Gender outlaw: Trans bodysurfer Tyler Wilde finds brotherhood with Gillis Beach bodysurfers
by Mark McDermott
For those who are most at home in the ocean, other differences disappear.
Tyler Wilde has known this most of his life, from the time he was a young girl hellbent on catching waves all through his later, awkward years when people in his life wondered when he’d stop being a tomboy. The ocean always offered refuge.
“Being a tomboy as a kid, it’s okay, but you’re expected to grow out of that,” Wilde said. “When I hit a certain age, that’s when things kind of spiraled for me…Body surfing kept me sane. It was like the only way I could really step outside of my life and have a moment of just peace and pleasure, joy and happiness.”
The welcoming embrace of the ocean and especially fellow oceangoers took on an even deeper resonance over the last few years, when Wilde began the transition to align his biology and his identity.
This journey is the subject of the film “Gender Outlaw”, which debuts June 4 at the Hermosa Beach Community Center, an event that also celebrates Wilde’s unlikely comrades — the Gillis Beach Bodysurfing Association, which is believed to be the oldest bodysurfing organization in the world.
“When you are in the ocean, you know, it’s like stepping into a different world,” Wilde says in the film’s opening montage, which shows him exuberantly bodysurfing on the north side of the Manhattan Beach pier. “You’re actually on the bottom of the totem pole, right? And you see the sunrise, and you see all the colors in the sky. No matter who you are, you deserve to see that kind of beauty. I want everybody to just embody their truth, and see that we can all walk around being our fullest selves and celebrate each other for it, enjoying just the day-to-day beauty that is around all of us, all the time.”
Director Peter Williams is a veteran of the surf industry. He became friends with Wilde after meeting in the water, on the Avenues in Redondo Beach. Williams was astonished to learn that Wilde was a part of the Gillis club. As their friendship deepened, he realized he was learning life lessons from Wilde about identity, courage, and finding one’s tribe. “Gender Outlaw” became his passion project.
“I think the revelation that Tyler, gender and everything else aside, is a part of this revered old school, body surfing group, it means our community is more open than you might think,” Williams said. “It also made me realize, after bodysurfing with some of these guys, who are in their 60s, 70s, and 80s — that if they could include someone who does not look like them, who is not an older white guy, that there is some hope in terms of the future for inclusivity, and people looking beyond gender, and just looking for people who share a common interest in something. That’s a big part of why I made this film, to show that the ocean should be, at its core, a place where all people can be welcomed.”
John Shearer, a longstanding member of Gillis and a widely respected body surfer who has been surfing on the northside of the Manhattan Pier since the ‘60s, said the moral of the story to him isn’t complicated.
“The bottom line is, let’s go surfing,” Shearer said.
Born that way
Wilde always knew there was something different about him, or her, as he was known as a child. But when Wilde had a crush on a girl in second grade this difference became a source of confusion.
“I didn’t really know at the time what gay was, “ Wilde said. “That vocabulary hadn’t reached me, but I knew it was something I needed to be quiet about….I didn’t know why it was bad, but I had this instinctive feeling to protect myself by keeping it a secret.”
By fifth grade, Wilde began to understand, in part because of the non-stop bullying his classmates subjected him to. This was when being a tomboy was no longer acceptable to those around him.
“I was pretty androgynous. I had a really short haircut, and I wanted to look like a boy,” Wilde said. “I felt great like that, but because of the way I presented myself, I was bullied to no end by my peers. And so back then, in the early and mid ‘90s in southern Orange County, I’m getting bullied, but I’m not getting bullied for being trans because we didn’t understand what trans was then. I was being bullied for being gay, and so it was an interesting thing, because I hadn’t even come out to anybody, yet. But deep down inside, I kind of knew this to be true. And I’m like, ‘Man, how did they catch it?’”
The bullying was often violent. By the time he was 12, when he went to the girl’s bathroom, he’d be chased out. But he wasn’t allowed in the boy’s bathroom either. In this and so many other parts of his life, he had nowhere safe to go.
“It was playground bullying. It was name-calling,” Wilde recalled. “I played basketball, and so I’d get in fights on the blacktop. One kid hit me with a jump rope across the face. It was aggressive bullying, so much so that I went to my teacher and I told her about it.”
