June is Pride Month in the United States, where we set aside a few of the hottest weeks of the year to celebrate the diversity of the LGBTQ community. In skateboarding, that usually means either dredging up our culture’s rocky past, or highlighting our culture’s few openly gay advocates like Brian Anderson or Vanessa Torres. While these stories are still important and worth repeating, it’s also good to widen our scope of skating’s LGBTQ community and add some new voices to the chorus.
So, with that in mind, meet Yann Horowitz, a ripping skater from South Africa who also happens to be gay. You may not have heard of him before but Yann came out back in 2013 and has been putting on for his scene ever since.
And to top it all off, the boys over at Familia Skateboards rush delivered Yann’s part from their forthcoming video to premiere here with this interview. Thank you, homies!
Which came first, skateboarding or knowing you were gay?
Knowing that I was gay for sure. I realized I was gay at a young age, like 9 or 10 years old. Funny enough I was an artistic gymnast at the time. I was going to drop out of school to train for the Olympics and I just decided that there was no freedom for expression there, it’s all very linear with no space to express yourself how you want to, so I decided to drop gymnastics at 13 and then skate.
Do you think it would’ve been easier to come out if you were a gymnnist instead of a skater?
I mean, probably [laughs]. I think gymnastics as a whole is considered a homoerotic sport. When I first realized I was gay, I knew I was part of this niche – I don’t know if niche is the right word – but I was part of this other side of society that not everybody gets to experience. So as you get older and teenagers start sharing certain words and the way people act or treat gay people, I just decided to suppress it. I’d just do what I wanted to do and get good at it. Then once I solidified my space in the scene I could come out. I just waited for everyone I knew to be at the right age to be able to navigate the news in a mature manner.
When you were young would kids say stuff like “that’s gay” as a diss?
Pretty much all the time. It was always like, “that’s gay,” or, “don’t be a fag.” It’s classic kid stuff and everyone was kind of using that, but obviously, deep down every time you hear it, it kind of kills you inside and it made me suppress it more. It’s funny because when I did come out, a lot of my friends took me aside and were like, “If I ever said that was gay or fag or whatever, we take it back and we love you. If we knew we wouldn’t have said it,” you know it was really cool on their part. But as a teenager you tend to be a little more hard on yourself, just trying to find your way through puberty and finding yourself.
You wanted to establish yourself in the skate scene before you came out?
Yeah, I don’t think it’s that I had to establish myself first, I was just lucky that I had. I was lucky that I’d been in the magazines a lot and that I was quite a well-respected skater in South Africa. I think that made it a little bit easier. Really I was just worried I was going to come out and it was going to end up becoming a gimmick in a way. I really didn’t want to ride on the whole ‘being gay’ thing, I wanted to be known as a skateboarder before first.
So when did you finally come out?
Well, I was kind of imploding around 18 or 19. I hadn’t really told anyone yet, and I was getting to the point where I was self-medicating too much to escape. So I made a deal with myself that at 21 I was going to come out to my family and if I didn’t – this might sound a bit heavy – I was going to kill myself. So at 21 I came out to my sister, then my parents, then the rest of my family, then slowly through friends. Then I came out in a skate interview shortly after that, just to like get it out of the way. I came to the point where I had enough people around me that loved me, I didn’t really give a fuck if anyone gave a fuck.
“At 21 I was going to come out to my family, and if I didn’t, I was going to kill myself”
Did you know anything about the American skaters who had tried coming out, I’m thinking specifically of Tim Von Werne or Jarrett Berry?
I kind of read into their stories, knowing they kind of disappeared, and it did freak me out. I had to mentally prepare myself for backlash and possibly getting ostracized by the skate community. It’s all an internal struggle. I was so worried about what other people thought that it was slowly killing me. Eventually I just decided that if skating didn’t want me then I would find something else that would. But low and behold I’d forgotten that skaters are fucking amazing and the whole skate scene welcomed me with open arms and obviously life just got way better from there.
