Meet Kyla Langen: Surfer Creating a Culture of Belonging Among the Waves
Interview by Rachel Plunkett
About Kyla Langen
Kyla Langen has been riding waves since she could walk, and lifeguarding and teaching surfing for over two decades. Surfing professionally for 12 years, they swam upstream as a queer person in a heteronormative surf industry. Because of her experiences and limitations in the surf industry Kyla founded Queer Surf to help expand surf culture and increase queer ocean access. Kyla believes in the healing, empowering magic of the sea and wants all people to have access to it.
“Surfing is a spiritual practice — a way of communing with nature and with each other.” – Kyla Langen, Founder of Queer Surf
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell us about a memory, experience, or thought that connects you to the ocean. At what point in your life did you develop this connection to the marine world?
One summer when I was about 11 years old, there was a big swell in the water. I had been boogie boarding with my cousins for years, paddling to the outside with fins on, catching open-faced waves and doing tricks. But the waves were especially big and our moms didn’t want us to go out. I remember the feeling of wanting so badly to get out there, and having the confidence that I’d be safe, that my cousins and I would look out for each other. Our parents didn’t really give us permission, but we went anyway and had an amazing session. I remember the adrenaline rush of catching my biggest wave yet, and the confidence it built. I remember the feeling of belonging it instilled, and feeling so bonded with my cousins. Our parents were mad at us when we came in because they were so worried, but we thought it was worth it. It felt like we’d graduated to a new level of comfort and connection with the waves and water.
My parents say that as a child, I was a magnet to the waves, and at the beach before I could walk, I’d quickly crawl directly to the water. I think I felt a draw and connection to the ocean before I can remember. Some of my earliest memories are of the water. As a young kid, I’d hang onto my dad’s back as he swam out and bodysurfed waves. I developed a deep love and connection to the ocean very early thanks to my parents’ water-oriented lifestyle.
What is your favorite surf spot? Have you done any surfing within national marine sanctuary waters?
I grew up surfing an average beach break in Carlsbad, North County San Diego, that we call Grandma’s, as it's in front of my late Grandmother’s house. The wave itself is nothing special, but the memories held there are. It’s still a meeting place for my biological family, and when I get to surf it with my dad, uncle, and cousins it feels like home.
I’ve had the immense privilege of surfing countless waves up and down the California coast and beyond, some within national marine sanctuaries. Ocean Beach is my go-to spot in the San Francisco Bay Area. The power and indifference of the waves at Ocean Beach keep everyone humble. Fort Point under the Golden Gate Bridge, Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz, and Bonzai Pipeline on Oahu are among the others.
What makes Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary so special to you and what would you like others to know about this place?
Having close access from home to beautiful marine spaces hugely supports my mental and physical health, and provides crucial balance for me living in the urban center of San Francisco. We have the best of both worlds; vibrant city culture and wild expansive nature. The richness of the Bay Area is not confined to the land. Just as San Francisco is a sanctuary for so many non-binary, queer, trans people (NBQT), Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary is home to so many gender variant creatures.
I love exploring the diversity of sea creatures within the sanctuary and learning about their gender expansiveness. From hermaphroditic fish that transition from one sex to another, to asexual molluscs, the ocean teaches us that gender and sex are not fixed, and are instead socially constructed; that nature is not binary; and that gender expansiveness creates stronger, more resilient communities.
Why did you and your partner, Nic, start Queer Surf? How can others get involved, both near and far?
I left the surf industry, moved to San Francisco, and experienced the gender and sexuality freedom of the queer art and culture scene. I would be approached by friends of friends who knew my history of surfing professionally and they would ask me to take them surfing. I view my upbringing around the ocean as a privilege, and decided to share my experience on the water with queer people who wanted but lacked mentorship. I started working to reduce all the barriers queers face in accessing the water. Word spread and as the Bay Area shifted (e.g. LGBTQ+ spaces closing and folks being pushed to the margins), we looked to the beach as a gathering space. Queer Surf’s mission is to increase access to the ocean; support physical, mental, and social health; connect queer people to their bodies and marine ecosystems; and foster an inclusive community.
The ocean is safer physically and emotionally with a network of ocean recreationists you can call on to join you. Join us, spread the word, like and follow our work, sponsor low income and queer, trans, Black, Indigenous, people of color scholarships to further reduce barriers. Assess and evaluate your own access to the ocean, and be kind and generous to others experiencing it for the first time. Donate time, money, and resources if you’re able.