The teacher told him to not play basketball with those kids anymore.
“And I was like, ‘Yeah, but basketball is my life,’” Wilde said. “You know, later I played basketball in college. So I loved schooling those guys on the court. But I was left to my own devices.”
Another teacher told him he’d “grow out of it” and would one day be a pretty girl.
“It was just nonstop. And I’m surprised that I made it, to be honest,” Wilde said. “I was really depressed. I have journaled my whole life. I have journals from when I was a kid saying, ‘I wish I was never born at all.’”
His only respite was the water. His father started taking him to T Street in San Clemente when he was five, and the family would take frequent trips to Lake Mojave throughout his childhood.
“I grew up in the water, from the time I was born to now,” Wilde said. “From like water skiing and being on those old school jet skis to T Street, it was just nonstop. I was obsessed. I would get earaches from so much time in the water. You couldn’t get me out. I mean, it was a bug for sure. I think I was born with it.”
Four years ago, a trio of the Gillis Beach Bodysurfing Association’s old guard began to regularly encounter a fourth bodysurfer at their usual time and place, just before dawn on the north side of the Manhattan pier.
Shearer, Dave Hazard, and Jay Estabrook had been bodysurfing this spot for decades. They were impressed by the newcomer. It was Wilde, who at the time was known as Lindsey.
“Lindsey was very aggressive, and skilled, and energetic,” Shearer said.
The acquaintance deepened into a deep friendship and, eventually, Wilde’s unanimous vote into the Gillis Beach club.
“We’d go out at dawn and we’d be the four body surfers who took over the spot right by the pilings on the north side of Manhattan Beach Pier,” Wilde said. “And over time, we became close friends. They were part of the association, I was the outsider. They were telling me about the club and I got excited about being a part of surf history…. They had me hook, line, and sinker, an ‘Endless Summer’ kind of story.”
The Gillis Beach Bodysurfing Association (GBBA) was founded in 1964. That same year, the Gillis Beach break in Playa del Rey became unsurfable because of the installation of the Marina del Rey breakwater. The Manhattan pier became the club’s new home. Members included legendary watermen and a few waterwomen, including pioneering lifeguard Sharon Law (the first permanent, full-time woman LA County lifeguard), bodysurfer world champion Mike Cunningham, and the late LA County Lifeguard Chief Bob Burnside. What made GBBA special was the devotion of its members to their unheralded sport, and each other.
“In many ways, it’s probably the purest form of riding waves,” Burnside said in an Easy Reader story about the association in 2018. “I’m sure history would support that argument. Riding waves with your body came well before anyone ever stepped on a surfboard. That’s obvious. Dolphins, sharks, all types of mammals in the ocean, fish — they all ride waves. It’s part of evolution. Man is there, too.”
“It’s pure,” Conrad Von Blankenburg said in the same article. Von Blankenburg began bodysurfing in 1943 and had bodysurfed at the Manhattan Beach pier since 1950. “It’s just you and how fast you can swim, your whole body feeling the wave, feeling the power of the water. And it’s free.”
In describing the differences between board surfers and bodysurfers, bodysurfer Mark Stover recalled an old saying. “They are on it,” he said. “We are in it.”
And they are in it together.
“We marry them, and we bury them,” Gillis founding member Bob Holmes likes to say.
After several months of bodysurfing with the crew at the pier, Wilde was recruited to compete in GBBA’s signature event, the International Surf Festival bodysurfing contest. It was his first time meeting the larger group, and his first time competing.
“Honestly, I think they just wanted me to sign up for the competition that they host here because then I had to pay money and then the club makes more money,” Wilde said. “They totally just sold me. But I signed up for that first comp, and I think it was in 2017. I had never really bodysurfed other than just like in the mornings with these guys. And I won it. It was like super random, very casual. I just was on that day.”
The entire association runs the competition, so Wilde was able to meet pretty much everyone from Gillis. But despite winning, Wilde was not invited into the GBBA yet. That would take two more years, which, at the time, was mildly perplexing to Wilde, but in hindsight was pretty quick for Gillis — one member, Eve Stover, had to wait 40 years until she was let in.
