Pro-skating legend Brian Anderson came out last September, the latest bold step in a career marked by ugly struggles and giddy victories. Now, he talks about why he went public, the response from his fellow skaters, and what he does when he’s not shredding on the ramps.
For many of us—and by that I mean most of us—the name Brian Anderson was largely unknown until September 27th of this year, when Giovanni Reda, a skateboarding documentarian and photographer, posted a video on the VICE Sports website in which the forty-year-old pro skater publically came out as gay. It’s no understatement to say that Anderson is a legend in the skateboarding community—when he was just twenty-three, Thrasher magazine, the community’s authoritative publication, named him Skater of the Year—and, along with numerous titles and prizes, he’s won several high-profile endorsement deals with the likes of Nike and Spitfire. Within days of the video’s release, Anderson found himself thrust into the national spotlight, in the form of profiles in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, and TIME, not to mention the onslaught of brands eager to capitalize on his crossover appeal to both skaters and LGBT Millennials—as, apparently, they do cross over.
When first meeting Anderson, you’re immediately stuck by his shy, soft-spoken manner. For a towering, tattoo-covered giant sporting a magenta-hued leopard-spotted hair-dye job, Anderson is surprisingly reserved, aside from the ease he evinces when walking around a photo studio in his Calvin’s. But put him on a skateboard—or in front of a camera, or both—and Anderson’s irascible, irresistible charm is on immediate display. Indeed, it’s easy to see how he became a pro-skating icon: he exudes the easy confidence and showmanship that keeps legions of fans entranced. That said, it’s all the more surprising to hear to him talk about darker days, to recall the self-doubt and fear that he endured in silence. And even after coming out so publically, the pro skater continues to make headlines, most recently announcing plans to marry his partner, whom he met last year. For Anderson, coming out may just be his most daring ride yet.
Joseph Akel: Why did you decide to publicly come out at forty?
Brian Anderson: I felt the time was right because of the way the world is changing. Many young people growing up today are cool with different notions of sexuality. But I’m conscious of the fact that many kids in high school or junior high, even those exposed to mainstream media, still experience a lot of fear out there. I thought it was important for those kids to know there a lot of people—myself included—that have their backs.
JA: You said in the VICE video that you made with Reda, “I kind of consider myself a skateboarder first, gay second.” However, there are elements within skateboarding that could be construed as being homophobic. A friend told me there is actually an old-school skateboarder trick called the “Gay Twist.” As a high-profile member of the pro-skateboarding community, did you worry about how your announcement would be received by your peers?
BA: I honestly didn’t go into this decision with specific expectations. I just wanted people to know that once you build relationships and become close to people who really care about you, being gay is really not such a big deal. That’s how I felt with all my skateboarding friends all these years. I would die for them, and they would do the same for me. I never felt my sexuality got in the way of that. But in many ways, this film was directed at other gay people as much as straight people. I felt it was really important to let them know that there is more than one way to be “gay.”
I’ve never been tempted to throw a purse over my shoulder, but that doesn’t mean I am not really gay, nor does it mean that people who chose to do so are more so. I think we are all just one varied community, and we all have to respect our different understandings of what being gay is. It’s such a difficult thing to not be informed, especially when you’re brought up in a town away from the two coasts. When you’re brought up in the middle of the country, you’re not exposed to as much, and that can lead your parents to be really closed minded and make it more difficult for you as a child growing up.
JA: What was it like for you, specifically as a child, growing up knowing—as you’ve mentioned elsewhere—that your sexuality was different?
BA: Man, sexuality—talking about it now as an adult, but also recalling it from the past—is such a difficult thing, especially when referencing youth. Among many other things about my own childhood, growing up in the ’80s, I would, of course, find porn magazines that showed all these guys with circumcised dicks. I’m uncircumcised, and when I saw that I was anatomically different, that fucked with me. I thought I was broken beyond just knowing I was gay. It really destroyed me. I didn’t want to do organized sports because I didn’t want to get changed in the locker room.
JA: Did you ever imagine that your announcement would receive as much attention as it has?
BA: No, not at all! But When I agreed to let Giovanni film me for his VICE documentary, and decided I would use it as a platform to come out, I didn’t realize that he would also be interviewing my peers. I think his film was a lot more powerful because he convinced others within the skateboarding community to speak on my behalf. Their testimony turned out to be much more impactful than anything I came up with myself.
