After years of working in skateboarding as a photographer, and years of struggling with the fact that he was gay, Sam came to his conclusion: it wasn’t possible for the two worlds to coexist.
Skateboarding has traditionally been close minded in regards to sexual orientation. We still don’t even have an openly gay professional skateboarder. Because of this atmosphere, Sam wanted out. His plan was to leave skateboarding at age thirty, come out on Facebook and live judgment free in Iceland.
Sam turned thirty last week, and we are happy to report that he never went through with his plan. Instead, he decided to come out and to share his struggle with the world. This is Sam’s story.
You’ve worked in skateboarding as a photographer for a while now. When did you decide you wanted to come out?
I went through a phase 2 years ago where it was eating me up. It was hard living the double life, I was dating someone at the time and switching all these pronouns to cover myself up. I’m not a good liar either. Slowly I started to come out to a few people. People I knew wouldn’t care, which was probably just to bump up my ego. The skate world is small. I figured I’d tell 5 people, they’d tell 5 people and then maybe it’d be easier that way.
The real turning point was when Oliver Barton [photographer] called me. He is pretty much the reason I got into shooting skateboarding, and luckily I’ve become good friends with him over the years. We were talking one day and he just kind of flat out asked, “Does it fuck you up?” And I was like, “What…?” He repeated, “Does it fuck you up? Do you feel like you have to watch who you tell?” I asked him what he meant and he was like, “C’mon dude, I know what you’re dealing with.” I was driving at the time and I pulled over and just lost it.
Nobody had ever asked me until that point, and at the time I was just going crazy, struggling with it so much. I have amazing friends, don’t get me wrong, and it’s a sensitive subject, but he was the first person who just reached out and kinda took a huge burden off of me. I also wasn’t living healthy at the time and I knew it, so for someone to just say, “Are you OK?” I don’t know, it was life-changing.
I sat there for probably a half hour just losing it, crying like someone had died because, not to be dramatic, I think a part of me did. I felt like I could maybe be happy. For so long, I was just miserable and scared, and never thought I could do anything. Then to have someone call and say that… I really thought that I was going to die over this, and that I was never going to be happy. It made me start to think, maybe skating isn’t as homophobic as people would pin it to be? Maybe I just gotta give people a chance. That was the moment when I was like, “Alright, if Oli called me and said everything’s cool, what the fuck do I care anymore?”
“I really thought that I was going to die over this, and that I was never going to be happy”
What were you so worried about? What was the nightmare situation?
To be brutally honest, I’ve been in some scenarios where people have said some pretty nasty shit about some gay people in public. So worst-case scenario, I was freaked out I would get beat up. Most of it was just people talking shit, and the people who have said it have actually been really supportive – it’s just scary at the time because you’re going through it and have no idea how people will react.
One time I remember I was on a trip and this guy that was hosting us said something – he was kidding, but he made a joke about being gay to everyone. Then he goes, “Ha, I know none of you guys are, I’d beat the shit out of you if any of you were.” I don’t want to make this overly dramatic because it was a joke, but it’s really scary when you hear hazing stories on the news or people getting beat up for being gay. It’s obviously not those days anymore, but I felt a little terrified to be honest.
That trip, it was kind of funny looking back. I remember I was too scared to even look at porn because I seriously thought that somehow through the internet router there would be a way to check any websites I’d been on. It sounds super crazy now, but at the time I just remember it being such a real fear…I better just stick to CNN.
Do you feel like skateboarding is more homophobic than other sports?
I think it’s a bit complicated since other sports have more of a team environment, but in short, I’d say no. You don’t really need anyone else to get into skating. In other sports, it’s pretty hard to do alone. You can’t play football by yourself, so if there’s only one kid in your town who plays football, and he hates gay people, you’re kind of fucked. If there’s only one kid in your town who skates, you can still actually skate, it just might be alone. I think maybe skating might have a bit more tolerance just because it’s skating. You just deal with so many different people on a daily basis out on the streets. Plus, it’s a bit of an insecure sport and we are all a bit weird. Even pros can feel left out, like dudes who have big pro shoe contracts even feel insecure sometimes. I think skateboarding’s a bit better to adapting to this idea of being a misfit.
Why do you think skateboarders and people that work in the industry can be so insecure?
It’s a strange industry, and things can change very quickly. A lot of people don’t make a lot of money and unexpected things can happen. Like, look at Sean Malto. Luckily, he’s got the support of Nike and these people that have turned his injury into a marketing campaign. He’s quite lucky that he’s in that boat versus somebody that blows their knee out and they are done.
I don’t know how NFL contracts work, but it seems like if players get hurt, they sort of ride out one contract into another and just sort of trickle around earning at least league minimum for years. In skating it seems a little different. One skater gets hurt and 6 months later the sponsors start wondering what’s up, why they are paying them as much—sometimes there’s a new up and coming ripper competing for their place. It’s a competitive thing, that can be super temporal and I think sometimes it creates this environment of insecurity.