When did you first hook up with a guy, before or after you came out?
I was so scared that someone was going to find out that I had hooked up with a guy and spread the word before I could. The fear of getting outed was so strong I suppressed the urge to hook up with guys in an unhealthy way. I wanted to be straight because I thought life would have less bumps along the way. Straight people don’t have to come out, face rejection from family, feel outcast. But when I realized it wasn’t really a choice I got the courage to start talking to my family and good friends. So once everyone knew I was gay I could flirt with men freely and stop hiding all the time.
Outside of the skate scene, is there a stigma against homosexuality in South Africa?
Well, Mandela legalized gay marriage in 1996, so we’ve always been pretty progressive in that way. Even though South Africa as a whole can be quite conservative in some ways, basically Cape Town is quite a metropolitan gay hub. But it actually just depends on which social circles you’re in, but I don’t really hang out with people that think backwards.
So I know you lived in London and Barcelona for a few years, what was that like coming from South Africa?
I grew up in this tiny beach town called Umdloti which is near Durban. I saved up all this money from competitions and stuff and as soon as I finished school I bought a one-way plane ticket to Barcelona. I was 18 years old, and I thought I was grown already. But as soon as I got there I realized like, “Holy shit, I’m still a child.” I went to MACBA with all my bags and I slept on a park bench for the first two or three nights. Slowly but surely I kind of made my way into the scene there, and ended up staying with Thomas Winkle [filmer] for a while, He kind of saved my back and let me stay with him for 6 months. It really opened my eyes to what skateboarding can be.
Eventually I ran out of money in Barcelona, I had maybe 4 euros to my name, But I managed to scrounge myself a flight to London with the plan to make some pounds and keep traveling – but it doesn’t really work that way in London. I got there and ended up getting trapped there for a year and two months. I had to get a full-time job to pay the bills and everything. I hardly had time to skate, and that’s why I went there. I just couldn’t do that anymore. I was really young, I didn’t know what I was doing, and I was still in the closet which kind of made it all way too much.
Do you think traveling was more difficult because you were still in the closet?
Yeah, it was. You skate hard during the day, then everyone is chasing girls every night. Guys are bringing back these girls and I’m hanging out, but then people start to question, like, “You’ve never really been bringing back girls since you’ve been in Barcelona.” It’s one of those things where I would just make up excuses or just get drunk and numb myself so they had no reason to question me. It was definitely way harder and that’s why I had to eventually come back home. I wanted to be closer to friends and family. I needed the warmth of the people I knew.
You had substance abuse problems and thoughts of suicide when you were in the closet, did that fade after you came out, or do you still battle with those issues?
I used to use substances to numb myself. It was easier to get completely faded and forget how unhappy I was then to deal with the issues that was happening inside me. When I came out there was obviously room to celebrate, but I did want to leave that old me behind. It’s easier said than done, but I’m working on a life with healthier choices and a little more moderation.
What’s the South African skate scene like? It’s wild to me how little mainstream coverage there is of skating there.
For an African country, the scene is big, but compared to the States it’s tiny. Everyone knows everyone, no matter what city you’re in. If you go to Johannesburg you’re going to know most of the scene same as if you go to Durban. In a way, it’s actually beautiful. In the States you guys have so many different magazines fighting for your attention, where in South Africa we have one skate mag that comes out every two months. That’s about it. It’s all very small but strong.
Is it possible to pay your bills just through skateboarding?
That’s always the question I get [laughs]. There is very little money in skateboarding here. If you’re on a company that sponsors surfers or anything else, the surfers will be the ones paying the bills. It’s pretty hard. I get a small salary from adidas, but I still have to work a part-time job bartending or DJing on the side to pay the bills and get by. As long as I have the freedom to skate, then I’m happy.
How is skating perceived by non-skaters there? Are there fashionistas wearing Thrasher gear and all that?