How does surfing promote better mental and physical health? In what ways are you trying to incorporate this holistic approach into the work you do?
Time on, near, in, or by water is healing. Surfing allows a deep connection with nature and attunement with conditions like tides, currents, swell, and wind. Many queer people are often living in survival mode. Surfing is a chance to engage all senses and escape the oppressive structures or political rhetoric, a chance to be fully engaged and embodied. It’s a chance to be held by the sea and connected to the diversity of the creatures, to connect to your inner child, and to feel a sense of belonging and self confidence. With trans sports policies and other limitations being decided by governing bodies, surfing offers an opportunity to experience autonomy and freedom. Surfing is also a rigorous, full body workout.
Our Queer Surf programming meets people where they are — wading, learning to swim, boogie boarding, body surfing. Our Queer Sea programs further develop an understanding of marine ecology through a NBQT lens. Marine ecology elicits stewardship and belonging. It's all connected. While surfing is a way of connecting to the ocean through recreation, we also prioritize a knowledgeable understanding and reverence of the marine ecosystem.
A good surfer must know which wave to catch and which ones to let pass. For all of the beginners out there, can you share some tips on what to look for and how to stay patient?
Surfing can most certainly teach patience. Reading and riding waves is challenging and takes a lot of time to hone. Be gentle with yourself and listen to your body as you go. Learn the science of how waves break, and study the patterns. Understand where you're trying to position yourself on the wave, and know that getting there takes careful prediction, strength, and agility. Always watch the waves before paddling out and figure out where to line up and position yourself accordingly. If the peak is crowded or there is an unbearable social dynamic, choose a different peak, or pick off the insiders (smaller waves in the area closer to the beach). I always recommend staying on the inside and riding whitewash/broken waves until you are comfortable there, then move farther out to the unbroken waves.
I think another helpful tip with surfing is to decolonize your practice. Surfing has Indigenous roots and people have been riding waves in places like Hawaii, West Africa, and Peru for centuries. Queer Surf recognizes that surfing was used as a tool for imperialism and has been colonized, losing sight of its roots. The same power structures and norms that have come from white settler colonialism are played out in surfing today, and over time surfing has become commodified and commercialized. Many surfers now have a very narrow idea of what good or valid surfing looks like (i.e. shredding standing up on a wave). However, surfing is a spiritual practice — a way of communing with nature and with each other.
All the ways of existing in the water and at the beach are valid and should be celebrated. Surfing can be riding waves on our stomach, knees, feet — any way that feels right to you. We share waves when it’s safe to, we see the ocean as abundant and expansive, and ourselves as stewards to the land and sea. We honor and revere the flora and the fauna, and work to create a collectivist culture of joy and celebrations, instead of individualism and competition. I think if you frame surfing in this light it’s easier to be patient and connect with the joy and playfulness it can bring as you learn.
You are an advocate for inclusivity and a culture of authenticity and belonging within the surf community. What has been the greatest challenge to changing the long-standing norms of what the surfing community ‘looks like?’
The greatest challenges remain safety and systemic barriers to the coast: red lining, generational access to coastal spaces, gatekept knowledge, and a lack of mentorship. Those just trying to make ends meet or who are living in survival mode have very limited leisure time. Access to transportation to the coast is a barrier for many people, as well as finding gear that is affordable and gender affirming, navigating the culture of surf shops and surf schools, and the vulnerability of changing clothes in parking lots. Community and mentorship build safety and help reduce these barriers.
From observing tiny plankton to watching majestic whales along the coast of Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, your Queer Sea Events introduce marine science and coastal stewardship to non-binary, trans, and queer ‘ocean curious’ people. How does exploring biodiversity within the ocean relate to the value of having a diverse surfing culture?
In the National Marine Sanctuary System, gender expansive sea creatures live in protected spaces and are celebrated for their uniqueness and diversity. The more we learn about these animals, the more we see diversity in gender identity, gender expression, and gender roles. When we see that gender expansiveness is all around us in the natural world, it helps to normalize it in our communities. All ecosystems and communities are stronger, more resilient, and vibrant with more diversity.
You recently hosted a retreat at Catalina Island that several participants described as “life changing.” What do you think made this gathering so special and how does that relate to the impacts participants reported?
