Between the Lines

From Riptide magazine #204

Cover shot by Josh Tabone

Charles-Henri Lison is out in the lineup.

Does bodyboarding have a diversity problem? That’s the question I ask myself as I dial the number for Belgian expat Charles-Henri Lison, 28, who moved to Victoria with a backpack and $5000 to start a new life four years ago. The experience designer (you might have to Google his occupation) first got hooked on the boog three years ago after mucking around on his partner’s son’s inflatable bodyboard. The experience – in which he became entranced by the speed and closeness to the wave face the craft allowed – spurred him to buy a blue-and-orange Manta, and he soon packed up his place in Melbourne to move closer to the coast. He now surfs every single weekend. Charles is also an openly gay man. Curious about the lack of gay male bodyboarders (several high-profile women bodyboarders have come out in recent years, including 2005 World Champ Kira Llewellyn) I put it to Charles that bodyboarding lacks visible role models from other walks of life. His response is immediate. “Totally agree,” he says. “I didn’t know that people were gay in bodyboarding… that it existed and that it was OK. I read an article recently about being gay in skateboarding and it had the same problem. The biggest problem is that it’s all about image, and that is pushed by the brands. The brands are defining how cool you should be, how you should act, how you should dress and how you should fit in. But the sport starts with the human aspect – people doing things, chasing goals and challenging themselves – not following the brands’ guidelines. That’s the biggest problem in bodyboarding, surfing skateboarding… all those kinds of sports are not very tolerant.” Does bodyboarding have a diversity problem, I ask Charles. “Absolutely,” he says.

The skateboarding article he mentions may be Huck magazine’s 2011 interview with former pro Tim Von Werne. Tim’s career was reportedly cut short in 1998 when his sponsor pulled an interview from Skateboarder magazine because he talked openly of his sexuality. That was almost 20 years ago. Surely we’ve come a long way since then, I wonder. “I’m still not comfortable to just go outside and say to everyone, ‘Hey, I’m gay, it’s fine!’,” Charles reflects on society’s attitude towards gay people today. “It depends on the situation, but there can be a lot of judgment on people’s faces. Sometimes you’ll be in a conversation with someone and after a few minutes it might come up that you’re gay and their behaviour will change. But I think that’s quite common with other people too to be honest. I think this country can still make a lot of progress and that [sexuality] isn’t the only area… religion and other things [too]. I don’t think people talk about them enough. That’s the problem.” Charles says while it would be great for the Australian Government to change its marriage laws – same-sex couples are currently prevented from marrying – the first, more pressing, step is for people to enact and accept change. “People that are confident enough to say who they are, like myself, and say they’re gay – that’s the first step,” he says. “The second step is to have people not only be ‘tolerant’, but for them to accept things and make an effort to try to understand them – actually respecting us as humans.”

Charles, who first realised he was gay when he was 15, considers himself lucky. His family accepted him unconditionally when he came out at 17. “It was tough at school, very tough,” Charles recalls. “I never came out of the closet there, didn’t say a word. But with my family and close friends it was extremely easy. They were very supportive. My dad’s actually a commander in the Belgian army and he just said, ‘Yep, that’s fine, I’m happy, no problem!’ I didn’t have to ask for acceptance, I got it straight away.” But he realises that others aren’t so lucky. “It makes me feel really bad thinking that young people can go through horrible situations,” he says when I ask what his advice would be to other bodyboarders struggling with their sexuality. “Take that step and feel free to say who you are. Don’t hide it. The more you hide it, the less you’ll feel comfortable with yourself. Don’t try to comply with society and what people want you to be, just be yourself. If you don’t decide who you want to be, someone else is going to decide for you, and that’s just not right.” Charles says it’s also vital to speak up if you’re being discriminated against. “That’s very important,” he says. “The people that discriminate against gay people… they deserve problems because they’re causing problems for all these gay people and that’s not right. Those people need to be pointed out and spoken out against. Don’t wait another second.”

Charles hopes that by sharing his story with Riptide he can help promote more acceptance and diversity in the water and give hope to bodyboarders struggling with their sexuality. Aside from that his goals are simple – to continue to progress on the craft that has become his passion. “It was probably a year ago when I started doing some stuff [tricks], drawing nicer lines and just getting the basics right,” he says. “Now it’s just trying to draw nice lines on bigger and bigger waves. I’m starting to try dropknee on waves that are a bit more vertical too and also to chase barrels. I’m not quite there yet, but I just need more time and practice. That’s the only way to go.”