Oh dude, everywhere, it’s crazy. Skateboarding has always kind of influenced fashion in one way or another, and now there are so many companies putting out those fake Thrasher shirts. It’s easy to spot someone that’s just catching a ride on the hype train though. I think skate fashion has infused really well with the fashionistas, but I think skateboarders as a whole are looked down upon here. Being someone my age, when I have a skateboard in my hand, I can tell people are like, “What the fuck is this dude doing?” They don’t really understand it.
You’ve grown up as a white minority in post-Apartheid South Africa. What was that like?
I was brought up in an integrated school and it was one of the first years that schools were integrated, which is kind of crazy you know? 1995 is not that long ago. So growing up, I was taught nothing but love for race. But I think, even today, there’s still a lot of angst and hatred in society here, just through what had happened. The situation is getting better, but it is still going to take a while until South Africa sees something like equality.
Obviously being a white male in South Africa, there is a stigma of white privilege, there’s definitely reverse racism happening, the whites are the minority and we are very much frowned upon and looked at as “hate-mongering whites.” But my generation that grew up in integrated schools and without the Apartheid regime, we are all doing our best to integrate ourselves… Skateboarding helps. Skating doesn’t see race. Skating doesn’t see gender.
So you think skateboarding is immune to these type of politics?
I think it always has been. As long as you’re skating and you’re down, there’s no need for drama or politics. Skating is the ultimate leveler. It doesn’t matter how rich or poor you are, or what race you are, we’ll all go skating together and have fun.
“Skateboarding helps. Skating doesn’t see race. Skating doesn’t see gender.”
How is this kind of discrimination being combatted? Are there laws against hate crimes or hate speech?
South Africa is one of the first countries in the world and one of the only in Africa to allow same-sex marriage and guarantee rights for the LGBT community through our constitution. Obviously deep seeded racial issues are still very much prevalent in modern day South Africa, but the topic of race and racism is not something that is shoved under the rug here. We are forced to deal with the issues of segregation and discrimination in everyday life. There is more of a conscious about this given the legacy of Apartheid.
I always hear stories about how dangerous it is in South Africa, including one you shared in another interview about you and your boyfriend being robbed at knifepoint. Is that all overblown, or is that actually how it is?
That’s definitely overblown. It happens and it is a reality, but if you go anywhere in the world there are robberies and death and everything. That year I spent in London I felt more unsafe than I have my whole life in South Africa. I think a lot these companies that come here for tours usually end up talking about how gnarly South Africa is as a whole. In a way it’s kind of upsetting because it’s a beautiful country, and for what we’ve gone through to get to where we are now, it’s the last thing we should be talking about. We should be talking about the positives and not the negatives.
We’re probably going to headline this with something that pigeonholes you as a “gay skater,” because of the clicks, of course. Do you feel that the skateboard media portrays the LGBTQ community too one dimensionally?
I think so. In a way, it’s kind of hard to bring it up. I’m super proud to be gay, and it just so happens that I’m a skateboarder as well. Sometimes I’m asked questions like I’m handicapped, things like, “Ahh, it’s amazing! You’re gay and you skate, how do you do it?” Like no, I skate and I’m gay. In my mind, that shouldn’t change anything, but obviously, not everyone thinks like that.
Does it sometimes feel like a burden to be a spokesperson for gay skaters since there are so few that are openly out there?
I wouldn’t say it’s a burden. I’d love to inspire. That’d be one of the main goals, to inspire younger skaters to come out, to your friends, or in interviews, or wherever, just to achieve that self-actualization of freedom and love. Once you come out on your own, it’s yours, and there’s nowhere to go but up after that.
Do you have any advice for younger skaters looking to come out of the closet?
Coming out is the toughest and possibly one of the scariest things I’ve had to conquer in my life. Once I stopped being so critical of myself and stopped worrying about what other people think of me it got way easier. Learn to love yourself and own it! If people in your life don’t agree with it then they shouldn’t be in your life in the first place. Take your time but realize that once you’re out all that anxiety and resentment against the world disappears and there is nothing but love and compassion from then on. Be Proud, be strong, and be yourself.