The retreat was filled with activities like snorkeling, kayaking, stand up paddling, hiking, drag, poetry, bird watching, tidepooling, variety show, and feelings wheel, all surrounded by non-binary, trans, and queer folks. This reframed people’s previous negative camp experiences, or made for a supportive first camp experience. Someone recently told us they really pushed their comfort zone by attending, and their therapist now refers to camp as a pivotal moment in their growth and a shift in their life. The experience was euphoric for people. Building connections and friendships centered around nature, ocean curiosity, and play was such a healing way to connect with our community and our inner child. We collectively pushed our comfort zones and explored together. When we reflect on who traditionally has access to these beautiful ocean spaces, we are reminded it is predominantly white, middle to upper class families with children. This can make outdoor spaces feel isolating and unsafe for queer people. To see ourselves exploring and adventuring and feeling safer to do so together at Catalina Island was deeply moving.
Coming out may feel like you’re a fish alone in a vast and scary sea. Many fish use schooling behavior to create safety in numbers. How does the community you’re growing provide a sense of safety to non-binary, transgender, and queer people who love the ocean?
Our community offers a sense of safety through providing a chosen family, mentorship, guidance, and culturally aware programming. When we combine surf and drag, marine mammals and dancing, plankton and electronica, we bring the culture with us and explore and learn in community. We offer programming at all levels so people can plug in wherever they are and feel safer — observing from the shore, dipping just their toes in the water, swimming, boogie boarding, or surfing. We celebrate all ways of existing in and engaging with the water. Ocean recreation feels safer when doing it with people who understand your life experience and are part of your community.
What can the outdoor industry do to ensure that the outdoors are accessible and welcoming to all people — including transgender, non-binary, and queer people?
The outdoors includes all forms of nature, and should be inclusive of all types of people too. To better ensure access for historically marginalized groups, the outdoor industry can make gear, reservations, and permits more affordable. Policy makers can improve access by providing outdoor affinity groups access points to nature.
Nature has historically been accessed by white, cisgender, heterosexual, middle to upper class biological families, and the images we see on TV and social media perpetuate that trend. Queer folks have a higher likelihood of being disconnected from their biological families, and therefore are often unable to access nature according to how the media promotes recreation. To be more inclusive of audiences from different backgrounds and support their sense of belonging, outdoor media and marketing campaigns can include non-binary and transgender people. There is an invisible legacy and history of queer connection to the sea that the outdoor industry can share to help affirm a lineage of connection to the ocean for queer folks.
Basic services like gender neutral gear, products, and restrooms are necessary for queer engagement. Since queer people often relocate to urban centers for physical and emotional safety, accessing transportation to and from natural areas can also be a challenge. The outdoor industry can support queers in accessing nature by helping to build a queer outdoor community, including networking and mentorship opportunities. It’s also important to start seeing more queer, transgender, and non-binary leadership in the outdoor industry, which would help create access from the top down.
If you could get one message across to readers about the importance of acceptance and inclusivity in wild spaces, like national marine sanctuaries, what would that be?
Having access to wild spaces like national marine sanctuaries can greatly support physical, mental, and social health. Non-binary, queer, and trans people have had unequal access to these spaces. Everyone deserves access to the benefits these spaces provide, and everyone deserves to feel welcome and included in these spaces. Reflecting on the ways you have been privileged to enjoy these wild spaces is a great first step to expanding and sharing access.
What is your vision for the future of Queer Surf? What do you and Nic hope your legacy will be?
We hope our legacy will be a thriving community of queer ocean lovers who feel welcome, seen, supported, and are well-resourced to access all the joy the ocean provides.
Queer surf is a California-based community organization aimed at making the ocean more accessible through knowledge sharing and skill building. Founded in 2016 by former professional surfer Kyla Langen and her partner/insatiable boogie boarder Nic Brise, Queer Surf reduces barriers and helps the LGBTQ+ community navigate all aspects of ocean recreation. Through a host of programs and events including lessons, coaching, clinics, retreats, meet-ups, night school, book clubs, and more, Queer Surf builds community and fosters a safer space for non-binary, trans, and queer people at the beach. Queer Surf believes deeply in the magical healing powers of the ocean and is committed to building access to the coast. Stay connected at instagram.com/queersurf.