and I had a great exchange one night, swapped numbers and we made a date. We had our first date at the Grand Central Oyster Bar and then we went to the New York Public Library, where he snuck a first kiss. It was just perfect. Andrew has been there for me and he’s a great person. We communicate on a level that I’ve never had in my life. We speak about everything and we’re completely honest and share everything. It’s just been so incredible to have that in my life.
You’re the most prominent professional skateboarder to come out. Are there other gay skaters that you hope will do the same thing?
Yeah, of course I hope for that. There is one person who came out to me about ten years ago. He doesn’t really skate professionally anymore, but we shared our story in a hotel one time – just our story, we didn’t share ourselves [laughs]. The simple fact is, if you’re in a room full of thirty or more skaters, someone in that room is probably gay, lesbian, transsexual or bisexual. So, of course I hope this will help people be able to be comfortable with themselves and with others.
What’s next for you in skateboarding and in life?
As far as skateboarding goes, let’s just say that I like to ride Antihero boards, and leave it at that. Outside of skating, I’m trying to use all of this positive momentum to get involved with Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation. They do their best to support youth who have been disowned or kicked out of their homes for coming out to their families. I really connect with their mission and I want to get involved in helping to empower youth and inspire bravery. I’m just at a point and place in my life where I feel like I can make a big difference, and I’m really excited about that.
Well, you’ve definitely thrown down the gauntlet in the name of progressive social change.
Sometimes I will be on a train, and I’ll see a kid who looks so angry. And I have to pause and realize that I’m in this crazy-cool community with my gay friends. We’re so happy and we go out to bars and have fun dinner parties – we’re safe, we’re protected. But there might be someone I encounter in my day-to-day life that was abused by his or her father. Maybe they went through a heavy divorce and their childhood is unstable – all this stuff that could make them frustrated and angry. And I feel like we really need to meet them halfway and try to repair these things that have happened to them. I don’t want to sound like some kale-smoothie-drinking white-testifying dude – I’m not ignorant. Before anything else, I’m a skateboarder. I grew up hanging out in alleyways filled with broken glass, human feces and drugs. But I truly believe that you have to understand where someone comes from in order to go further with them.
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