JA: Given the outsized role that skateboarding plays in your life, how would you have reacted if their response had been more critical?
BA: I’m happy I didn’t have to deal with that kind of response. It would have really bummed me out. But I know the people that I’ve surrounded myself with, and I know they wouldn’t have betrayed me that way. You know, I may be a skater, but for the most part I’m a pretty conventional guy. I love to cooperate! I try to get along in life. I really dig society and rules and laws, even though as a skateboarder, you get to make up your own rules in a lot of ways. You don’t really get to do that in a lot of sports. We—skaters—have always hated the terms “athlete” and “sport.” And I don’t mean to discredit any organized sport when I say that. But being a skateboarder is like having your own religion. You get to decide the rules as you go with your friends.
JA: What’s been the biggest change you’ve noticed since this video came out?
BA: Probably the reaction I get from total strangers. I met this kid just the other day in the East Village and he introduced me to this middle aged couple. He was like, “These are my parents! They saw the piece you made, and it changed my life. I was already out to them, but it just made me feel even stronger!” Other people have told me they came out as a result of that film, which is not only flattering but heart wrenching to me. Even weeks later, people just come up to me in the city out of the blue and hug me. Obviously, I’m not naïve. I realize there will be other people down the road that will catch a buzz and call me “faggot,” but I’m ready for all them, too.
JA: When most outsiders think of skaters they probably think of these stereotypical, brash bros. But you’re clearly a reflective person; you don’t display the braggadocio that’s associated with lots of skateboarders. In fact, one of the things that stood out in the VICE documentary was the fact that many of your friends perceived you—in a very positive way—as being different than they were. You were, it would seem, always something of a misfit in that world, in the best possible way of course.
BA: It’s true. I am a reflective by nature. We could probably go pretty deep about the reasons for that. There’s been a ton of depression and alcoholism in my family. I have a cousin who is severely bipolar. My older sister killed herself when she was just eighteen years old. Growing up with much-older parents, I started dyeing my hair and burning incense and smoking early on as an act of rebellion. My poor parents were probably always terrified that I would follow in my sister’s footsteps. But it’s decades later, and I’m still here, though I’m still in the process of learning about being myself and who I am. I’m pretty happy, more or less. Therapy doesn’t hurt.
JA: What’s in the future for you? You said you have this aspiration to develop a clothing and apparel line. What are bigger things for you?
BA: I just had a great meeting with Lady Gaga’s Born This Way foundation, and they’re doing a great project. There are two big companies involved, and they work to prevent online bullying. So if you write, “Fuck you. You’re a faggot,” those words will be denied, and you can’t send them. I don’t know if that’s a top-secret thing, because they haven’t developed it yet, and I won’t say much more than that. But when you’re thirteen, and you don’t have the tools—mentally or materially to deal with such bullying—it’s devastating. Besides that, I want to continue painting to help me get out of my head and spend time with my boyfriend.
JA: Tell me about your boyfriend, Andrew. How did you two meet up?
BA: I was going through a breakup, and we met at Nowhere Bar in the East Village last Fall. He’s just the most understanding person I’ve talked to in my life. We stay up all hours of the night just putting everything on the table and communicating. He has changed me; we’ve changed each other. I had a dream about him before we actually met—I literally saw his face before I met him. I can’t really explain it other than to say I was aware of him before he physically came into my life.
JA: What do the two of you do when you have a day off?
BA: We haven’t had a day off in months! I generally try to go to sleep when I get home. Even when I’ve had a few drinks, I often find it hard to sleep because there’s so much shit on my mind, because now, whenever I do something, it immediately appears online or in print. We both tend to prefer to stay home and isolate. That said, I told him we do have to venture out on date nights once in a while.
JA: What would be the ideal date night for you?
BA: He loves to dance, and I don’t. I have to get massively drunk to dance. I’m usually so tired after 8:00 p.m. that I’m a pretty boring date. I’m, like, “Babe, to throw me back out into the world after two long train rides—I will not be a fun social person.” But if we go to the Met and purchase some headphones and eat some oysters at Grand Central Oyster Bar—where we had our first date—I’m there.