Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Dear Terje – a response from the LGBTQ+ community

Photo @jonnyvan1

Dear Terje,

I woke up this morning to an apology, directed to me and my community, from my childhood hero. When I was a kid, I sought out any and all media I could that was related to Terje Haakonsen. The only thing I’ve ever stolen in my life was a Snowboarder Mag from my school library with you on the cover. My first youtube account had a name along the lines of “Terje_Is_The_Greatest”. I remember going to Spring Hill Winter Park in Winnipeg and trying to do backside turns just like you, to get my face right to the snow like you do. This wasn’t possible on Manitoba ice, but the dream was possible. It’s all possible when your 11 years old. It was possible to look up and hope that one day I would be able to snowboard like that. Or at least get close. 

So it’s fair to say that I had serious skin in the game when, a few years ago, the snowboard community had a collective reckoning that maybe our hero was homophobic. For the last few years, I have sulked away from chairlift conversations over who is the “greatest snowboarder of all time,” because to give the answer I believed, and defend the snowboarder that meant the most to me, felt like a punch in the face. It was a constant reminder that I am not valued the same as others in this “community.” 

First, I’d like to say thank you for having the strength and bravery to make a public statement like this. An apology is necessary, despite being one of the scariest things anyone can ever do, whether or not you jump out of helicopters or break world records. I appreciate it a lot. But it is hard for me to read this statement and not feel that is left a lot to be desired. While reaching out and apologizing is appreciated, your statement was rooted in the same old-school, non-inclusive culture that breeds this exact flavour of homophobia. In high-school, I lost my best friend after I came out of the closet, and two years later, he gave me a sincere apology; I have seen true remorse and true reconciliation, and this is not it. For you, or anyone looking for guidance, I’d direct you to Scotty Wittlake’s statement from last summer for what being helpful to the queer snowboard community really looks like.

Calling something “gay” as a derogatory statement is not a microaggression. Saying “you’re tough, for a gay guy” is a microaggression (but let me be clear that microaggressions fucking suck and hurt just as much). Calling something “gay” is to devalue an entire class of people. To equate an inherent, unchangeable part of their being with negativity is to tell them that they are not of equal importance in the world, or to the snowboard community. And to equate insulting skiers with insulting the entire queer community is incredibly insulting. To apologize to skiers in an apology to the queer community, devalues much of your apology. 

I do have an immense amount of respect for you as an advocate for snowboarding internationally. In junior high, I gave an Olympic themed class presentation on your work against the FIS and stressed to my classmates that if they are interested in snowboarding, the true beauty of snowboarding can be found beyond the Olympics. But advocating for snowboarding does not mean you are an advocate for queer snowboarders. Surely there are hundreds of reasons to oppose the Olympics, or Putin, or Russian government policy, and tacking on queer rights is an easy addition for anyone. That doesn’t make someone an ally or an advocate.

By @jonnyvan1

There is homophobia everywhere. There is bigotry everywhere. I have felt excluded because of my sexuality in Vancouver’s gay village. Insinuating that there is no problem in Europe (or Northern Europe) is just blatantly wrong. Indeed, if there was no homophobia in Scandinavia we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

To the entire snowboard community, particularly those older than me, I’ll say this: No, I have never been called a fag while snowboarding. Or felt physically threatened because of my queerness. But I have also never felt comfortable telling my snowboarding friends about a date with a guy I went on. And I have been made fun of for wearing a choker or a pink t-shirt when I worked in a snowboard shop. This is the homophobia of snowboard culture. It rarely reaches the violent level of homophobia in football or other subcultures, but it’s there, it’s real, and it hurts a lot. I reject outright the thought that the snowboard community is above homophobia. In fact, there’s already several homophobic comments in a couple hours of responses to your apology. And I reject the belief that “those were the times” and that we should give people a break because skaters and snowboarders and punks were just all like that in the 90s. I am named after a gay punk rocker, and I know he had no trouble finding true, loving, straight allies (like my parents) in the 90s. 