“It took like two years of me showing up and paying my dues,” Wilde said. “It was like a hazing.”
Once voted in, Wilde began to understand why the club is so selective. At its peak, GBBA had over 100 members. According to Shearer, that number has dwindled to about 40, with 25 active. It’s the size of an extended family, and operates like one.
“We’d already been friends and now it’s kind of like this Gillis bond,” Wilde said. “Now we go camping together, we show up for each other’s wins, and when kids are graduating, we’re there to celebrate. A couple of Gillis guys passed on this year, and so we showed up. We are a family now.”
The trauma of his childhood was far behind Wilde. He was living in Manhattan Beach. He had fulfilling work as a physical education teacher and strength coach, a girlfriend, and now, the Gillis family. But Wilde couldn’t help feeling something was still not quite right.
“There was just something missing for me,” he said. “I had no idea what it was.”
At just this time, a burgeoning civil rights movement was occurring nationwide. It was about gender identity, and it was largely emanating from young people. Wilde was educated by his students about this emerging movement. It hit home.
“I started learning about trans and gender identity and all the vocabulary for different types of gender out there,” Wilde said. “I didn’t know what non-binary was, didn’t know half the words that we have now. Like, I even feel obsolete — there are so many other words to describe gender, and once my eyes were open to it, it was kind of like the missing puzzle piece…I started to question my gender identity. I was in my mid-30s, and it just put into perspective all these childhood experiences that I had that I couldn’t quite explain. It made everything make sense for me. And that’s not everybody’s story, but it was definitely for me.”
Wilde came out publicly as trans with the Gillis Beach club. He changed his name and pronouns, using they/them. His bodysurfing buddies did their best to adjust.
“It was kind of nice to have this very insulated experience of testing out what it would be like to have conversations about changing my name, or having those conversations about sticking up for my pronouns,” Wilde said.”They weren’t very good at the pronouns at first. It takes a while, and especially if you’re an older person from a different generation. They/them pronouns, what does that mean?”
Shearer, who taught English for 40 years, struggled with the pronouns.
“We had a very difficult time,” he said. “Being an English teacher, referring to Tyler as ‘They is going to join me’…It was like, ‘Oh, that hurts.’”
When Wilde decided to take action to transition to male, club members offered support in a uniquely Gillis-like way. In addition to taking testosterone, Wilde told them about the “top” surgery, a procedure to remove breast tissue also known as masculinizing chest surgery.
“They were just super stoked for me to get in the water and bodysurf without a bikini,” Wilde said. “Like, ‘The feeling of the water will be so cool!’”
Shearer said that members’ embrace of Wilde during his transition came with the territory of being part of the Gillis club.
“We didn’t care what was going on outside the water,” he said. “We just knew that we had a friendship and brotherhood or family-hood in the Gillis organization. And in Gillis, we really do stand up for one another, and we care about one another. The acceptance of Tyler in his transition by everyone I know in Gillis is 100 percent. So, therefore, I think Tyler feels super comfortable with the adopted family that we are.”
Shearer had already overseen another transition for Wilde, one that he was proud to see his bodysurfing friend finally embrace.
“Tyler would always show up at Manhattan pier with a hand plane, and we don’t really use those — what we sometimes call those marital aids,” Shearer said. “We just, you know — just plain, pure bodysurf, and nothing on the hands.”
Wilde began leaving his plane behind.
As his transition progressed, Wilde’s body changed. Always super fit, he became more muscular, and his voice deepened. The experience felt less like becoming someone different than finally, truly becoming himself.
“It wasn’t like a transition really. It was more of like an alignment,” Wilde said. “It was like coming home. I can’t explain it other than things just started to fall into place. Taking the medicine or taking testosterone was kind of like taking an antidepressant. It was just like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m not suffering from all this anxiety,’ and all the molecular things that were happening inside of me. It was like a happy pill, a fountain of youth kind of situation. I had a renewed sense of vigor when it came to day-to-day things.”
Wilde and his friends experienced many firsts together, and it wasn’t always easy.
“I was nervous to change in front of them, nervous to be in a towel or Speedos,” Wilde said. “It was just scary, as anything new would be, but specifically walking around in this new body of mine. I wasn’t quite sure about it. I hadn’t developed a sense of pride yet.”