Plus, I really don’t think anyone would deny this: it’s quite small, it’s very connected, and sometimes can be a bit gossipy, which can make for a bit of an insecure environment. Take Dylan [Rieder] for example. Dylan’s got a loud way of dressing, dramatic V Neck shirts, team handsome vibes and people are saying crazy shit about it. Nevermind the fact he’s killing it skating.
Why is anyone gonna wanna come out, when people are being so ignorant saying he’s stupid for wearing four rings on his hand? He’s a skater… Why aren’t we just letting him skate? Nobody is freaking out about what Lebron James does in his spare time.. No one’s really documenting the flaming moments of Lebron James but if they did, I think basketball would start to become more insecure too.
Was there any specific time or times when you distanced yourself from a particular job or skate crew because you felt uncomfortable around them?
Yeah… pretty much my whole career, really. I think it was more the personal relationships with people, because in skateboarding you tend to become really good friends with the people you work with. Like editors and photo editors… that really suffered over the years. Had I dealt with it, I think it would have helped with being less awkward around people, maybe build better relationships.
The only time I felt so uncomfortable I wanted to leave was once on tour. At a diner there happened to be a bunch of gays, drag queens and trannys. One person was being particularly verbal about his opinions, so I went outside and pretended to make a phone call and sorta hid out. A few people ended up speaking up and the person that was freaking out actually left the tour first. That was the only time I really felt like I needed to like, flee a situation though.
Were there any times when you got “called out” in public for being gay?
One time Malto was in town, and we went to West Hollywood for Sammy Winters’ pro release party. Wieger [Van Wageningen] was there too. Wieger is hard to describe but he’s the best. Really awesome dude, he means well, but he just says what’s on his mind. He just yells, “SAM! I HEARD YOU WERE A FAGGOT!” in front of everybody. He was like, “That’s so cool! That’s so cool! I’m sure that was really hard!” And I was like, “Yeah, I’m just not the best at talking about it,” and he’s like “Yeah, I probably wouldn’t wanna talk about sucking dick either!” [laughs].
Everyone was just laughing because he definitely made a scene about it, but in this weird way it was kind of cool. I think one of the most awkward parts about coming out is having to ostracize yourself, it’s you and them. This was just like, you’re just another dude at the bar. Which sounds dumb, but when you’re holding onto it for so long, I just wanted people to know, so I could move on. It was perfect.
Everyone else was cool about it too. He was yelling, “Let’s turn this into your coming out party!” and just went around to everybody and was like, “Did you know Sam’s gay?!” He’s going over to people like Jerry Hsu, “Did you know Sam’s gay?” And Jerry would be like, “No, whoa! Crazy! That’s cool.” High five.
Do you think if a pro skater came out it would be a big deal? Do you think his or her sponsors would care?
I mean, I guess it depends on the company and the skater, you know? That one’s a tough question because that’s as much business as it is politics. Do I think a company is going to drop a skater because they are gay? No, and I think that’s sort of been proven. However, will a company openly endorse, or make like a pro Gay Rights shoe? I doubt it, but just because I’m not sure business wise if it would make sense?
It depends who comes out. If it’s an up and coming Am who’s starting to get coverage, I don’t know. Maybe I’m giving people way more credit but, it’s skating. All these companies are pretty progressive. I can’t believe they are all THAT close minded. Maybe they are, but I just can’t really see it.
“Saying stuff is ‘gay’ just makes people sound a bit stupid”
Does it bother you when people say something like “that stairset is gay?”
It did in the past, but now it just makes me laugh. Not many people really say that anymore. Saying stuff is “gay” just makes people sound a bit stupid, not just to me, but to a lot of people I think. It’s a two way street. It’s important for people who say it understand why it’s offensive. When someone drops an ice cream cone and says, “Oh that’s so gay!” subconsciously every gay person thinks, “Am I as lame as a dropped ice cream cone?” I think people gotta realize that’s why it offends people, cause at one point I wanted to die and was scared of who my friends were because people would say so and so was gay. As I’ve gotten a bit older though, I kind of realize that change takes time, and it’s important to be patient with people.
Any parting words? What would you like for someone to take away from this interview?
Really I just wanted to do it in hopes to inspire at least one person to just sort their head out if they are struggling with it. This sorta stuff has always been labeled so taboo in skating, but things are changing and it’s, hopefully, not the way it was. Hopefully this inspires people to think, and talk, and maybe just bring it out into the open and maybe that can help some other people struggling with it too.
I wish I had some words of wisdom, and some epic quote, but my only advice is to not worry so much about fitting in. To me, skateboarding was born out of misfits. People that didn’t want to fit in because fitting in is stupid, and normal people are fucking boring. Just be happy, be yourself, be gay as fuck if you want to, just don’t lose out on life, and don’t give up on skating.