I hope I have not been overly harsh. I am shaking a little and my eyes are watery this morning, so this letter is charged with emotion. But I do mean it immensely when I say thank you for your statement. It took a lot of bravery and I commend that. It left a lot to be desired, but every one of us, including myself,always has room for improvement. I’ve seen several of what I considered the best straight allies in the snowboard community heap praise on you for your apology, and I think they are a little misguided as well. But that just goes to show, that we are all always learning, and always growing. I think this will all be another step on the climb to building a more loving, inclusive snowboard community. Thanks again, Terje, for the apology, and all your contributions to snowboarding.

Jonny VanElslander

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DannyX
April 16, 2021 3:27 pm

Sadly, there will always be bullying, homophobia, fear or rejection of the unfamiliar or something that one does not understand. Instead of expecting “normality” from others, wouldn’t it be better to stop playing victim and stand up for yourself. Yes Terje might be homophobic, so what ? You want to wear a pink chocker, wear it, own it, expect people will make fun and stand up to it.

Jonny VanElslander
April 16, 2021 4:28 pm
Reply to  DannyX

Hi Danny,

Thanks for the good questions. I’ll give you two answers. First, you hit the nail on the head with “there will always be fear… of the unfamiliar.” That’s why I wrote this letter. To help familiarize the snowboard community with this exact issue. I think its safe to say that most homophobia in snowboarding comes from a lack of understanding, and the subsequent lack of empathy from the straight community towards the queer community. I hope this letter helps educate people on how statements, actions, and attitudes like Terje’s cause real, tangible harm.

Second, as for the real, tangible harm. It could be fair to expect toughness from me. And I’d say I tend to give that toughness a real good shot most of the time. I have been picked on for my outfits or my hair cut or my sexuality many times, and for the most part, I have learned to brush it off. Sure, that may make me a little jaded, and distant at times, but I have learned to make my own day-to-day life easier by picking my battles. This is not the case for everyone. Most importantly, this is not the case for kids. I’m sure you remember what it was like to be 13. Unless you were an extreme outlier, you likely remember being intimidated and scared of older kids. I remember this very well, especially for snowboarding. I was a big kids and the older kids often thought I was much older than I was, so I learned to grow up fast. But for most kids, a harsh statement, or rejection from the older generations that they look up to can be extremely harmful. I opened this letter with a reflection on my relationship with Terje as a kid for a reason. Because if Terje, or any snowboarder I looked up to when I was 13, had espoused bigotry to the queer community when I was 13, and not 27, there’s an extremely good chance I would have given up on snowboarding. I had enough people telling me to play normal sports, or focus on school when I was that age. Hearing from my heroes that anyone who loves snowboarding can snowboard was enough to change my life. Despite my toughness, it absolutley breaks my heart that some kid out there may here Terje say these things and give up on snowboarding. Kids are not going to follow their dreams if they do not feel supported. And given his status as one of the most visible people in the sport, Terje choosing to treat the Queer Community with disrepct will inevitably trickle out to kids all over the world. I don’t think there’s much of a future in this sport if we are discouraging kids from doing it.

So all that said, I wrote this letter to try and ask Terje to do better. Not for me, but for snowboarding.

I hope that helps answer your question.

Thanks Danny!
Jonny

DannyX
April 20, 2021 1:59 am

Thank you for the answer! You are right, in my comment I missed to consider kids or people that don’t have the strength or maturity to stand up for themselves. I think we should try to educate as early as possible, it’s ok to be different, even if your biggest idol says it’s not so. I’m struggling with some of the ways of thinking that were engrained while growing up (mostly on the bullying side) and it comes “naturally” to act tough, maybe for the wrong reason. I totally didn’t account for the ones that aren’t like this and cannot act tough even as a defence mechanism. Again, thanks for the answer, very helpful.

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