But hurdle after hurdle, change after change, they were in it together. At the end of the day, when he looks back, it’s hard for Wilde to imagine going through this transition without his bodysurfing brotherhood.
“To have them as this microcosm for bigger society — like, old guys kind of set in their ways,” he said. “If you think about privilege, they’re at the top of it. It was just a really nice way to have these conversations with people that I cared about but I also knew didn’t understand me. I was able to fumble through those conversations and they were able to fumble through the questions…. For me, it helped break down a lot of that internalized fear and shame. Like, I’ve got nothing to be ashamed about, I’m just being myself. They helped me with that, and helped me develop a sense of pride through having this conversation. It was like training wheels.”
“Tyler,” said Shearer, “left the bikini long behind now.”
When Peter Williams decided to do a film on Wilde, the idea was a one or two minute docu-profile for Instagram.
“But it became a one shoot, two shoot, three days, five days, then eight months of shooting, friends donating time and getting great water cinematography, and then realizing that we can, we could do better, we could keep on pushing it,” Williams said. “A good friend who’s a professor told me that there are people who have dissertations that get done and turned in and people that don’t. This is one that needed to get done.”
“Gender Outlaw” is still a relatively short film, about 15 minutes, but it feels expansive, dropping the viewer into the water alongside Wilde and his comrades. It is unblinking in telling the story of his transition. At one point, Wilde is shown in his bathroom, doing his early morning routine of injections. But throughout the film, the pervading sense is one of liberation, of watching Wilde’s becoming. It’s also just a good old-fashioned buddy story.
“Overall, we’re really not that much different,” says Dave Hazard in the film, with a sheepish grin. “I think in many ways, Tyler fits in better than I do.”
Williams is a deft filmmaker, and well-acquainted with the water. He was formerly director of integrated content for the World Surf League, and prior to that worked in commercial documentary and advertising. “Gender Outlaw” is what happens when the right subject finds the right lens for the telling of a story.
“We share a common bond in wanting to get up early, get salty, get in the water and, and have that moment,” Williams said. “When you’re in the ocean, there’s no politics, and it’s not about sexuality or orientation. It’s about catching waves. That’s the common denominator. I think that’s the level setter. Tyler taught me a lot about what that looks like in practice, stripping a lot of those things aside. Another thing Tyler really taught me a lot about is how to be your best, and your own sort of chosen self.”
Another of the lessons Williams learned from Wilde was one of simple acceptance.
“My older son has autism, and it’s been very difficult for me at times trying to grasp how to navigate through this world,” Williams said. “Tyler has been a great friend over the past few years, just helping me realize that there’s nothing wrong with my son, he just thinks differently. He’s just wired a little bit differently. And that’s okay.”
Ultimately, like all the best movies about surfing, “Gender Outlaw” is about stoke. Only, in this case, the stoke goes beyond the waves.
“I want to make it really clear that the film has nothing to do with sexuality,” Williams said. “It has to do with identity, and finding your own tribe.”
It’s also about bravery — Wilde’s courage not only in embarking on his journey towards his own identity, but also in sharing that journey so openly.
“Tyler has chosen to be a soldier and Tyler’s chosen to be on the frontlines,” Williams said. “Tyler has chosen to have a public-facing Instagram where he’s been there for the good, the bad and the ugly. He never asked to do this documentary. I brought this idea to him after seeing the story of his transition over the past year…. I think that he not only wants to have a voice, but also he wants to inspire. Yet being brave comes with some consequences, too, and part of me gets concerned for him, putting himself out as much as he does. But there has to be people who are first, and there have to be people who trailblaze a certain message. I think Tyler’s is a message, and a story that deserves to be heard.”
In the film, Wilde sums up what could be the thesis of “Gender Outlaw.”
“Bodysurfing, like most sports, is binary, and it’s interesting because I’m non-binary,” he said. “I don’t really identify as a man or woman. I identify as everything and nothing, all at once. Some people say it’s a spectrum. I don’t even subscribe to that. It’s like a galaxy, and there’s just like in an infinite amount of ways to be a human. And I’m just one little star.” ER